Reality based feminism?

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This blog was inspired by two of my favourite feminist opponents on Twitter, @pennyred (the journalist Laurie Penny of the New Statesman and the Guardian) and @jonanamary, the activist, who was so delighted by my comment about her that she “raises intersectional bollocks to an art form” that she put it in her Twitter bio.

There has been lots of debate about Conservative feminism but I want to talk about the way that most of the modern feminist movement, at least on line, appears to be wasting most of its time in frenzied internal debate about absolutely nothing, and in the process, solving absolutely nothing. It has come to be alien to the vast majority of women, who do not self-identify as feminists, and yet who, if asked, would support feminist goals.

“Intersectional bollocks”, in other words. “Check your privilege.” “Cis”. “Are white middle class stories the only ones worth telling?” and so on and so forth. Notable from their absence from these debates about terminology and frame of reference are male feminists; at some point even the most left-wing and right-on guy just tunes out. We have the unfruitful spectacle of some of the most left-wing commentators in Britain wondering if they are being left-wing enough, or if their background even gives them the right to make an argument. “Check your privilege”, for example, is a profoundly stupid trope that states that only those with personal experience of something should comment, or that if a person is making an argument, they should immediately give way if their view is contradicted by somebody with a different life story. It is hard to imagine a more dishonest intellectual position than “check your privilege”, yet daily I see intelligent women who should know better embracing it.

Laurie Penny is an absolutely prime example; she does it all the time. The other day on Twitter she told people not to rise to what she felt was a race-baiting article by Rod Liddle in the Spectator. She was quite right. Everybody with a blog knows what “don’t feed the trolls” means. However, she was angrily contradicted by the black comedian @AvaVidal who told her that people of colour were striking back and they should rise to it. Instead of defending her position, Penny caved, recanted, and commented mournfully that “having your privilege checked” was painful. Not for a minute did she consider that another person of colour might have agreed that you shouldn’t feed the trolls. Or that she was just as entitled to her opinion as her interlocutor. No, the woman debating with her was a woman of colour and therefore, despite being clearly and obviously correct, Penny had to back down.

@jonanamary (to give an example I’m just pulling directly out of her twitter stream) approvingly RTed an article by one Shelly Asquith, objecting to mockery of the racist EDL (English Defence League) thusly:

What #EDL really represent:
Beer bellies
Bad tattoos
Thuggery
Tacky ‘designer’ clothing”
We mustn’t do this, she says, because it is a class-based insult. Now we must watch how we insult racists. Never mind that a) the insult is a bang-on accurate description of EDL members and b) she is effectively saying that all of the above epithets are somehow working class, which seems more classist to me than the purported original insult.
 Jonanamary took issue with an early unfashionista blog over on Jux in which I said in passing that “vertical stripes don’t make you look thinner, jogging on the treadmill for half an hour five times a week makes you look thinner.” Why would I want to look thinner? This was fattist. Why should anybody want to have a healthy body weight? How dare I say that fashion models aren’t “normal women”. What about those women who are just naturally the size of spaghetti sticks? Anyway, what are normal curves? This is cis-ist to transsexual women who don’t have wombs…
At this point, I had drifted off into Monty Python’s Life of Brian, where Stan and Judith are debating whether they should stick up for Stan’s “right to have babies” even though he can’t have babies.
And that is what the modern feminist movement has become. Full of intersectionality, debates about middle-class privilege, hand-wringing over a good education (this is again “privilege” and not well deserved success), and otherwise intelligent women backing out of debates and sitting around frenziedly checking their privilege.
It does nothing. It accomplishes nothing. It changes nothing.
American feminism gets organised. It sees where power lies, and it mobilises to achieve it. It gets its candidates elected. Feminism here is about running for office, founding a company, becoming COO of Facebook or Yahoo. It is power feminism that realises that actual empowerment for women means getting more money, since money and liberty often equate, and being able to legislate or influence. Hillary Clinton shifted from First Lady to Senator. Before that she was a powerful lawyer. Before that she went to Yale. Today’s keyboard valkyries would be sneering at the graduates of Yale and asking them to take a long hard look at their privilege before offering an opinion to somebody not as high-achieving as they are.
Ultra-feminism’s mournful obsession with words and categories is making the movement a joke. In my piece below about What Men Want: Identity  I pointed out that Penny’s recent article on how masculinity oppresses men (yes really) had come up with the eye-popping “myth of the male breadwinner”, when men have been the primary breadwinners in all cultures at all times in history. Today, we must apparently check not only our privilege, but also reality, at the door. Men are not providers and are oppressed by the idea of providing, we would like to thank Big Brother for the increase in the chocolate ration and we have always been at war with Eurasia.
And by the way, reality-based feminism – where you achieve, try to earn lots of money, run for office, campaign for measurable goals like defeating Sen. Todd Akin – is not a province of Conservative feminism alone. When I think of a true feminist of the left that I admire I think of Stella Creasy MP and her campaign against payday loans. She’s doing something. She ran for office. She got involved in the Labour party. She matters immensely. She will change things.
This is not to say I don’t admire the two women I’ve singled out – I do, because they both write very well. But for now, they and all those like them leave the impression of a feminist version of Monty Python’s splinter groups – the Judean People’s Front screeching “Splitters!” at the People’s Front of Judea.
The picture at the top is of me at school aged 14. Big glasses, nerdy, feminist, ambitious, idolising Thatcher, and determined to be famous, to be an author, and to be rich. I was at private school my parents couldn’t really afford because I bust my ass and won a 100% academic scholarship. I always believed in myself and I had and have no intention of checking my privilege for anyone. I earned it. I hope the next generation of young women feel the same.
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63 Responses to Reality based feminism?

