The Chapel Perilous: On the Quiet Narratives in the Shadows

A silhouette of a woman in profile, hands clasped together in prayer against a white background.

Michelle Goldberg’s feature in The Nation magazine about “Feminism’s toxic Twitter wars” landed in the social justice community like an incendiary cluster bomb and its merciless conflagration is still raging online. The article, framed around discourse about race among feminists and implicit villainisation of Mikki Kendall (of #solidarityisforwhitewomen fame), enraged many who saw its misrepresentation of complex discussions skew towards condemning forthright voices of colour and protesting the innocence of the most privileged, white feminist leaders.

As someone who was interviewed in the piece, I feel a certain sense of responsibility for this and an obligation to speak out about the impact of something I had contributed to. If I had known that this was the article Ms. Goldberg would write, I would have advised her to write or frame it differently at the very least, or even hand it off to a writer from the communities she was describing who could better handle the fjord-like shoals of nuance that such critiques require. Whatever her intentions or beliefs, which I will not speculate about here, she wrote something that—as I have reflected these many long days—has left many feeling unheard, misunderstood, and villainised.

This, of course, does not even begin to describe how many trans people, myself included, felt mocked by Goldberg’s Spartan and unsympathetic description of the latest debate around the use of the word “vagina” as synecdoche for “women.”

But in the process of expressing that outrage something was lost, ultimately to the point of being effaced entirely: the fact that the article in question extensively quoted myself—a trans Latina—and other women of colour who spoke specifically to the ways that the aforementioned “toxic” culture in feminism had been harmful to us and our communities in particular.

In short, we spoke to the tragic irony of a purportedly intersectional feminism, operating in our names, which then erased us for our own putative good.

In the wake of another round of community-driven call-out articles on this topic, I felt compelled to do something I never thought I’d find myself doing—mostly out of my curious combination of shyness and wordiness—and that was to rant on Twitter.

Well, here’s the more “seemly space” I described, and come what may, here is the fuller version of what I had to say:

The Whitewashing of Activist Discourse

In the wake of Goldberg’s article, the right and proper impulse to defend Kendall and the other feminists of colour who had been antagonised by the piece became the dominant theme of much of the media criticism; it was beautiful in its way, it showed an unbowed community unwilling to be locked out of discourse about their lives and the meaning of their existence. They would not be dictated to about what their activism meant, nor would we stand for undue criticism of a tool that we use to talk back to the powerful.

A prime example of the latter is Janet Mock’s uncompromising response to Piers Morgan and his sensationalising interview that fixated unnecessarily on her embodiment rather than her activism. As she said, speaking to Buzzfeed about the incident, “That’s the special thing about social media now is that we can talk back. Piers doesn’t have the final say…Our media is just as valid.”

But the aforementioned Nation cluster bomb effect ensured that the community became more polarised than ever on the discussion of internal toxicity, and in the process the online debate became entirely about upper class white cis women and how the media was defending their hurt feelings against our online horde.

Some prominent activists even said that the article only defended white women and was only about their interests and interpretations—a fact that was patently untrue by dint of my own participation, as well as that of Samhita Mukhopadhyay, Brittney Cooper, Anna Holmes, Kimberlé Crenshaw and Jamia Wilson.

Indeed, the erasure of what we said in the activist responses to the article, and in the name of the new dominant narrative about it, which asserts that the Nation piece only privileged white women’s perspectives and interests, many social justice activists have repeated the manoeuvre that Jamia Wilson recounted from her own experience with the #FemFuture debacle:

“One self-described white feminist tweeted at her to explain that no women of color had been at the Barnard meeting “and that I needed to be educated about that,” Wilson recalls. Somehow, activists who prided themselves on their racial enlightenment “were whitesplaining me about racism,” she adds, laughing.”

I will also go on the record here and say that for all the unforced errors in the Nation feature’s framing, Goldberg’s use of my interview quotes and snippets of my writing did not in any sense “take them out of context,” as some have alleged. I cannot speak for any of the others, and Mikki Kendall herself has stated publicly that Goldberg misrepresented and misused her words (to be clear, soliciting Kendall’s memories about 5 year old events, and then calling her “obsessive” because she happened to remember, is downright low and patently unfair).

