Tag Archives: privilege

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.

 

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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.

Not just a number: age, power and abuse

[Warning for discussion and description of abuse of intimate partners.]

I’m thinking about a longer article about women who abuse women they’re in relationships with, but it might take a while.  In the meantime, I wanted to get some thoughts that I’ve been having about age out of my system.

Age is a characteristic which affects how much power you have in society, and how much power you have in relation to any partners you might have.  It’s a bit different to several other characteristics that kyriarchy uses to allocate power, because it changes constantly.  Unlike gender, for instance, where the messages we’re given in childhood are different depending on whether adults think they’re teaching a boy or a girl, we’re all socialised as children, and the powerlessness that is enforced on children.  And most of us, hopefully, make it to old age, and the loss of power that is then enacted on us.

However, I want to talk about age differentials in between, and at the upper end of childhood, and how that can affect relationships where abuse is obvious, and where power and control are much less.  Being older than your partner contributes to your having power over them, to a greater or lesser extent depending on the size of the gap, your actual ages, how much your social circles and society values age, and what other power dynamics are going on.

Some brief bits of evidence from other people, for anyone feeling skeptical:

When professionals are trying to assess the risk of serious violence and murder in domestic abuse cases, a ten-year or more age gap, in same-gender relationships, indicates higher risk. (Found here (PDF))

This big study on teenagers’ experiences of dating abuse found that for girls with male partners, having a boyfriend even a year or two older, while it brought financial and status benefits, also significantly increased their risk of sexual and other abuse.

[I hate the work risk when talking about abuse.  It makes it sound like a storm or something uncontrollable, unaccountable.   Abusers choose partners who are younger than them because it gives them greater power over them.  That’s a better phrasing.]

So how does this work?  There’s nothing intrinsically powerful about being older.  Here are some example of how society enables this tool.

  • Via stereotypes and prejudice.  E.g., it’s easier to see young people as crazy, as flakey (unreliable), as rash, as violent.  As unwise, naive or stupid: they don’t know what’s best for themsleves, sometimes they just need some firm manipulation guidance.  They are especially clueless sexually, both about how to behave sexually, and their own sexual desires and preferences.  They’re just discovering themselves, after all.  So they need to be pressured taught about these things.
  • Via money.  Due to age-based oppression in the workplace, older people are likely to be earning more, and they’ve probably been earning for longer, so may have savings.  Financial power has huge impacts on personal relationships, especially sexual ones.
  • Via external social power.  Older people are more likely to have more powerful friends, more sources of support.  Things in their life are seen as more important because they’re older, and because their age allows them to access things coded as important: better jobs, housing, marriage, mortgage, parenthood.  They. their choices, desires and lives are seen as worthy of more respect.
  • Via internal social power.  All of these ideas are likely to have been internalised by both parties, such that they both may also believe that the older person knows what’s best for the younger, or that their desires are more important, or that they’re more worthy of respect.  These beliefs can impact hugely, changing the levels of entitlement, self-esteem, self-blame, and accountability that people bring to the relationship.
  • Via insitutions and structures.  If the people share an institution of any kind (school, university, workplace, religious organisation, etc) chances are, that instiution has a hierarchy based largely on age, or which at least reflects age.

There are probably other ways that society creates and bolsters age-based power – feel free to add comments.

So, how might this power be used in a sexual relationship?