  1. JDM (Mr) says:

    Good for you, well done.

  2. The New Statesman had a debate recently on modern feminism (including speakers like Laurie Penny). The 90 minute podacst is available on their website. The introduction (from the sensible Helen Lewis) advertised the discussion as likely to deal with important issues such as the glass ceiling, poor female representation in politics/big business/finance/culture, maternity rights, workplace harrassment and sexism, reproductive rights and women taking on the role of carers for elderly relatives. All sensible, important and interesting stuff, and as a right-leaning male, thought it would be useful to listen to the entire debate.

    None of these issues were raised. It was 90 minutes of discussing privilege (and hilariously none of the white panelists had heard of one of the “famous” black feminists cited) and intersectionality and transgender politics.

    No wonder 95% (or whatever the number is) of women, especiallly young women, don’t self-identify as feminists.

    • oh yes, that’s why women don’t identify as feminists. not cos of cartoonish stereotypes, shouted slurs, a male narrative of “jealousy” and “bitter women who just want you to be unhappy”, killjoys, mentally ill, or the rape and death threats you get for simply identifying as such, any one of which would
      be enough to make girls pick “earn praise from men” than otherwise, never mind all of them together.

      you’re right, it’s those darn women and their chatter driving girls away.

      • KT says:

        Thanks for telling women why they don’t identify as feminist. Merely being one I think he’s completely right about the agenda being hijacked by f-wits like Laurie Penny and their extreme, insular agenda that a tiny percentage of women relate to. Was ever thus.

  3. Adam says:

    As I understand it, ‘Check your privilege’ isn’t about women (or indeed men) refraining from celebrating their achievements and skills, but rather about recognising that what allowed your abilities to flourish and develop, what provided a good deal of the conditions for your success, stem from factors that are rather more complicated than just individual grit and a can-do attitude. Without wishing to detract from your own evident ability as a child, anyone who’s known people come into school in the same clothes every day and hungry because their parents don’t have enough money to feed them well knows that ‘couldn’t really afford’ is a long way from ‘can’t afford’. Anyone whose bright friends were stifled and undermined by their parents who had no interest in education knows that their parents’ interest in pushing them and building on their potential played a large part in propelling them to where they are now. Not to mention that anyone who’s been involved in the often petty world of human interaction and snap-judgements knows intimately how arbitrary things like interview panels can be, and how frequently long-established institutions especially tend to hire ‘people like them’.

