Gender, Violence and White Feminism: Q&A with Alison Phipps

This is an interview I did for the Climate Emergency Manchester blog.
Could you tell us a little about yourself - where you grew up, went to school, how you came to be a Professor of Gender Studies?

I was born in North Yorkshire, then lived in Teeside for a while before my family moved to Bristol. After doing my GCSEs at the local comprehensive, I left home at 16 – I wanted to be a dancer and went into full-time professional training. But I lacked the talent to pursue ballet (my real passion) and was too self-conscious for musical theatre. So I mixed cocktails in a nightclub, and wrapped soap baskets in a Body Shop, but wasn’t content. I’d managed to get two A-levels at dance college, which in the 1990s was enough for a place at Manchester University – I chose politics and modern history. I was the first woman in my family to get a degree, and remain the only person ever in my family to be an academic. To start with, the language and ideas I encountered at university baffled me. But feminism was different.

I come from a long line of strong working women, but had been encouraged to aspire to white bourgeois femininity – feminist theory helped me understand why. I came out as queer, which was a personal and political revelation – in butch/femme communities and relationships I decoupled gender from assigned sex and learned femininity was something to experiment with and enjoy. I also realised that the state forces amassed against queer people – that were still raiding gay bars at the time – were not my route to liberation. And that there were some feminists who saw me as an impediment to theirs – in the lesbian ‘sex wars’ of the 1980s, butch/femme, BDSM and sex work were all seen as a capitulation to patriarchal dynamics rather than a way to subvert them.

I never planned to be an academic – but in between doing various office jobs I was offered a scholarship for my MA at Manchester, and won one to do my PhD at Cambridge. In 2005, just before I submitted my PhD thesis, I moved down to Brighton with my long-term girlfriend at the time. I was doing administration for the City Council and making sandwiches in a local café, when an hourly-paid teaching role came up at Brighton University. Then a temporary contract was advertised at Sussex – 9-months of cover for the Director of Gender Studies – and I got it. I’ve been at Sussex ever since. I ran Gender Studies till 2018, taking breaks to have two kids, and have worked part-time since 2011. I was promoted to Professor of Gender Studies in 2017.

How did Me, Not You come about, who do you hope reads it and what impact do you want it to have?

This book was in the making for a very long time. A year after I got my job at Sussex, something happened in my personal life – I was raped by a woman I was involved with. It happened in a small arts-based community, which largely closed ranks around her and ignored or dismissed me – this meant that apart from a few loyal friends, I only had books and writing to get me through the experience. I didn’t entertain going to the police – the perpetrator had a young daughter and was much more marginalised than I was, so I knew police involvement would harm her, perhaps even more than she had harmed me. While I was dealing with my own trauma, I also began to be approached by students who had been raped, because of my role as Director of Gender Studies. So I became a scholar-activist – and supporting survivors, pushing for institutional change, and building relationships with services and organisations were all intertwined with my research on sexual violence.

Long before #MeToo went viral, activists in universities had been ‘naming and shaming’ perpetrators in the media – this was often the only option. But I was always left with the question: where did these ‘bad men’ go? I knew some of them went to other institutions and continued the same behaviour – the ‘pass the harasser’ problem. And I worried that the suggested solution – to exclude perpetrators entirely from academia – might just outsource them to lower-status sectors, where women had fewer rights and protections. This fear of creating collateral damage was magnified in relation to criminal punishment – even when it is visited on privileged white men, this creates massive collateral damage amongst Black people and other marginalised groups. This was where ‘Me, Not You’ came from – it’s a play on and critique of #MeToo. It describes how mainstream white feminism is very self-regarding – my victimisation is the most important thing, and I will do whatever it takes to feel safe and/or vindicated, regardless of the consequences.

Me, Not You is written for fellow white women and white feminists. It’s about how mainstream feminism fails to tackle the structures that cause sexual violence – especially the deep structure of racial capitalism – and ends up fortifying them instead. The book is built on Black feminist theory, and Black women and other women of colour won’t need to read it – it won’t tell them anything they don’t already know. I hope the book will speak to white women who, like me, are uneasy about mainstream feminism and want to do things differently. In the conclusion, I discuss the concept of ‘abolition feminism’ as defined by Angela Davis – and as abolition moves into the mainstream lexicon following the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and countless others, I hope my book will explain why white feminism is not abolition feminism, and suggest how it could move in that direction.