  • I’ve already mentioned how age-power can enable sexual abuse.  The idea of the more experienced person quite coercively initiating the less experienced (usually a man initiating a woman, but there are prominent gay and lesbian versions too) is so enshrined in our cultures as a positive, sexy thing.  This can be backed up by sexual emotional abuse based on greater knowledge and experience, like “if you were really in love with me/straight/not frigid/lesbian/kinky/submissive/a woman/poly then you would want to ____”, or based on age-related entitlement, like “I’m a man of the world, you’re not adventurous enough for me.”
  • Financial and related control, such as monitoring their spending, withholding money, making them ask for money or putting them on an allowance.  More subtly, it can involve presuming that the older person’s career or education should be prioritised.
  • Isolation: ensuring that all of the couple’s friends are the friends of the older one, or at least of that age group.  [Side note: isolation can be achieved in quite subtle ways, such as kindly advising them that a certain friend/group is not a good influence on them, or saying that a certain hobby or interest annoys them or is inconvenient, or making certain things a secret so that they can’t talk about the whole relationship with their friends.]  The isolating effect of secrets is particularly useful in relationships affected by other age-related power differentials, such as an older person having an affair with a younger one, or a boss having an affair with an employee.
  • General entitlement and self-esteem: especially if the older person is bringing more money and status to the couple, they may feel that this and their age entitles them to have the final word, to contribute less in other ways, be respected more, to teach/advise the other person, to generally be in control.
  • Accusing the abused person of abuse: see the stereotypes paragraph above.  It’s easier to believe that a younger person is violent, uncontrollable etc, and actions taken by a younger person against an older person are more likely to be seen as bad, disrespectful, and not how things should be.

So that’s why it really pisses me off to see articles like this one at Autostraddle that celebrates relationships with a big age gap without mentioning the power imbalance or the potential for abuse.

Again, I’m sure that there are lots of other ways age-based power can be used – if you’ve got any ideas then do comment.  If anyone would like to share their own experience of abuse and/or shitty partners, then I promise not to approve (= publish) any comments which don’t treat those sharing with anything other than belief and respect.

Ethical Alternatives to Being an Ally – Second Thoughts

[I don’t think this post needs any warnings, but let me know if I’ve missed something.]

Having seen some more conversations around ally behaviour, and done some more ally-ing and been allied-to some more, I’ve had a few more thoughts on how to navigate this area.  I’ve realised that my original thoughts missed and crucial dimension of what it means to act as an ally:

Power

Power is one of the pervading dynamics that we’re grappling with when we do anti-oppression work. We’re analysing which groups have power over other groups in society, and trying to reveal and counteract this. Power also plays out within all smaller groups, and this is deeply connected to the wider power politics. So a group that is fighting for their liberation is struggling against groups that hold societal power over them, and this will probably involve fighting against individuals or groups who wield that power on a more personal level.

What this means is that we need to recognise the power dynamics of the ally-oppressed person relationship. It is not neutral. The ally holds more power than the oppressed person, by very nature of the fact that they belong to the social group which is imbued with power. [Privilege is a term more often used in social justice circles, but I’m going to stick with power because of its focus on doing rather than being.]

Due to this unequal power relationship, a crucial part of the ally’s activism needs to be counteracting, and mitigating the effects of, the power they have over the people in the oppressed group.

This might be in individual ways, or group ways, or more structural ways. Even ignoring the effects of wider structural power on the two individuals, allies still have various advantages which give them more power and benefit.  For example:

  • We don’t *need* the movement: we can leave at any time.  This means we are more free to piss people off etc
  • Outsiders to the movement will reward us more.  We’ll be seen as more generous, heroic etc for our efforts in the movement, and probably given more respect, airtime and resources as a result.  Sometimes this results in really tangible benefits like research grants, book deals, employment.
  • Insiders in the movement will reward and value us more, knowing that outsiders will value us, and that therefore we’re useful spokespeople and a legitimising presence.  This means that sometimes we can get our way by threatening to leave.  Even without threats, people will be eager to appease and placate us.
  • Because we’re usually still able to access the various kinds of support and resources open to us outside the groups we are allies to, that means we have two areas to draw on, whereas non-ally activists have only their own communities’ support and resources.

The ideas which social justice communities have come up with around ally-ship, how to respond to call-outs etc can be understood as a code of etiquette designed to shift some of this power back in the oppressed person’s favour.  Because of this, it can feel very weird, and sometimes bad, to be an ally on the receiving end of these rules – they are designed to shift power away from you, and that’s never fun.  It’s basically like a super-diluted and time-and-space limited version of structural oppression: the rules are designed not to be in your favour.  Without seeing the context of the power balance already being in the ally’s favour, it can be very easy to feel shat on by these rules.  In fact, I think probably the less experience we have of being shat on by structural disempowerment, the more shocking and hurtful we’ll find these rules.

