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Monthly Archives: July 2009

Response part 2

This is a second statement in response to the Race, Privilege, and Identity gathering. Below is more detail about some specific instances of racism that occurred during the weekend and in the emails that followed. Most of these instances have been highlighted already by people of colour, both at the event and in emails. This statement is not exhaustive.

Defining terms

There was no discussion of the terms Race, Privilege or Identity, or explanation as to why the gathering had been organised under this heading. It was obvious that many of the white participants did not have any thoughts about racism and white privilege. During the first session, flip chart papers were put on the wall and participants were asked to write their own definitions of each word but these were not discussed. Many of the suggestions on the paper were evasive of discussing race and therefore racist. On the paper headed Race participants had written: ‘culture’ and ‘what is race anyway?’ There was no discussion of the way that these suggestions were problematic. It was very clear that anything people had chosen to write, however offensive, would have been an acceptable contribution.

In discussions during the weekend, the word ‘racism’ was seldom mentioned. People instead talked about ‘prejudice’, ‘stereotypes’, etc. These are all things that white people can also be a target of. The intended effect was to deflect attention away from discussing racism.

At both the event and in the white organisers’ statement, racism was defined as a force/structure, (eg. the white organisers’ statement says that “patterns of conscious and unconscious racist behaviour came to dominate the space”), as if racism was something ‘out there’ which magically arrived at the gathering, at no fault of the white people present. To discuss racism as something structural, without reference to how it is white people who create and maintain that structure, is a way for white people to evade personal involvement and investment in maintaining that structure. This definition of racism was maintained on the responses on the blog to the first White Allies Statement. One poster suggested that it is unrealistic to not anticipate future racism ‘given the society we are brought up in and conditioned into’. Talking about ‘society’ and ‘the space’ is a way of not talking about people who are racist.

Lack of ‘safe space’

Throughout the weekend white people dominated conversational space, and the physical space of the building. White people took up space by crying when their racism was pointed out. This is racist.

The ‘safe space’ statement (“All racism, homophobia, sexism … will be challenged”) was mentioned only briefly at the beginning of the weekend.

Safer space should not be an equally safe space for everyone, no matter what the topic. The notion of space equally safe for everyone was used at the gathering for white people to express their racism in a safe space.  Comfort and safety was provided for white people, which allowed them to say whatever came into their heads about race (when it was discussed). This was racist. Social space is always safe for one group of people: the group with control of, and rights to, that space. White people in discussions on race and racism do not require the same level of safety as people of colour. If a safe space is being created for people of colour to discuss race when white people are present, then those white people should not feel the same level of comfort and safety as they do when they are exercising their social dominance and right to space in the supremacy that they habitually enjoy. It was clear at the gathering that the term safe space referred to the safety of white people. Use of the term ‘safe space’ instead of ‘anti-racist space’ during workshops that focused on race and racism made this privileging of white safety and comfort explicit.

There was no translation or any thought put into making the space accessible for people with limited English speaking skills.

The film screening of ‘Travel Queeries’ and discussion

The choice to screen the film ‘Travel Queeries’ to launch this event was inappropriate and served to set the scene for the rest of the weekend. In this film a white American queer woman travelled around Europe documenting and interviewing people in ‘queer communities’. This marginalises queer/LGBT people of colour and imposed a North American/Western European perspective on what ‘queer’ is and who qualifies as being part of the queer community. This film reinforces racism, white privilege and western cultural imperialism.

This film was shown to make white queer people present feel even more at home. In the discussion which followed, it was clear that many white people had actually taken away a positive message from the film, eg. ‘queers can do anything’, ‘the queer community is inclusive of everyone’, and were not interested in engaging in a critical discussion about the racism and white privilege exhibited in the film. Several white participants directly challenged the idea that queer communities could be racist. This denial of racism was reinforced when the facilitator suggested ending the discussion right after several white people in the audience had challenged a person of colour’s assertion that the queer scene is racist. A person of colour had to insist that the discussion was allowed to continue. This way of controlling and containing conflict to the advantage of white people was a common theme throughout the weekend.

The “icebreaker

(from here on referred to as the “ice-creator”)

One ice-creator exercise demanded that people to get into small groups and tell each other about the origins of their name. This encouraged the exoticization of people of colour.

An exercise asked participants to stand in different parts of the room to show whether they agreed, disagreed or were ‘unsure’ about statements such as ‘people are always more oppressed because of their ethnicity than their sexuality’. This encouraged participants to compare oppressions. This negates people who are made to experience more than one oppression. The exercise encouraged the white people present to play hypothetical mind games at the expense of  people of colour’s lived experience.