    None of this means that you didn’t have to be bright, hard-working and ambitious to get where you are – qualities we should definitely encourage – but it does mean that it’s worth thinking of the other people who didn’t happen to have those qualities nurtured or for whom your options weren’t really options at all, and couldn’t have got to where you are through no fault of their own. Placed within the larger picture, checking your privilege is about making sure that your opinions on what matters (formed within your own environment and based on your own experiences) don’t trivialise others’ lived experiences by assuming that what wasn’t a problem for you isn’t one for them. It’s about empathy. I agree that it can sometimes be used unproductively to shut down argument, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a good idea in there too.

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  5. Juliet Oosthuysen says:

    How is a good education a ‘well deserved success?’. If, as in the vast majority of cases the parents fund it, the child is the lucky beneficiary. That statement alone shows a callous lack of empathy for most kids who actually *do* deserve a good education but for want of money, a house in the right area or academic prowess won’t be afforded one. It isn’t hand-wringing to recognise these facts, it’s broad minded. However well you’ve done, there is an element of luck inherent in your success and it is disingenuous to pretend otherwise. And like George Bailey in, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, a successful life can be counted in a currency that isn’t money, looks or power.
    However irritating you may find Jonanamary and Laurie Penny, their motives are to fight for the voice of the underdog, who could scream and scream and never be heard without their support, because who really wants to hear from a transsexual woman or a black
    disabled elderly lady? Not the BBC or mainstream media! We still have an 80 year old white man presenting prime time TV whilst even white, able-bodied women get sidelined at 45. Not much hope if you happen to be in one of the other categories I mentioned.

    And please don’t ask us to stand up and clap your other heroine Sheryl Sandberg. She may have ‘leant in’ and scaled the dizzy heights of Facebook Corporate ladder but once at the top she pulled it up behind her whilst her company profited from images of mindless violence against children and women. (FBrape Campaign). FB may have finally capitulated their policy but she hasn’t even passed comment. And whilst you were busy blogging about a Times 2 journalist who had the temerity to write a piece up you’d agreed to, in actually quite a complimentary way, other women were campaigning against FB. Women like Laurie Penny and Jonanamary. As you said- the day ran away with you blogging away the exclusive you gave so you ‘never got round to tweeting Sheryl.

    Thanks for the love.

    You also happily retweet other women who disagree with you, with a cunningly edited quote- once when you were berating the Labour Party for not reporting to the *police* a member who stated they wanted Mrs Thatcher dead, I pointed out that whilst repulsive, it wasn’t illegal. You edited out the first part of my tweet, reported it, blocked me and left me to a twitter storm of pure bile. So thanks for the advice on how to be a ‘good’ feminist but it’s a broad church and we’re managing just fine.

    • L. Ron Weasley says:

      You’ve clearly not been watching BBC Breakfast news, where the majority of presenters are female.

      • Juliet says:

        Give me another example and I’ll give you a point. In the meantime….The Today programme, Newsnight, Question Time, most mainstream entertainment shows are male dominated.

  6. Juliet Oosthuysen says:

    Louise- I’m posting here as I can’t tweet you, but I just read your thread with Ava. Really, the way you argued it, which may seem to you to be clear-sighted and focused reads as dismissive. Here’s a black woman who is passionately arguing that she has more insight into racism than you and feels the correct course of action is to take a stand at each incident and your reply is, ‘you’re wrong’: it’s binary and condescending. She thinks your reply of, ‘don’t feed the trolls’ is wrong and she feels that she may just have more to say on the matter than you, someone who hasn’t experienced racism. I don’t agree that we capitulate every arguement based on whether someone comes further down the ‘privilege tree’, of course I don’t. I do think you can give pause for thought when someone’s clearly out on a different branch however, with a different view to your own.

  7. Emma Crewe says:

    You write with certainty, as if it is straightforward to depict reality. However, men have not been the breadwinners in all cultures and at all times in history. In most of Sub-Saharan Africa women are usually responsible for providing food, water and fuel for their families even in ‘male-headed’ households. (See UN reports, e.g., http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/public/Women%202000%20-%20Rural%20Women%20web%20English.pdf). Is feminism really mainly about aspiration for power and money for ourselves as individual women? Not for me.

