Book Review: Me Not You by Phipps

Me Not You: the trouble with mainstream feminism (2020) by Alison Phipps, published by Manchester University Press.

Alison Phipps is Professor of Gender Studies at Sussex University. Her research focuses on the contemporary feminist movement, especially around sexual violence. She has also conducted a number of empirical projects on sexual harassment and violence in universities. 

Review by Sophie Harman

Timely is a tired trope for a book recommendation, but if you wanted to capture the solidarity, backlash, and politics of feminism in 2020 Alison Phipps’ Me Not You would be an excellent place to start. Phipps is upfront with her aims for the book – this is a book about mainstream feminism aimed at white people. This is really because the book is about political whiteness (I cannot escape the feeling that there may have been some disagreement about the title with the publisher, as the book captures so well, one of the main problems with whiteness is the hysteria it attracts from white people trying to defend it, uncomfortable in their own complicity) and wants white people to get it. Black feminism gets it. Trans feminism gets it. Decolonial and anti-racist feminism gets it. They get it and have the burden of not only living with the consequences of white feminism (exclusion, violence, dismissal) but have the burden of constantly having to explain it. As such Phipps pitches this book as an act of solidarity to get white people to explore and understand political whiteness, more specifically, white feminism, to deconstruct and work against it.

Phipps defines political whiteness as ‘a set of values, orientations and behaviours that go deeper than that. These include narcissism, alertness to threat and an accompanying will to power’ (p6). Her exploration of political whiteness is rooted in intersecting struggles and systems of oppression and inequality – for example (but not limited to) racism, transphobia, settler colonialism – and unpacks how such behaviours manifest from online social media campaigns such as #metoo, virtue signalling, and welfare and war to the outrage economy of who is allowed to be outraged and designated survivor (no spoilers here, that would be white women). What is impressive about the book is how Phipps is able to connect the dots between these various issues with both Feminist Theory and the wider history of the feminist movement without losing the urgency of her argument.

It is the urgency of the argument which makes the book so compelling. Why is it that people are so preoccupied by isolated cases of women on women violence in prisons when one of those women is a transwoman, when most violence is enacted against transwomen? Phipps not only sets up these issues as self-evidently misplaced, but explains how they come to gain traction as part of a wider history of mainstream, white, feminism in often designating the victim as perpetrator. You cannot read the following without thinking about social media spats (with real consequences) about free speech, cancel culture, and who such spats serve:

Claiming to be silenced amplifies and circulates reactionary forms of speech by generating outrage. And this manoeuvre works not because reactionary feminists are speaking truth to power and being accused of transphobia, but because they are speaking for power by expressing transphobia

(p151)

While there are existing books on political whiteness and mainstream feminism, there are few books that tackle both and in such an accessible manner. The strength of Me Not You is that the arguments feel obvious and self-evident, but they are only obvious and self-evident to those who have been paying attention. Phipps is not afraid to confront the uncomfortable truths about feminism: how feminists and feminism can contribute to systems of oppression. Some feminists may bristle against this, resist any comparison to far right populists who are the ‘real’ enemy we need to fight, or suggest this is something other feminists do not them. The further challenge when discussing any form of critique of feminism is the perceived threat of division or the classic ‘look at what we’ve achieved.’ There is a concern that when women’s rights are being eroded, to criticise each other or the movement is seen to be acting against it and actively giving fuel to the anti-feminists. However, as the book suggests, who won these rights and who was left out remains a critical issue, and the risk of regression has always defined the movement.

Phipps is not here to fight, this is not a book about enemies: it is a book about alliances, solidarity, and change. To get there white feminism needs to confront its political whiteness. Similarly, she is not for division, this is where mainstream feminism goes wrong: her vision of feminism is inclusive and building together. While some may bristle or actively resist the arguments in this book, it is difficult to argue against Phipps’ point that ‘political whiteness tends to be baked in to the politics of white people, unless we actively try to sift it out. All white people do it as least some of the time. I have yet to meet one who doesn’t, including myself’ (p61). Me too.

It would be remiss to discuss a book about political whiteness at a time of global reckoning on racism. As Reni Eddo-Lodge has stated following the surge in sales of her book Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race following the murder of George Floyd, no one wants to profit from the continued violence and oppression of black people around the world. Given the arguments in this book and her wider activist work, I imagine this is a sentiment shared by Phipps. In the context of Black Lives Matter and people understanding their complicity in how racism is reproduced and sustained, Phipps’ contribution is important. White people need to get rid of the empty signifiers and performed outrage, and turn it inward into knowing how political whiteness is embedded in not just their societies but their own ways of thinking and action in the world.

The only tension with a book like this is one I am sure the author wrestles with themselves: being a white author writing about political whiteness as an act of solidarity can also become an unintentional act of erasure as people read Phipps’ work rather than the work of black feminists that has done so much to pioneer the concept of political whiteness and critique mainstream feminism. While Phipps is explicitly faithful to sourcing the ideas, scholars, and writers she discusses, she also has to tread a fine balance of getting people to engage with her arguments as a means to exploring the original sources and work on which it builds on. The book needs to be a success in encouraging people to understand and engage with both the concept of political whiteness and their own expressions of it as a means to change; but not in a way that leads others to overlook the work of black feminists on political whiteness.

I read Me Not You before the murder of George Floyd but at the height of the first wave of a pandemic that was killing more black and Asian people than white people in the UK. I read it at the same time we were clapping for carers but not thinking about the systems that make them vulnerable. I also read it in one sitting at a time when experts in gender and outbreaks like me were taking up space, being seen, and balancing between the need to get the message out that outbreaks exacerbate inequalities and the message being about my career. While the themes, concepts, and debates explored in the book were not new to me, reading them together in one text at that time hugely resonated with me and my own complicity or narcissistic behaviour.  This is the book I will give to those who still don’t get it and keep next to me for when I forget it.

Sophie Harman is Professor of International Politics at Queen Mary University of London where she teaches and conducts research into Global Health Politics, African agency in International Relations, and Visual Politics. She has published seven books and numerous articles on these topics, most recently, Seeing Politics: film, visual method and international relations. In 2016 she co-wrote and produced her first narrative feature film Pili, which was nominated for a BAFTA for outstanding debut for a British writer, producer, or director in 2019. She tweets @DrSophieHarman

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