Am I going to let this stand? An open letter to Zainab Akhtar of Shortbox comics.

Am I going to let this stand? No, I am not going to let this stand. 

Zainab Akthar of Shortbox comics called me a “shitty racist white woman” and accused me of “white feminism” to her 14k followers on twitter. Defamatory Sundays, eh? It’s such fun isn’t it, calling people names on Twitter? Full of glee all the followers go “Ooh” they say “she’s a shitty white feminist!” Then they feel smug and proud of themselves because they are all on the same side, the right side and she is on the wrong side that shitty white racist feminist. People have called me names before, as you’d know Zainab, if you’d read my work. Respectability politics? Ha! You’ve definitely not read my work.

I don’t see why I should put up with this. What? Am I supposed to crawl away in shame? I don’t think so. I’m sure you’ll have fun at my expense, white woman’s tears and all that, but actually I’m not crying, not upset, not offended, not sad. It bothers me, obviously, or I wouldn’t be writing this, but I will stand up for myself. I don’t need to put up with public insults from anyone, doesn’t matter who they are. 

Zainab, the work you do with Shortbox is important, because like most art forms, comics suffers from a lack of racial diversity and we all need to signal boost. You seem to think I don’t understand what you were talking about on Twitter when you popped into my timeline, hating on Amanda Palmer. I do. I just don’t think it’s ok to tell our colleagues in the comics community to fuck off, and so that is what I said to you. Your response to me and the person I was standing up for can be viewed above. I don’t follow you on Twitter: your comments interrupted my otherwise unremarkable day because of the algorithm – “So and so liked this, or commented on this, you might be interested”. I did once follow you for a while after a mutual, local friend introduced us as her two favourite northern comics people but I soon gave up. I didn’t find you interesting.

So let’s get back to that old “white feminism” chestnut shall we? Firstly, if it’s white, it’s not feminism, but it’s a fashionable thing to shout, and some people have shouted it with good reason. Angela Davies for example, however this was in 1983, 36 years ago. Do you really think none of us “white feminists” have read her books? Have you? What about Kimberlé Crenshaw, have you read her? Do you know what intersectionality meant when she applied the term? What about Pragna Patel, founding member of Southall Black Sisters? Yes, yes, I know we are all old and past it and we have to make way for you young ‘uns. Dried up old hags that we are. And it’s ok, I don’t expect you to talk to me about race (actually, I’ve not read that one yet) but I don’t expect you to tell me to fuck off and call me a shitty racist white woman either, because that’s a shitty thing to do Zainab. You say “a Pakistani Muslim woman” told me to fuck off, so I should just fuck off, is that right? So because you are a Pakistani Muslim woman you get to say and do whatever you like and everyone else just has to put up and shut up? Really? Can you hear yourself?

I wonder if you realise that when you shout “shitty white feminist” at women like me, pretending it’s a new concept, you ignore and erase the work of all those amazing feminists from racial minorities of the 1970s and 80s, 90s. Feminists who helped make the women’s movement stronger, more diverse and fit for purpose and to whom we all owe a debt. Yes, white women have lacked self awareness but your conception of “white feminism” is grossly oversimplified and I don’t know what it is. I can’t recognise it. I know about “white fragility”, I understand how black women aren’t allowed to cry, have to bear pain and be strong. I hate those expectations too. I know about moving from the margins to the centre and back again. I know history, I know the history of gynecology, I know the dates and names of the various acts of parliament that gave women in the UK the right to own property, keep their own savings, earn the same as their male equivalents, not be fired for being pregnant, use contraceptives if they were not married, have a mortgage in their own name, report their husband for rape, and vote.

Saying this, not enough progress has been made and not quickly enough towards solving the specific problems of women and girls from racial minorities. In addition, there is still a useful conversation to be had about a certain, very specific type of light skinned woman who is seen as worth listening to and protecting while othered women and girls are not. This figure appears in my first book, Becoming Unbecoming. I understand how this archetype is perceived as an obstacle to eradicating racism and also that some white women adopt this persona because they think it protects them. Not very sisterly. But none of the above is any use without a bit of class analysis. Can you tell me how white fragility protected the white girls of Rotherham? Did anyone, anywhere pay attention to their tears?

I came to feminism quite late in life so my youth was bereft of decent feminists, sadly, but I spent enough of my youth shouting back at Neo-Nazis and getting excited about Rock Against Racism to understand early what a racist is. Leeds was the centre of that, did you know? Anti racism was simpler in the olden days but it was dangerous. I was witness to NF types kicking the shit out of people many times. As far as feminism goes, I’d been told by my conservative family they were all lesbians and man haters. I dabbled with Dworkin a bit in the 90s but when I finally returned to Uni in 1998 I was given a feminist reading list full of writings by feminists and critical race theorists. There was Audre Lorde, Bell Hooks, Trin T Minh Ha, Elizabeth Berkeley Brown, Naawal El Sadawi, Heidi Safia Mirza, Lubaina Himid as well as Simone de Beauvoir, Donna Hathaway et al. I was inspired and influenced by these writers. They taught me everything I needed to know to go out into the world and try to make a difference for women in my own small way. The book that made the biggest impact? Ain’t I a woman, by bell hooks. Did you read it? You should. It’s a great book. Talks a lot about the problems of a feminism that can’t account for the specifics of being black.

