No, I will not blame it on the Muslims

A video clip emerged online this week. It shows a Muslim woman, Rose Hadid, wearing a t-shirt that says ‘I come in peace,’ being escorted, not politely, from a Donald Trump rally, after making a peaceful protest against his exclusionary policies.

This image comes to mind again and again today as I browse the news. Why? Because I see, from a mix of media outlets, complaint after complaint after complaint that ‘feminists’ and ‘LGBT campaigners’ have not spoken enough about the horrendous attacks against women in Cologne, Germany, that took place on New Years Eve. In fact, that isn’t quite right. The complaints are more specific. The complaints are, in fact, that we are not talking enough about Islam, race, and border controls in relation to the Cologne attacks. 

As you will almost certainly have seen, since it has been the lead-in to nearly all of the Cologne coverage, some of those involved in the attacks may have been asylum seekers (although at the time of writing, the Guardian had reported that no asylum seekers have been confirmed as involved in any of the sexual assaults; only crimes of vandalism and/or theft.)

The clear implication (and in many cases, the outright assertion) made in these opinion pieces, tweets, interviews, and indeed, in many casual conversations, is that feminists should be more outspoken in denouncing immigration in general and Islam in particular. I am cautious to stride into this complex and long-standing debate with anything remotely approaching a tone of presumed authority, but when I see how much racism and anti-Islamic sentiment is being pushed forward in my name, as an English, feminist, queer woman, it leaves me with such a sour taste that I feel the need to say something. 

First, the lazy claim that ‘feminists’ do not speak about the connections between Islam, race, and feminism is very clearly not true. Feminists around the world speak, march, write about these things every day. Salma Yaqoob, Rania Khan, Shireen Ahmed, Sam Ambreen, Shami Chakrabarti, Maya Goodfellow, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Ava Vidal, Shane Thomas, and Musa Okwonga* spring to mind as people who have written about these subjects now or in the past – and as I haven’t exactly pushed the boat out looking for names to add to that list, and this list is by no means extensive, it doesn’t seem to me as if anyone claiming that ‘feminists do not speak about’ this subject is either well-informed, nor particularly adept at research. 

But, of course,  ‘talking about’ these subjects is not what they mean, and we all know it. What they mean is that these knowledgeable, thoughtful, nuanced voices are not saying what they want them to be saying. Why, they say, angrily, are there no experts on this subject who agree with me? This proves that the experts are all wrong, or brainwashed, or lying, or scared of Musim reprisals. Right? I’m reminded of climate change skeptics who complain that the majority of scientists and climatologists believe that climate change is man-made, as if this is evidence of some outrageous bias against their theories, rather than evidence that perhaps their theories are due for a reboot.  

I suspect most of the people asking this hypothetical question ignore the writers I mention because they are not drawing anti-immigration conclusions from attacks like Cologne. These feminist and/or LGBT campaigners are not concluding that we must water down the painfully weak rights that refugees already have in order to protect Western women from foreign misogyny. This is probably because they are feminists, as opposed to racists pretending to be feminists. It is not surprising that feminists or LGBT activists would focus on violence against women and LGBT people, rather than using those topics as a proxy to talk about something else. 

(Incidentally, even if these people outright admitted their complaint is that the ‘liberal left’ never talks about these things from anti-immigration, anti-Islamic perspective, it would be way off the mark. There is a constant stream of casual anti-Muslim sentiment from supposedly liberal, supposedly feminist, supposedly progressive voices – from Kate Smurthwaite, to Richard Dawkins, to Cathy Newman in the UK; from Bill Maher to Hillary Clinton to Sam Harris in America, there is an endless stream of sneering, faux-concern, dog whistle racism, generalisations and assumptions, about the supposedly inherent sexist and homophobic nature of Islam. Even the BBC, the famous UK cornerstone of Political-Correctness-Gone-Mad recently screened a huge show presented by Reggie Yates that focused for an entire episode on the “homophobia problem in the black and Asian communities.” I use this example not as a criticism of Reggie Yates – it is very far from my place to make any such criticism – but rather to show how ridiculous the assertion is that “no-one is talking about” the subject. The portrayal of Muslims in general as sexist or homophobic or both are rife in the media – and not just the famously anti-immigration right-wing papers like the Daily Express, the Daily Mail, and the Sun.

It is not new or surprising that racists use feminism or LGBT rights as a proxy for attacking other minorities. There is, of course, a very long history of using the narrative of protecting white women from sexual violence as a justification for enslaving and murdering black and brown-skinned men. But it is embarrassing – worse than embarrassing; it is disgraceful – that so many white, Western feminists and LGBT people, like myself, have sat comfortably for too long while this is done in our name. 