You must have been totally unsurprised by the video of white woman Amy Cooper being asked by Christian Cooper (a Black man, no relation) to put her dog on a lead in Central Park, and calling the police to say he was threatening her. Is this a perfect representation of what you mean by political whiteness, and the ways in which white women's vulnerability - real or imagined - is weaponised?

Political whiteness is the term I use in my book for the way mainstream feminism and other white-dominated forms of politics operate. It centres on victimhood, whether that’s the genuine sexual trauma at the root of #MeToo and other mainstream feminist movements, or the imagined white victimhood of the backlash against feminism, the vote for Brexit and the election of Trump. Whiteness is predisposed to woundedness – from a position of power, one is naturally preoccupied with threat. In white feminism, sexual trauma becomes political capital via the media, which usually leads to demands for criminal punishment or institutional discipline. This happens with little regard for more marginalised people – and as we know, the criminal punishment system is not designed to deal with men such as Harvey Weinstein, but to protect the interests of white elites and ‘put away’ those deemed surplus to requirements in racial capitalist production.

The wounded white woman is the icon of mainstream feminism – she’s also a trophy of the authoritarian right. Her power is rooted in colonial history – the ‘protection’ of bourgeois white women from indigenous, colonised and enslaved men (and subsequently, from free Black men) justified genocide and murder, and colonialism itself. And white women were deeply complicit – there is a long history of false allegations prompting racist state and community violence. Police in the US, UK and elsewhere continue to murder Black people, and (white) ‘women’s safety’ continues to justify state violence and the politics of the far right. As Zeba Blay has written, Amy Cooper was well aware of this when she told the police ‘there’s an African-American man threatening my life’. This was a reminder that she could get Christian Cooper killed by a cop. This act was more deliberate than the political whiteness I identify in #MeToo and other mainstream feminist movements. But white feminism can easily become intentionally cruel – trans- and sex worker-exclusionary feminists, for example, are similar to the Amy Coopers of the world in their wilful use of stories of sexual trauma to ostracise and vilify their enemies.

The same day as the Amy Cooper incident, a police officer in Minneapolis murdered George Floyd by kneeling on his neck. This has prompted enormous protests in the US and other countries including the UK. What is your reaction to these events? Who are the most astute thinkers on this that we should all be following and reading? 

To be honest, I’m not sure my reaction to these events deserves much space. I am in solidarity with Black people, and part of doing (as well as saying) that is to pass the mic. Black Lives Matter, and Black voices matter too – and the second is a precondition for the first. In other words, we can’t claim to oppose anti-Black racism while objectifying and speaking over Black people. There is a wealth of commentary and analysis being produced by Black people on current events – such as these articles by Zoe Samudzi, Mariame Kaba and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, these discussions hosted by Kimberlé Crenshaw and the Dream Defenders, and so much more besides. Many of these people are on Twitter, and if you follow them you’ll find many others. I can also share some general recommendations for Black feminist thinkers who are important to me.

Angela Davis, of course, is a legend – you can download Women, Race and Class and Are Prisons Obsolete? online, and you can also watch talks and interviews like this one on abolition feminism. Ruth Wilson Gilmore is incredible too, and while I recommend her book Golden Gulag (and she has another one, Change Everything, forthcoming), there are also various pieces by and interviews with her available free. Mariame Kaba is an inspiration to me and pretty much everyone else I share politics with – I’ll forever be proud and amazed that she endorsed my book, and I turn to her words almost every day. She is also hugely generous with her intellect and insight and can be found on many websites, podcasts and other platforms – the best thing to do is to visit her personal website and follow some links.

And in case any of your readers are under the impression that anti-Black racism is just a US problem, I’ll make some UK-specific recommendations. Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book has become a contemporary classic, and is a very accessible read for white people wanting to educate themselves on race. Lola Olufemi has a new book out, which is also very accessible and highlights issues with white bourgeois feminism as well as setting out her own feminist manifesto. I love the Surviving Society podcast – it’s co-hosted by Black scholars Chantelle Lewis and Tissot Regis, and covers a wide range of issues but with a particular lens on race.