    • Emu says:

      …and you write as though Western middle-class feminists, particularly those given to these pointless twitter spats, are thinking about women in Africa when they launch into their ridiculous disputes. Please don’t dignify these ridiculous skirmishes over semantics and supposed ‘privilege’ with anything that affects the world outside of their fatuous little bubble.
      Also, Laurie Penny was on Radio 4 this morning talking on behalf of men…young twenty something’s who are in the midst of a crisis of masculinity, apparently. Now, other than the fact that the problems affecting most 20 something males in this country are totally alien to Ms Penny (given her background) AND that I strongly suspect that this ‘crisis of masculinity’ is largely restricted to the sort of girly-boy who would knock about with the likes of Ms Penny, just wtf does she think she’s doing speaking on behalf of males. She’s only just been ‘checked’ for straying into black turf, next day she’s telling men what to think and feel. Has she learned nothing, is she just dumb, or is this whole thing just a silly pose that she doesn’t actually believe in.

  8. Sid Bukharin says:

    Well said Ms Mensch, but I think you’ve missed the point. Firstly, given your background, I don’t you actually have the ‘right’ to have an opinion on the whole privilege-checking thing…and even if you do, I doubt that, in any debate, you’d get more than a sentence out before you were told to ‘step back’ and check your privilege. Secondly, you’re not meant to criticise privilege from the right; you’re just meant to sit back and watch. I consider myself a life-long socialist and this stuff used to really boil my piss until it was pointed out to me that outside of twitter and tiny groups of self-appointed guardians of discourse, this shit has no relevance, no currency and no viable future-unless you regard a long, sordid and drawn-out implosion to be a desirable outcome. I do. I’m sick of pseudo-radical, self-promoting, upper middle-class non-entities claiming to be the future of the left.

    It’s hardly a shock that the one area of potential disadvantage which ‘privilege’ skips over is class. Class has absolutely no place in the calculus. Now, why do you suppose that might be?

    Quite apart from the glaring omission of class by a group of people who ‘self identify’ (sic) as of the left, there’s also the sheer absence of self awareness. Any ‘theory’ which shuts down rational debate and logical inference in favour of the arbitrary preferences of special interest is onto a loser; to further demand that anyone who has been ‘checked’ then needs to throw themselves into a spiral of public self a basement is just weird and perverse. I can even allow that some of the advocates of this crap may actually have self-hating or masochistic tendencies-I really can’t see what else would drive them to act the wat they do-but having seen some perfectly reasonable and rational statements withdrawn on the basis of a single objection on highly spurious grounds and the advocate then forced to apologise and ‘accept’ their privilege-checking with good grace, I can only assume that some strange desire is being fulfilled.

    Anyway, Ms Mensch, please stop your critique. Just sit back with a bag of popcorn and let them tear each other to pieces. Why not? It’s a win all round.

  9. Tom says:

    I think it’s worth noting with respect to the “don’t feed the trolls” argument that Ava wasn’t the first person to respond to it. Not even the first black woman. That honour goes to Diane Abbott who agreed emphatically with the original point. People of any shared race are obviously not a monolith and, astoundingly, are known to disagree! It seems weirdly racist to make the assumption of Laurie Penny that to disagree with a black woman is to disagree with Black Women.

    • Sid Bukharin says:

      #It seems weirdly racist to make the assumption of Laurie Penny that to disagree with a black woman is to disagree with Black Women.#

      But it’s worse than that…a single black voice isn’t taken as representative of all black voices, it’s enough that a single black person feels (or claims to feel) uncomfortable, uneasy or even just overlooked. That’s all it takes apparently; that’s enough to shut down debate. Obviously ‘black’ is just one of many potential identities which afford an individual the opportunity to step up, claim marginalization and close the discussion.

      To get a grasp of the sheer stupidity, you need to grasp that a deficit of privilege produces its own hyper privilege since those lacking privilege are handed the ability to censor any opinion they dislike. So in effect, the method of countering privilege is the granting of new privilege in terms of access to a platform; this will presumably need to be reversed in the fullness of time, and the whole thing will start all over again (as middle-class, public school, Oxbridge types revolt against their own marginalization).

