The Internet exploded in feminist calamity yesterday over the racist, sexist, patriarchal, abuse-laden behavior of Hugo Schwyzer,
an allegedly a self-described* mentally ill (former) professor of women’s studies at Pasadena City College. Schwyzer divulged information that is classically tucked away behind the buttressed walls of systemic white privilege. Anecdotally, it’s akin to the ENRON scandal, the ACORN scandal and the unprecedented shit show that was the financial collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. Thematically each of these exposed, in an exceptional way, the clandestine systemic privileges that sustain long-term oppression: economic, racial, civic or otherwise.
Schwyzer, a self-identified male feminist made his claim to Internet fame by reworking and packaging up modern male feminism and selling it to online publications like The Atlantic and Jezebel, for whom he was a paid contributor, and Feministe, which featured an interview with him. Two of these three are notorious for their insensitivity and, on more than one occasion, outright disregard for the importance of intersectional feminism – that is the focal point where feminism and another powerful system meet, say for instance, race. These cyber tropes, which have staked claim as the premier source for all things feminist, prioritize clicks over everything else, as beautifully explained by blogger Flavia Dzodan. In matters of the heart, their feminist ideology dematerializes – often at the expense of women of color and other marginalized women.
The virtual cataclysm peaked when Feministe editor Jill Filipovic, who is white, was dismissive of one of Schwyzer’s victims, a woman of color named Mikki Kendall, and the hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomenbegan to sprawl across the Twit-o-sphere. The hashtag, which in my opinion is not super succinct, called out the many reasons it is important for white women to stand in solidarity with women of color. There are light-years worth of socio-politico dialogue that resulted from this hashtag, including poignant arguments about inherent and realized privilege, but two things stood out for me: I was reminded that traditional feminism is not inherently intersectional – the liberation of women of color was an addendum to the narrowly constructed philosophy. And, that when there are “systems” involved, nobody is to blame for the continual abuse and oppression of people of color, specifically women of color. Therefore no action is necessary, no lessons are learned and we recycle this precarious vortex of shit over and over again.
Allyship (being an ally), a subjective concept that plays out differently for everyone, culminates with the act of “showing up.” Showing up means very different things in the contexts of various situations but the general idea is that if shit goes down you have my back. The devil’s is the details and in the feminist sphere we’ve long struggled with engaging privileged white feminists to show up for women of color – in policy, academia, leadership and often in the media. The operative word in yesterday’s hashtag was solidarity, which is the meat and potatoes of being an ally. While it isn’t my responsibility, nor the responsibility of women who look like me, to coach white feminists on how to show up for us, I’ll hint that negligently perpetuating the systems that oppress us and then opting to be silent about your complicities is the opposite of solidarity.
What makes this nebulous relationship even murkier is that women of color are inherently responsible for honoring the implicit sodality between women. In January of 2008, long-time feminist activist Gloria Steinem called for women of color to vote their gender and support Hillary’s bid for president because, according to her, “gender is probably the most restricting force in American life.” Melissa Harris-Perry consequently intellectually annihilated heron “Democracy Now,” but her assertion sets a piss poor example for feminists who admire her wisdom and replicate her behavior. Especially because time and again when it’s time for white women to return the love, women of color are left hanging. The insidious misunderstanding around feminist solidarity is perpetuated and sustained because of the tendency to rationalize decisions after the fact to convince ourselves that what we did was the best thing we could have done; this is otherwise known as self-justification bias. And then your justification is further confirmed by using a selective filter to see a reality that matches your interpretations – none of which forces you to own your shit.
Because traditional feminism is not inherently intersectional and its principles have been known to preserve implicit biases, it is the onus of white feminists to shrug the cloak of privilege and “lean into” discomfort. That is, speak the fuck up. Even if your platform doesn’t traditionally address issues of race (except perhaps in the instance that it incentivizes clicks or benefits you monetarily) you can name the issue, acknowledge it happened and make an editorialized statement that validates the dehumanizing experience that women of color are having – like Bitch Magazine did phenomenally here.
Tangentially what feels even more egregious than complicit silence is that ultimately, at the end of all of this, no one is accountable. Schwyzer’s mental illness will be the scapegoat and T.F. Charlton brilliantly discussed the precarious nature of this: “It’s perfectly possible to both acknowledge that someone is experiencing severe mental illness and also name their behavior as abusive if that is what it is. It is in fact imperative that we name abuse and not talk around it,” she said poignantly.
This particular tragedy is deeply tangled and the Internet, in all of it’s awesomeness, can be a spectacularly bad place to have a deep-seated conversation about solidarity – chiefly because it is sometimes difficult to discern emotion. However, no matter how Tweeters stumbled upon the #solidarityisforwhitewomen hashtag it surfaced a nuanced conversation (trolls aside) that reminded us that we have to be honest about our willingness or unwillingness to lean into discomfort; we have to invest in thinking critically about how our silence is complicit in the oppression of others; and we have to stop self-justifying and looking for people to confirm our biases. We have to speak up. We have to use our voices and our platform to call out reckless privileged behavior. Even if you’re unsure how to address it, say that. Say “I’m not 100 percent clear how to show up in this particular situation but I want to acknowledge that there is some fucked up shit happening.” That is 139 characters of solidarity.
For other ways to be a good ally and show solidarity I point you the always-on point, Melissa Harris-Perry.
“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Elie Wiesel
* Hugo Schwyzer emailed and asked us to remove “allegedly” when referring to his having a mental illness, offering to send along hospitalization records. As we don’t feel comfortable unequivocally describing Schwyzer as mentally ill, we’ve opted to use “self-described.”
Read more from the author at ShanelleMatthews.com.
Full disclosure: A few years ago, The Frisky had a cross-posting partnership with the Good Men Project, and some of Hugo Schwyzer’s work from that website was published on The Frisky. At one point during that time, he wrote a piece specifically for us, and was paid a small monetary sum for that piece. All of these pieces were published on The Frisky before I personally learned about Schwyzer’s egregious past actions and current behavior, and before either became widespread public knowledge. — Amelia