Category Archives: racism

Shifting privilege and stopping tanning

As I child, I was acutely aware of the colour of my skin.  I was the only non-white pupil at my school, and although I was only darker by a couple of shades, it was enough for children and adults alike to ask me where I was from or to make comments about my colour.

Growing older and moving into a more mixed area, my awareness of my difference became less acute, but solidified into part of my body-image: I was less beautiful because I was darker.  I began bleaching my facial hair and using make-up to slightly lighten certain areas of skin.  In the summers, I was super-careful about the sun, always wearing factor 60 and staying in the shade.  I even carried an umbrella as a parasol on my walks to and from school.

It was only last year that I realised what bullshit this was, and how I had internalised white beauty norms.  So for the first time I thought, fuck it, brown is beautiful, I’m going to revel in the sun.  Last summer and this summer I have been sitting out in the sun without sun-cream or parasol, enjoying its warmth and rays, and its darkening effect on my skin.

And then couple of days ago, I read about UKBA workers racially profiling, harassing and arresting commuters in London.  And I decided to stop tanning.

I am extremely privileged to have had few experiences of overt racism.  As the current government makes this country more racist, this privilege could be decreasing.  I’m very lucky that if a UKBA worker stopped me, I would probably be carrying ID that confirmed my right to live in this country, and even if I wasn’t, my RP accent would probably convince them to leave me alone.  (I wish I could say that I’d have the confidence to walk away, as is everybody’s legal right, but I’m not sure I would).

My current assessment is that, for me, no amount of brown-pride-self-love would make up for the stress of being stopped by the UKBA.  (And if they’re not afraid of showing overt racism, various police forces probably aren’t far behind). Privilege is not an insult, it is a gift.  It is not something inherent to you, something you’re born with and cannot change: as attitudes and practices change, so does your privilege.  Up or down.  So today is the day I started using sun-cream again.

To make me and any readers feel a bit better, here’s a video of the SBS protest, and a link to the Black Feminists’ petition.

 

One Billion Rising is probably better than nothing

Please only read this if you are a woman committed to women’s liberation.  If you link or share it, please include that request.

Natalie Gyte, at the fabulous Women’s Resource Centre, has beautifully explained some of the problems with the content and tone of Eve Ensler’s One Billion Rising ‘campaign’: it covers up the real causes of male violence, it hurts women by implying that we can (and should) ‘rise above’ violence and its consequences, and it is part of a much wider colonialist pattern of white saviour complex.  Go read her piece, it is excellent, and the points she makes are more important than these ones.   I  just want to add a reason about why the very form of One Billion Rising is colonialist.

Most obviously, Ensler’s project takes its name from the Million Women March, and perhaps also from Million Women Rise. What’s that? You haven’t heard of either of those events? Could it be that’s because neither of them have a hugely successful and well-known white person pushing their carefully-crafted brand across the world?

“The Million Woman March was a protest march organized on October 25, 1997, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was founded and formulated by Phile Chionesu, a grassroots activist, human rights advocate, and Black Nationalist/Freedom Fighter. After several months of underground organizing, Dr Phile’, as she is lovingly called, asked Asia Coney to join her and she became the third National Co-Chair. The march was envisioned and intended to help bring social, political, and economic development and power throughout the Black communities of the United States, as well as to bring hope, empowerment, unity and sisterhood to women, men and children of African descent globally regardless of nationality, religion, economic status, etc.

Speakers at the event included Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the ex-wife of Nelson Mandela; Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Sista Souljah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Attallah and Illyasah Shabazz (daughters of Malcolm X), Dr. Dorothy Height, and a message was read from Assata Shakur from her exile home of Cuba. The Million Woman March, (MWM) as it is known, was the largest gathering in the world of any women anywhere. It has been considered a “social phenomenon” due to its unconventional and unique way of organizing and has influenced several mass gatherings by demonstrating a grassroots approach that had not been employed before. The Million Woman March was the launching pad for the development of the first global movement for women and girls of African descent throughout the Diaspora.

Estimates of attendance vary widely… Police sources gave numbers varying from 300,000 to 1 million.[2] Organizers estimated an attendance of 2.1 million.”

Yes: a genuinely grassroots movement of, by and for Black women.

Million Women Rise, meanwhile, is a UK-based, grassroots, self-funding, women-only march against male violence, led by Black and other BME women.  You’re going to have to take my word for it; they are so grassroots they don’t even have a wikipedia page.

So Ensler took Black women’s work, and turned it into a very successful, professional* brand (in addition to her very successful V-Day and Vagina Monologues brands) which she has exported all over the world.  It has also carried her name everywhere with it.