First I’m going to show how some of the more common ‘how to be an ally’ advice fits this pattern of shifting power away from allies, and why that’s a good thing, and then I’m going to add some more suggestions.

[Disclaimer: because no power structure works in isolation, there will be lots of cases where, although the people are talking about a structural oppression which the ally doesn’t experience, that ally experiences other structural oppressions which the person they are being an ally for, in that space, doesn’t experience. This might mean that the overall balance power is not in the ally’s favour, in which case some of the suggestions should be adapted or ignored.  For example, a black straight woman has a gay white male boss, and they’re talking about gayness.  The power is almost certainly in his favour, so some of the rules and suggestions will need rejigging.]

Common social justice rules and how they’re meant to shift power

‘Foreground the voices of the oppressed, don’t speak for us’
This is often framed in terms of getting the best information – the people who experience the sharp end of oppression necessarily know the most about how it works (and can also see the viewpoint of the oppressor, because their views are normative and widely disseminated). However, this is also an issue of power: silencing is both an active tool and natural consequence of oppression, so amplifying people’s voices is a way of handing some of that power back.

‘Don’t expect us to educate you
Many – though not all – structural oppressions are deeply tied up with labour. The oppressed group are forced/expected to work for longer, for less pay, on more horrible and less respected work. This literally disempowers them – they are left with less time, money and energy. Letting activism be one place where they can freely chose their work avoids disempowering them further.

Bear in mind that these two rules are set in the context of us really wanting to keep and appease allies, to educate and explain and to let allies be the more acceptable spokespeople for our movements.  And that for those of us with experience of allies who leave if they don’t get their way, we may be going out of our way to avoid that.

‘Behave decently when called out on something
Many of the behaviours which are commonly bad ways to respond to a call out are attempts to hold on to power. Properly apologising for something is an act which shows vulnerability. Letting another person have control over deciding what you did wrong, and how wrong it was, gives them a kind of power over you, however brief and limited.

‘Go learn about your power and privilege
You can’t hand something back if you don’t believe you’ve got it.  You can’t put the safety lock on a weapon you don’t think you’re holding.  If you’re having difficulty believing that you wield power, or have to option of wielding power, or that either of those things matters to acting as an ally, then you especially need to go and read stuff.

More ideas for how allies can hand back power

Consider not getting involved
There will almost certainly be ways we can help the movement as a whole, but some spaces will be more effective and more powerful without our presence. Not just the spaces already labelled ‘X-only’. Consider refusing offers of power: leadership, publication etc. Or, for instance, turn up to the meetings, but rescind your voting rights.

Do the things which are considered menial
Sign up for tea-making, photocopying, washing up, data-entry. Compile lists of resources to make it easy for others to educate themselves.  Not as ways to make friends and get known within the community/group/event, but as an end in itself.

Do things which allow more of that group to access the movement
Sign up for childcare, giving lifts, translation and transcription, etc.

Set up systems of accountability
Create way in which people from that group can talk to you about your behaviour and have control over that interaction. For example, let it be known that you will always try to respond to call-outs in a particular way. Or that you will leave the group if people request it. Or set up an anonymous feedback system on your blog.

Take instruction
If at all in doubt about a course of action, check with some of the relevant group, preferably those who will be impacted by it.  Better still, let it be known that you’re up for instructions, and wait until people give you some.

If your power is backed up by institutional power structures in your professional life, try to subvert those structures to hand power back
If you have an managerial power, for instance, use any influence you have on policy, training, recruitment, wages etc in the group’s interest. If you interact with the public in a way which gives you any power over them, set up feedback forms or patient advocates tailored for the group(s) in question, so that they can safely complain or otherwise institute change. Ideally, let people from that group set up the system.  If people from that group are contributing to your work, or you are otherwise benefiting from their existence or oppression (e.g. you’re doing research on them, writing a book about them, doing a programme on them etc) make sure that you share the material and non-material benefits you gain with them.  E.g. share the royalties, credit them, pay them upfront, etc.

