No More Appeals to Power: On Learning from Kavanaugh and Rejecting White Feminism

When I read that Brett Kavanaugh was, after everything, being confirmed as a US Supreme Court Justice I felt exactly nothing. There was nothing where devastation was. There was nothing where grief was. There was nothing where rage was.

When checking in with each other about the Kavanaugh confirmation, my dear friend Jennifer Scott hit home when she texted me: “I feel like I’m grieving feminism because it seems pointless”.

And I think it is. At least, I think the way so many of us have been doing feminism is pointless. Or perhaps most accurately, the feminism many of us have been practicing isn’t doing what we thought it was.

Over the last two weeks, I kept sitting down to try to write a letter to Christine Blasey Ford. I wanted to thank her, and also to offer my condolences. Not only for her assault, not only for the thirty-five years she’s lived with it since, not only for the particular ache that is watching your abuser achieve success and accolades for what a good person he is, not only for the impact this has had on her relationships and career, not only because she and her family had to go into hiding after receiving countless death and rape threats, but because despite all of this, and despite so many people believing the facts of her experience, Brett Kavanaugh is – and was always going to be – the newest US Supreme Court Justice.

Dr. Ford’s – and more importantly Anita Hill’s – testimony wasn’t pointless, though. Ford’s achievement was not in halting the confirmation of a man who, if there was any previous doubt, illustrated in his hearing testimony that he is not suited or qualified for the most important legal job in the United States. Ford’s achievement is in exposing the truth to those of us who still had some remaining shreds of faith that a system created almost 250 years ago by wealthy white men who enslaved people was designed to give justice to anyone other than wealthy white men. This lesson is a very long time coming, and many of us have remained willfully ignorant of it, even in the face of overwhelming evidence.

The crushing grief white women are feeling at this result is valid. It is infuriating, and unjust, and cruel that a man accused by several women of sexual assault, who also demonstrably lied under oath, who demonstrated that he is intensely partisan and biased in an interview for a job in which one of the main requirements is to be unbiased and dispassionate, got rewarded with a promotion to one of the most powerful positions in America. The rage and grief many of us are feeling is absolutely valid. What’s not valid, or reasonable, is the surprise.

To be capable of expecting fairness is a privilege. Every time a public institution or person in authority treats me in a way that is unfair, and I get (justifiably) angry, I am reminded that the indignation I feel is indicative of my privilege as a white person. I live in a society that has taught me to expect justice. While those expectations are frequently disappointed, the fact that I’m able to maintain the earnest expectation is a testament to the depth of white privilege and how it’s shaped me, even while I’ve experienced plenty of discrimination as a woman, queer, and disabled person.

Of course I’m not suggesting only white people are feeling the unfairness of this situation. People of all genders, Indigenous, racialized, and white are feeling the unfairness of this result. But that particular form of indignation, that particular rage of “How could this possibly happen?!” is a product of living in the version of America that pretends to be just. It’s the same myopia that led so many white people in America to rage with disbelief the night of November 8, 2016, while the everyday experiences of their racialized and Indigenous neighbours were erased in that expression of disbelief. Trump and Kavanaugh are a wake up call to those of us who still haven’t lived this lesson. Anita Hill is finally getting a modicum of the recognition she deserves for testifying against Clarence Thomas’ confirmation almost three decades ago, but it’s still largely as a footnote to Ford’s story. Where were we all 27 years ago, and where was the public outrage for Hill’s treatment, both at the hands of Thomas, and at the hands of Joe Biden and the Democratic party who tried to destroy her for speaking her experience?

This piece is about the failures of people with institutional power, but it’s also about my failure as a white feminist. It is about my ability to spend 20 years working for equity, while maintaining some shred of belief in systems of power that marginalized not just my sisters, but so many people in so many ways. White feminism is generally defined as feminism that is most concerned with the conditions of white women, and that refuses to recognize the impact of intersecting forms of violence and oppression. While I have been striving to practice intersectional feminism for years, Kavanaugh brings home how my persistent belief in reform from above was a form of white feminism, regardless of the content of my work. I’ve been mistaking winning the latest round of respectability politics for winning justice. It’s a lesson I thought I’d already learned, but seem to need to relearn again and again: appealing to power will never lead to freedom.

So I am grieving feminism, a movement I’ve dedicated myself to for two thirds of my 32 years, but I am not giving up on it. Rather, I’m realizing I was doing it wrong. I’ve done so much work trying to explain. I thought if I could just find the right language, the right data, the right consumable tidbit of a life’s worth of trauma that could illustrate to those who deny my basic humanity that I’m actually worthy. I’ve poured myself into my activism, my writing, countless political conversations, laid bare so much violence and pain, all the while earnestly believing that if those in power could just understand, then they would finally do what’s right. They would finally believe in my humanity and that of all the other girls, women, enbies, and feminized people. But the problem with trying to achieve equity through building empathy is that they keep moving the goalposts. I thought the goal was convincing those in power of the truth of the epidemic of sexual violence, but the truth of the violence only matters if they care about those experiencing it. Regardless of his guilt, a huge proportion of America supported giving Kavanaugh power over the 325,000,000+ people in the United States of America. Trump straight up admitted he’s a sexual predator, and it didn’t matter to power.

I still believe appeals to power have their place. But they’re not the path to freedom.

Two weeks from today I will testify in a Surrey, BC courtroom against the former love of my life, PD, who raped me close to six years ago. This exercise is an appeal to power. At every turn over the last two years, the process of reporting my rape and pursuing what we call justice through our police and court systems has meant appealing to gatekeepers in positions of power to believe me, to believe the available evidence, to believe my case worthy of public resources, and most of all to believe the Crown had a chance to convict him (the likelihood of conviction is one of two main criteria for deciding whether to bother charging an accused in this province). The process has been profoundly disempowering, but at least my case was allowed to proceed this far. There are countless cases that illustrate how systemic racism and sexism (largely against sex workers and trans people) can play a role in the responses victims and their families receive from the justice system. This process, like the rape itself, has cost me emotionally, physically, financially, professionally, and socially. And despite the fact that this case has come this far (further than 99% of rape cases), and that PD admitted in writing to sexually assaulting me, there is a very real possibility he will be acquitted. In terms of raw probabilities, he likely will. And if he is, all that will illustrate is that the system is functioning as designed. Power recognizes power. Whatever happens in court, it won’t change what happened in that bedroom on December 9, 2012.

So I can no longer be satisfied with appeals to power. I will keep making them. I will keep appealing to governments and institutions to do what’s right, and working inside political campaigns and parties to make them more accountable, more just, more inclusive. But mostly I will be organizing and reminding myself every day that lasting change comes not in appealing to power, but in building it. I hope you’ll build it with me.

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