sophie heawood

Freelance journalist. I write columns and interview famous creative people for Vice, Guardian, Times, Independent, Grazia, Elle, Marie-Claire and NME, among others. British, used to live in LA but am now back in London with my two-year-old daughter.

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Hard Out Here - when you can’t see race at all

It’s been a funny old week, Granville. Lily Allen, a popstar I have loved and championed and interviewed and happily chatted to on Twitter, released a video for a new song called Hard Out Here. In the video she sings that she doesn’t need to shake her arse because she’s got a brain, while a group of black women, who are highly-skilled professional dancers, shake their arses all around her. The camera zooms in on their almost naked butt cracks, their almost naked breasts, all while Lily is fully clothed and laughing. It’s been widely explained as a jokey pastiche of other such pop videos, but it made me feel sick.

I’d already seen a still photograph of the Lily Allen Has A Baggy Pussy balloons, which made me laugh my own baggy pussy off, so when I finally got home and was able to watch the whole video, I was excited. God, I was so eager to press play on that thing, having been out and about with a phone with a broken screen all afternoon. But a minute or so into watching it, I wanted to go back in time to that blissful moment where I hadn’t seen it yet.

Anyway, it’s not the video I want to talk about, or even Lily, who I’m sure is having a long hard look at this stuff now. I’m still excited to hear the rest of the album soon. I’m a fan.

It’s the way people responded after the racism accusations began. Talking to lots of my friends, looking down my Twitter, my Facebook feed, all of that stuff. The majority of my friends, who are white, saying “oh ffs this isn’t racism” or “the video was a JOKE, duh, you’re missing the whole point,” and all the lols that accompany that.

And then the minority of my friends, the black and Asian ones, many of whom were going, “yep that is racism, I know what that stuff looks like, I know how I feel when I see it, I’m almost inured to a world where you lot don’t notice it day in day out, but fuck me it hurts. Especially when you’re presenting this video as a great moment of equality - for you.”

On talking to those friends more, several said they were so sick of having to be the Angry Black Woman again, still sitting there in that angry chair. Told, yet again, that they were humourless, and not getting the joke. (The joke being, ultimately, their body.) Quite a few of them said that being shouted down like that, by their supposedly free-thinking, politically-active mates, had left them pretty disillusioned, to put it mildly.

What particularly pissed some of them off was that many people who are actively engaged with feminism, so used to fighting the “Calm down dear” culture, seemed to be dishing out the exact same routine this time around.

“Calm down dear,” is what David Cameron said to a female MP in the House of Commons when she was getting really into her stride about something on which she disagreed with him. Everyone laughed at her, and at his joke. Chortle chortle, the power structure remains intact, the woman is hysterical and not to be listened to. We’ll let her into parliament but we all know whose voices are really going to resound the loudest in here. Men like that dismiss women’s claims of misogyny with lines like calm down dear too - they think misogyny is an invention, something that ranty people just go out looking for, to score points. (What are these points, exactly? And where are they tallied up? Is there a secret scoreboard?) 

Well, this time, it has to be said that a lot of right-on white people are saying Calm Down Dear to people who are, traditionally, less visible than them. Less heard. I’m sure I’ve been guilty of this too. Maybe us white fembots have got so good at recognising sexism everywhere that we just don’t want to investigate our complicity in other power structures. Maybe we’re all just ignorant. Maybe we’re all tired of blogs and tweets and other people’s outrage, tired of being told that it’s not enough to look at gender, you now have to look at race too. (Well, here’s the bad news - it’s not enough to look at gender, you have to look at race too.)

Maybe, deep down, a lot of white women are scared of a lot of black women. Maybe I am. I don’t know. I’m trying to work it all out. 

I do know what doesn’t help though - people saying that they don’t even see race, that they are so fantastically colour-blind that they don’t even see difference - we are all the same, and can’t this just be about fun? That attitude, my friends, is about as helpful as our old chum the prime minister saying that we’re all in this together, because he too had to instigate 25% cutbacks on the number of liquid gold goblets at his banqueting table last week.

Yes, it’s a horrible thing to be called a racist, or to be accused of committing a racist act, because the word is so ugly and it feels like a terrible thing to be branded with. But it’s exactly because it feels so terrible, that it’s worth going, hang on, if racism feels this bad to me, how does it feel to the person who is currently experiencing it?

Rather than using all my energy to insist that everything is fine, maybe I should use that energy to find out how it feels when it isn’t? If I’m wriggling away from that word at a speed of knots because I can’t bear to be associated with it, how the hell does the person who’s up against it, and goes through it on a regular basis, actually feel? Even if it’s largely invisible, and somewhat dubitable, to me?

So much racism is structural and internalised and implied, rather than overt, and I’m not saying you have to read books about it or go to a conference. But identifying as an anti-racist person doesn’t mean you can’t simultaneously be taking part in a power game that you’ve never noticed. No, you’re not an actual racist. You were having a laugh. You didn’t mean it. You were trying to HELP. Wouldn’t it have been much worse if you had… etc etc. Yeah, we can tell ourselves that until the cows come home. But the history of silencing people, when they protest, isn’t a pretty one.

I’m sure I’ve been racist a lot of times myself, whether I realised it or not. I probably will be again - maybe somebody will pull me up on it, and maybe I’ll be annoyed, and turn it into a joke, and be dismissive, like I’ve probably done before. And then maybe, months later, I’ll start to see what they meant, and in some small way it will help.

Notes

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    This is the best thing I have read all week
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    This.
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    ^this

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