      And here comes the hypocrisy. Just how likely do you think it is that those publically pushing this agenda ( those ‘hideously white’ wannabe middle-class radicals) actually swallow their own prescription, step back and keep quiet while the less privileged are handed the limelight? I think the question is kinda moot, especially given the rabid self-promotion which tends to characterise most of them. It’s never gonna happen and will only ever be used as a cop-out when, lacking an adequate response or the ability to justify a position, an individual can effectively say “never mind the facts, never mind the logic, never mind what virtually all reasonable people think, never mind the consequences…I’m X or Y or Z and so I win by dint of my ‘life experience’.

      (Except of course if the ‘life experience’ features being working class…that can’t trump anything apparently…not even a private education, Oxbridge, unpaid internships and wealthy parents)

      • William Lee says:

        who are these reasonable people you speak of? and logic? and facts? the fact is that particular black woman had a point, until you can literally walk in her shoes, ask yourself if you can really empathize with her?

        one of my best mates back in ny was a black english girl (public school educated nonetheless). we used to go to the upper west side for lunch and shopping (from our downtown stomping grounds). and for the longest time she told me that cab drivers would not stop for her and specifically white women would hold their purses tighter when they see her coming in the opposite direction. I denied the racism and said “i’m asian and gay and i don’t get any of what you are purporting to experience.” she proved me wrong and it taught me that while as individuals we all share some kind of similarity or parallel with one another but that hardly gives us any authority to make generalizations. people like you don’t take context into account. it’s not that the privilege can’t be proud of their achievements but what i don’t understand is why the constant attack on those who haven’t done quite as well in life? it makes you look like a bully. so stop it sid. you’re just a LM fanboy.

      • Tom says:

        The thing that irritates me was that they both were right. They both had a philosophical disagreement with how to deal with the situation and they both had good points to make. Did they make these points to each other in a reasoned argument? No. The fact that Laurie Penny was not black was enough to stifle what should have been a good natured and mature discussion.

      • Jake says:

        I am black and I have priveledge
        Oh and now I have hyper priveledge.

        Thanks

        The more the merrier

        Oh and along with that priveledge I have the right, ability and duty to check that .

        Check. Def
        Look to see if its there.
        Check. Def
        To hold back.

        The checking is of the opinions Bourne purely from priveledge not the entire discourse.

  10. ScaaarBeeek says:

    Debating over nothing and solving nothing is, I’m afraid, woman’s nature. Indeed, our Louise’s article before us says nothing.

    There’s a term for that in fact. It’s called vaginese. Look it up in an urban dictionary if you don’t believe me.

    Women — half of society — are indeed of great value to society. But solving problems has never been one of their fortés . Women’s brains differ substantially from men’s. For example, men talk less and get on with it, even if on occasion they do it wrong. Women will whinge at men’s mistakes even if much was learned from them.

    Feminism, while it’s found a home on the left of politics, actually belongs on the right. Feminism has never been about equality. It has always been about more money and comforts for women, about “empowering” them. You won’t find many women down coal mines or up or scaffolding or emptying heavy bins.

    Ultra neocon Louise is a feminist all right. Louise’s article, much like Laurie Penny’s or Suzanne Moore’s regular outpourings, is little more than up-market vaginese. The stuff of feminism.

  11. jjllmmss says:

    About Yahoo’s CEO, one of the first things she did was to ban working remotely from home.

    That is typical of “conservative feminists” blinded by their own exceptional personal success, they have no sense of how other women struggle and what they could do to help. They have no group conscience (there is not such thing as society again….).

    Having said that, you are spot on about leftist feminists, they take group conscience to such ridiculous level of getthoization that it is impossible to take them seriously.

    In other words, feminism as an ideology is in a complete stay of disarray and progress now comes more by chance than by concerted action, which is a real shame because it slows down achieving true equality.

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  18. Rachel Elkington says:

    Three cheers – well said.

