A lot has happened since I wrote my last blog post. I’ve been busy with a few projects, so I haven’t been able to blog about some of the important issues in the world right now (France’s niqab ban, the death of Osama bin Laden, the anti-Muslim attacks immediately following Osama’s death, the ongoing uprisings in the Middle East, etc.). With regard to Osama’s death, a few of my Muslim friends informed me about experiences they had in their schools and workplaces. They were asked by white non-Muslim peers, “Were you upset about Osama’s death?” or “Are you mourning his death since you are a Muslim?” The question is absurd and assumes that Muslims felt “sad” that bin Laden was killed. There was another appalling report I read about a Texas algebra teacher insulting a Muslim student by telling her, “I bet you’re grieving.” The student, a young Muslim woman, asked, “What are you talking about?” The teacher replied, “I heard your uncle died,” referring to Osama bin Laden. The student was brought to tears because of the teacher’s obnoxious remarks and obvious prejudice. A Muslim friend texted me and said it feels like 9/11 all over again, referring to how Muslims felt on edge (and still do) about receiving offensive, ignorant and often racist remarks from non-Muslims (and I have to say that it is utterly absurd and insulting that President Obama would say we were all “one American family regardless of race and religion” in the days following 9/11. Muslims, Sikhs, Arab-Americans, and those perceived to be Muslim didn’t enjoy any sort of “color-blind unity” after 9/11 and the reports of hate crimes, vandalism, and discriminatory acts committed against them testify that).
I’ve had some stressful and sometimes painful conversations about race and Islamophobia with people over the past few weeks. Some of these people I know personally and some I don’t know at all. What I’ve noticed for a very long time now is that conversations about race makes people very uncomfortable. Because in the United States, to talk about racism is to be seen as “confrontational” or even “racist.” The attitude about racism in the mainstream is that racism is a “thing of the past” and “doesn’t exist anymore.” As a result of this socialization, there are several ways people derail conversations about race. I was challenging white supremacy in one conversation, for example, but all I kept hearing in counter-arguments was that I was “generalizing about white people” or being “anti-white.” In another conversation, a white feminist kept accusing me of “reverse racism” because I was critiquing the way white feminist movements have historically been oppressive, racist, and exploitative, specifically to women of color. This same white feminist said I was bringing up “color” for “no reason,” as if racism, sexism, classism, ableism and other forms of oppression aren’t interlinked. Finally, there was another discussion where a white Christian man, who claims to promote peace and coexistence between Muslims, Christians, Jews, and all peoples, was advocating for imperialism in Muslim-majority countries. He claimed there was a “just cause for war, civilian casualties or not.” When I called his comments insensitive and disgusting, especially because he was speaking for a country that isn’t his own and dismissed civilian casualties as if it wasn’t a big deal, he got extremely defensive and accused me of having a “personal vendetta against the West.”
I see all of these reactions as dismissing a disturbing reality about racial hierarchy, white “privilege” and power, interlocking oppression, power relations between the West and Muslim-majority countries. Rather than challenging white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy, the society in which we live, the focus of every conversation shifted towards personal attacks against me. The goal in each case, whether deliberate or not, was to silence anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-colonial, and anti-imperialist politics.
One of the main problems about mainstream discourse about racism is that we’re taught that racism only exists in extreme forms. That is, it is only racism when someone uses the “n” word, when KKK members throw on white sheets over their heads and go out to lynch a black person, when racists proclaim they support slavery, when neo-Nazis praise Hitler and the holocaust, etc. Of course all of these things are racism, but racism still exists today in both overt and covert forms. The disturbing growth of Islamophobia in the west is evident of how racism and bigotry is still very much alive. Racism against Muslims (and even though Muslims are not a race, they have become racialized by white supremacy), African-Americans, Native Americans, Asian-Americans, Latinos, and other racialized peoples is seen as acceptable due to the way racism hides behind terms like “political connectedness” and “race card.”
Another major problem is how fragmented people on the Left are. Those of us who identify ourselves as human rights activists, feminists, anti-racists, anti-capitalists, anti-war advocates, and so on, are caught in petty ego battles that stop us from moving forward. Celebrity activism and creating hierarchies within our movements is driven shamelessly by narcissism and undermines everything we claim to be standing up for. I’ve heard so many discouraging stories in the past few weeks about movements that oppressed, excluded, marginalized, or even discriminated against other groups of people. A friend and I were speaking about the racist history of feminism in the United States and how feminist movements were largely dominated by white women from privileged class backgrounds, many of whom, as mentioned earlier, marginalized, oppressed, and exploited women of color. Women of color still face racism within white-dominated feminist movements and spaces. A recent example of this is with Toronto’s “SlutWalk,” which was formed after a Toronto police officer told a group of students that women “should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” Although “SlutWalk” intends on fighting against dangerous sexist stereotypes and victim-blaming politics, a recent critique titled “SlutWalk: A Stroll Through White Supremacy” exposes the way white women within the movement are marginalizing and silencing the voices of women of color. I’ve seen Facebook comments where people have attacked this piece and accused the author for “splitting hairs.” And of course, there are folks accusing her of being racist and “anti-white” (because whenever a person of color fights racism, they are being “anti-white,” right? It’s appalling how the author is attacked for challenging white supremacy, as if racism isn’t a serious issue at all! “Reverse racism” arguments are used to deny privileges and dismiss serious concerns and experiences – it is essentially another way of telling someone to “shut up!” One particular person on Facebook argued that the author is hating on other women more than the oppressors. Obviously what this critic fails to recognize is how dismissing racism within feminist movements actually serves the oppressors and that oppression exists within groups, too. If we don’t confront racism, sexism, classism, ableism in our own groups, how are we going to confront it at large?
