Tolerating Being Tolerated

The so-called Canadian identity is based on quite a few feel-good ideas that, when held up to scrutiny, reveal themselves to be myths. Peacekeeping. Our “mosaic” vs. the U.S.’s “melting pot”. Tolerance.

As a Canadian person of colour, I’ve heard about tolerance my entire life. Despite being called racist names and harassed regularly for being different while growing up, I was expected to be grateful that Canada was a country that TOLERATED people like me. Scratching the surface reveals how fraudulent the notion of tolerance is, and how firmly it’s rooted in white supremacy.

Tolerance sounds great in theory (especially if you don’t think too closely about what it actually means) and it sure seems to makes white people feel proud of themselves. Supposedly, tolerance means people who are different can feel comfortable knowing that they’ll be accepted. And let’s be clear, when talking about tolerance, “different” means different than white people, who are still considered the default humans, making the rest of us “others” who are constantly measured against a white benchmark.

Tolerance ACTUALLY means “the ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular the existence of opinions or behaviour that one does not necessarily agree with.” People tolerate their neighbour’s loud music, food they hate but are required to eat, and mosquito bites – irritating things that, because they’re inevitable, must be accepted, however grudgingly.

So even though being tolerated reveals, by definition, that the people tolerating us perceive there’s something deficient or irritating about us, we have to be grateful because the people tolerating us work to TOLERATE us, which means they’re absolutely not racist. Because you know, Canadians definitely aren’t racist (what’s up colonialism, residential schools, internment camps and native reserves)!

People of colour know a lot about tolerance because we tolerate a lot of irritating, infuriating, racist and oppressive shit every day. So, let’s talk about what real tolerance looks like.

People of colour tolerate white people making racist comments and jokes, so blinded by their privilege they can’t see their own racism – and so entitled and convinced by white supremacy that they’re right that they get defensive and angry at the suggestion their behavior is problematic. We tolerate white people calling us “articulate” and “exotic” and being so convinced they’re complimenting us that they’re visibly disappointed if we don’t respond positively. We tolerate being openly judged by white people if we don’t mourn so-called terrorist attacks against predominantly-white countries performatively enough, or if we dare to question if they also grieve the West’s attacks on countries whose citizens look more like us. We tolerate being expected to celebrate Thanksgiving, a holiday that commemorates pilgrims who enslaved and committed genocide against indigenous people.

We tolerate living in a society where white supremacy is so normalized its invisible to most people, a society where white people’s feelings matter so much more than the impacts of their behaviour that we have to pretend to be grateful that we’re tolerated. So really, white people, don’t talk to us about tolerance unless you understand what it’s like to tolerate the intolerable every day.

Sisterhood or scorched earth?

As I’ve become more aware of the problematic aspects of female socialization, I’ve taken steps to actively work against what I’ve been taught is expected of me simply because I’m a woman. In some ways, the process has been straightforward: I notice my impulses, think about where they come from and who they serve, and then do the opposite. One aspect I continue to struggle with is figuring out how much kindness my feminism should include.

In patriarchy, a woman who correctly performs femininity puts the needs of others before her own. She takes up little space in the world, both physically and behaviourly. She is gentle and quiet, downplaying her accomplishments in order to not appear brash or threatening, and she decorates herself in ways she has been taught appeal to men. She is selfless, unthreatening and, most of all, she is nice.

In contrast, men who behave according to traditional rules of masculinity are competitive and dominant. Protecting their pride against perceived slights is a constant concern, one that justifies using violence when the situation presents a significant enough threat.

Examined together, it’s clear how both male and female socialization benefit men while actively disadvantaging women, so it’s no surprise that feminists focus on identifying and challenging gendered socialization, and freeing ourselves from the shackles of conditioned nicety.

What becomes more complicated for me is figuring out how geniality relates to feminism.

Since feminist activism involves consciousness raising and persuasion, is being kind simply the effective thing to do? Or, since recognizing and rejecting problematic aspects of gendered socialization is central to feminism, does gentleness reinforce problematic stereotypes? Is liberation freeing ourselves from the desire to be, or be seen as, nice? Or is rejecting socially-conditioned impulses to be mild and cooperative simply emulating aggressively masculine behaviour?

A black and white thinker who often has trouble discerning shades of grey, I often find myself vacillating between both approaches, usually depending on the audience and situation. Sometimes this seems like an effective middle ground, other times like insipid half measures.

Some of the more radical feminists I’ve encountered have been admirably raw, openly and mercilessly pushing women to ally exclusively with other women and avoid men altogether. Sometimes going as far as calling heterosexual women handmaidens of patriarchy, some of these feminists aggressively criticize women for allying with, marrying or having children with men.

Seeing these women openly flout the rules of feminine behaviour sometimes makes me uncomfortable, yet I tend to see that discomfort as a result of my socially-conditioned expectation that other women conform to the same version of femininity that patriarchy uses to control us all. Part of me admires these feminists, and believes they push us into the uncomfortable, raw places we must go to deconstruct our internalized misogyny. At the same time I wonder if this ferocity fuels and sustains the movement, or does it fragment the movement by dividing women who could otherwise work together?

On the other hand, does a feminist approach based in a gentler form of persuasion reinforce problematic stereotypes about what’s expected of women? Is seeking compromise just another way in which women continue to settle for patriarchy’s meagre crumbs? Is allying with men or groups who don’t explicitly prioritize women’s liberation selling out? Or is this approach simply a more pragmatic, longer-term journey towards liberation?

I don’t have the answers, but considering many women spend their lifetimes without recognizing or questioning their socialization, I’ve decided to cut myself some slack while I figure it out.

