Nadya Ali discusses the limits of non-judgemental care and how racism passes as ‘truth-telling’
The Labour MP Jess Phillips’ recent Guardian article, ‘Abusive men are everywhere – and some of us love them’, called for cultivating a non-judgemental attitude of care towards women who refuse to believe survivors of sexual abuse. Phillips did so by invoking actress Lena Dunham who was castigated for her defence of close friend, and writer on her HBO TV Series, Girls. Miller was accused of rape by actress Aurora Perrineau, a claim which Dunham swiftly dismissed as one of the ‘3% of misreported cases every year’.
But, Dunham was not just called out for letting down survivors of sexual assault who don’t come forward for fear of being disbelieved and shamed. She was also deemed to be guilty of racism because the accuser was a woman of colour. Considered in the context of Dunham’s track record on racial issues which I will come to later, her treatment of Perrineau drew particular ire from feminists of colour. So, why did Phillips consider Dunham to be an appropriate figure through which to discuss an ethic of non-judgemental care?
Phillips’ defence of Dunham is neither surprising nor without precedent. Her sympathy with white women facing public outcry over issues concerning gender and race is an aspect of her unacknowledged ‘White Feminism’. This can be well illustrated by digging a little deeper into two recent controversies: that surrounding Dunham, and an earlier one surrounding comments by the Labour MP Sarah Champion.
For me, such an ethic of being non-judgemental towards women who refuse to believe abuse accusations targeted at loved ones is, according to Phillips’ past statements, something reserved for white people. The fight to overturn endemic levels of exploitation and abuse of women and girls through movements like #metoo are fatally compromised by White Feminists and their perpetuation of racism through erasure or racist ‘truth-telling’.
Phillips on Dunham: erasing racism
Zinzi Clemmons, a writer for Dunham’s online publication, Lenny Letter, quit following claims made by Perrineau of sexual assault against Miller. Clemmons accused Dunham of marginalising women of colour by rejecting Perrineau’s account of sexual abuse and effectively calling her a liar. She also argued that the behaviour of Dunham and her friends at the university they attended together spoke to their entitlement as rich, white women who would use the N-word in the guise of being ironic. In her resignation, Clemmons said: ‘She cannot have our words if she cannot respect us’. Dunham is no stranger to accusations of racism as debates over the lack of racial diversity in Girls attest. In response she claimed, no one would call her a racist if they knew ‘how much I wanted to f— Drake”. She followed this up in 2016, by claiming black NFL player Odell Beckham Jnr ignored her at an event because he didn’t consider her to be a sexual prospect. Both incidents prompting accusations of racializing black masculinity.
For Phillips, Dunham is a ‘vocal feminist’ and a woman she respects who was simply defending her friend. Dunham’s instinct is described as ‘normal human reaction to protect yourself from horror’. And normalising is certainly the key phrase here: in offering Dunham her understanding, and in asking us to extend ours (as a sympathetic feminist audience), Phillips is making these forms of racism normal again. She is bringing Dunham in from the cold and back into the snug, feminist fold. Phillips’ defence functions as a quintessential form of white privilege: her invocation of Dunham as a potential subject of non-judgemental care is premised on the erasure of a complex racial context. It asks feminists to pretend racism is not the problem and in so doing denies the reality of racism women of colour encounter. This is why Phillips silence about Dunham’s racism is willful: even though it became a key part of the story around her defence of Miller, Phillips does not engage with it.
Phillips on Champion: racism as truth-telling
Phillips has prior when it comes racism but her response has varied depending on the context. When the former Labour shadow minister for Women and Equalities, Sarah Champion, resigned for writing an article for the Sun entitled ‘Britain has a problem with British Pakistani men raping and exploiting white girls’, Phillips leapt to her defence. Champion is MP for Rotherham, which in the Jay Report was home to systematic child sexual exploitation from 1997-2013. Consequently, Rotherham has become emblematic of the racialisation of child sexual exploitation debates, the site of numerous far-right protests and racially motivated murder. Champion was eventually persuaded to resign, much to Phillips’ chagrin. She had considered Champion’s ‘crudeness’ of language in the Sun article to be the main point of offence.