But for my part, my words were contextualised appropriately, and I will not claim to have been used by Ms. Goldberg, nor will I lend credence to the racist suggestion of others that saw me and the other women of colour dismissed as “tokens.”

As I tweeted, our part in the article was either ignored, or we were dismissed as tokens and then ignored. This is not a matter of personal pride and petulance; believe me when I say that there is a big part of me that wishes to squirrel up in a cave and never talk about this again. I did not get into activism to pen extensive pieces about rage culture, nor dwell on these topics with all the potential criticism it could entail or hurt it could cause, on top of the social justice work and academic work I’m already doing.

This is not “look at me”—this is “look at us.”

Feminist Madonnahood Redux

The discussion that Goldberg dove into was one that had been started chiefly by marginalised people. My part in it grew out of a discourse among transgender gaming critics (two of whom, including myself, were women of colour). We continued a larger, longer tradition of internal discourse about activist culture. For many of us, this was a culture we neither created nor asked for, dominated by norms, argot, mores, and rage sired by a predominantly white, cis middle-class core that had always presumed itself implicitly more knowledgeable about “what the real issues are.”

Activist perfection and ideological purity were always luxuries of the privileged. The perfect activist life is bought; it is a commodity; it could never be something organically attainable in our present relations of capital and ruling, least of all by those of us for whom “compromise” is the air we breathe.

And this inspired discussion aplenty, mostly from the most marginalised or maligned voices in feminism, about a particular form of toxicity that threatened to rob of us of the only community we had. It was a discussion about how we, as people on the margins, hurt each other using activist logics we either did not create, or created under unacknowledged and compromised positions. It is unsurprising that women of colour and trans people have had the most to say about this; we are the ones who most exceed the comfortable boundaries of activist perfection and for whom the compromises so anathema to purism are a necessary way of life.

Many of our discussions about activist rage sought to acknowledge both our own complicity in it, why it happened, what external forces often compelled it (the Nation article is a good example of this, to which I’ll return), and yet also name who too often held the real power in activist movements and what the consequences of that were.

One of the cardinal sins of the Nation piece was that it did the very thing I strenuously avoided in my own writing about the subject: it re-litigated past events and named and shamed individuals, condensing all possible discussion into a singularity from which no light could escape.

Now all debate would be about whether the disagreement around #FemFuture was represented appropriately and how Mikki Kendall as an individual was characterised. It is a ditch into which discussions about activist toxicity are easily driven because of our nigh-on cognitive bias towards discussing individuals rather than social structures—no doubt it was what made Goldberg herself more interested in writing the article the way she did in the first place (or what steered her editors to encourage her to writing the article that way).

Note that I am not saying we ought not discuss these things; Mikki Kendall’s portrayal in the article is, after all, an excellent case study of the subtle ways media bias can operate and why our relationship with the press as women of colour is always a fraught one. But it is instructive to consider how the “rich white women vs. the rest of us” dynamic is all the discussion is about now.

A complex, 2D maze in blue lines set against a white backdrop.

A visual metaphor for how easy all of this is.

On Misappropriation and its Consequences

The comments beneath the Nation piece itself are, by and large, like the screaming death of reason itself. Everything I ever feared from speaking out on this topic has manifested there.

Men smugly proclaiming this is the end of feminism or proof of its obsolescence, MRAs wailing that men as a whole were victims of “feminist toxicity” and that women should be punished, atheist MRAs proclaiming Richard Dawkins the most prominent victim of “toxicity” from feminists, and still others accusing Amanda Marcotte, Rebecca Watson, Sady Doyle, and other women of being purveyors of “feminist toxicity” (against men, of course).

