The F word, Racism, and Skepticism

Something bad is going down in the blogosphere. It (sort of) has to do with all three of the things in this post title.

I make no secret that I am an old-school feminist. I went to rallies in the 70s, and I was excited to be one of the first women attending Texas A&M. Feminism meant an equal chance, and an opportunity to be judged on my merits, not my rack. My congresswoman was Barbara Jordan, one of many awesome ladies that spoke truth from that period.

I was going to change the world.

Later, I learned a lot of other meanings for feminism. In grad school I encountered the PoMo interpretations of the word; I got called a feminazi; I got a lot more annoyed about how I was constantly sexually harassed or sexualized as a woman scientist. But I still felt that feminism was fundamentally a good thing.

As I moved into my academic career, I saw more and more of my female students denying–vehemently–that they were feminists. Given how much BS was slung about and stuck to the word, that isn’t surprising.

But I hung in there as a feminist–until maybe now. A whole bunch of people have written some great things about this topic, and I encourage you to click on the links below and read. I haven’t seen this much passion in a long time. Unfortunately, it’s mostly outraged passion.


What’s happened to change things is that some of the (even older than me) old-school feminists–and their younger sidekicks–have behaved in ways that are incredibly elitist and racist. It’s bad enough that someone has started a blog at WordPress called “Dear White feminists, quit fucking up.”

For starters, Gloria Steinem and a variety of other vintage feminists have said some jaw-dropingly stupid things about the Clinton-Obama race, implying that voting the non-vagina party is to be a gender traitor.

This was a symptom of a larger problem–the idea that feminism trumps all other types of oppression. And if you aren’t with us, you’re against us.

I feel a bit like Holly at Feministe:

“Like a lot of bloggers these days, I’m no longer even sure if I feel comfortable calling myself a feminist, since it seems like the popular definition of that word in so many circles has come to mean “feminism first, every other issue second.” And that’s a formula that inevitably leads to a feminism for the few. A feminism for the small numbers of women who don’t deal with intersections of one, two or ten other kinds of shit getting heaped on us every day, too many to calculate “which is most important.” It’s not a kind of feminism that works for most of the women on this planet.”

Next, Seal Press made some statements that they’d like more Women of Color (WOC) authors. But, they didn’t sell. And WOC never called them. And, like, Seal Press didn’t know any potential WOC authors, anyway. This very specious reasoning is dissected by WOC PhD in the link I’ve cited, and also here.

Then, an A-list (white, feminist) blogger was busted for appropriating, without citation, the ideas of several WOC bloggers. You can find a very good summary of the problem here.
This so angered a WOC blogger, she deleted her entire blog, rather than have her words appropriated–a tragic loss of a powerful voice. You can find excerpts from her good-bye here. From that post:

“I have made peace with the fact that I will never be mainstream-y publishable–but I have NOT made peace with the fact that the words and theories of women of color are stolen and not attributed or cited. I will never make a living off of blogging, I will never get a book deal off of blogging, I will never be on CNN or invited to be a part of a political campaign or have articles written calling me the new leader of the feminist movement–and I am ok with that. I am NOT ok with people who ARE posting on big blogs, getting book deals, doing interviews on CNN, being invited to work political campaigns, being called new leaders of the feminist movement etc–taking my ideas and using my ideas to continue the unexamined and unchallenged goal of getting book deals, doing interviews…. Brownfemipower

Some further discussion:

“It points to a common practice whereby white people render women of colour, especially radical woc activists, invisible. Where white women take credit for the innovations of woc. This is harmful to women of colour. It reduces the visibility of the resources which are out there, and it limits the growth of woc-initiated initiatives….For radical women of colour, blogging in itself is a tool for change, used in different ways than it is used by white liberal feminists.” She Who Stumbles

Then the same (white, female) blogger publishes a book (By Seal Press!) called It’s a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environments. And the photos feature a white woman…swinging through a jungle menaced by black men. Literally, spear-chuckers. Worse, of the many (white) feminists that reviewed and provided jacket blurbs, none of them seems to have noticed the ooga-booga factor.

And another WOC blogger commits blogocide in disgust.

I’ll throw in another couple of really nice posts about women struggling to deal with this false dichotomy of race vs. gender:

Or vs. And

On Feminism

Also, an extremely thoughtful post about why leaving a blog can be a good thing.


So where does this leave me? And WTF does this have to do with Skepticism?

This schism is occurring because a group of people can’t change the way they think about the world. One factor is more important than any other. They also have trouble admitting when they are wrong.