Two things about this framing of the issue alarm me in particular. The first is the erasure of Muslim women, and Muslim LGBT people. Second and first generation immigrants who are LGBT, refugees who are women – many of them escaping the very brutalities of Isis that get laid at the door of all Muslims. It is surely no coincidence that many of the writers I list above get forgotten when a generalisation is made about what ‘feminists’ write or speak about. Despite being tireless campaigners and spokespeople for women’s rights, in the mainstream press, black and Muslim feminists tend to be seen as Muslim first, feminist second. The concerns raised uniquely by Muslim feminists are boxed away as ‘Muslim issues’, or, perhaps, ‘Muslim women’s issues’, while concerns raised by wealthy, white women like women in boardrooms, breastfeeding in parliament, and even the line of succession in the monarchy are reported as ‘women’s issues,’ that should be important to all women, despite these issues affecting only a tiny minority of women. This allows the dangerous myth to foster in some sections of society that violence against women and girls is predominantly perpetrated against white women by black or Asian men, and, as we have seen repeatedly this can have terrible consequences both in terms of victims that do not fit this narrative being silenced or ignored or disbelieved, and in terms of the issue being exploited by the far right to stir up hatred.   

When anti-Muslim hate crime rises (in the past year, in the UK, it went up by 70 per cent), 60 per cent of the victims are women. This goes largely unseen because in this false dichotomy of ‘Muslims’ versus ‘feminists’, Muslim women are invisible; inconvenient to the narrative. 

The second alarming thing about this dichotomy is the way it makes the rights of immigrants or asylum seekers living in the UK conditional. I despise homophobia and misogyny as much as the next person, but my right to be accepted as a UK citizen is not conditional upon my dislike of bigotry, and nor should it ever be. We should not be telling the immigrant population (perhaps even less so those who seek refuge in the country) that they are welcome, but only as long as they adhere to a value system that is not even shared in full the country’s most honoured institutions, let alone by the whole population. When Prince Philip’s position is conditional upon him subscribing to values of equality for women and queer people, when MPs have to swear an oath of intersectional feminism before taking office, when our greatest educational institutions don’t boast proud and celebratory statues dedicated to slaveowners, then perhaps we can demand to know your views on gay marriage at the border controls before we let you in, but as things stand right now, the idea that it is immigrants, asylum seekers, and Muslims who are keeping the UK away from being a magically progressive utopia is, I promise you, not catching on, not because feminists and LGBT campaigners are cowed by Islam and don’t want to discuss immigration, but because it is frankly ahistorical to the point of total delusion.   

Allowing a disparity in how we measure people’s rights as citizens is profoundly dangerous. Across the Atlantic, we see how conditional rights can look. In the nation that prides itself on being the cradle of freedom, for Sandra Bland, or Tamir Rice, or Trayvon Martin, freedom is not quite the same as other people’s; you are expected to know that don’t have the right to argue with the police, that you don’t, even as a child, have the right to play with a toy gun, that you don’t have the right to walk down the street if everyone knows that some people will find your appearance frightening. You are free but only if you abide by the conditions that have been attached to your humanity. If you break those conditions, then your humanity itself is up for debate.

Muslims living in the UK, whether born here or not, should not be told they have to accept ‘liberal’ values any more forcefully than anybody else is. Immigrants should not have to prove they are twice as patriotic, twice as committed to ‘British values,’ (whatever they are), twice as hard-working as everybody else in order to be welcome. That this is already the case in practice for some first and second generation immigrants is saddening; to demand it be explicitly enforced as government policy is chilling.

And yet these demands that we treat immigrants differently, that we apply different standards to people on the basis of where they were born, is supposed to be feminist, somehow. Open-mouthed people who want to make everything into an argument against immigration stare at women and queer people who do not, and express baffled rants as to our motives. Why do we not care about the women and LGBT victims of Isis, they yell at us. Why do we not show more solidarity with them, by mocking the prophet Mohammed with cartoons, or banning hijabs, or marching against immigration?

Why indeed. Because we do not show support or solidarity with the victims of Islamic terrorism by attacking Muslims, when the people most victimised by Isis are Muslims themselves. We do not show solidarity with gay victims of terror or their families by mocking their religion – we show it by offering them asylum and working to make sure that our LGBT communities are not racist once they are here. We do not show solidarity with women who have been victims of sexual assaults by detaining women and children in centres like Yarls Wood, where rumours persist of sexual assault cover ups – we show it by providing counselling, legal aid, and good quality housing. You do not show solidarity with me, as an LGBT woman, by making the lives of people I know and care about more difficult. You will not turn us against each other, no matter how frustrated you are that not everyone shares your xenophobic interpretation of world events.