If your power is backed up by institutional power structures in your personal life, try to subvert those structures to undo the leverage it gives you
If you are in a romantic and/or sexual relationship with someone of that group, think really carefully about what kinds of power you do, or might wield over them, and try to counteract them. For instance, you could try giving them more control over decision-making, or make it absolutely clear that you never expect sex from them, or that you won’t leave them if they piss you off or disagree with you. If you are the parent or carer of someone of the relevant group, you probably have even more power over them – think really hard about what steps you could take to reduce this. Giving them practical resources, external sources of support and as much freedom as is safe are probably good places to start.

So…

So, all of this might sound pretty scary, and kind of extremist.  If you’re like me – i.e. involved in different movements, some where I’m an ally, some where I’m not –  part of you might be going, ‘hell yeah!’ and part of you might be going, ‘holy shit, I can’t t do that.’

For me, the more I’ve come to learn about societal power and privilege, the more adept I’ve become at noticing it in my interactions, and the more uncomfortable I’ve felt noticing when I have them, and when I use them.  So taking some of these steps has actually increased my ease and comfort  – it decreases the guilt and feeling of responsibility that comes with noticing my power.  [N.B. I’m not trying to say that you should take these steps because they’ll make you feel better about yourself.  There are much bigger and more important things at stake in my behaviour as an ally than my feelings.  I’m just trying to show how the loss of power and benefit can have some good byproducts too.]

I also want to acknowledge the role that my own tendency towards feelings of guilt and responsibility play in my taking these things seriously.  For me, those feelings have a lot to do with what society has taught me about being a woman.  It’s a pattern I’ve noticed, that activism women tend to be better at taking on criticisms, suggestions and ideas about their own power and privilege than activist men do.  So that doesn’t mean that women are pathological or masochistic or shouldn’t take these things on board.  Instead, the responsibility is on men, and anyone else who’s not taking these things on board as seriously, to pull their weight.  And if we spot them doing otherwise, then we can use what power and privilege we do have to hold them accountable.

Understanding that ally-etiquette is about transferring power can also make life easier for us, because it explains why those rules feel difficult and disempowering.  It’s a way to channel our energy into truly supporting and empowering those you work with, rather than in being confused or beating ourselves up because we don’t feel like a good happy ally.

Linkpost for BADD 2012

So this is a linkpost for Blogging Against Disablism Day, with a few of my suggestions for temporarily non-disabled readers. (As one, I’m going to shut up and let disabled people do the talking). Disabled readers: feel free to suggest other links I should add, especially if you wrote them.

1) Something to start you thinking about disability and society:
An introduction to the Social Model of Disability, which explains the difference between impairment and disability, and why the latter is about oppression.

2) Building on that article, or for people already familiar with the social model, this longer article applies it and other models to some recent UK politics.

3) Privilege lists are always useful, including this one.

4) I wanted this link to be to something people could actually do – sign a petition, write to their MP/Lord, attend a demo, boycott someone.  I had a quick google and various things came up, e.g. via falseeconomy.org.uk, UKUncut or Avaaz, and there seems to be a quite big/important one called Pat’s Petition, but the link won’t take me through to it at the moment.  But I guess what I’m trying to say is that I feel uncomfortable prioritising these over other ones that I probably haven’t heard of – disabled readers, anyone feel like pointing me in the direction of something that needs our attention?

To be continued: I’m going to have a read of what other bloggers have done for BADD, and hopefully make another linkpost.

Bearing Witness: Ethical alternatives to ‘being’ an ally

[Warning: this article contains mention, but not discussion or description, of gender-based violence and numerous other oppressions.]

In various social justice circles, ‘ally’ has become a common way of referring to people who do not share a particular oppressed identity, but who nevertheless have given up oppressing that group, and instead position themselves as supporter of their cause. While it has various advantages, important critiques have been made of the behaviour of such allies and of the concept in itself (e.g. serious critiques and fun ones).  The failure of the concept of ally is best seen, I think, in the number of ‘how to be a good ally’ lists which start by describing ways to stop actively oppressing the group in question (e.g. this bi one or this disability one). This shows the commonness of people claiming the title who still haven’t forsaken their oppressive behaviours, let alone adopted useful ones.