As a white broad, I try. Hard. But I still screw up.
I’m a product of my culture, which is racist, and homophobic, and xenophobic. And when I’m wrong, I admit it, and learn from it, and CHANGE. I don’t accuse everyone else of being wrong and out to get me, I acknowledge the fault in myself.

This whole issue was awesomely summed up by Holly of Feministe. I call on each of you to reflect upon this as you go through the week:

“When any of us have a soapbox, an opportunity to get up and talk, we must continue to stand by those who aren’t called on.….When you find yourself in the inevitable currents of our society that always flow towards greater privilege, away from the marginalized, the oppressed, be prepared to swim against that tide. Don’t just stand there and let sand pool around your ankles.” (emphasis mine)

At a recent diversity conference, I explained why the assumption that “atheism = no morals” is so repugnant to me.  My atheism means that I have a greater responsibility to work for social justice. No magic uber-being will fix things for us.  We are the only ones who can make things change.

Are you the solution or the problem?


Bug_girl has a PhD in Entomology, and is a pointy-headed former academic living in Ohio. She is obsessed with insects, but otherwise perfectly normal. Really! If you want a daily stream of cool info about bugs, follow her Facebook page or find her on Twitter.

Related Articles


  1. Glad you’re continuing to contribute a very rational voice to an important social movement.
    Every group has its in-fighting, at times the skeptical community seems especially prone to this. I hope feminists, skeptics and people everywhere can make strides to be more reasonable and cooperative in making the world a better place.

  2. I became a feminist in college.. and carried that label with pride… for years.

    Then suddenly it was “bad” to be a feminist… I was called such delightful terms as “fem-bot” and “feminatzi” and told I should be a “humanist” or nothing.

    Labels are tools… they can be used in good productive ways, but lets not forget that they are just tools and sometimes they suck.

  3. Thanks for this post. It’s an issue I was only mildly aware of. I’d heard the knee-jerk stupid of “voting against your gender” which makes me want to puke. But I hadn’t heard the small blog/big blog or women of color/women of less color dichotomy. I think you’re right in that we all need to quit making the false dichotmy fallacy. We’re all human. We’re all working on (many) of the same issues. If one of us does something dumb because we didn’t think of some subset of the population, by all means point this out and teach us. Make your voice heard.

  4. Well, to give that white author whose book has the awful pictures some credit, she did post an apology on her blog last week. Here’s a link, since I don’t see any reason to keep her identity secret:

    I think the WOC who have quit blogging are doing exactly the opposite of what they should do in this situation. Why should they let the idiocy of some white women silence them? That’s just plain wrong. They should speak out even more. They should point a finger at the plagiarists. They should make a stink, not crawl in a hole. (I almost always think people who resign positions in protest are stupid for giving up whatever platform they have. I just don’t get it.)

    And, personally, I don’t think plagiarism has anything to do with racism. I know I’m white. But I’m also a Jewish, atheist, socialist in America. So I know a tiny bit about being a minority. (You can’t tell I am a minority by looking at me, and I realize that makes a huge difference.) Plagiarism is a sign of laziness and intellectual dishonesty; not racism.

  5. Yeah, I still call myself a feminist, but I feel like I always have to throw in a dozen qualifications saying that I don’t mean this and that.

    I once heard someone say that formal logic is just another tool for the subjugation of women! This kind of thing especially annoys me, as I’ve been using formal methods to help myself to think about philosophical issues for years.

    Formal logic even helped me deconvert from theism, which is funny, because many theologians are so smitten with modal logic. But I don’t ever think to proclaim that modal logic is just a tool for theists – Jordan Sobel, for instance, a nontheist, uses modal logic to great effect in his masterpiece Logic and Theism. It was his work that inspired me to learn modal logic.

  6. Brava – excellent post!

    I admit I used to be one of those women who would avoid the feminist label, and say things like, “I’m not a feminist, but…” and then go on to say something basically feminist. I decided eventually that the thing to do is to take that title back from those who pursue it more closed-mindedly and redefine what it really means.

    For this reason, I agree with writerdd and wish that the WoC bloggers who shut down would have kept blogging and fighting – but it does underscore the fact that there’s a lot more work to do, both outside of the feminist movement and inside of it.

  7. Well, that also puts the heaviest burden on those who are *already* carrying a heavy burden.

    Sometimes you just have to take care of yourself, before you can take on additional duties.

    I totally sympathize with them–there are a lot of times that I feel like stuff online is going to make me crazy.

