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Monthly Archives: June 2009

White ally response to the racist Bristol RPI (Race, Privilege and Identity) gathering and subsequent racist harassment by email.

Race Privilege and Identity was an event that happened on April 24-26th 2009 in Bristol.
The organisers of the event stated that ‘Its aim is to engage with issues of race, privilege and identity in radical queer-feminist communities through building dialogue, coalitions and resources.’

This statement comes after a call from POC who attended and heard about the event for white anti-racist allies to respond to the racism that they witnessed at the Bristol RPI event and its aftermath. All of the people involved in writing this statement are white people who attended and participated in the gathering and its workshops.

Our observations are as follows but this statement is not exhaustive:
It was clear from the behaviour of the majority of the white participants in the event that the white organisers and many of the participants had not really anticipated the presence of people of colour at the event. The racism in the way that many of the workshops were set up (an introductory question asking everyone in the room to talk about their first memories of the police), as well as the marked social discomfort (shown in racist comments about the personal appearance and manners of individuals of colour) shown by so many of the participants demonstrates that people of colour were not welcome at the event and that their presence seems to have both occasioned racist anxiety and provided a comfortable space for white people to express this. The fact that the words Race, Privilege and Identity were barely mentioned during the weekend’s workshops shows that these issues were not the focus of the event. It has also been brought to our attention that there were comments made by some participants that the people of colour at the event may not have enjoyed it as it was ‘not their scene’. This suggestion is racist.

That the presence of people of colour at the event seems not to have been anticipated shows that the intentions of the white organisers were not to create a space to discuss race privilege and identity but rather for the white organisers, and the white participants they imagined would attend, to represent themselves as anti-racist. We believe from observing it that the event was created in order that such individuals might appear anti-racist and better represent themselves as such. This is a cynical and racist strategy. It seems that the aims of the white organisers were to account for, and create a space for, anti-racism within their politics without challenging their own privilege or risking their own comfort. A service was being provided for any white person attending to feel that they were, as individuals, ‘dealing’ with racism by being at the event. This was evident in the way that so many of the white participants used the weekend to exercise their racism and the way in which they seemed not to question that this was their right. White people used the event to enjoy an idea of themselves as engaged with race. This is a way of profiting from racism.

We have been made aware that racism was anticipated as a result of the gathering in its early planning stages. That the event might cause people of colour to experience racism did not lead to a decision to not hold the event. This shows that the participation of people of colour was not a priority for its white organisers.

It was obvious early on in the event that people of colour were experiencing racism, yet the event continued to run. The racism at the event could have been stopped by ending the event earlier than planned. That this did not happen shows that the safety of people of colour was not a priority. The safer spaces policy that listed the kinds of behaviour that would not be tolerated offered no clear means of implementation. Listing worthy concerns is not sufficient to make a space safe. At the same time it is not inherently difficult to create a safe space. The failure to do so showed indifference to the experience of racism by people of colour there.

When the statement from the white organisers (posted on the RPI blog) proved insufficient apology from those organisers, and people continued to complain about the treatment of people of colour at the event, one organiser in particular sent a number of racist emails. No apology was offered for the racist abuse that was delivered to the inboxes of people of colour as she continued to express her racist anger towards them. There was also a racist email posted on LaDiDah (a closed email list) about the event.
Throughout the weekend white people continually derailed discussions that might have focussed upon racism onto their own oppressions. One participant mentioned squatterphobia: this was not appropriate. This is one way in which white privilege functions to create a victim identity for itself rather than address its power. It was deeply inappropriate for white people to try to own the experience of oppression at an event that supposedly prioritised discussions on Race.

In one organiser’s emails (sent to those at the gathering who had left an email address) she responds to the question of why the event was racist with: ‘why??? because we are learning, and we will make the mistakes.’ This suggests that it is acceptable to merely be engaged in a learning process with regards to challenging racism. It isn’t. Seeing the anti-racism of white people as a journey or process is racist. This particular racist attitude privileges the learning process of white people over the experiences of racism experienced by people of colour. People of colour will presumably have to wait until the learning process is over to be sure that they won’t experience racism from that individual. This leaves in place the threat of racism even as a white person claims to be challenging their racism. This is a way of holding onto privilege whilst claiming to challenge it. Secondly this learning process has no stated end-point. This shows the desire of white people to defer the point at which they would address their privilege, perhaps indefinitely.
Throughout the weekend white participants felt supported in bringing up the conflicted or complicated feelings they experienced as a result of thinking about their racism. Using the idea of complexity means not only that the white person’s subjectivity and self development is given paramount importance but also suggests that many different emotions are at work. This seeks to conceal that only one feeling is involved in white people’s resistance to committing to anti-racism. This feeling is the fear of, and resistance to, seeing their privilege as wholly unjust. This is a resistance to being anti-racist. It is the feeling white people get when they think their privilege is under threat.

There was continual reference from those involved in, and otherwise commenting on, the event that white people had an inherent right to be involved in anti-racist politics. Another email sent via LaDiDah highlights this racist sentiment. Its author seems to think it necessary for anti-racist politics to create a platform for whatever white people’s feelings might be at the time. On the subject of white people’s guilt she states that: ‘if one of the things white folks have going on around race is guilt it’s obvious that’s going to come up in various ways’. This places primacy on the right for white people to make their feelings a central part of being anti-racist. It is a way for white people to reassert their dominance. Her comment also shows that she wishes for it to be impossible for a process of dealing with white guilt not to be part of an anti-racist discourse. She is therefore stating that people of colour have no right to refuse to address white guilt. This is racist. The main concern shown here is for the social comfort and dominance of white people. Her comments show a clear desire for white people to be included just because they are white, and that anti-racist politics cannot happen without them. Separatism is already a solution to this problem. The suggestion that there is something to be gained by people of colour in listening to white people’s feelings first is the desire for white people to control anti-racist action, to monitor it, and to profit by it. The sheer amount of time that white people have spent justifying their racism over this event is itself offensive. Whilst apparently claiming ignorance of how to deal with their racism they have been using their time justifying it and demanding that people of colour use their time attending to it.

One white organiser made a comment on the RPI blog about somebody being £85 down in ‘personal funds’, this seemed to be intended to deflect attention away from the racism of the weekend. Another white organiser made a reference to the delicious food she and the other organisers were eating when they could have been trying to be anti-racist. This is flaunting privilege masquerading as owning up to it.
All the resources featured in the Anti-racist organising thread on the RPI blog were aimed exclusively at white people. This is another space where people of colour are being marginalised.

We have recently learnt that after the Bristol gathering the same community that got together to confront racism within itself, and should have left the gathering with the knowlege of having completely failed to do so, is now gathering for social events, once again on the pretense of providing an alternative space to the racist mainstream. This mechanical reverting to rituals which have been shown to be saturated with racism, is fully unacceptable and demonstrates that some individual will always be able to exercise the privilege to carry on as normal.