Meanwhile those on the Left accused Goldberg of supporting apartheid in Israel (because she’d critiqued a tactic of the boycott movement) and Justine Sacco (because she, like others, myself included, had been downright horrified by the way the response to her on social media had spiralled violently out of control—it’s one thing to call out racism, it’s another to have people waiting at an airport to harass the offender, sending rape and death threats, et cetera.).

The polarisation of the discussion evinces many of the issues with online toxicity as a whole, but also the big problem with discussing these issues in front of such a wide audience. Latoya Peterson wrote about this on Twitter recently better than I ever could:

“Real talk: The crew at [Racialicious] expected random shit to happen in feminism. We didn’t expect our peeps to try to eat us too. But you have to look at cycles/systems. If I call out xxx feminist of color for being fucked up, it gives ammo to those trying to discredit. So then, I can’t even critique someone on our beef without thinking about how that plays into power structures. Because I knew if I went hard on xxx feminist of color for xyz problem, people would piggy back on my critique in ways I didn’t want.”

The wide public exposure of what began as a family discussion makes misappropriation inevitable; it attracts swarms of people clamouring to deny responsibility, hide behind it, and tell the whole world about that one time a woman of colour was mean to them.

Which, indeed, was the other dreadful thing about the Nation comments: it seemed to spawn a whole minor subgenre within itself about white cis feminists complaining about a specific incident with a specific woman of colour from a specific number of years ago. It merely added to the drear beneath the article and, in and of itself, acts as a specific form of silencing. For one thing, it disincentivises any feminist from talking about internal community problems and poisonous dynamics, but it makes it triply hard for trans people and/or women of colour to lead those discussions because of the specific ways our words can be and often are misused.

It also makes polarisation easy; it makes sweeping declarations of “internet gentrification” easy and attractive. We can defend the most vulnerable from the most privileged, and at a stroke change or challenge the narratives directed against us.

A classic, surrealist painting of a castle in a spiral configuration converging on the centre, its channels in between populated by figures.

Remedios Varo, Spiral Transit (1962). Virtual streets– the streets we build online– are quite a bit different from the physical sort.

Whose e-Streets? Our e-Streets

But the problem with this, and the wider idea of internet gentrification and the assumptions such an argument relies on, is that it pretends there is no such thing as internal toxicity that disempowers and silences other marginalised people. It makes no provision for the way we do violence to each other.

I myself nearly got bullied out of activism by two other trans women, one of whom was a trans woman of colour, who mocked and derided me for an innocent mistake and then wished death to a friend I had been defending. In the light of hindsight, I understand why my views at the time were somewhat misguided and that this needed to be addressed, but I was so thoroughly vituperated that I nearly gave up online writing altogether.

I have helplessly watched trans loved ones be attacked by other trans people, shamed publicly as self-hating trans people, because of literally a single misunderstood word. I have borne witness to death threats, to people telling others to commit suicide (or even taking bets on whether the latter would occur), picking apart a woman of colour’s history to meet some arbitrary test of authenticity (one that was, lest we forget, structured by white supremacy), slandering someone into the ground for something they actually did not say, erasing each other’s words when it was expedient in the short term, engaging in inappropriate sexual commentary (be it about genitals, attractiveness, secondary sex characteristics, etc.), yelling at a trans woman who called 911 as a trans woman of colour was on the verge of suicide per her livetweets thereof, and so on.

These are all things we have done to each other. And sorting this out is a discussion worth having. It is still a discussion worth having, and discussing this is not “gentrification.” It is not about making the internet safe for the privileged or denuding us of our ability to respond with forthrightness and courage to those in power who antagonise us.

I have tremendous respect for those like Suey Park—the foremost articulator of the “internet gentrification” concept—who have taken the lead in responding to the prejudicial aspects of The Nation article and what it represents; the work they do for us on the outside of, or the margins, of the mainstream press and funded feminism is remarkable, challenging, and discomfiting in the best ways possible.

In that same spirit, however, we as women of colour must also not allow half of our voice to be silenced in the name of a misbegotten idea of solidarity, and I am willing to say loudly and proudly that we have the ability to have multiple difficult discussions at once, to speak truth to power and be accountable to ourselves.