    If you feel like your voice isn’t heard–or worse, stolen and appropriated–I can see that the temptation to just say “fuck it” and quit would be pretty strong.

  8. The apology is sincere. If you don’t want to believe it, that’s your choice, but your choice certainly wouldn’t reflect the reality of what I feel.

  9. I’m going to second Bug_Girl’s comment here.

    It is unfortunate that WOC have stopped blogs. But it is not fair to put responsibility for de-oppressing on the oppressed group.

  10. I REALLY REALLY hope that our comments will not go the way of those on other blogs. Seriously. Now that Amanda is commenting here, let’s not go for blood, ok?

    I happened to find this today, and it really resonated with me, since it was (sort of) what I wanted to say:

    Privilege is inextricably woven with a blindness to one’s privilege. To be privileged is to be blissfully unaware of the many ways in which privilege helps one to advance through society. When those who are privileged learn to listen to those who are not, they are often shocked at what those who are not privileged have to put up with. And they often respond in a very human way: to deny that they see the ways they are privileged.

    I get a free pass on a lot of things in life because of my color, and my economic class. It’s easy to forget that.

  11. bug_girl, I certainly understand frustration and wanting to give up on a personal level. I just meant that on a political or activist level, it doesn’t do any good as far as I can tell. I’m not blaming anyone for quitting, and taking care of one’s self is definitely worthwhile.

    Amanda, I certainly had and have no reason to think your apology was not sincere. I appreciate that you did address this on your blog and didn’t try to pretend it wasn’t important or that nothing happened.

    We all make mistakes and say things that don’t come out the way we meant it. If there’s one thing in the Bible I think is worth listening to, it’s “let (s)he who is without sin cast the first stone….”

    I’m certainly aware that I’m privileged. Not just because of my skin color, but also because I was born in a privileged country.

  12. People don’t always see their own privilege, but I think that is a small subset of the phenomenon that people don’t see the pain of others, both because it is often hard to see and because it is comfortable to ignore.

    Thus, regardless of level of privilege, people tend to have unrealistic and idealistic views of the lives of others. Regardless of which side of the fence has the greener grass, it probably tends to look greener on the other side than it actually is.

  13. Yeah, in Amanda Marcotte’s defense, she’s always openly acknowledged the fact that she, as a white, middle-class feminist, has a blind-spot for certain race-based issues around feminism. As far as I know, that’s one of many reasons that she co-blogs on Pandagon with Pam Spaulding, who happens to be a “woman of color”. (Which phrase always weirds me the frick out. Just the use of the word “color” in this context puts me in mind of “colored people” and the sort of genteel oh-I’m-not-really-racist tone that phrase implies.)

    As for her book’s art. First, the art wasn’t her decision. Second, as Donna points out, she apologised as soon as the issue was brought to her attention.

    And when it comes to intellectual “theft”… How many times has anybody here vaguely remembered something really great that they know they read somewhere else but can’t remember exactly where? Honestly, now. So many times, our ideas just come out of the zeitgeist without neatly organised sources. And if you don’t believe that, ask me about the time I almost started writing The Godfather Part 3 even though I’d never seen it…

    That said, some of the things you mention here are genuine problems within modern feminism. Jessica Valenti wrote about them a little in her book. They come up on Pandagon *cough, cough* a lot. You’re completely right about Steinem going whacko with the Clinton-Obama thing, despite the fact that Obama is a perfectly good pro-feminist candidate. And then there was the whole Althouse thing with Jessica Valenti, of course.

    But it’s not like modern feminists are unaware of the problems. They are, and many are working to correct them. (Including, in my opinon, one you cited as an example of those problems.)

  14. “with Pam Spaulding, who happens to be a ‘woman of color’. (Which phrase always weirds me the frick out. Just the use of the word “color” in this context puts me in mind of “colored people” and the sort of genteel oh-I’m-not-really-racist tone that phrase implies.)”

    What I find bizarre is the perceived need to use the phrase “happens to be”. I have a hard time keeping a straight face when I hear or read it. One time when someone mentioned that I “happen to be white”, I pictured myself looking in the bathroom mirror in the morning and saying in a startled tone, “Oh, look! I happen to be white!” How can I take that seriously?

    I find the word “is” to be a perfectly fine word. Why is it not good enough?

  15. Well I hear many negative comments about feminism where I live and never understood what was so bad about it. I mean, I understood it simply as a movement for gender equality and I support gender equality all the way. But… the things brought up about the feminist movement here and elsewhere make me thing there is some basis to the criticism. I support gender equality always. I guess that is not the same as feminism after all.