Even if Ensler came up with the name entirely independently (which seems unlikely, since she was politically active at the time) and forgot to research similar names, she is still working off the backs of BME women’s work.  (And other women’s work).  OBR has been spread around the world by existing feminist organisations doing actually effective feminist work (rape crisis centres, refuges, consciousness raising groups, activist groups of all stripes).  OBR gives these women and their groups a chance to use a slick and patriarchy friendly (look! We’re not prudes, we’re dancing!) brand, to raise some media attention and hopefully some funds.  But once the OBR ripples fade away, they’ll be back to the actual work.

To paraphrase one tweeter: I too feel blessed to be part of a global movement to end violence against women and girls.  We work under various banners: feminism, womanism, radical feminism, women’s liberation, the women’s movement – all of which make excellent hashtags.  We don’t need #1billionrising or, indeed, #danceyoassoff.

I feel bad hating on a women’s initiative, I really do.  I don’t like criticising other feminists in front of men and other non-feminists, hence the request at the top.  Generally speaking, I’d prefer that there was bad feminism happening to no feminism: for instance, I know that Ensler’s play, for all its problems**, has helped fund various bits of vital feminism. But sisters (especially my white western sisters): we must do better than this.

 

* I have some vague thoughts about how the OBR video reveals some of the problems with the project: its use of sensationalised explicit violence (without trigger warnings), its victim-blaming (all they have to do is stand up), its slickness (how much money?), and its portrayals of BME women (subjected to the ‘worst’ kinds of violence).  Feel free to write that up more coherently, if you can bear to watch it.

** Most notably: (from here, warnings for descriptions of rape/abuse and rape apologism)

Another very painful contradiction I noticed in the show was the treatment of rape and consent.  The two most prominent examples of this are, “Because He Liked To Look At It,” and, “The Little Coochi Snorcher That Could.”  Both are portrayed as positive, healing experiences, but both stories lack explicit, enthusiastic consent.  ”Coochi Snorcher,” involves underage drinking and what amounts to statutory rape; I’d hardly call that a healing experience.  Even if the legal drinking age is an arbitrary number, the younger woman’s intoxication mixed with the older woman’s “insistence and thoroughness,” means explicit consent was almost assuredly not given.  I think it’s worth noting that the monologue originally called this, “a good rape.”  What more needs to be said?

“Look At It,” was just as bad; during the woman’s sexual encounter with “Bob,” she clearly states both, “no,” and, “stop,” as he undresses her.  Those words should have been a HUGE stop sign for Bob.  Even if the woman in this monologue learned a positive lesson from the experience, the encounter should be called what it was: rape.  (Side note: it was also really troubling when Bob said he wanted to, “see her,” in reference to her vagina.  It’s not that he wanted to see a part of her, or even an important part of her.  He wanted to see her.  This reduction of a woman to her genitals is squick-inducing at best (and millimeters away from transphobic at its worst)).

Rape is a race issue

[This article contains mentions of rape and sexual abuse, racism, and failure to deal with sexual violence.]

Remember the Rochdale sexual abuse case? Remember the racism in how white people reported it and commented on it? Remember the valiant efforts of some white feminists to say that race was not the issue here, but gender and class were, alongside the systematic disbelief and retraumatisation of all survivors?

Unfortunately, reality goes to show that rape is a race issue. I hope to write about this at more length at some point, but right now there’s a case in the media at the moment which shows this very well, all by itself.

Jimmy Savile would never have got away with it if he wasn’t white. And he probably wouldn’t have been nearly so successful in his career, and therefore would have had access to far fewer girls and young women.

Racial profiling (whether it’s done by the police, shop staff, or anyone else) necessarily involves two sides: being more likely to suspect/report/arrest people who aren’t white (and especially Black people), and therefore simultaneously being less likely to suspect white people.

This is even more prevalent when it comes to rape and sexual abuse. False rape accusations have been used as an important tool in shoring up white supremacy, especially in the US. But more pervasively beyond that, white patriarchy spends an awful lot of effort making it clear that rape is something that only certain marginalised men do. That those ‘other’ men – ‘psychos’, weirdos, queer men, and particularly, black and brown men – are who we need to worry about. In some ways, white working class men are also subject to this, although to a much lesser extent: one of the few images of sexual harassment that is allowed to be mentioned in public discourse is page-3-inspired builders coarsely commenting on passing women.

The necessary flipside to this is that privileged men – white men, mentally healthy men, respectable men – are put under the radar. Clean-cut desk-workers would never wolf-whistle a woman. It’s not white men who traffic women and girls. Oh, but he’s such a pillar of the community. But gang-rape is black gang problem. And even when white abusers are detected, are less likely to be dealt with properly: a black man abusing a white girl is much more likely to be seen as a real threat, whereas as minimising responses are more likely to be believed if the offender is white. Think of the effect of these allegations on his career. It must have been a miscommunication. He’s just old-fashioned, he’s doesn’t know those comments aren’t politically correct.  It was probably harmless. He’s just very friendly, that’s all.

Which makes it clear who these myths benefit. Men like Jimmy Savile – the personable, successful, respectable rapists, whose whiteness and other privileges helped them get away with it.