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  21. metamagical says:

    “The picture at the top is of me at school aged 14. Big glasses, nerdy, feminist, ambitious, idolising Thatcher, and determined to be famous, to be an author, and to be rich. I was at private school my parents couldn’t really afford because I bust my ass and won a 100% academic scholarship. I always believed in myself and I had and have no intention of checking my privilege for anyone. I earned it. I hope the next generation of young women feel the same.”

    from this it is evident that you had multiple parents, giving a stable home life and allowing you to achieve academic success. You grew up in a time and country where women have access to education, poor eyesight can be adequately corrected and access to sustenance is par for the course. You are not in a minority group. You do not have any significant mental or physical health issues or learning disabilities. No-one is denying you any success you may have achieved, but you must acknowledge that for some people this particular success was not an option / would not have been as easily achieved / would not have been as difficult to achieve.

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  24. William Lee says:

    LOL Louise. you are pathetic. you completely lack any concept of reality or context. especially varied reality for different people. I can only assume tory types like you surround yourself with like minded types. seriously have you been in the shoes of a black woman before? i know i haven’t. it’s not that there aren’t any black independent strong women out there that would prefer to walk away from a race baiting article but it just happens that the writer was responding to that specific black woman. thanks for lumping all black women together.

    also strangely enough all the women you point out are women who have come from quite “comfortable” backgrounds. and let’s keep in mind most obviously that all those women are WHITE, just like you!!! well, you do realize that Yale probably wouldn’t have let them in if they weren’t WHITE. Go ahead keep deluding yourself in thinking your privilege (relative to you) hasn’t given you a leg up over someone who is visibly a minority or part of several minorities (queer/ethnic/disability). I don’t believe that you tories are stupid but it is mind boggling as to how completely comfortable you are with ignoring contexts. if someone’s life doesn’t mirror yours, they are clearly lazy and just squandered all opportunities. keep smiling through life sista! i’m glad your dentist and your surgeon has done a fabulous job at keeping you so photogenic. hahaha. stop giving women a bad name ok. you’re just a man in drag.

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  26. Tom says:

    The thing that irritates me, William, was that they both were right. They both had a philosophical disagreement with how to deal with the situation and they both had good points to make. Did they make these points to each other in a reasoned argument? No. The fact that Laurie Penny was not black was enough to stifle what should have been a good natured and mature discussion.

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  37. Anna Magee says:

    Dear Louise
    I am a UK journalist doing a feature for Stella in the Telegraph on Sundays on the increasing normalisation of high maintenance grooming in women. As a high-maintenance grooming obsessive myself I have been asked to go without make-up and blow dries for a week and go to work/meetings as normal. It’s hell to be honest. And when I read your post above I thought, ‘yes I am a feminist but I am a reality-based feminism and am not going to kid myself that I don’t need grooming and make-up to get ahead or appear normal, likeable, alive…’ – that’s just me being honest. As a part memoir, these sentiments will be in the piece.
    Anyway, I wanted to get your opinion on this including the rise of ‘beautynomics’ ie the recent book Beauty Pays by Daniel S Hamermesh claims prettier people earn more and get promoted more and I wondered what you think grooming and make-up represents for women today in terms of appearing competent, together? It will take about ten minutes (at the most) on the phone anytime convenient to you.
    Please let me know the best time and number/skype on which to catch you – time difference fine. Whatever suits you.
    Thanks
    Anna Magee
    anna@annamagee.com

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  39. graf cackle says:

    Nerdy thattcher-idolising feminist. Bwahahaha. How long you been taking emoluments from the secret police?

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  41. Annabel says:

    “”Check your privilege”, for example, is a profoundly stupid trope that states that only those with personal experience of something should comment, or that if a person is making an argument, they should immediately give way if their view is contradicted by somebody with a different life story.””

    I’m sorry, but isn’t this just common sense? If you don’t have personal experience of something, your experience of it or views on it are not as valuable as those who have experienced it. You’re white. You have the right to comment on something, but if someone more qualified to talk about it contradicts you, accept it. You aren’t infallible.

    Imagine how you (and I) would feel if a man told you what feminism was and expected you to accept it and go along with his definition. Annoyed? Annoyed. Because as a man, he has not experienced what it is to be under the patriarchy and therefore shouldn’t try and dictate the viewpoints of someone who has. Can’t you see this is EXACTLY what you are doing to everyone who isn’t a middle class white woman?

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