    And one note on apologies, I just want to say how difficult it is to judge sincerity. If people believe a move was in bad faith they will dismiss the apology, but I also understand how frustrating it is when a sincere apology is dismissed! Perhaps everyone can learn from this experience and move on. Not that the issue was not serious, but dragging out a fight looks like it will do more harm than good in this case.

  16. The feminist thing should just be another label for humanism, shouldn’t it. What would be idea is to have everyone treated fairly and equally based on their merit and not their race or gender – notice I did leave out faith there because faith is no reason to harm another and get away with it.
    The feminists crying gender-traitor are idiots.
    It is no more fair to vote for Clinton because of a Y chromosome than for a man to NOT vote for her for the same reason.
    I want the next president to be the person who can heal and redirect the USA not make some sort of social statement and screw the pooch some more.

  17. Come to think of it, it seems like the word “environmentalist” is starting to have all kinds of negative baggage associated with it, too. A post for another day, maybe?

  18. Come to think of it, it seems like the word “environmentalist” is starting to have all kinds of negative baggage associated with it, too

    Is it just because conservatives demonize everyone? Or is something else going on?

  19. Joshua said, with regard to the phrase “person of color”,

    Which phrase always weirds me the frick out. Just the use of the word “color” in this context puts me in mind of “colored people” and the sort of genteel oh-I’m-not-really-racist tone that phrase implies.

    Finally! My companion in woe. How did “colored person” become bad while “person of color” is good? I suppose this all goes back to the difference between names a group chooses for itself and those imposed by outsiders, and I can see the distinction there, but it still feels weird to me. (Look at words like Christian and Quaker, which started off as terms of opprobrium applied by outsiders to a group they didn’t like, but were then adopted by those very groups. Does this happen with terms of racial or sexual disparagement? In some cases, I think, yes. Why does it happen with one word and not another? I don’t know.) Like Geoff Pullum, I find the phrase linguistically jarring, although I’m fine with people applying it to themselves if that’s what they want to do.

    The whole my-people-are-oppressed-more-than-anybody-else’s-people idea is an old problem. Oddly enough, I first thought about it thanks to the books which introduced me to skepticism. This is Isaac Asimov, writing in his 1979 autobiography In Memory Yet Green about the year 1941:

    The most peculiar aspect of the week was that I was an outsider. There were not many people boarding at the Siegels off-season, and those who were all knew each other. What’s more, they were a peculiar group of people. They were all Jewish, all eastern European immigrants, and all, after two years of Nazi military victory, seemed to concentrate their hatred solely on the Soviet Union.

    At every meal, the conversation turned on how happy life had been under the Tsars and how wicked the Bolsheviks were. I kept raising the point that the immediate danger was Nazi Germany but they shrugged it off. One person even said that she hoped Hitler would attack the Soviet Union and that the United States would then form an alliance with Nazi Germany and invade the Soviet Union from the Pacific side. For a while I thought this was an elaborate scheme to make fun of me, but she was serious, quite serious.

    At one point when there was some discussion of the unfair treatment of Jews by anti-Semites (anti-Semites in general, not Nazi Germany in particular), a few of them reeled off some of the false attitudes toward Jews that were possessed by many who didn’t really know Jews.

    I nodded and said, “Yes, and that sort of thing is pretty general. Consider how we whites mistreat Negroes.”

    There was a horrified silence and then one of them, in an awful voice, said, “What’s wrong with the way we treat Negroes?” She then went on to say about the Negroes exactly what she had just complained that anti-Semites said about Jews.

    That week was a liberal education concerning the blindness and bigotry of people, and how the pleasures of hatred rise superior even to the instinct of self-preservation.

    I am not immune to that instinct, but in my own case, a constant reading of history had shown me that persecution on trivial grounds was not the privilege of Jews alone, so that I generalized my own feelings of resistance against such things out of the narrow-minded self-preservation that would have made me oppose anti-Semitism only.

    Add a dash of Internet and you’ve got the whole problem currently under discussion. Now, of course, the world can watch our short-sighted dinner-table talk, instead of just the people sharing the meal. Who says there’s no such thing as progress?

  20. Either these issues have totally passed me by as an individual, or we don’t have them to the same degree in England (I suspect the latter), but the whole ‘Women of Color’ label is completely new to me (and the issues we’re seeing here are therefore also new to me).