Where are you from?

The relentless racist question.  Doesn’t it just do your head in?

Lots of people – most with greater experience of racism than me – have written adeptly on this already.  I’m not going to recover that ground.  If you’re not sure why it’s racist, or want a reminder, or think it might not be, have a google or check out this for starters.  Instead I’m going to cover a secondary aspect of its racism: the assumption that there is a single answer.  As a preamble, I’m going to describe some of the various forms of privilege which I wield, which make my experience of this question different, and much better, than folks without those privileges.

So: I’m mixed race.  In some environments, I’m read (or raced?) as white – the more urban, the more diverse and the younger the environment, the less likely it is that the white people will ask me where I’m from or otherwise comment on my race.  Growing up in the very-white countryside, however, meant being othered and facing racism on a much more regular basis.  People occasionally even assumed that I was ‘from’ Africa, that being the only or main place they knew non-white people ‘came from.’

Since then, interactions involving ‘where are you from?’ have generally pissed me off less.  People have been more respectful, are sometimes satisfied with my replying with the name of the town where I live, without asking ‘yes, but where are you *really* from?’ or other such racisms.  They often expect answers involving Mediterranean countries or South or Central America.  If I give the answer that they were really getting at  – my non-UK family heritage – they’re much less likely to follow up with a racist comment.  Generally I have felt safer and less othered.

Why?  I gained some age privilege, and being asked by people who raced me as white or whiter certainly improves things.  People assess me as really not *that* other, so they probably feel less of a need to interrogate my otherness, put me in my place, exoticise me, etc.  But I think my class and education privilege has a huge amount to do with it.  In those aspects, I occupy a position which people are trained to respect, so their racism is less likely to be overt and aggressive.  Privilege along other lines, which prevents people from categorising me as ‘other’ ‘less than’ or downright ‘freak’ can’t hurt either.

So, personal evidence of the political (#1): disprivilege can be mitigated by privilege along other axes.

Side note: So far, I’ve been talking about white people asking this question, when of course it is asked by non-white people too.  Sometimes this comes from a place of race privilege or colour privilege, in which case similar ideas probably apply, but when it doesn’t, but I see this as a significantly different phenomenon.  I attribute those causes and effects not to racism, but to seeking solidarity, the desire to categorise, and perhaps internalised racism.

With this privilege, I have been able to conduct an interesting mini-experiment.  When I am feeling particularly kindly towards whichever wazzock is asking me where I’m from, I ask them to guess.  I have compiled the following list: (* indicates particularly common guesses)

Eastern European
Greek
Indian* (and various Indian subgroups)
Iranian/Persian
Italian
Jewish
Mediterranean
Mexican*
Moroccan
South/Latin American*

No-one has ever guessed any of the three ethnicities actually involved in my heritage.  Personal evidence of the political (#2): the idea that you can tell where someone “comes from” by looking is bullshit.

More tellingly, and more hurtfully (for me), no-one has ever guessed any kind of mixed heritage.  It’s possible that this is because mixed=bad and therefore people avoid suggesting it out of fear of causing offence, but I think it’s probably more due to the fact that mixed-ness is just totally off most white people’s radars.  It also erases histories of multiple migrations.  Even the very phrasing of the ubiquitous question, ‘where are you from?’ assumes that ethnic identity can be pinned to one discrete location.

An additional explanation shows one reason why mixed-ness is so often off the radar: one-drop ideologies.  This is the idea (and law) that any amount of racially ‘other’ lineage trumps the person’s white lineage: that you’re either wholly white or wholly other.  In this way, mixed-ness is acknowledged in ideas and laws, only in order to redefine and erase it, to maintain the fiction of discrete racial categories.

Personal evidence of the political (#3): mixed-ness, though statistically quite ‘normal’, is not normative.

So there you have it.  My experiences of ‘where are you from?’ have revealed the question’s racist assumptions and effects on people raced as non-white, although beyond my childhood, this has been largely mitigated by my other privileges.  But it has continued to revealed the racism of assuming single ‘origins’ and ethnic identification.  So: two interdependent kinds of racism, one privileging certain groups over others, the other maintaining the fiction of the rigidness and thereby appropriateness of those boundaries.

Stealing from Serano’s distinction between ‘traditional sexism’ (men are superior to women) and ‘oppositional sexism’ (male and female are “rigid, mutually exclusive, ‘opposite’ sexes”), I was thinking of calling the latter kind of racism ‘purity racism’.   This would refer to the subsection of racist ideologies which uphold the fiction of discrete races and the normativity of non-mixedness, which is crucial to upholding the major racist ideologies privileging whites over non-whites and other racist hierarchies within that.

So for example, when I’m asked this question by someone with darker skin than me, this is not an example of racism, but, when phrased to assume a single origin, probably is an example of purity racism (or internalised purity racism).

But I’m not sure.  Readers with experience: what do you think?