Looking for your input, sisters – on the continuum from scorched earth to sisterhood, where does your feminism fall?

Shit Liberal Feminists Say: SWERF

Like many feminists, my interest in women’s rights began when I started noticing I was treated like I was less than the men around me. I didn’t analyze much deeper than that – I just needed confirmation that something wasn’t right, I wasn’t imagining it, and that that something wasn’t my fault. Now that my analysis has gone deeper, and is rooted firmly in an anti-oppression framework, it’s clear to me that when I first started learning and believing in feminism I was, in fact, a liberal feminist.

Liberal feminism is an individualistic view of women’s rights that holds equality with men as its end goal. Liberal feminism focuses on advancing women’s positions in existing institutions and believes that what women want out of life is what men want and have already secured for themselves.

Way back then, I understood feminism in relation to my life, my experiences and my choices. I didn’t spend much time considering how my internalized misogyny shaped those choices, even the choices I now see were problematic since they reinforced mechanisms of women’s oppression.

For me then, and for liberal feminists today, the individual is queen. Any choice a woman makes is by definition a feminist choice because choosing is a feminist act. Even choices like pandering to the male gaze or self-objectifying must be applauded. As a result, I often engaged in decidedly unfeminist behaviour while uncritically wrapping myself in a comfortingly progressive label.

Once I began critically examining my beliefs and learning more about the history of feminism, I realized the many ways in which so-called liberal feminism falls short. What soon became clear was that liberal feminism isn’t feminism at all. Uncritically worshipping individual choices ignores the structures and institutions that support patriarchy. Focusing narrowly on advancing in the public sphere ignores the oppression women face in our homes. More worryingly, refusing to examine the context and impacts of choices allows men and women to continue reinforcing misogyny and male supremacy while patting themselves on the back and failing to work towards liberation for all women in any meaningful way.

Contributing to misogyny while declaring yourself a feminist requires a stunning lack of self-awareness and critical thinking, and an intricate set of unquestioned beliefs whose main purpose is to preserve a self-concept that’s allegedly based on beliefs in women’s rights, when in reality, that self-concept is based on an illusion.

Nowhere is this creative ego preservation more evident than in the commonly used catchphrases liberal feminists recite en masse, mostly in response to critical examination by radical feminists who understand that examining our internalized misogyny, analyzing our choices and beliefs and dismantling patriarchal institutions is essential work for feminists who are truly dedicated to the liberation of all women. Not just women who are like us or women we like – all women.

This post is the first in a series I’m calling “Shit Liberal Feminists Say” where I examine these mantras and how they’re used to silence radical feminists and distract from the fact that liberal feminism is an empty ideology that shores up male supremacy.

First up: sex worker exclusionary radical feminist (SWERF).

Why it’s Wrong

Despite repeated evidence that women in prostitution are largely poor women of colour, many of whom were sexually abused as girlsentered prostitution while underage, and identify lack of housing as their main barrier to leaving prostitution, liberal feminists cling to the romanticized notions of “sex work” depicted in movies like Pretty Woman and, in doing so, literally whitewash reality. For liberal feminists, sex work is inevitable, voluntary, empowering and fun, and women who choose it should be unquestioningly celebrated. In an empty nod to actual facts, they sometimes mention the coercive nature of street prostitution, but quickly draw a meaningless line in the sand between “trafficking” and “sex work” despite studies showing that countries that decriminalize prostitution see trafficking increase.

In contrast, abolitionists see prostitution as male violence, as the sexualized practice of dominance and control over women who are coerced, with money, into sexual activity in which they wouldn’t otherwise participate.

Contrary to liberal feminists, who demonstrably exclude most women in prostitution so they can uphold a uniformly empowery notion of “sex work”, abolitionists don’t exclude any women from our analysis. We acknowledge that some women choose to enter into prostitution. Understanding that patriarchy both limits and shapes women’s choices, abolitionists believe the context of more privileged women’s choices – and the impacts those choices have on marginalized women – must be scrutinized as part of the hard work needed to make sure our movement leaves no woman behind.

We also believe that, as a movement that aims to free all women, we need to focus most of our attention on the most marginalized among us. Deciding to focus most of our attention on a majority of marginalized women as opposed to completely ignoring them in favour of a small minority of more privileged women isn’t exclusionary – it’s feminism.

What it’s Used For

SWERF is a schoolyard taunt aimed at shaming critically-thinking feminists into silence. It is an attempt to smear abolitionists as outdated pearl-clutchers, to delegitimize us as irrelevant and not worth listening to. In the face of a growing body of knowledge that erodes the very foundation of choice arguments about prostitution, “SWERF” is a petulant child with hands over ears screaming “lalalala” when life doesn’t go according to plan.

What it Reveals

Supporting an argument that excludes the majority of women in prostitution, while calling the very women who consider the whole picture exclusionary, shows how intellectually vapid and hypocritical so-called liberal feminism is. Just like calling support of prostitution, which exposes the most marginalized among us to increased levels of violence and abuse, a feminist position, this isn’t about women’s liberation, it’s about feeling good and progressive and not having to actually change anything.

Supporting prostitution and screaming “SWERF” at abolitionists isn’t feminism, it’s capitulating to male supremacy and writing marginalized women off as collateral damage. It’s living in a dream world of consequence-free individual choices. It’s refusing to go beyond scratching the surface, and instead hiding behind buzzwords and tepid half-measures while trying to silence women who are willing to dive deep no matter the cost. Screaming SWERF at abolitionists is misogyny in feminists’ clothing, and it’s just some senseless shit that liberal feminists say.