    I haven’t read all of the posts concerned, just some of them, so I don’t know to what degree the racism is a clear motive – I certainly don’t think that skin colour is relevant in a plagarism issue unless it’s very clear that that’s the case. When something bad happens to a black person (sorry, not down with the whole WOC label), it’s not always because they’re black. Often it is, I acknowledge that. But how are you meant to tell? We have the same problem on Skepchick. We self-identify as a group, apply two labels to ourselves, and could be in danger of being defined by those labels. If a woo guy comes along and disagrees with me, or even says mean things about me, is he doing it because he doesn’t like tkingdoll the person, the woman, or the skeptic? Unless he admits one, I have no way of knowing. Isn’t it the same thing here?

    From the posts I’ve read, the only racism that seems clear is ‘spear-chucking’ illustration, in fact I’m slightly staggered that any publishing company would use an image like that.

    The plagiarism issue was either accidental or just plain unsporting. But racist? I don’t see that. If I use an idea from a guy’s blog, even if it’s a post about gender issues, I’m not being sexist.

    Happy to be educated in this issue, though, I could well be missing something.

  21. T, I think WoC is used in the US because it also includes Latinas, Asian women, and other non-whites who are not necessarily of African descent.

  22. Thanks for this, bug girl. I’ve been following this since it first came to my attention and have wondered if Skepchicks were aware of it.

    This mess has made me really start thinking about my feminism in different ways, and the links I’ve found in the various posts and comments on the blogosphere have brought things to my attention that I, in my middle-class whitebread world, had been seeing with (very pale) rose-colored glasses before.

    I plan to educate myself, and there’s plenty of material out there to start doing that with. That’s what skepticism is all about, isn’t it? I won’t base my views on gossip, name-calling, or mendacity, but will search and research and find the closest thing I can to the truth. Then I can see what kind of feminist, if any, I can be.

    I’m still buying Amanda’s book, though.

  23. Also–it seems like a lot of people have assumed my comment here:
    was aimed at Amanda.
    If you read it, that post at ABW is aimed at several additional people.
    And it has a point that I think echoes mine about Atheism: You should do the right thing not for a reward, but because it’s the right thing.

    I do think a lot of the initial actors (except Seal press, unfortunately) have now “gotten it.” It took a while, which is pretty understandable, since our first reaction is to defend what we write.
    (Exhibit A: this comment!)

    I’m boycotting Seal Press, but because they haven’t answered fully the questions posed at Feministe, not because of any specific individuals.

  24. Bug girl:

    Which is what you are talking about, I think, Maleficent.

    YES! And this learning is WAY overdue, in my case. Ah, the consequences of a sheltered, nerdy life.

  25. “It’s not what someone calls me, but what I answer to that matters.”
    African Proverb

    I’ll take that a step further to add
    as a feminist
    it’s not how someone else views the movement and my participation in it, it’s what I get from and give to it, that counts.

    I am tired of people imposing what it is and is not to be a feminist and making it more exclusive while they’re at it.

    If I am a “Woman of Color” (not a fan of that label) and have a son of “color” am I then allowed to give a shit about race issues? C’mon now, feminism has always included more than gender specific issues- all ways.

    I know,
    you can’t have freedom for SOME and call it Freedom.

  26. I feel that I have little of substance to add to this conversation, but I’m still compelled to say : right on, bug_girl.

  27. Thanks for the post

    It’s questions like this that sent me into social justice philosophy. It’s outright appalling and shocking to me (who lives quite insulated in my little mind) how many people my age (mid-20s) and younger do not identify as feminist. I TA’ed for an ethics class recently and out of 40 people one person identified as a feminist.

    Whether or not this rejection of feminism is closely tied to feminism’s perceived upper-middle class white women orientation, I’m not sure. I think that it’s possible too that (to crib from I’m pretty sure bell hooks) gender is raced, and race is gendered, so that when we, as a culture or in the media, speak about women, we assume the “default” race, and when we speak about people of color, we assume the “default” gender. That’s the invisibility of dominance.

    The very best feminist philosopher professor I’ve had so far defined feminism in a two part manner. The first that there is gender bias, the second that we should do something about it. The simplicity of this claim extends to all people, and permits for the fact that gender bias in my uppper-middle-class white-girl life, is going to be different that the bias experienced by upper-class Black women, or working-class Asian women.

    What that means is that we have to actively listen, and actively examine our own actions.

    I totally agree, if I’m reading her correctly, with gracefull, I am a feminist, I owe it to the feminist community to continue working on how well we address the problems of all who experience gender bias, and much of that is at the intersection of race, and class, and sexuality and gender.

    this is extraordinarily rambling, apologies.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to top button