I also want to draw your attention to this article by Lauren Michele Jackson – ‘What is an anti-racist reading list for?’ In it, she rightly states that while book recommendations are easy to give and feel good to receive, at some point we have to do the work of reading, and the gap between recommendations and reading is often a gulf. Furthermore, she argues, merely reading work by Black scholars is not anti-racism in and of itself, and in fact this can lead to the kind of ‘self-enlightenment’ which replaces political action. This does not mean we shouldn’t read – far from it – but reading the right things has to be part of a broader strategy.

Near the end of the book you have a brief section on things individuals can do, something you expand on in a recent blog post. How big a danger is it that a ‘white fragility’ focus will allow white people to try to ‘purge themselves’ of racism without fronting up to racist structures? How can we work against this and ‘do’ allyship (or comradeship as you put it) for the long haul, after the hashtags fade? 

The drawbacks of ‘white fragility’ discourse are both a huge danger and an awful reality. Alison Whittaker and Lauren Michele Jackson are among many writers of colour who argue that the psychological focus of ‘white fragility’, and the individualistic focus of ‘white privilege’, reduce anti-racism to navel-gazing and hand-wringing rather than work towards structural change. As I say in my recent blog, this is a re-centring of the self, not a genuine engagement with the Other. And in the midst of the current Black Lives Matter protests, white people have centred ourselves on an industrial scale. From kneeling in the street attempting to ‘renounce our privilege’, to making airbrushed celebrity videos confessing guilt and ‘taking responsibility’, to institutional proclamations with no evidence of anti-racist actions (and plenty of evidence of racist ones).

As feminism has long told us, the personal is political – and white people are heavily invested in racial capitalist structures. Divesting from these will require work on the self, but self-analysis is not politics. Perhaps we need to shift the focus away from ‘how am I feeling?’ to ‘what am I doing?’ This doesn’t mean ignoring emotions, it means dealing with them in appropriate ways and not mistaking them for action. It means decentring ourselves and focusing on the Other; it means a politics of care. This isn’t easy in our narcissistic, stingy neoliberal culture – and for white feminists, being asked to care may evoke the compelled care we have historically opposed. Contemporary white feminists tend to eschew care – ‘nasty women’ are fuelled by rage. But this highlights the individualism of our politics, and its foundations in the nuclear family and binary gender. Rage on behalf of the self, which often seeks revenge, is perhaps seen as feminist because in the bourgeois nuclear family, the female self is diminished and denied.

By ‘care’, I mean an orientation to the social and natural world, not picking up your husband’s socks. For marginalised groups, care is a necessity – for instance, the disabled people and working class people (many of them Black and people of colour) abandoned by austerity regimes, and the queer and trans people creating new support systems when their families of origin reject them. Care is central to Black feminism and other revolutionary politics because it rejects and undoes racial capitalist violence and creates different ways of life. I want white feminists to learn from this. I want responsibilities for care held in common, beyond the gender binary, care for other human beings globally (especially the most marginalised), and care for our planet. In racial capitalism, care can be violence because it is compelled, forced, outsourced and unevenly distributed, and withheld from those who need it most. But care is also at the heart of the alternatives we need. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore says, abolition means making the conditions for a better world. So if we are going to ‘do’ comradeship after the hashtags fade, we might begin by caring for each other.

What do we do?

‘What do we do?’ is the question I’m most frequently asked by readers of Me, Not You, and this question has become louder and more urgent in the past two weeks. Massive protests in the US and elsewhere against the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and countless others have brought the idea of abolition into the mainstream, and many white feminists are newly interested in fighting sexual violence without criminal punishment.

I am also at the beginning of a (life)long journey towards what Angela Davis calls ‘abolition feminism’, and the final chapter of my book shares what Davis and other Black feminists have taught me so far. For instance, there’s a thought experiment imagining a world without sexual violence (which would, of course, be a world without police and prisons), and some practical suggestions on how we could use that as our guide. This would be via what abolitionists call ‘non-reformist reforms’ – interventions that get us closer to, instead of further away from, our ultimate goal. I give examples of what these might look (and not look) like. The chapter also offers a ‘toolkit’ of questions white feminists can ask ourselves, to evolve our political action away from some of the problems identified in my book.