An exercise asked participants to stand in different parts of the room depending on whether they agreed, disagreed or were unsure about the statement ‘communication differs between cultures’. Cultural difference is a way for racists to avoid talking about racism, whilst still getting to talk about people of colour.

Another exercise asked participants to stand in different parts of the room depending on whether they agreed or disagreed or were unsure about the statement ‘everyone is racist’. Nobody in the room was unsure. The group of people who abstained from the exercise, composed mainly of people of colour, were asked to give their reasons for abstention. A person of colour stated finding the questioning of her lived experience of racism through the question of whether or not people were racist, racist. The facilitators followed her statement by asking people from the Agree and Disagree groups their reasons for agreeing or disagreeing with the statement. Apart from opening up space for unguarded racism, the facilitators were racist in proceeding with the very questioning that a person of colour had just stated to be racist.

The workshop facilitators defended this exercise by saying that it was meant to ‘get people thinking’. This was racist, especially as those participants who felt they agreed or disagreed with such a statement were not challenged on their beliefs.

The structure of the exercise suggested that there was no such thing as a wrong answer. The facilitators of the ice-creator session displayed a racist patronising attitude towards the people of colour who abstained from the exercise, ‘congratulating’ them for using their initiative, rather than listening to the reasons why they were abstaining. If they had listened, they would presumably have stopped the exercise.

Some of the ways that racism was maintained during and after the event are as follows…

Silence

It took nearly three weeks to post a white organisers statement. During this time there was almost complete silence from white people about the event on lists such as LaDiDah, an email list for queer activists, where the event had been widely advertised. Prior to the event lots of people sent emails saying how great it was going to be, and those who could not attend asking for feedback. There was only one post in response to the event on LaDidah, and this was very racist (more details below). There was no response/reply by white people to this email on the list.

The white organisers statement was not posted on LaDiDah. A critique of the statement by a person of colour was later posted on the list. The white organisers did not respond to this critique – either in terms of the statement or the event itself.

Ignoring racism is racist.

Vagueness

When the white organisers statement was finally produced it was vague. It did not give any specific examples of racism. This avoids any individual accountability or identification and makes it safe for white racists.

Defensiveness

The white organisers’ responses to criticism were consistently defensive. Organisers repeatedly said such things as ‘we tried but we didn’t have enough people involved, enough resources’, etc. Lack of involvement and resources were used as an excuse for not challenging racism. If you can see an event is going to be racist then why go ahead with it? If people of colour are not attending your events, or are experiencing racism when they do, then surely you need to consider whether you should be organising events at all? By going ahead and then repeatedly defending the decisions you made you are basically ignoring racism.

Dismissal and attempting to control the terms and tone of debate

In the defensive emails following the event, the criticism, feelings and comments by people of colour were repeatedly dismissed. People of colour were accused of acting aggressively/ closing down the conversation. One white organiser used the term “shit slinging” when people of colour expressed their anger at the racism they had been subjected to. This implied that white people should be in control of people of colour’s responses to racism. This is a way of blaming people of colour for racism: ‘If only they’d talk to us nicely then we could sort this all out!’ White racists were saying that people of colour should be behave more like white people when pointing out white racism to white people.

During the final plenary of the event, after the extensive critiques provided by women of colour, a white woman repeated many of the same points that women of colour had already made, but in a slightly different way. She was suggesting that the point is not clear until a white person has made it.

A white man announced having had reservations about the racism of the event. He was using the space that people of colour opened to discuss racism in order to boast about his racism detective skills.

White Struggles

In the email on the Ladidah list, the poster recounted how she felt about being ‘the target of black women’s anger’ without actually mentioning her own behaviour. Similarly, one of the white organisers wrote in an email about the ‘positives from the event keeping her going in these difficult weeks post-gathering’. Talking about the struggles of white people, especially with regards to racism, is racist. It is also racist to boast about having gained positives from a racist event.

At the event itself, several white people cried when challenged on their racism. They were obviously expecting people of colour to reassure them. It is racist and manipulative of white people to expect people of colour to absolve them from guilt. If a white person is having problems dealing with their emotions in such discussions, they should remove themselves from the situation.

