Read the first instalment of #AndABlackWomanAtThat here.
A few months ago in a bar in my hometown a young man approached me to ask my view on the new Beyoncé video. She had just performed Formation at the Super Bowl: the dancers wore black militaristic gear reminiscent of the Black Panthers and the video was ‘a celebration of black roots and culture.’ It also made reference to police brutality and the Black Lives Matter campaign. The video fostered debate as some claimed it was ‘a racist political statement’ and anti-police.
Being one of only two black people in the bar (the other, my brother), he was clearly excited by the prospect of having this conversation with a real life black person. Gleefully, like he was unveiling some urgent truth, he proceeded to tell me how ‘unfair’ it was that ‘black people got to do the black power salute but white people couldn’t do the white power salute.’ He continued (with no prompting or encouragement from me) to explain to me that ‘slavery happened years ago’ and ‘racism doesn’t exist anymore.’
As if I can speak of nothing else, I am here expected to be a spokesperson for black people everywhere. As the only black person in the room and feeling hyper-visible and exposed, I have no choice but to engage. The power is in his hands.
It did not go well. Feeling exhausted I decided to vent my frustration on Facebook: ‘Today, someone whitesplained racism to me…’ Most comments were sympathetic but a few got caught up on the word ‘whitesplain.’ First, there was confusion: most people had never heard the term before. That much is understandable, but once I defined it, confusion turned to defensive anger. ‘Why are you bringing race into this?’ they asked.
‘”White” is not a race. It is a cultural (delusional) default. It’s everyone who’s something other than white who belongs to a race. White people have the privilege of being race-less. Angry White Guy feels no need to bring race into it because he doesn’t belong to a race. He simply belongs.’ (Jennifer Kesler)
People who don’t fit the default are constantly accused of ‘playing the race card.’ Provoked by a lifetime of exclusion and exploitation topped up with daily micro-aggressions, the moment someone with power finally pushes you far enough to start speaking up for yourself, the last ditch effort to restore the ‘natural order’ is to accuse you of ‘playing the race card.’ We are dismissed on the grounds that we’re angry. Thus I am able to fulfill my rightful place as the Angry Black Woman. Nothing more.
A lot of these power plays are about rubbing out history: the history of slavery and segregation – or more recently, how the conversation at a bar started ten minutes previously. Deleting Facebook comments is another one that really gets on my nerves. Remember the whole Burkini incident? I saw this meme of a woman in a burkini standing beside a man in a wetsuit. It was making a statement about the double standards underlying the Islamophobic ban on the burkini in France. This was the same week those photos were published of a Muslim woman sitting on the sandy beach, surrounded by armed police and being forced to take off some of her clothes.‘So much for being concerned with the oppression of women – apparently my vagina now disqualifies me from having an opinion’
One of the guys commenting on the meme admitted that he’d never spoken to a woman about why she might want to cover up, but implied they would be forced to do so and that the burkini and hijab are oppressive to women. I chimed into the debate, pointing out that he probably shouldn’t assume to know best on a matter in which he had no experience, having never even spoken to anyone with any experience. Already exasperated by the whole debate, I ended with #whitesaviour.
His tone took a savage turn from there. I was branded a ‘lazy sexist’ and named ‘Sheri-has a vag so thinks she is entitled to an opinion-Carr.’ So much for being concerned with the oppression of women – apparently my vagina now disqualifies me from having an opinion. He later said he was offended because he felt his opinion had been dismissed on the basis of gender and race, and continued to complain that if he would never be ‘allowed to make a comment along the lines of “that’s just the sort of thing a woman would say. They think they know best, but obviously can’t understand an issue like this.” #AndABlackWomanAtThat.’
I’ve seen many white allies – male and female – call out others for language far less hateful than that. I wondered how this conversation would have played out if it had been one of them saying what I had. Would he have respected their opinion more, enough not to get abusive, instead of prying at my oppression in an attempt to invalidate my opinion?
After all this, he deleted his original post, taking the whole thread with him, no doubt to save himself some grief. Well, good for him – but I’m still sat there with my head in my hands, feeling the impact of those comments, deleted in an instant from Facebook’s history, but forever part of mine. I am still angry. I am still upset. But poof, to the rest of the world, it never happened. Because it was more important for him, with all his power and privilege, not to get taken down a peg or two, than it was for me to be lifted up in solidarity. This power play follows the standard structure for power and privilege: people with power counter-attacking when told, one way or another, to ‘check’ the privilege they’re so attached to.
The question is, what happens next? I don’t know if he deleted the thread because someone else chipped in to back me up. What I do know is that happens less than you might expect from someone friends with a flock of radical activists on Facebook. There are honourable exceptions, but they’re rarer than they should be. And I think it has to do with how we teach each other about power and privilege issues. This feels like something sections of the movement are just starting to grapple with, and that’s huge, but mistakes are being made left, right and centre.
One of them is a culture that produces mute allies. They’ve read the books, they’ve got the good intentions, but they have no lived experience of racism and so they’re taught just to shut up and listen to those who have. There’s a logic behind this: ‘no about us without us’ is a vital principle, without which safe spaces would probably be impossible to begin with. When we demand ownership of our own stories of oppression – whether it’s BME communities, women, migrants, whoever – we empower ourselves and stand up to a long history of being silenced. But when ‘no about us without us’ becomes ‘only we can talk about us,’ it has two really damaging outcomes: it undermines our allies’ ability to support us, and it lays a heavy, daily responsibility on us to dredge up our pain in the hopes of ‘educating people.’
Which brings me to something I want to say about how we deal with this in the movement, something a lot of people are afraid to say. On the Left – at least, the sections of the Left that are genuinely progressive enough to even try to deal with this stuff – aspiring allies are often taught by opening up the chest of someone who’s oppressed so they can see the heart and hurt.
The privileged person feels bad, and maybe next time they’ll stop talking and give you the floor, magnanimously tossing you a piece of the surplus power they didn’t really need anyway. And after they’ve learned from you, they move onto the next topic, leaving your chest still pried open. You try to stitch yourself back up, and you do an ok job, it takes time and precision but you get there, it’s not what it used to be but you’ve done pretty well, considering. But then it happens again… and again… and again, each time the skin more tender than before, the stitching less precise.
This is the flip-side of passing through our so-called ‘safe-spaces.’ The focus is always on how those with power have to restrain themselves, the sacrifices they have to make to make a space feel safe. But the greater sacrifice, I can promise you, is ours. Whenever power and privilege is taken on it feels like my scars – our scars – are being re-opened to teach those at the top to throw us a bone, rather than being taught how to help us heal, how to empower ourselves and in doing so, empower the whole movement.