There is no party line, there is only us.

The True Wages of Privilege in Activism

What I had strained to get at in my writing, as well as in my recent tweets, is the fact that so many norms in activist culture, as well as what gets considered pure and just, is often not decided by us but by better-off white radicals who have luxuries of choice and sacrifice we couldn’t dream of. Indeed, one of the leading headwinds against much of my own work comes from the trends sired by white queer masculine folks with access to class privilege, and whose definition of what constitutes queer culture, radicalism, and solidarity have a good deal more weight than those that originate from trans feminine folks and trans communities of colour.

Such white radicals are the first to wonder why no trans women of colour would show up to an event labelled “Tranny Pride” and then turn around and politely degrade us for being “conservative” or “reinforcing of the binary” in our desire for surgery, feminine affectation, or any number of other perceived sins. Those activist norms are also toxic.

It is worth noting that those same people would likely clamour to show public solidarity with an idea like “internet gentrification” (even as they gentrify neighbourhoods in the physical world), because the “enemy” it focuses on lives somewhere in a Valhalla occupied by Rachel Maddow and Gloria Steinem, and not in the world of activism where these particular white queer radicals I’ve described actually live.

The recent arguments put forth by many social justice advocates posit a Manichean cleavage between two camps of feminism. In so doing, they both erase the complicated critiques of certain (cis and trans) women of colour, and gives wide berth for culpable white radicals to hide and pretend solidarity– with no discussion about how what “radical” even means is something they have far too much control over– while also shutting down discussion over how we can hold each other accountable.

By making this discussion entirely about the already-privileged, we repeat a mistake that I criticised in a recent paper, which described the ways that popular discourse around anonymity focuses only on what (presumptively young, white, cis) men are doing with it. By fixating on men’s purported abuses of anonymity and seeing it only as an accelerant to their virtual harassment of women, I argued, we ignored the ways that online anonymity was of tremendous positive value to women, people of colour, LGBT people, and others (including domestic violence or abuse victims of all backgrounds). We blunted our own understanding of this vital modern phenomenon because of a popular fixation on the way privileged people exercised it.

The same thing is happening here in the wake of the Nation piece.

By allowing ourselves to think of the term “toxicity” only as a dog whistle against women of colour, we neglect the extensive, recent history of feminist insurgency against online harassment, which often critiqued social media, but never used it as coded synonym for women of colour’s voices or criticisms. The best way to overcome the mistakes of The Nation article is not to declare all discussion of online toxicity verboten, but to bring the discussion back to the complicated place we’ve been taking it for years—both in terms of describing internal and external dynamics. As a trans woman of colour it has been the pride of my life to write about both at length; discourse on toxicity, inside and outside feminism, has not only taken place between the privileged.

To give but one of many examples of discussions we could be having louder and more often: how much the linguistic focus of call-out culture (i.e. using the wrong terms, words, et cetera) is possessed of a significant class/formal-education-access bias. We talk about class all the time and piously observe that formal, credentialed education is a privilege, but if someone like my mother, who never went to high school and knows about all this social justice work only through me, were to stumble and say “transgendered” instead of “trans person,” what would we say? And why? If we can be honest with ourselves about that, we have already created a foundation for an important discussion.

Conclusion

That is what has been lost in the wake of the Nation article.

There is no doubt that our arguments have already been “piggy backed” on by many who are operating in bad faith, but if we allow that to silence and erase trans/women of colour with something complicated to say, those of us who embody intersectionality in its truest sense (with specific identities that also inform larger wholes) are at risk of losing the movement that supposedly speaks for us.

We cannot continue to locate the problem of prejudices exclusively in the stratum of elite media feminists or commentators—responsible as they are—we must also look inward at what we allow to transpire in the name of solidarity and what its costs are.

There is no party line, there is only us. And movement or no, everything we are, and everything we embody and represent, will remain on this earth; what we say can either further the cause of justice, or it can be lost in the name of bathing the already-privileged in yet more undeserved limelight.