I’ve got black friends

The argument of “I’m not racist because my friend is black” was used in an email by one of the organisers. She not only named this friend, but quoted her to make it seem like the event was acceptable.  She also used her friend’s asylum status, cynically and unnecessarily, to add credence to her own attempt to justify her racism. This is racist.

Diversion

Diversionary tactics were used to avoid talking about racism and white privilege. This has continued in the responses to the event. In one of the emails on Ladidah, the poster talks about prejudice. Prejudice can apply to white people and was used to simultaneously avoid talking about racism and to apply a victimised status to white people.

The white organisers repeatedly talked about lack of resources and the logistics of organising an event. This was a racist strategy to both avoid talking about racism and to incite sympathy on behalf of the organisers.

Diversion was used to avoid talking about the racism addressed in the first white ally statement. One poster used the blog to discuss ‘safe spaces’ as a general topic, expanding the topic until she was no longer talking about racism.

Undermining

White racists undermine what people of colour are saying by suggesting the point they are making is factually incorrect. In one of the Ladidah emails, the poster questioned a comment a woman of colour had made about there not being any Black men at the gathering. The poster decided that there had been a Black man at the gathering. She assumed the role of definer of the race of people of colour. This was racist. She chose to address what she considered to be a factual inaccuracy, rather than engaging with the actual critique. This was racist.

In attempting to shut down a dialogue on the RPI blog about the future of white organising a woman of colour stated that she did not wish to hear white people talking about their future and boasting about their long life expectancy. A poster felt this was factually inaccurate and responded to the post, detailing that ‘[l]ife expectancy has more to do with access to good health care, nutrition, educational opportunities and work’, implying that people of colour encounter nothing but ease in relation to health care, nutrition, educational opportunities and work. She went on to detail white experiences of life expectancy and stated that ‘things are a lot more complex’ than the woman of colour’s post suggested. The gestures she made towards (white) working class people were inserted in order to perpetuate the threat of future white organising. This re-opening of discussion around the future of white organising enabled one of the white organisers of the gathering to use space on the blog to gather support for an anti-racist audit he had decided to do on a regular event he organised which he admitted was racist. This appropriation of anti-racist strategies is a socially expedient alternative to telling people of colour explicitly that white people previously involved in organising racist events will never stop organising. This white organiser also used an incident of racism to boast about his newfound anti-racism in relation to that of his white peers, talking about ‘one incident at the cafe I have repeatedly tried to call meetings on anti-racism and had little response’. There is no mention of the fact that he might close this racist event down.

Owning oppression, not privilege

White people avoided talking about racism by ‘talking’ about white people’s oppression rather than dealing with white privilege. At both the event and in the subsequent emails there were often references to lists of oppressions – ‘yes, there was racism, yes, there was able-ism, yes, there was classism, transpohbia, sexism and homophobia flying around that gathering’, as a way of deflecting attention away from the racism which was occurring in that space. The question ‘what is whiteness’ was also raised on a number of occasions by white participants. This is racist.

In the workshop run by the Bristol LGB forum’s ‘under one sky’ project (a project run by people of colour), the speakers told the audience about their work in schools and some of the conflicts which had arisen between the school and Somali parents regarding homophobia. A white participant suggested that Somali parents were privileged in that situation. A white audience member referred to a ‘Bengali-dominated’ area when discussing the complaints that Bengali parents had made about materials discussing same sex desire at the school where she worked. This was a racist choice of wording, suggesting that the number of Bengali people in her area had exceeded a maximum that she found acceptable. The same audience member claimed that if Bengali parents were unhappy with the education their children were provided, they should educate them in another school. She used the common racist suggestion that if people of colour don’t like it here, they can go home, applying this to the idea that they could ‘just’ find an alternative school. Her comments also negated the existence of Bengali LGB parents and children.

Rather than discuss the issues that the facilitators had introduced the  (white) audience derailed the discussion, using a few anti-homophobic gestures in order to better facillitate racism.

Another white audience member repeated the same point that a woman of colour had made and received a far more considered response. It was obvious that the white audience members felt more comfortable addressing a point put forward by a white woman. The same white woman also asked the panel how to ‘bring people of colour into LGB spaces’. This was highly offensive, negating the experience and organising of LGB people of colour and showing disdain for addressing the racism that is making the social spaces she is openly admitting are racist hostile to people of colour.  The discussion, having been manipulated by the interests of white people present, became another way for white people to further assert their identity by talking about themselves as victims of   homophobia with the added extra of being able to exercise their racism. No white audience member did anything to stop the workshop from being used in this way.

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