So please do not keep asking why feminists aren’t using horrific events like the attacks in Cologne to push an anti-immigration or anti-Islamic agenda. Please do not imagine, not for a moment, that you are protecting me by restricting other people’s rights in my name. It is not in our interests, as women, or as LGBT people, to make our, or anyone else’s humanity conditional. It is so easily done. It is so easily made to feel normal. And what does it look like? To you, I suppose it looks like something foreign, or from the past – a white hood, a pink triangle, a bloodied coat hanger. To me, it looks like something that I see now, that I keep remembering again, and again, and again. It looks like a leading presidential candidate’s henchmen escorting a woman, while she conducts a peaceful protest, from the premises, because of her faith, while the people around her celebrate it as ‘freedom.’

*I am not sure if the latter two identify as ‘feminist’ as such, but Musa Okwonga has written about the Cologne attacks in the New Statesman from the perspective of gender violence and misogyny and both have written about how the two issues intersect, so I’m including them on this list.  

 

Why do we care so much whether technically you can be racist to white people or not?

Why do we care so much whether technically you can be ‘racist to white people’ or not?

We need to make sure we always have the best, more qualified, most informed people in each job. That’s what meritocrats who don’t see colour or gender or anything else always say. Tell me why, then, we have so many repetitive, inexpert voices, who speak without intentional malice, just with a complete lack of understanding?

This week we have heard a lot about ‘racism against white people’ in the context of Bahar Mustafa’s safe spaces and ironic jokes which have offended so many. Anyone who thinks ‘safe spaces’ of this kind are places full of groupthink and indulgent mollycoddling has almost certainly never been anywhere near one. I’ve been called out and challenged to think about my words, actions, and my most deeply-held opinions more in ‘safe spaces’ than in any other place I’ve ever been in my life. Strange how those who complain about safe spaces and groupthink also are so often the first to denounce so-called ‘call out culture.’ Which is it? We are too critical, jumping on everybody who opens their mouth until no-one can say anything, or we are too circular, just sitting there nodding our heads?

Let’s talk about safe spaces. Let’s talk about triggers. It’s a flawed, perhaps problematic analogy, but we put warnings about flashing cameras on things to help people with epilepsy makes choices about what media to consume. Many people have no understanding of PTSD (despite, of course, being given space after space to write about it), and vaguely imagine ‘triggered’ just means ‘upset.’ So the idea of a warning that something might throw you back into reliving a vivid flashback of being raped (for example), make you sick, make you unable to function for a time, make you pass out, make you panic and struggle to breathe, is dismissed as nonsense for the over-sensitive.

The ignorant conclusion those people arrive at is understandable I suppose, if irritating, but the demand that people don’t set up our own safe spaces either, while refusing to understand or respect people’s needs in public spaces, feels like outright bullying to me.

Safe spaces are not just about PTSD, of course. It takes a huge amount of personal energy to watch people with no knowledge or understanding or interest in listening to actual experts dominate the same old boring conversation, a conversation that is about your life, time and time and time and time and time and time again. Imagine walking into a university level maths seminar, with people who have years and years experience, academic or literal or both of maths, and stating that you don’t agree Pi exists, because it’s never used in common language between you and your mates.

And imagine, when people suggest you chat to a tutor separately if you want to learn maths, but actually, in this seminar people have turned up to have a bit of a more complex discussion about maths that you might find confusing, demanding that you have a right to be in the space and you’re being discriminated against for not knowing about maths.

People will say, of course: “Ah, but that’s about a level of understanding, not skin colour. Bahar Mustafa wanted to discriminate on skin colour. My skin colour is irrelevant to my ability to understand racism, my gender irrelevant to my ability to understand sexism.”

This is simply not true. Just look at where we place our focus. When Katie Hopkins or David Starkey or Jeremy Clarkson or John Terry or Prince Philip or David Coburn or Iggy Azaelea or Ricky Gervais or Frankie Boyle or Dapper Laughs says offensive things, you might hear a condemnation of what they say, but the focus, the central point, always gets dragged back towards “freedom of speech” and their “right to say it.” Ched Evans raped someone for crying out loud, and the overwhelming din from the media for week, if not months, was “do we really want to blight this man’s career, his future, over a mistake?” Meanwhile, when Bahar Mustafa or, as we learn this week, young Muslims who don’t want to shop at Marks and Spencer’s or drink booze (no, really), offend us, we might in passing acknowledge that they have a right to say what they said, but the focus always gets dragged towards why ‘reverse racism’ matters, whether you can be racist to white people, whether ‘social justice warriors’ have gone too far, and, above all, why it is so important not to be racist to white people.