So to replace, or work alongside the word ‘ally’, I suggest using ‘bearing witness’, which I think solves some of the problems. This article describes how.

1. It centres the right voices (or should do)

The best witnesses are those closest to the thing being witnessed: this language automatically acknowledges the superiority of the knowledge of people who have experienced oppression first-hand.  I’m proposing that we use ‘bear witness’ as an activity which is primarily an activity of people who have experience of that injustice, i.e. are members of the oppressed group in question, so it’s not a straight replacement for ally language.  I suggest it as a term that we can secondarily apply to those doing liberatory work on behalf of other people, and those who fall in the margins between those two groups (see section 6 below).

Much of the criticism of so-called allies has focussed on the way we tend to use our privilege to speak over or silence members of the marginalised group in question.  Bearing witness language hopefully makes obvious the idea that in any situation, we need to listen most, or exclusively, to the best witnesses.  The role for the secondary witness then, is to speak up in spaces where there are no primary witnesses, or where they do not feel safe to speak.  The second job being to make those spaces safer and less exclusionary to members of those marginalised groups.  So for example, responding to rape jokes when no-one there is out as a survivor, or awareness-raising about race in environments which are still 100% white. Even when relevant people are around, if they’re not being listened to, we can use our privilege to get others to realise that they’re not listening to the right people, or amplify the right voices.

However, bearing witness language does have the risk of ignoring the very people we ought to be centring: it would be possible for a load of white people to bear witness to racism as an almost abstract concept, using evidence distanced from black people’s experiences (e.g. stats). So this is not a perfect construct, and we still need to keep each other accountable.

2. It’s not about you

The language of ally-ship (like a mothership!) ties activism to identity, to who you are: we say “She’s an ally” rather than “She does useful thing x.” This seems like an advantage, since presumably if you can get someone to identify as a supporter of a movement, you can ask more of them. They have tied their self-image to their involvement with the struggle, so they would seem to have a greater incentive to be involved. It also neatly mirrors the emphasis on oppressed identities within social justice circles: you can see why if oppressed group X are organising based on their identity as X, then other who want to be involved are going to look for an identity, a noun, under which to organise and join in.

In my experience, lots of people who work with/for marginalised groups they’re not part of already have very strong emotional and identity-type links to that work anyway. This might be because they are close to someone in that group: a parent, a partner, a friend or child. Or they may have witnessed an event or worked in an environment where oppression was obvious, and have strong memories and emotions which inspire their work. Even nothing like that initially inspired them towards that work, if they have build up a reputation or indeed a career around it, they’re going to be deeply emotionally invested in their identity as an ally. My point is that the links to personal identity are already dangerously strong, and people’s strong feelings which inspire this work are often already taking centre stage: we don’t need to encourage them.

The identity language of ally-ship can also be pretty misleading, and conceiving of our identities in that way can be deeply unhelpful. If my self-image as an ally is inspiring my liberatory work, then I’m doing it for the wrong reasons. I’m also not going to react very well to criticism, because it will speak to the heart of how I see myself: I’ll be unwilling to acknowledge my oppressive behaviour because to do so would undermine my good opinion of myself. There are other ways in which identity-ally-ship makes me concentrate on me and my feelings instead of the people I’m meant to be working for. For example, in my own life, feeling guilt-ridden because one action meant I ‘wasn’t a good ally’ has got in the way of repairing the damage done by that action. Jay Smooth has an excellent talk here on how focussing on the person and their identity doesn’t serve justice, and a follow up here putting the responsibility where it should be, i.e. telling us how we can avoid focussing on our own identities when our behaviour is challenged.

So, using ‘bearing witness’ instead of ‘ally’ can avoid making it about my identity. I can’t hide behind my status as a Good Person™ to avoid accountability, and those feelings are less likely to distract me from the task in hand. It’s a label not for a person, but for an action.

3. It’s about action

If allyship is about what you are, not what you do, it’s easy to get complacent. I’ve seen lots of ‘how to be an ally to X’ lists which stress this point, that you have to go and do the work to earn the title. I suggest that instead of labelling the person, who may or may not be doing the work, to varying degrees of effectiveness or oppressiveness, and instead label the work.