Labour MP for Bradford, Naz Shah, had more strident criticism for Champion, “I also have two sons. Blanket racialised loaded statements like these set them up to fail before they even reach their teenage years.” Phillips said she ‘understood’ why Shah would be angry, but ultimately, ‘the British Pakistani-Bangladeshi community, certainly where I am, has issues about women’s roles in a family, in society.” She goes onto say they ‘import’ brides for their disabled sons as evidence of the rightness of Champion’s claims. There is a caveat, however, “That’s the truth. Not all of them, obviously. But I have lots of cases on my books.” Phillips solidarity does not extend to Shah, or her sons. In fact, her defence of Champion entails the marginalisation of Shah’s concerns and the centring of raced concerns about Pakistani and Bangladeshi men. In other words, racism is not erased as in the defence of Dunham but is considered as a form of ‘truth-telling’ in the name of gender equality. Racism is the defence of Champion.
An ethics of non-judgemental care
This rather complicates Phillips’ call for not judging women who cannot believe accounts of sexual abuse which might implicate their fathers, husbands or sons as monsters because ‘she looked like you’. Well, not quite like me. (Or Naz Shah, presumably.)
What if the woman in question was a woman of colour? A woman who happened to be Pakistani or Bangladeshi? If Phillips has already judged that there is something particularly wrong with gender relations among Britain’s Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, then how are those Pakistani and Bangladeshi mothers, wives and sisters to be granted the non-judgemental treatment when their abusers are vilified men of colour? There is little ground for being non-judgemental towards women of colour who know an abuser. After all, we all implicitly ‘know’ the truth about these men. Jess Phillips and Sarah Champion have already delivered this truth to us.
The reality is that we are living through a time of the on-going vilification of Muslim masculinity heralded by 9/11 and the War on Terror. The prosecution of what the British media has dubbed ‘Muslim rape gangs’ – a distinctly far-right trope – drives racist violence against Muslims. The trial of Darren Osbourne, who drove into a crowd of Muslim worshippers in 2016, killing 51-year old Makram Ali and injuring others, was said to be motivated by the BBC T.V Show ‘Three Girls’ which depicted a sexual abuse scandal in Rochdale. Muslim men, women and children daily pay the price for this abuse.
The consequences of White Feminism
Comments made by Phillips and Champion legitimate the idea that there is something culturally unique and inevitable about the sexism happening in ‘these communities’. Such ideas are not the preserve of far-right groups like Britain First: they are embedded in mainstream political positions and language. They are particularly pernicious when articulated through the context of debates on patriarchy and gender (in)equality. Phillips’ feminism is a White Feminism which creates racial hierarchies of gender-based violence and constrains possibilities for how we might challenge and transform these conditions. It’s the idea that things are always worse for women ‘somewhere else’. The somewhere else is always raced.
For example, when speaking on BBC Question Time about the (baseless) accusations of Arab men perpetrating mass sexual assault in German cities on New Year’s Eve in 2017, Phillips said women face equivalent ‘heckling’ in Birmingham city streets. But, while she was accused of minimising the crimes of ‘immigrant’ men, what she said in full was, “We have to attack what we perceive as being patriarchal culture coming into any culture that isn’t patriarchal and making sure we tell people not to be like that.” Does she consider the UK to be a non-patriarchal culture? I think she does, “But we should be careful in this country before we rest on our laurels when two women are murdered every week in this country.” Those must be non-patriarchal laurels to which she refers.
White Feminism also, and inevitably, creates blind spots where white men are concerned. For example, non-judgemental care is extended to Jacob Rees Mogg who Phillips considers to be a ‘real gent’. This is the same man who believes abortion even in the extreme instances of incest and rape should not be permissible. Would she describe a Muslim man with similar views in similar terms?
It is precisely this pernicious invitation to uphold racist discourse as a way of ‘doing’ gender equality that White Feminism is guilty of. Phillips can never be an ally until she understands how the constitution of patriarchal structures and their effects are raced and classed as well as being gendered. Patriarchy exists differently for different women depending on who they are. The term intersectionality speaks to this idea: the experiences and challenges of middle-class white woman are not the same as the experiences and challenges of poor women of colour. This is not a new or novel idea as radical feminists of colour have noted for decades.
In the words of one such towering woman, bell hooks, “Women are divided by sexist attitudes, racism, class privilege, and a host of other prejudices. Sustained woman bonding can only occur when these divisions are confronted and the necessary steps are taken to eliminate them.” (2000: 44).
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Nadya Ali joined Sussex University in 2016 after being awarded her PhD (2015) at the University of Reading. Her thesis examined the UK counter-terrorism strategy Prevent and its role in governing Muslim populations. Nadya’s research interests include the racialised and gendered understandings of ‘terrorism’ as a category of political violence and the colonial/postcolonial dimensions of Muslim governance in European states.
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