Your life experiences impact what you think is immediately compelling about an event or news story. Of course they do. You can’t help it. It’s why diversity isn’t the opposite of “getting the best people for the job” – it’s the only possible way of doing it. How else do you explain the disproportionate amount of fuss made over whether technically you can or can’t be ‘racist to white people’?

And, boy, can people talk about that in great length! Why do we want it to be called ‘racism’ so much? Comparing institutions and patterns of systematic, deliberate, historical oppression with someone offending you because they dislike you as an individual for your white skin on one single occasion does seem extremely minimising to me. And since there’s already a word for the former (racism), how about we (white people) just let it go, and call it something else when someone is a bit mean about a white person?

Perhaps that’s not how your mates use the word. Perhaps you only ever use words in their colloquial meanings. Perhaps, in the maths seminar analogy, you think the professor could reasonably be expected to refer to Pi or zero or some other concept that mathematical experts probably have a rather different understanding of than you do, by a different term. But you probably don’t. You probably recognise that maths experts know more about maths than you do.

You probably understand (or who knows, maybe you don’t), that straight men aren’t all creepers, but understand that lesbian bars exist for women, and the bouncers might be inclined to turn away big groups of men who turn up demanding to be let in. You probably understand that a mental health support group isn’t a space you can wander into in order to ‘learn’ about mental illness, by listening to people’s experiences and vulnerabilities. You probably also recognise that David Cameron’s wealthy background doesn’t in itself make him personally a bad person, it just means that his perception of life is a bit different to that of a guy who works in Morrisons. And that his policies reflect that. So it is relevant to the debate about his ability to do his job well.

Imagine if David Cameron turned up in a trade union meeting about, say, the living wage, to ask questions like “but why does it matter if you earn an extra 20p an hour, it’s such a tiny amount anyway? Can’t you just use your savings? I don’t agree with your definition of the terms ‘work’ and ‘wage’ and ‘welfare state’ and ‘working class’ – after all, most people don’t commonly use it that way. Can you explain why you use the term ‘wage’ when technically we are talking about someone working for their benefit (because that’s what we have decided to call it)?” He might just get told piss off.

And imagine him saying, but how will you grow this movement, if you don’t let me in? If you tell me to shut up? I’m on your side, I believe in aspiration! I want to help you. You have to listen to me, I have heaps of ideas. I know about this stuff, man. I really, really, really care about it. I learned about it at school.

But one thing they don’t seem to teach you at schools like David Cameron’s is that you don’t need to be leading or speaking or even in the room where others are speaking in order to support social progress. You can volunteer time for boring, thankless tasks that no-one wants to do, donate money or possessions to charities and refuges, listen, learn, elevate, empower and validate and support others. It’s no fun hearing it if your entire skill set is to have opinions and say things for a living, but the most constructive thing you can do a lot of the time is shut up.

“Don’t feed the trolls”: race, privilege, and intersectional feminism

“Not only do you slap us, but you tell us how to react to being slapped.” I first saw that quote tweeted by Ava Vidal, during an argument about racism last year, and now that I know it, it seems to be applicable to almost every argument about racism or sexism since. Sometimes I think bigots have more fun telling us off for reacting to their microaggressions (and macroaggressions) than they do making them. Sometimes I think that’s the point of them: to give them an excuse to punish us for reacting.

When the Spectator published Rod Liddle’s blog referring to the Woolwich suspects as “black savages,” (since edited) there was an instinctive, understandable reaction from a lot of people to not “feed the troll” by reacting. Then, after engaging in debate, Laurie Penny, among others, changed her mind and concluded that public censure was actually a better idea than shrugging and ignoring. This newfangled idea of publically changing your mind and admitting you were wrong about something has upset Louise Mensch so much that she wrote a whole blog post about it, which was then republished in the Guardian. So far, so blah.

Now, if an individual doesn’t personally want to “feed the trolls” by wasting time and energy on someone who either won’t learn anything or will just be given greater publicity for their views, then that’s obviously their prerogative. But last week Mensch was doing something beyond just asserting that she, personally, wasn’t going to respond to Liddle. She was actively telling other people how they should or shouldn’t react to him.

It’s worth pointing out first of all that even aside from the question of whether it’s worth publically condemning racism when it comes from a known provocateur, a lot of the questions people were asking about Liddle’s piece weren’t actually directed at him. After all, it’s not like he was making a point to be debated; he was just calling people “black savages.” A lot of questions were being asked of the Spectator – specifically, its editor Fraser Nelson – about the professional decision to publish that language. Unless Mensch believes the Spectator is a troll, asking questions about how the decision to publish racism was taken is a bigger question than “ignoring” or “feeding” the trolls.

