Activism 101: Beware the Enemy Within

We’ve been talking about something behind the scenes for a while here at Hathor. An example of it happens every now and then, and we think, “Wow, that’s a big teaching moment!” Then we get bogged down in how to put the lesson across, get distracted by real life and the necessities blogging doesn’t supply, and never get around to posting. Today begins a series where we’re going to tackle some of those issues.

From the beginning, there’s been a small percentage of our audience that wants to put us down and keep us down. I’m not talking about misogynistic trolls. I’m talking about supposedly “feminist” allies. These people leave comments and send us emails telling us what we’re doing wrong and how we should be doing things – and not in a constructive way (we like constructive criticism, and also disagreement). These remarks all boil down to one thing, even though I suspect their authors would vehemently deny having any such conscious thoughts (but then, privilege works unconsciously). “Your opinions, taste and research are wrong because their results do not tally with my opinions, taste and research. My thoughts are of course vastly superior to yours, so let me help you fix your thoughts so the world of middle class white dudes may then take you seriously.”

It’s a bit like the White Man’s Burden trope playing out in real life, except it’s not a strictly racial dynamic. We’ve had academics try to fix my obviously confused perception of my own life with whatever they were taught in college about poor people and/or abused kids (forget my Actual Life Experience). We’ve had white people try to educate Maria about racism on several occasions, and criticize Maria’s work here by invoking Hispanic stereotypes. We used to have commenters (now banned) who would routinely dogpile on any new writer to show him/her how very, very hideously wrong her writing was and, by the way, link to similar topics on their own blog (if anybody’s wondering why we haven’t added new writers in a while, this is why). We’ve had formerly helpful commenters suddenly turn on us because we stepped on one of their sacred cows, such as Science Is Never Biased or But It’s Just a Joke. We have commenters who only enter threads about particular TV shows to brag about how long it’s been since they let trash like that bounce off their precious eyeballs (and really, those comments should be deleted for irrelevance). We’ve had people threaten to stop reading if we don’t immediately retool the site design or some superficial aspect of it to their liking. And whenever we try to have fun with the site, some people complain that we’re not being funereal enough for their tastes.

Of course, we didn’t recognize all these comments for what they were at the time – that’s why they’re so harmful. They’re often subtle. Or just because they come from a supposed ally, you keep thinking, “I must be misunderstanding. She must have a good point.” It’s taken us a long time to recognize these sorts of comments and emails for what they are – a mirroring of the very power dynamic we’re trying to break down.

In this series, we’re going to explain further why these behaviors are not only assholish when examined one at a time, but are also reinforcing the power dynamics of the status quo when you view them as a whole – keeping the little unpaid women laborers in their place. Is that anybody’s conscious intent? Probably not (possible exception: fellow bloggers who may see us as The Competition). The fact that it’s probably unconscious doesn’t relieve our minds any: it means that even our alleged allies are so unaware of their own entitlement and privilege that they don’t realize they’re just doing to us what the patriarchy’s done to them.

And Hathor certainly isn’t the only place where this happens. This is just a microcosmic sample of the big schisms of second and third wave feminism, in which some women prove to so invested in maintaining their own unexamined privileges that they will undermine, marginalize and otherwise repress the women who shine a light on that privilege merely by speaking up for their own needs. You’ve seen it before; we’ve talked about it before.

These posts are going to explore all that. And then we’re doing to discuss what to do about this stuff. Emails are easy to ignore, and we can always get tougher on comment moderation. But maybe there’s more we can do to educate people. So while you read this series, please be thinking about (constructive!) feedback you can give us.


  1. Ida says

    I’m definitely interested, too. I’m bracing myself to see if I spot any of my own behaviour that I need to be called out on.

