Hindsight is a wonderful thing: a quick lesson in oppression

I have deliberately gone straight from IWD to this post because I didn’t want to say ANYTHING about the UK general election, I don’t really know what I could say that various journalists and politicians haven’t said better so as I didn’t have anything useful to add I haven’t said anything at all.

What I am going to add to however is something I wanted to write about weeks ago and am only just getting round to doing it now.

A lot of people seem to have seen the uproar around Bahar Mustafa and her apparent racism and sexism. I’m not going to talk about what she’s done or whether she’s a good Diversity Officer because I don’t know and it’s not really my place to comment.  Yeah she might be terrible at using social media appropriately, I don’t know. More specifically, though, I think she really missed an opportunity, and I’m going to go into why.

First of all, the incident in question. If an event is for BME (Black and Ethnic Minority) women, a white male has NO PLACE there. I’m not going to go into this in too much detail but having space where everyone understands you is incredibly important. Look at support groups. If you have a group of people who have all suffered from cancer, rape, or systemic social oppression, it’s inevitably going to be comforting to know that others have gone through it and survived and to share tips and experiences. It’s difficult to imagine if you haven’t been in a minority or been oppressed. I had one striking incident during my year as VP Welfare where I was the only white person in a room – during the first meeting of the Race Equality Group I’d set up. I wasn’t even entirely sure I should be there but in the end was asked to go by our (amazing) black students’ rep who ran the whole thing and I just provided admin support and answered practical questions. Having been in a society where white people are privileged my whole life, even just being in a representative minority for two short hours was almost uncomfortable, and this was with a respectful group of students. Similarly, while I am not a shy, reserved person, if I am the only woman in a room, I am aware of it. I may not hold back because of it but trust me, I notice. That’s why it’s so important to give groups who are so often in a minority the chance to be the majority and discuss shared experiences. Like come on, white people and men don’t need it so why rain on someone’s parade. That’s the part that should be obvious.

The part I really want to talk about however is this « Can she be racist or sexist ». From an external point of view, I think the way Bahar Mustafa responded to these attacks wasn’t great.
Intersectionality is hard. It is so damn hard. For the first three months of my sabb year I had to keep googling it to make sure I had the definition straight in my head, and 2 years on I’m still learning every day, and I’m an intersectional working class feminist. I don’t think every woman should have to teach every man how they are oppressed, the same as I don’t think every BME person should teach me how they experience racism – the onus shouldn’t be on them, it should be on those who perpetuate it, you shouldn’t have to over-explain things and go out of your way. However, pragmatically speaking, the movement NEEDS people to go out of their way to explain things, so that people can understand, and while I don’t ever want to tone police someone or make them guide ignorant people through their own struggles, I do feel as an SU officer you have agreed to take up this challenge of educating and informing, so from that angle Bahar Mustafa’s video response was perhaps too alienating for people who were already inclined against her. Although her response was eloquent, precise, and informative, the phrase « white supremacist capitalist patriarchy » is something even I struggle to pronounce in full flow, and is something that anyone you’re trying to persuade will immediately be turned off by.

Again, perhaps Bahar Mustafa doesn’t need to persuade anyone. BME women should not have to wheedle their liberation from white men by being liberated by white men. But should not have to, and may gain results by, are different things, so I am going to concede to an extent and explain, in a way I hope will reach even just a few more people, why I am fully behind her. This is not supposed to be a criticism of her actions; just a perspective on how I would have done it and what I would want people to take from it.

Racism is a real issue. BME members of our community are underrepresented and disadvantaged. Just have a look at http://mediadiversified.org/ or Black British Bulletin on Facebook. Spend a month reading one of their articles every day, and you will start to see just how prevalent it is. I did this a few months ago and started to understand the full extent of my privilege. Anyone living in the US may have a better understanding of this, if you have your eyes open.

I was brought up in a white, British, Christian community. There are not many groups in the world who haven’t been oppressed by white British Christians. It took me a long time to realise just how deeply that ran. If you look at the USA, Australia, South Africa, you can always be reminded of the historic racial discrimination that happened, and if you keep your eyes open you can see the way it is perpetuated today, whether through police brutality; or through Annie Lennox’s white washing of a black protest song (http://mediadiversified.org/2014/12/18/the-unbearable-white-ignorance-of-annie-lennox/); or through the way BME students tell us they do not see themselves represented in their professors, in their career ambitions, or on their TVs. As a white person, I do not expect to be stopped by police or airport security, or if I am, it makes me feel safe to know they are randomly checking for things. As a white person, I know that there are people like me working in my chosen career path. As a white person, I know that when I look at fashion magazines for a new hairstyle, whatever is in fashion will be totally appropriate for my natural hair, and I will not have to go through extensive treatment to be able to adopt a trend. These things may not be what you have in mind when you think of racism, but they are all ways in which white people continue to oppress anyone of an ethnic minority, even if the people who came up with « rich girl hair » didn’t mean to cut out anyone with an afro from ever being able to adopt this trend.

Tell me now, then, when racism is so systemically ingrained into our society, into our media, into our culture, how BME people can really do it back? How, when Native American and Hindu culture has been appropriated by young white girls after it was forcibly taken away from the very people who lived it for centuries, can a black girl criticising a white girl twerking really be « reverse racism »? Culture is not a buffet that white people can go along to when they’re peckish and take a bindi from here and a headdress from there and a dance move from the next part along, while the people who created these things are objectified and told « not to dress so ethnic » and that « they should adopt the values of the country they’re in ».

I’m not going to say black people don’t commit any crimes. If a white person is attacked by a black person, and it is because of race, then that is a racially motivated crime. However it is not « racism », because « racism » refers to what is pervading through our entire society. « Racism » is not the same as a « racially motivated bad thing to do ». Racism refers to white people treating BME people differently and oppressing them.

This post is already very long, and I’ve said a hell of a lot about sexism in other posts (and every day of my life) so please just fill in the gaps and understand that it’s the same basic principle. Sexism is a privileged group taking what they want and oppressing anything that is « other ». The privileged group is inevitably men (unless you want to pick out an obscure isolated matriarchal culture, in which case, get me over there now).

So basically, no, Bahar Mustafa cannot be racist or sexist. She might not be a very patient Welfare Officer, but I of all people can’t criticise that. That job is HARD, guys. I think I called a fresher a dickhead on 3 separate occasions (different freshers). I don’t know how many times I shouted at students (and staff) who JUST DIDN’T UNDERSTAND. It may be that she has alienated people and failed to reach out to the very people who misunderstood her actions, but she is entitled to her own approach, and her students are entitled to feedback on it. But when the country decides that a welfare officer creating a safe space for BME women (just like I did when I created the Race Equality Group and only went to the initial meeting) is being racist, I feel like I’m entitled to feed back too and say that no, guys, if you think she is racist and sexist, then please please please spend a month listening to people who are more oppressed than you, be open minded, readdress your understanding of racism and sexism, and come back with a more informed opinion.

though, I think