Whiteness and (the) social order

But despite this, the ‘what do we do?’ question persists – which suggests that perhaps readers are looking for more. What is this ‘more’, and why do some people want it? I’m not sure I would give it, even if I could. My book was intended to help readers understand the dynamics of mainstream feminism, not to offer a panacea (because one does not exist). It is not a set of instructions – I am not in charge of feminism, and as a middle-aged white academic I am definitely not interested in taking up that mantle. Bourgeois white women like me dominate mainstream feminism, but I am also struck by the fact that ‘what do we do?’ is most often asked by fellow privileged white feminists. I have several thoughts about why.

As I explore in my book, political whiteness both seeks authority and defers to it. The white will to power I write about can be satisfied by proxy, demanding an authoritarian response. We see this in white feminist calls for more police and longer sentences; we have also seen it during Covid-19, as while some white people have protested lockdown measures, others have informed on their neighbours for failing to observe them. Whiteness creates deep desires for both individual liberty and social control, and the impulse to call the manager or police to enforce the rules we need to feel safe sits beside our own need to be told what to do. The material and symbolic benefits we derive from the existing order also make it difficult and threatening to imagine anything different. As a result, we can get defensive: and demanding solutions are given to us can be a way of shutting down discussion of things we cannot face. It is what the CEO does when his staff bring him problems he does not want to have to fix.

The demand for pre-made panaceas also shows how neoliberal capitalist mentalities have permeated white feminist consciousness. We want instant gratification, something off the shelf. This is dangerous on many levels: grabbing at immediate answers can stop us from wrestling with important questions, and quick and easy actions are often ineffective. As I write in Me Not You, performative outrage, and calls to get rid of ‘bad apples’ from institutions or communities, are usually just forms of pressure release that enable oppressive systems and dynamics to continue. So is white self-analysis, if this is where we get stuck: Alison Whittaker and Lauren Michelle Jackson are among those who examine how white anti-racism more often constitutes navel-gazing, hand-wringing, and attempts to ‘renounce privilege’ and assuage guilt rather than work towards structural change. This is a re-centring of the self, not a genuine engagement with the Other.

As I say in my book, white feminists can – and should – take our lead from Black feminists and other marginalised people who are less attached to the way things are, whose imaginations are not so bounded and who model what Tina Campt calls ‘living the future now’. Black feminists have long tried to tell us that the view from where they are is much clearer than we can comprehend. Patricia Hill Collins famously called Black women ‘outsiders within’; bell hooks has written about her own experience of ‘looking from the outside in and the inside out’. I love Gail Lewis’ description of how, from the margins, it is possible to see across an entire field of vision – whereas from the centre one has to keep turning around and about. This is why many groups located on the margins are already working to formulate the answers white feminists want handed to us on a plate.

Doing my small part

But we cannot expect more marginalised feminists to just hand us these solutions: political programmes have to be collective and developed through dialogue. We all need to do this work – and echoing Mariame Kaba, I think perhaps not enough of us are currently doing our small part. I join Kaba in her request that we all ‘work together to think through something different’, adding that white feminists should listen more than we talk, and acknowledging that thinking through something different is a long, hard slog. It is a lot easier to identify problems than to develop ways to tackle them (and I say this to myself as much as to anyone else). As I write in Me, Not You, ridding the world of sexual violence is not going to happen in my lifetime, or yours. But we can all do our own small part to move towards it, not further away.

For the past fifteen years my main activist focus has been tackling sexual violence in universities. This work has included collaborating with Susuana Amoah and others at the National Union of Students, engaging individual institutions across Europe in research and training, and forming the Changing University Cultures (CHUCL) collective with Liz McDonnell and Jess Taylor. CHUCL aims to help universities reshape their structures and cultures so equality policies can be more meaningful, and so they can deal more effectively, and less punitively, with problems such as bullying, harassment and violence. We have not got very far yet, but we are in it for the long haul.