  2. says

    I realized fairly recently that I’d been engaging in a particularly unhelpful piece of pseudo-ally behavior – taking a cause and making it All About Me (“hey, marginalized group of people, how can I be THE GREATEST ALLY IN THE WORLD EVER??”). So now, whenever the urge strikes for my privileged ass to hijack a space that’s about other people’s oppression, I try to repeat my Ally’s Mantra:

    It’s not about you. When in doubt, STFU.

  3. says

    And already, the email criticisms begin. From a person who frequently derailed threads, sought to make every subject All About Her, and just ran roughshod over our commenting guidelines, I am instructed that I have marginalized her due to my neurotypical privilege (because, like, I don’t suffer from lifelong depression, anxiety and the after effects of growing up around at least one NPD).

    Because I don’t let her do whatever the fuck she likes and take over the site, I’m being unfair.

    Or, wait. Maybe it’s that when she emailed me long detailed missives on her psychiatric condition, with which I was not familiar, and I actually bothered to read the links she sent me but disagreed, so she chose instead to believe I had not read them at all, maybe that imaginary behavior is what she considers mean.

    Yeah. Sometimes one’s problem is not that one has a mental issue or is not neurotypical and is meeting with repression. Sometimes it is simply that one is being a narcissistic douchebag in a group setting that’s intended to accommodate as many people’s needs as possible.

  4. says


    I don’t think you will. Most people make ally mistakes, like the one Rainicorn describes (so been there, done that, got the cringy face to prove it), but this series is more about people within your own movement and demographic who are merely USING the demographic to progress their own goals of power mongering or abuse. It’s more like, “Hmm, I can’t possibly take down the Republican House Republicans who seem dead set on eroding women’s rights. I know! I’ll pick on this feminist blogger who had a typo!” Because it’s not really about women’s rights for them – it’s about taking somebody down, and doing to others what’s been done to them (I guess – I shouldn’t be speculating on the psychology, but I’m just trying to show how it manifests and what that seems to indicate).

    I’ve done that, and I bet most of us have at some point. The difference is, when called on it, do you think it over or just immediately assume people are being ridiculous to you? Once we demonstrated that when someone called us on our privilege, we would really really listen even if at first their comments sounded ludicrous to us (it often does, the first time you’re called on a particular privilege), we started getting not only people who sincerely and helpfully educated us on our privilege, but also people who just seemed to enjoy pushing us around, getting us to examine our privilege by shouting out any ol’ halfway plausible sounding thing.

    We would agonize behind the scenes every time we were called on a privilege and couldn’t understand what the person meant. Sometimes it just took us a long time to sort through our own privilege until we “got it.” But other times, we’d go over it for HOURS and finally realize, “This person is just jerking us around. HER comment is riddled with privilege, and what she’s calling us on really isn’t even correct at all.”

    But the way these conversations with these commenters unfolded would always feel a LOT like one of those conversations with a white guy who accuses you of reverse sexism/racism for merely suggesting that white guys are at the top of a privilege pyramid in North America.

  5. Some guy says

    There is a scene in the movie “Ghandi” where Ghandi has a difficult discussion with one of his friends, a white English pastor. The pastor is a genuinely good man and wants to do whatever he can to help the Indians out of their plight. Ghandi appreciates this and tells him so, but says that for this whole thing to work, it must be done by Indians. The pastor agrees to step away and let Ghandi continue without him.
    Whether or not that happened in real life, the scene makes a good point. Sometimes the best way to help someone throw off their oppression–whether institutionalized or de facto–is to stand back and let them do all of the work themselves.

  6. says

    Really looking forward to reading this series. :)

    Some guy: Sometimes the best way to help someone throw off their oppression–whether institutionalized or de facto–is to stand back and let them do all of the work themselves.

    I had a huge-ass long comment typed out about how there is a place in social justice movements for allies, they just need to get used to stuffing envelopes instead of writing letters, but then I realized this isn’t the point of the series at all.

