Here’s something that’s been annoying me for a long time: the disproportionate backlash that certain types of people face for saying the wrong thing. In general, I suspect it’s those whose voices aren’t as respected in the first place (you know, basically anybody who isn’t a cis white man). And the reaction to Kanye West’s ignorant “BILL COSBY INNOCENT” tweet, paired with a very interesting conversation I had with writer Keah Brown, was the final proof I needed.
Kanye’s tweet, and its subsequent backlash, coincided with another very public misstep, but this time from a woman: Gloria Steinem. There’s as much racism in the public’s treatment of Kanye as there is male privilege, but let me start with the sexism.
Over the last few years, Kanye West has rapped repeatedly about the relative value of women, including his own wife; he has talked about having sex with other men’s partners (with no implication of consent) purely as a means of revenge; he has summed up his entire in-laws as a family of “trophies”. He has equated women to food. He has congratulated a man for “getting in early” with his underage sister-in-law. He has proved himself, time and time again, to be a misogynist with no regard for women as humans, let alone equal humans. It’s been mere days since he last tweeted (and deleted) disgustingly sexist things about his ex-partner Amber Rose—and yet his latest hateful tweet on Tuesday night was met with surprise. “I believed in you, Kanye,” people were saying. But why? Based on what?
Gloria Steinem, on the other hand, is currently under fire for her thoughtless and hurtful remark about young women voting for Bernie Sanders in order to get attention from boys. More than once since then, I’ve seen her described as “obsolete”. People I know, feminists I know, have called for her to be silenced. While Kanye is bopped on the nose and told to stay quiet but only until his album drops, I’ve seen people (including women I respect) demanding that Gloria Steinem’s career is up for good. This is a woman who has devoted her life to campaigning for women’s rights.
That’s not to say I’m defending her. I don’t believe that women should never be called out for their mistakes just because they give it the name “feminism”. Everybody should be called out for their mistakes—and feminists who make fantastic improvements for straight, white, thin, able-bodied women while totally disregarding everybody else are no exception. So call her out; she should never have said that. Challenge her on why her feminism has never extended to trans women. Remind her of her privileges she has never been great at acknowledging. Be hurt, be outraged; I’m right behind you. But ask yourself why you think she should never work again—and yet, according to my Twitter timeline at least, you’re still planning to buy Kanye West’s album the minute it comes out.
There’s definitely a deep-rooted sexism reflected in our outrage. And I think it’s because it’s relatively recent that women have even had a public voice to use—and our society hasn’t caught up yet. A woman’s right to a public persona is fragile, and those who are seen to “abuse” it are asked to surrender it at once. Emma Watson’s blatant White Feminism absolutely deserved reprimanding and correcting, but my Twitter timeline called instead for her to hold her tongue entirely. Jennifer Lawrence’s misguided joke about dressing as a “slutty power lesbian” was problematic, and so she was asked to “reel it in”. Beyonce once empowered herself by using a Ronda Rousey quote that arguably shamed other women, and multiple think-pieces instantly filled the Internet revoking her right to be part of the feminist movement at all. Women in the spotlight are seen to be on borrowed time. One false move, and they have lost the basic right that white men merely call speaking.
But let’s look at the effect of race, too. Kanye’s career may not be (as far as I can see) being targeted with flaming torches in the way Gloria Steinem’s currently is, but he is being talked about, and his credibility as an artist is being called into question—while Bill Cosby’s white defenders have always been allowed to slip under the radar and continue with their lives. Seriously, can you remember the name of one white person who said something as problematic as Kanye did? A quick Google search for “celebrities who defended Bill Cosby” churns up lists of exclusively Black names—and I don’t believe for a second that no white people took his side.
Perhaps more notable, though, is the extent to which he is being laughed at. The vast majority of tweets I saw on Tuesday night in response to his “BILL COSBY INNOCENT” proclamation were jokes—which is fine in itself; humour is a brilliant way to process things. But I can’t think of anyone we laugh at more than Kanye West. Yes, his public persona is hilarious, but he’s not in on any of the jokes we make about him. I’m not a fan of the man, but his campaign for Black Excellence vs White Mediocrity has a lot of value. Perhaps it’s only such a circus show because we’re laughing instead of listening. And perhaps he continues to get away with his misogyny because we’re laughing instead of reprimanding.
Look, I don’t believe in unforgivable acts. And that’s because I don’t believe in people being “good” either; I will gladly put my hands in the air and admit that I can be sexist and racist and ableist and that I have so much more to learn. So I hate severe and unforgiving backlash—but I especially hate it when it so clearly reflects the different value we place on people’s voices.
And there’s a blatant hierarchy to our outrage: white women are give one chance, and then silenced and discarded the moment they step out of line—but women of colour are silenced before they’ve even begun (often by white women speaking “on their behalf”, as if WOC don’t have valuable voices of their own). Black men are mocked for their mistakes with patronising eye-rolls, as if they can’t be helped. It is only those at the very top of the social hierarchy that are given what we all deserve: respect and education. Men like Matt Damon, when they reveal their ignorance, merely have their mistakes pointed out to them; they are given a chance to apologise, and a chance to learn and grow. And that’s because some voices are valued no matter what they say—and some voices are dismissed no matter what they say.
The reaction to Kanye’s “BILL COSBY INNOCENT” tweet was both sexist and racist: he was forgiven in a way a woman would never be, and he was mocked in a way a white man would never be. The reactions to Gloria Steinem’s comment came from a place of rightful feminist indignation—and yet they were deeply misogynistic. Those reactions, in the name of fighting sexism, assumed that Gloria Steinem needs anybody’s permission to speak with the authority of a white man. Well, I’d like to see something far more empowering.
I’d like to see women asked to use their powerful and imperfect voices to expand, to apologise, and to clarify. I’d like to see Kanye asked outright to do better, not given patronising leeway and mocked. I’d like to see feminists continuing to speak up when they see a problem—I do support that—but I’d like to see those criticisms devoted to making change, not to cutting out expendable voices. I’d like to change this in myself too; I’d like to stop instinctively weighing up famous women’s credibility in a way I’d never consider doing to men. I’d like us to learn more, and I’d like us to listen more, particularly to women of colour, to disabled women, to trans women. And I’d like to see white men asked to do much, much better too.