As we move forward with CHUCL, I am trying to keep an abolition mindset. This means refusing to become what Audre Lorde called the ‘master’s tools’ (in other words, being used to preserve oppressive systems even while we claim to dismantle them). This can happen in various ways. For instance, CHUCL research on structural and cultural problems in universities has been used as evidence they have already been solved (what Sara Ahmed terms ‘non-performativity’). Universities have reacted defensively and demanded we provide instant solutions, thereby absolving themselves of responsibility. They have defaulted to individualised forms of diversity training which are presented as ‘taking action’ but do not address, and instead conceal, the deeper issues we have pointed out. Key questions for us are: how do we help universities take responsibility for and tackle their own troubles? How do we build institutional capacity to deal with unacceptable and violent behaviour? And the big one: how do we push for real structural and cultural change?

We are taking our lead from survivor-led community accountability and transformative justice approaches that have worked in other contexts, but many institutions are a long way from having the capacity to implement these. Complete success would require a collectivist, rather than a capitalist, university. Of course, we are not going to get one soon – but we are thinking hard about ways to work towards it (and whether we even should, especially given universities’ complicity in racial capitalism, neoliberalism, colonialism and slavery and its afterlives). We have a lot of failure ahead of us before we can even imagine something that looks like success. But we are doing our small part.

Building feminist futures

We all have to do our part, if we want to change the world. So if something has struck you in my book – whether it has inspired you or made you feel uncomfortable – I am delighted, but you must consider if and how you want to act. If you do decide to act, make sure you start small. Reflect on, and work to undo, how your own actions perpetuate systems of oppression (and that includes saviour modes of ‘helping’). Use your privilege and/or your money to do one thing for the benefit of more marginalised people every day (and thanks to Mariame Kaba for this principle, which has been a touchstone in my more chaotic moments during Covid-19). When there is a crisis, step up. Through these actions, educate yourself on issues, think about the better world you want to build, and learn about – and from – those who may already be building it.

When your imagination is liberated from what is, when you are better able to visualise what could be, think backwards to something you could realistically work towards yourself sustainably and longer-term. You might be able to find a group of like-minded feminists organising towards the same thing, who you could support with your time and money. If you can’t find one, create one. Your action could be as simple as setting up a neighbourhood collection for your local food bank (it is difficult to eradicate violence while basic needs are not being met). Or you might decide to get involved in action against prison expansion or to free incarcerated survivors. You might even work towards implementing a transformative justice programme in your community, organisation or institution. As you take action, you could use my toolkit regularly to check in with yourself. And although there should not be gatekeepers, seek out visionaries to guide you.

I cite many of these visionaries in Me, Not You – you can look to Angela Davis, Audre Lorde, Mariame Kaba, Ruth Wilson Gilmore and lots of others besides. Our feminist tomorrow is also being envisioned by the young Black feminists and others currently on the streets protesting police murders and demanding abolition. It is being envisioned by the young activists and authors producing resources for the fight. For instance, Lola Olufemi’s new book Feminism, Interrupted offers a manifesto for a different, and truly radical, feminism. Beyond Survival, edited by Ejeris Dixon and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, sets out practical strategies for tackling sexual violence without criminal punishment. Molly Smith and Juno Mac’s Revolting Prostitutes is a compelling argument for decriminalising sex work, one legislative advance that would eradicate a huge amount of violence and that we could all be campaigning for. These dynamic young feminists are not going to give you instructions either, but they do provide rich food for thought – and the future of feminism lies with them.

As we move towards this feminist future, there will be no easy answers. The problems with mainstream feminism have been well and truly exposed (and by many others both now and before me), but we are still figuring out how to solve them. And although white bourgeois feminists may need to get our own houses in order first, when we are ready, we will need ongoing conversations between feminists of all positionalities: younger and older, differently classed and raced, trans and cis, differently abled, sex-working and not, lesbian, bisexual, queer, straight, and more. These discussions would be led from the margins but everyone would have a voice; there would be space to question, learn and grow; and most importantly, talk would lead to action rather than being an end in itself. I am deeply invested in doing my part to facilitate this this journey, and will probably be asking some tough questions of fellow white feminists (and myself) along the way. And I will pose one back to you now: what do you want to do?

This blog was originally posted on the Manchester University Press website - if you buy the book from MUP and enter the code OTH583 at checkout, it is currently 50% off (which is £6.50 plus P&P).