    The analogy isn’t White people taking over the anti-racism movement, it’s White women taking over the feminism movement and kicking women of color out. We saw this in the civil rights movement when Black men told Black women if they wanted to help, they had to be secretaries and adhere to a strict dress code. We see it in the LGBT movement, which should really be called the GGGG movement based on the overflow of gay men and dearth of women, transpeople and other flavors of queer. And we especially see it in the modern feminism movement, which is all about White, middle-class, neurotypical, able-bodied (etc., etc., etc.) women who are only oppressed on a single (or very few) axis and have no interest in making life better for any other axis besides their own; not only that, but they’re invested in actively oppressing other axes. Because if they helped make life better for immigrant women, they might actually have to pay a decent wage to their cleaning lady.

  7. says

    Maybe “ally” wasn’t the best choice of words in the title, because we’re so used to it meaning “someone from another demographic who wants to help your demographic fight its marginalization.” I’m actually talking about real, confirmed feminists, many of whom have feminist blogs of their own, and most of whom are women – but who are so mired in their own privilege and/or desire for power that they will damage others within the movement in order to get their way.

    Not sure what’s a good word for them. Any ideas?

  8. The Other Anne says

    I look forward to this series. :) Well, I look forward to everything on this site (and I read everything, though commenting has become more rare for me).

  9. Dani says


    New Ways To Not Be A Douche is a great way of putting it. I call it The Great Becoming A Decent Human Being Project, also known as Life…


    Looking forward to this series.

  10. Sarah says

    Jennifer Kesler,

    Beware the Enemy Within? Then it could refer both to people within a movement that are damaging others in the way you mentioned as well as referring to one’s own internal privilege that needs to be dealt with.

  11. Robin says

    Ida: I’m definitely interested, too. I’m bracing myself to see if I spot any of my own behaviour that I need to be called out on.

    Pretty sure I already have been, so I want to publicly apologize to the Hathor staff. Long story short, I wasn’t thrilled with the apocalypse blogging theme, but Jennifer’s right. I had no right to complain about the way they choose to run their own site (which, for the record, I do appreciate and enjoy), not even in the relative privacy of email. Sorry for the unintentional concern trolling.

    What’s the saying? The more I learn, the less I know. Yep. :-\

  12. sbg says

    Jennifer Kesler,

    Awesome, now every time someone does what you’re outlining, I’m going to picture them with glowy eyes, modulated voices and fitted with nifty hand devices. 😉

    I will name them Zipacna, and I will hug them and pet them and squeeze them…

  13. says

    Yes– I think sometimes it can be very hard to really see who is serious about the issues and who is just there to pick out whatever thing they disagree with. I had an argument about this with a person the other day on why Feminism focuses so much on women but not men (answer: everything else in the entire world has historically focused on men, it’s just that we don’t notice that). It was very difficult to even figure this out for myself, because it was a reasonable enough question. I had to check my own male Feminist privilege and recognize that there has been a lack of women’s space, so women need to be allowed to go first (especially when so many of the issues surrounding women are life threatening compared to the not-so-life-threatening issues for men– even men who suffer under patriarchy/gender constructs).

    That sounds like a giant blob of jargon. Hope that makes sense and I don’t sound like one of these people you are warning against, haha.

  14. says

    Robin, thank you! You totally weren’t the only one, so don’t feel too singled out. :)


    Well, I’ve always said the appeal of Goa’ulds to fans is that they function just like NPDs, and I do think there are entitlement issues going on in some of the stuff we’re going to be talking about. 😉

    We’re getting an interesting backlash via email and comments from the very sort of commenters we’re talking about. It’s… interesting.

  15. Lika says

    it means that even our alleged allies are so unaware of their own entitlement and privilege that they don’t realize they’re just doing to us what the patriarchy’s done to them.

    Yes! It’s something that I need to be wary of (and goodness knows I’ve been guilty of it.) Not that it’s the job of others to check my privilege for me – that’s my responsibility – but I’m glad you guys are talking about doing this series. I think it’ll be a huge help.

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