I don’t want the whole blog to be about Mensch, because she’s just a recent example of something bigger; the ugly prioritising that keeps happening within white feminism. And she’s not even the worst offender. Still, I can’t help but feel this assertion about not feeding the trolls is doubly uncomfortable when it comes from someone who has responded to “trolls” time after time again when she wants to. In fact, she got oodles of praise heaped upon her (including some from me), and, I seem to remember, a healthy dollop of positive media coverage for herself when she decided to go through all the sexist abuse she got on twitter one day and favourite it, to highlight the problem of internet trolls. White feminists – including Louise Mensch in more than one instance – have reacted regularly to sexism that could easily be called “trolling” from George Galloway, Austin Mitchell, Brendan O’ Neill, Roger Helmer, Nadine Dorries, Chris Brown, Jan Moir, Samantha Brick, the Socialist Workers’ Party, the Justice for Ched tweeters, some of them anonymous, faceless, internet accounts, and, bless him, Nick Ross. The Everyday Sexism Project has been running a well-organised online campaign to report hate pages (from underage pornographic photos to ‘comic’ rape memes) on Facebook. Most of those pages could be described as “trolling”. We don’t ignore them, we react to them. That’s how we make them unacceptable.

Ironically, the Everyday Sexism campaign is often explained by drawing parallels with racism: if this vitriol was directed at black people, instead of women, we say, would Facebook allow those pages to stay up? Well, perhaps not. But what if it was semi-intellectualised, and written in an article, in a national publication? What then? Perhaps we’d be angry. But perhaps we’d say, calm down, dears. Don’t feed the trolls.

Sometimes, ignoring trolls is necessary for your own boundaries, your own mental wellbeing, or just the reality of there being too many trolls and too little time. But sometimes, “don’t feed the trolls” feels a hop skip and a jump away from “it’s just banter.” Whatever your intentions, when you tell someone “don’t feed the trolls,” you’re still telling the person on the receiving end of the trolling/banter how to react. The problem is with their reaction, not with what was said. They’re taking it too seriously. They’re missing the broader point. They’re distracting from the Real Issues. Ignore it because context. Ignore it because irony. Ignore it because banter. Ignore it because trolls.

And I will be honest: my first reaction to Liddle’s post was the same as Laurie Penny’s. He’s a troll. Ignore him. But then I remembered how Liddle’s trolling in the past nearly prejudiced a trial and cost Stephen Lawrence’s family justice. And I saw tweets from Musa Okwonga, Ava Vidal, and others, about the importance of challenging a racist voice with his platform, and, yes, I changed my mind about it, just as Laurie Penny did. I genuinely cannot see why Mensch finds that so upsetting.

Of all the tweets on the recent #blackprivilege hashtag, the one that I recognised most, both unconsciously manifested in my own behaviour as well as in others, was this one: “#BlackPrivilege is white people telling me how awful racism is, instead of telling other white folk.” (I’d like to credit whoever said this, but I can’t remember, and I can’t find the tweet.) Yes. We do this: lots of us do this, all the time, without even realising it. Because it’s easier to tell Ava Vidal how much we hate racism and expect a cookie and a re-tweet than it is to ask the nice, influential editor of the Spectator why he chose to publish racism in an environment of near civil unrest.

It’s not unique to feminism but it’s just so embarrassing when its white feminists doing it. We are so familiar, after all, with men doing it. You know, the Liberal Dudes who go on and on about how clued up on all that feminism business they are – usually in the most authoritative, patronising way imaginable, too – but when their mates make misogynistic rape jokes, when their colleague hires a man over an equally qualified woman for the sixth or seventh time, when their friend or favourite singer or footie player or just some Dude they think is cool is accused of rape or assault? They explain. They excuse. They tell us it’s a joke. It’s not worth responding to. It’s not the Real Issue. It’s not their problem. It’s banter. Don’t feed the trolls.

Some people might not ever respond to any trolls, and that’s fine. But speaking for myself, if I’m honest, I know perfectly well that if Rod Liddle had made some sort of comparable comment about women, especially if it was in an equivalent climate of increasing sexist hostility, with MRA marches doing pro-rape salutes around London – just imagine, white feminists, how we would feel if that was happening around us – there is no way in the world I would have shrugged and said to myself: “Yeah, I’m not responding to that. Don’t feed the trolls.” What’s more, I don’t believe Louise Mensch would have done, either.

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