Combatting Derailment Tactics

Feminist Activism Isn’t One-Size-Fits-All

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Feminism isn’t a movement with one single goal, but rather, a series of movements dealing with different types of oppression across many identities. In fact, treating feminism as if it were only about women results in the deliberate erasure of women who are oppressed due to race, ethnicity, class, and/or sexual orientation, among many other identities, including trans women. This also erases non-binary people. It’s perfectly fine to be very passionate about one issue – or to want to cover many issues in your feminism. But it’s not okay to pretend that one issue is beyond another for everyone.

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“It’s entirely plausible for one person to write about an important and life-threatening issue or experience, while also writing about dating and makeup.”

Derailing is always done at the expense of supposedly more oppressed people.

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Derailing is always done at the expense of supposedly more oppressed people, who are usually Black and Brown. This reinforces white supremacy and the status quo, and sets up a hierarchy of “us” (the liberated modern people) and “them” (the backwards and oppressed people). It dismisses the person sharing their own experiences and results in the silencing of those most impacted by not being able to share their own stories. Whether or not one believes that there are more important issues, only those affected by them directly should be spearheading any conversation on that topic.

Why you should stop asking “Aren’t there more important issues to care about?”

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It is possible to care about multiple issues at once. Talking about one issue doesn’t automatically negate all other issues. We can recognize that there are all sorts of problems in the world, but we can’t all care about and talk about every issue at the same time.You can care passionately and devote a lot of time to one of these things and still care about the others. It would just be physically impossible for someone to dedicate all of their time to all of the issues in the world – there are just too many.

“But what about women in Saudi Arabia?!”

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Dealing with street harassment during your commute sure beats not being able to leave your home, but what problems are solved by pointing out that there are women living under other types of oppression? Derailing a conversation about street harassment in public spaces to talk about how Saudi women can’t even leave their homes without a male guardian does nothing for those of us dealing with street harassment on a daily basis – or for women who are infantilized by their government. Using the lived experiences of others to play devil’s advocate is dismissive and angering.

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“Why complain about the wage gap when women in this other far-away country can’t even work?” “Oh, please. You think your reproductive rights are being trampled? In this other country, people die from childbirth because they don’t even have hospitals!” “Again with the gender neutral bathrooms? In this place, people who identify as trans are murdered!” We get it. There are a lot of horrible things happening all over the world, including the United States. But the issue here is that trying to tell people they can’t be angry about their oppression because others may be more oppressed is not activism. This is derailing. I personally think it’s a positive sign when people are aware of human rights injustices and are invested in changing them. But when that comes at the expense of belittling another person’s personal struggles, I no longer think that’s useful.

Anything That Impacts Our Daily Existence Is Worthy of Anger

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For example: Catcalling is about dominating public spaces and asserting power over another. It’s a way of controlling what we do with our bodies and who gets to enjoy them. It is infuriating and upsetting when it happens occasionally, but it can escalate to physical violence or death. We take different paths to avoid groups of harassers. We pay for taxis instead of walking alone. Sometimes, we refuse to go out during certain times and avoid some places altogether. And for those of us who are women of color, the exotification of our bodies is so widespread that we deal with racialized sexual harassment in the streets and in our workplaces. Suggesting that “first-world problems” are unimportant misses the connection between how commonplace things have massive impact on our daily lives.

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We can’t be experts in all feminist matters, but we can speak up on the issues that affect us and help promote causes that affect others. And that’s a start. Fighting to end “first world problems” has no impact, whether positive or negative, on individuals living under more stringent customs and laws. No activism negates the experience of marginalized communities. The only way they’re marginalized if by their struggles being co-opted. So whether a cause is about “freeing the nipple” or ending the death penalty, it’s necessary and valuable – and I’m always here for that.