So… bell hooks, in her writings, wanted to reduce the focus on herself as a person. (This is also a part of feminism: new modes of leadership, new modes of writing, trying not to use patriarchal tools.) She wanted the content of her writing to be more important than the person who wrote it (Narcissists and self-conscious souls of the current era take note) but mainly for me the influence was… well, this is from an essay by bell hooks called “Writing Autobiography”.

To me, telling the story of my growing up years was intimately connected with longing to kill the self I was without really having to die. I wanted to kill myself in writing. Once that self was gone – out of my life forever – I could more easily become the me of me. It was clearly the Gloria Jean of my tormented and anguished childhood that I wanted to be rid of, the girl who was always wrong, always punished, always subjected to some humiliation or other, always crying, the girl who was to end up in a mental institution because she could not be anything but crazy, or so they told her… … by writing the autobiography, it was not just this Gloria I would be rid of, but the past that had a hold on me, that kept me from the present. I wanted not to forget the past but to break it’s hold. This death in writing was to be liberatory. 

Those who know me and who have read my work and heard me speak will understand how these words kickstarted me onto my own journey. In your conception of white feminism me and bell hooks are an impossible match, but she means more to me than I can explain. Does your understanding of shitty racist white feminism say I can’t to relate to these words by bell hooks because of the colour of my skin? How on earth is that helpful to anyone, anywhere, least of all black women who want people to read their writing.

I wonder… instead of shouting and swearing at people who mean you no harm on the internet, why don’t you actually do something? Get off the internet, go outside. You’re from Bradford, my close neighbour. I grew up *just* outside the BD postcode. I grew up in a place a bit like Kendal* actually – a bit rural and really white. I grew up in the place that successful Bradford Pakistani families now move to, to get out of Bradford. I’m connected to Bradford through work and leisure. I’m also connected to Leeds, the place that sucks all the money out of the rest of Yorkshire. I know the problems. 

I’ve spent the last 20 years or so, since I’ve been able to work regularly, working with as many people as I could from as many backgrounds as possible, not only to support my community in Leeds and Bradford, but also to learn and to know people and make a difference to them where I could. To not live in a bubble. To lose myself in the lives and experiences and achievements of others is a bigger privilege even than my white skin. 

Bradford has some bigger than average problems to solve. It has some great people doing great work. There are specific issues that Muslim women from Bradford have to face. The journey of Naz Shah has been wonderful and painful to watch. She did not have a great start in life and has overcome more than most of us, yet she fights on, for women, for Bradford. I appreciate it’s hard to make progress in the outside world, especially if you look different. It’s hard to question things when people are understandably sensitive but we must question our assumptions. I understand and sympathize, but I still won’t put up with being told to fuck off and called a racist white woman. I guess I’m just odd like that.

Maybe you don’t have time to get out there and physically do something in your home town because you’re too busy snarking to your 14k followers on twitter about how much you hate Amanda Palmer and telling people who are trying to stick up for their friends to fuck off, I don’t know. Priorities, right? I might be wrong. You might be doing all sorts of useful things in Bradford, I hope so. I don’t know, because I don’t know you, as you don’t know me and it’s unlikely we’ll ever get to know one another now because you insulted me in public and then blocked me.

Anyway, to finish, an anecdote. My eldest son, who is sometimes mistaken for pakistani Muslim by white racist people, especially when he’s got a beard, and sometimes assumed to be south Asian by south Asian people themselves, has olive skin, thick black hair and vaguely Arabic features. He likes to say that if you are going to be racist at least you should try to be accurate about it but accuracy, like truth, is out of fashion. He once had the perfect repost for a racist at school who told him she’d asked her mum and she wasn’t allowed to talk to his friends Hassan (Tunisian descent) and Hatim (Indian descent) but she could talk to him because he wasn’t a paki, he was Spanish. He replied that he’d asked his mum and she’d said he wasn’t allowed to talk to fat, orange racists. *

Things have changed since the referendum. Now people are just as likely to be nasty to him because he’s Spanish. We really are all in it together Zainab. Or at least most of us are. Of course people are racist. There are some terrible racists out there. But if you want to really change things, you might have to fire at a different target.

Photo credit Casey Orr

*Kendal is a place I know you think is racist and not welcoming of Muslims.

*I’m not on board with the fat shaming, but the rest of it made me proud. And why do white girls spray themselves orange? It’s a mystery. 

One Comment

  1. Wow! So you address important, divisive and hateful comments and the significant lack of engagement I can almost feel! There is a strange paradox there within.
    Do we roll over and accept what’s not acceptable for fear of….. what are we afraid of?
    Tell you what, how about people stop with the hate?
    Not too difficult is it?


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