Comments

  1. I have continual gratitude for your words, the thinking behind them, and how they help me understand internet feminism more deeply. Your work is very helpful.

  2. YES YES YES. Thank you so much for this thoughtful, nuanced, and important analysis of the incredibly complex dynamics at play.

  3. I love you. Here via your previous article on toxicity in online activism, which is now one of my favourite things ever. Thank you so much for writing that, and so articulately. It expresses things I’d thought for ages but rarely dared to talk about, because it only evoked more of said toxicity. I’ve known so many friends who are far from privileged in multiple ways (one is an autistic gay trans man of colour living in poverty, another a disabled bisexual genderqueer person) but now actively avoid online social justice because they’ve been hurt and insulted so badly by the toxic environment in there. I wish that there were safe spaces for us that are actually, well, safe.

    For this article, regarding the linguistic call-outs in particular, I’d like to mention that there’s also a strong cultural/country bias. Here in Asia I still frequently see other trans people describing themselves as ‘X trapped in Y body’ or freely using terms like ‘bio man’ or ‘genetic girl’, which would probably get them slaughtered as self-hating in the Western-dominant online activist spaces (at least, it happened to me when I first naively wandered in with the vocab I’d picked up from my local community). Meanwhile an older trans woman I know was completely baffled at the concept of gender identity being different from sexual orientation, because I was the first trans person she knew who hadn’t previously been ‘gay’, and she asked if that meant I planned to detransition back to female.

    I still kind of like the term ‘transgendered’ though, and would use it if it wasn’t so taboo by now. Firstly because it implies that said transgendering was something done to me (by doctors at birth, then continually by society until my transition), rather than something innate to who I am – i.e. I’m only considered transgendered because of society refusing to acknowledge my gender; and secondly because it’s far less likely to be accidentally thought of as a noun, and I’m much more offended by the terms ‘a transgender’ or ‘transgenders’.

  4. Broca's Area Rug says:

    This is one of the most thoughtful, cogent, beautifully written things I’ve read in a long time. While I didn’t agree with Goldberg’s framing and choices, I was baffled when the extremely keen analysis offered by her interviewees (particularly yourself and Brittany Cooper) was completely ignored in all the responses I read, which all characterized the article in the strict “white feminists v. WoC” way you describe. I left some scattered comments asking for clarified/specific responses to the substantial points made by the interviewees, but only got empty snark from one side or another about how I didn’t “get” that the article was just a “hit piece,” or that its critics were just “angry racists.” The total lack of interest in earnest critique was disheartening, and finally beginning to discourage me from even trying to participate in constructive discussion online at all. So thank you so much for deciding to write about this further, and if I can argue that there’s been one real upside to Goldberg’s article, it’s that it actually got me reading thinkers like you, Cooper, even Kendall far more than before. Here’s hoping that this awkward technological adolescence of ours ends in real growth for all us, and I look forward to reading a lot more of your work in the future.

  5. Reblogged this on Michonne Micheaux and commented:
    A great piece covering the power disparities, bullying allegations and actually toxic behavior within and between feminist communities.

Trackbacks

  1. […] There were many, many responses to Michelle Goldberg’s “Toxic Twitter” articles, but my favorite was a three-post series on the blog Nuclear Unicorn (written by someone who was quoted in, but still critical of, Goldberg’s article): Words, Words, Words: On Toxicity and Abuse in Online Activism, followed by Beyond Niceness: Further Thoughts on Rage and then the longest and (for me, at least) most interesting one, The Chapel Perilous: On the Quiet Narratives in the Shadows./a> […]

  2. […] by Michelle Goldberg (and earlier, a similar piece by Meghan Murphy). -Katherine Cross’ piece The chapel perilous: on the quiet narratives in the shadows is hands-down the best analysis I’ve read of all the complex dynamics at play. See also her […]

  3. shanmongom says:

    […] do not agree with everything she says, but let it be known that I am a huge, huge fan of Katherine Cross, and what she writes about toxic trans […]

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