Dismantling Oppression Requires Chipping Away at All Things

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Systems of oppression don’t exist in a vacuum. They all stem from a racist, heteronormative, patriarchal, and capitalist society that, frankly, will never be fair to marginalized communities. What may seem like an isolated concern for one individual is often a symptom of a larger problem, in as much that catcalling and restricting women’s access to public spaces are, in effect, the same problem at different levels. Catcalling and other forms of street harassment is about men’s power, and they don’t do it to flirt. It’s about the control of public spaces and the bodies that are allowed to occupy them freely. The extreme version of street harassment is laws that control women’s bodies and ban them from public spaces.

“Your oppression is not as bad as their oppression, so why talk about yours?”

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Just because someone somewhere has it bad, that doesn’t mean everyone else is living in absolute perfect equality – and yes, their problems still matter. A lot of the time, addressing one issue is just a small piece of breaking down an entire system. When we fight against one sexist problem, we’re not saying that all other sexist problems are irrelevant; in fact, we’re saying that all of these problems derive from similar ideas of sexism that we’re working to eliminate.

Colonization, Power & Exploitation

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Injustices are rooted in our society and culture, and they all have a historical context that can’t be ignored or wished away. Countries that are considered superpowers today, like the United States, have had a hand in the exploitation of other impoverished nations. There is absolutely no way in which we can rally for the rights of marginalized individuals elsewhere while supporting xenophobic politicians, wars, and colonialism. Powerful nations like the US exploit our feelings of superiority to make us rally behind causes that destroy nations and further exploits them under the guise of “saving them.” This is commonly seen in our needless military intervention in Afghanistan, thinly veiled as a rescue mission for oppressed Muslim women.

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“What about starving kids in Africa?” “What about oppressed women in the Middle East?” Not only do comments like these derail important conversations – they appropriate suffering in developing countries to avoid being introspective about one’s own culture.

“But there are starving children in Africa!”

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Saying “But there are starving children in Africa!” without paying attention to what’s happening in your own backyard perpetuates the idea that oppression is something only other (read: marginalized) groups do. There are starving children in Africa, but, owing to racist and classist policies, there’s starving children in the US, too. The suffering of people in developed countries does not shrink because people in developing countries are suffering. Because of this, conversations about oppression in developed countries shouldn’t stop. We shouldn’t stop pointing out the cause of suffering just because other suffering is perceived to be greater.

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“The oppressive kyriarchy is something we are all complicit in, whether we like it or not. We should call it out when we see it in others, but more importantly, we should fight against it when we see it in ourselves. This includes calling out oppression in your own culture and country.”

Africa is a continent, not a derailment tactic.

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The most infuriating aspect of this all is that the people who dismiss “first-world problems” in this manner do not truly care about “third world problems.” Do you really care about the children who are starving in Africa? Do you discuss the cause of their suffering in the threads you aim to derail? Or are you using their suffering as an excuse to avoid discussing other things? I also have a problem with the very examples that are given. They demonstrate a shallow knowledge of other countries and regions while reinforcing tired stereotypes. Starving children in Africa? Oppressed Muslim women in the Middle East? You couldn’t choose a more typically Western-propagated stereotype.

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Developing countries – like developed countries – have problems and difficulties. All difficulties are valid, all difficulties can be painful, and all difficulties are worth discussing. But no difficulty should be used to avoid having potentially difficult discussions – human experiences are not derailment tactics.

“It could be way worse. Just be glad you’re not a starving kid in Africa.”

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Not only do comments like these derail important conversations – they appropriate suffering in developing countries to avoid being introspective about one’s own culture. Africa was ravaged by colonizers. Africa’s natural resources were abused and its people were displaced, enslaved, and dehumanized. Using that history as an excuse to avoid being introspective about one’s own culture is appropriative and extremely insensitive.

Further Reading

Africa Is Not a Derailment Tactic: Why Belittling ‘First World Problems’ Is Oppressive
Why You Should Stop Asking ‘Aren’t There More Important Issues to Care About?’
5 Reasons Why ‘First-World’ Feminism Isn’t Actually Trivial