Binary Thinking, Perfectionism, and the Magic of White Feminism

I don’t do this sort of thing very often, but as the 21st of February is my birthday, I thought it worthwhile to ask something of my readers. If you enjoy reading my blog and want to help me out with some various business expenses incurred by running the website (hosting, domain registration, computer supplies, etc), please head over the contact page and chip in a few dollars in my tip jar. It would make for a fantastic birthday if some of those expenses could be off-set. Thanks!

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Shortly after I graduated high school, I went to my last year at my summer Bible camp out in the Black Hills. There was a kid there who had something “off” about him since day one. On Thursday night of this weeklong camp, he tried to attack our camp speaker with a pencil. I don’t know how to explain what else happened last night, and there’s this part of me that still has no idea how to accept it, but long story short, the night ended with an exorcism. I was 18 years old at the time.

The story, of course, spread throughout the state and amongst those from youth group who’d not been able to attend camp. I remember a couple of Sundays after we got back, one of my friends came up to me and said that she was so scared when she heard about the exorcism that she kept repeating to herself all night, “I believe in Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior and His Holy Spirit lives within me.” Invoking the belief like a magical incantation, she felt like she could ward off any demonic influence.

That moment has returned to me several times over the years. It’s as though we believe that by repeating something enough, we can make it true. And why wouldn’t we, when repeated lies and narratives are so often accepted as fact? Repeat something often enough, and it becomes true – it’s like an incantation that wards off criticism.

In recent weeks, CNN host Piers Morgan has come under fire for how his producers and he himself handled an interview with trans advocate and author, Janet Mock. She was introduced as being “born a boy” (which is an incorrect way to discuss being assigned a gender at birth) and her life story was told incorrectly throughout the promotion for the interview and within the interview itself.

Morgan was, as you would expect, called out on this via Twitter and other social media. And it struck me how quickly he pulled out the incantation that all self-professed allies seem to know – “I’m on your SIDE!” Repeat it enough, Morgan seems to think, and it just might become true.

But the thing about being on the “same side” is that it’s binary thinking. It assumes the enemy is an Other, something obviously identifiable. Such rhetoric flattens any discussion of microaggressions and what “helping” and “allyship” actually look like. If merely pledging oneself to be an ally is what made someone an ally, perhaps things would be easier. But such declarations forget the power dynamics at play.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately in light of the trend of articles from professional white feminists, mainly in the UK, about the “toxicity” of current feminism and the “bullying” that happens. Each of these articles (and there have been a slew of them) seem to take the same tack – “we’re all on the same side so why are we eating our own?”

Say it enough and it might mean something.

The problem, of course, is that there is no such thing as “on our side.” There are no sides because no one person can be perfectly free of the systems in which they have been living their entire life. “Side” rhetoric simultaneously makes the assumption that perfection can be achieved and that the enemy is something outside of us. But the fight for justice is far, far more complicated.

Our steps forward are always going to be imperfect. But there’s a difference between seeking perfection, and desiring not to erase and exclude people. The latter is, I believe, what most of the intersectional feminists I encounter on a daily basis are doing.

I explained on Tumblr last night that a large part of the reason I’ve not been posting as regularly on the blog is because I’ve been bogged down in the editing process. Throughout writing on purity for the book, I’ve been making a conscious and concerted effort not to narrow myself down to simply the white cisgender experience of the world. It has, I believe, made for a stronger manuscript and something that will be worth reading – and I don’t say that just because I wrote it. I wasn’t able to produce such a manuscript on my own. Indeed, my first draft was, admittedly, terrible.

But I’ve had help. My editor is an older African-American woman who grew up in the black church in the South. Throughout the writing of the book, she’s been there to say, “Riff on this; this is how you need to talk about this because I want people like me to read this book too.” Being open to her criticism has (hopefully) helped make my work more inclusive, more intersectional, and stronger as a work of activism and analysis.

This kind of experience is what makes me weary and wary of white feminists who get paid for writing about the “bullies” on Twitter because they got criticized for something. While I do believe there’s an issue sometimes with piling on and about how context is sometimes ignored in championing a cause, the problem is not with the criticism itself, or with the theory of intersectionality, as British feminist Helen Lewis recently wrote. Nor does the problem lie with the pursuit of perfection or ideological purity.

Rather, the problem exists within identity. Like Piers Morgan’s response to the trans community, there’s a substantial amount of pride that runs through the idea of being an “ally” to further oppressed groups within feminism. And realizing that we’ve not been the “ally” we imagined ourselves to be, fellow white feminists, is hard. But this does not mean it is a problem of ideological purity or that attempts to be intersectional are worthless. Admitting when we’re wrong challenges our idea of ourselves – it requires a recalibration of identity, and the humility to realize our self-image was wrong.

This does not mean we become a doormat. And this does not mean that all criticism lobbed throughout the Twittersphere is worthwhile and necessary. There is a discussion to be had about all the intersecting arguments on tone policing, relationships, and what public response to public comment should look like.

But, if we make a willingness to be wrong part of our practice and approach to the world, it will go a long way toward developing a sense of discernment that helps us to see what criticism we should listen to. But we cannot reach that point if we insist that our magical incantations of allyship are all that is required of us. We need to give up our own power and scoot over a little to allow some more room at the table.