I’ve seen various books and articles accompanied by an author biog which includes their status as an ally up front and centre: “Example Author is a trans ally and…” Bearing witness language would label the work instead: “This book bears witness to transphobic bullying…” If they really wanted something to put in the biog then maybe “Author writes on various topics including bearing witness to children’s experiences of transphobia…”

With this phrasing, no-one can rest on their laurels. Well, we can, but only if they are won fairly, and labelled with the race we ran, rather than our ‘identity’ as runner.

4. It’s not about their identity (or doesn’t have to be)

Lots of social justice work focusses on identity, and much of this is fantastically productive. Identities are extremely useful banners under which to organise, give emotional connections to the work, and facilitate human rights analyses of oppression (e.g. you can’t control your identity, therefore discrimination is unfair). It also speaks to one of the truths of many oppressions, that people (often) commit oppressive acts because of what they think a person is, not what they do. It allows us to talk about the status we’re given on the basis of identity. It also, importantly, allows us to celebrate aspects of our identities, the histories of those who shared it, and to cultivate a sense of pride in it.

However, I think an over-reliance on the concept of identity to analyse oppression lacks a few things, and in some areas can have negative effects. For example, sometimes people focus on identity when experience is a more pertinent measure: not everyone who shares an identity will have experienced certain forms of oppression based on that identity. Identity language can also erase the differences between the people who share a characteristic, often in oppressive ways: focusing on one identity tends to minimise the other oppressions felt by people in that group, or invisbilise their membership. For example, focusing on woman as an oppressed identity in a vacuum tends to create a norm that women’s issues are a separate thing from black issues, and to centre the experiences of white women, invisibilising many women’s experiences of racism, and of sexism and racism combined. (See ideas about kyriarchy and intersectionality).

The language of bearing witness can accommodate both diversity and the importance of experience, since the focus is on the oppression not the identity. There is still a risk of assuming that oppressions only strike one at a time, but I think talking about ‘bearing witness to the racism in/of…’ has less of a risk of this than ‘being an ally to black people’.  In centring the injustice it makes no implication of a unified community who all share the same needs and goals.

Also, In focussing on oppressions instead of identity, we can open up the language to include specific types of oppression, e.g. gender-based violence.

5. But it (could) make people disclose privileged identities

It’s easy to invisibilise your privilege with use of the word ally: you can avoid using ‘white’, ‘without disabilities’, ‘straight’ etc. You can hide behind assumptions of neutrality and un-markedness: you don’t have to disclose privileged identities because they are the norm, the ‘unmarked’. Instead, if you want to describe yourself as bearing witness to something you don’t experience yourself, you have to actually disclose your position: “as a white person bearing witness to racism” or “I’m aiming to bear witness to the endemic sexism in this industry (insofar as a man can).”

6. It’s not a binary

One advantage of ally language is that it describes a fundamental difference between those who work against an oppression having suffered it, and those who haven’t.  This is an important distinction and one we should never lose sight of, and bearing witness language doesn’t do that job, although it hopefully centres those with experience.

However, it does allow for more flexibility in distinguishing people in this way.  This will be useful for people whose identities or experiences are often deemed liminal (i.e. on the boundaries) in terms of allyhood: for instance, mixed-race people, non-binary gendered and agender people (with regard to feminism), women who have experienced some forms of gender-based violence but would never call themselves a survivor of rape or abuse, people whose identities are closeted or invisible and so do not experience the same kinds of oppression as visible members of that group.  Such people can be recognised for their bearing witness to the realities of oppression without designating them either as allies or as members of the oppressed group.

But…

There are some problems with allies and ally-language that bearing witness language doesn’t address.  For example, nothing about it makes clear that it’s unethical to make any kind of profit from that work, or to pit marginalised people against each other to get the outcomes you want and lead from behind (what A.J. Withers calls “Leadership Shopping”).  Also, the concept of ‘ally’ implies reciprocity and a degree of equality, both of which fit badly with the way we currently use it.

So people, what do you think? Pros and cons? What have I missed? Could you fit ‘bear witness’ into your sentences?

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?