When I read and hear such defensiveness from privileged white people, it makes me realize how difficult the struggle is. Being a heterosexual male of color, I don’t want to appropriate the pain that women of color endure – it’s not something I can imagine – but I do acknowledge my own experiences in how I’ve been discriminated against not just by white men, but also by white women, including white women feminists. Some friends of mine have referred to me as a “male feminist,” but after a lot experiences, a lot of reading, and a lot of listening, particularly to women of color (all of which I am still doing), it encouraged me to challenge the simplistic and generalized language we use about gender and feminism. If there are women of color who are not comfortable with self-identifying as “feminist,” then how can I? (I’m not saying we shouldn’t use the term, I am specifically questioning the way male privilege allows men to use the term without thinking about the experiences of women of color). Other male feminists have written about their journey to feminism and how they believe it is the solution to patriarchy and misogyny. The problem I have with this presentation of feminism is that it’s very simplistic and doesn’t critique the racism and power dynamics that need to be confronted within mainstream feminist movements and discourse. When we say “men and women,” which men and women are we talking about? White men and women? Black men and women? Brown men and women? Homosexual men and women? Disabled men and women? And if homosexual or disabled men and women, are they white or of color? Using general language about feminism and gender only ignores the other significant factors like race, class, sexual orientation, religion, etc. that determine our experiences. Muslim feminists, for example, have been on receiving ends of hostile attacks from arrogant white non-Muslim feminists. I’ve lost count of how many e-mails and comments I’ve received from white non-Muslim women telling me that “Islamic feminism is an oxymoron.” Like non-Muslim women of color, Muslim women, especially those of color, have also been silenced due to Islamophobia and racism. Even worse, there are white non-Muslim feminist groups like the “Feminist Majority Foundation” that support Orientalist wars in Afghanistan rather than supporting the women’s rights groups that exist on the ground (I’ve written about this before on my blog).
What’s even more painful for me is when I feel discrimination from people of color and/or fellow Muslims. In a couple of recent cases, I have felt this. Some Muslims are too busy playing “biddah” and “shirk” police rather than supporting their fellow Muslims who protest against Islamophobic speakers that preach hate on college campuses (in one particular case, a leader of a Muslim student group felt it was “better” if Muslims “ignored” an Islamophobic speaker than to actually speak out and protest against the talk. While I don’t believe Muslims are obligated to behave like spokespersons for Islam, I think it’s important for the Muslim leaders in our communities to support the Muslims who actually put themselves in harm’s way to fight Islamophobia, racism, sexism, etc.) Then there are Muslims who perpetuate Orientalist stereotypes and the demonization of Muslims of color when challenging sexism and misogyny within Muslim communities. It is important for us Muslims to dismantle patriarchy and strive towards ending sexist oppression, but in some unfortunate cases, generalizing about Muslims and some of the cultures that comprise our community and then passing it off as “fighting sexism” only serves Islamophobia and western superiority complexes (I’m not in the mood to name names in this post, but there are published Muslims out there who speak out against sexism while supporting racial profiling and Peter King “hearings” that reinforce distrust and suspicion of the Muslim-American community – of course, this receives a stamp of “approval” from white non-Muslim Islamophobes who think the only acceptable Muslims are the ones who “assimilate” and serve the interests of the ruling class). Unfortunately, there are “establishment Muslims,” as Huma Dar describes in her enormously comprehensive and brilliant piece, “Of Niqabs, Monsters, and Decolonial Feminisms,” that support racist, oppressive policies against Muslims (e.g. French Law banning the niqab/face veil) while claiming to support “reform” and “gender equality” in their communities. I will continue to write about misogyny, male privilege, male supremacy, and sexist socialization in Muslim communities, mostly based in the US, while remaining conscious of racist assumptions made by certain white men and women alike who think as if white people aren’t also complicit in patriarchy and sexist oppression and exploitation. I’ve written several posts on this blog that challenges misogynistic Muslim men, but what bothered me later was how some people felt it was “ok” to make racist generalizations about Muslim men of color. Like in any community, issues like the objectification of women, domestic violence, and male domination needs to be discussed openly, but I also felt it was a failure on my part for not having an anti-racist analysis in those posts. The point isn’t that we should make a choice between talking about racism or sexism. It’s not one or the other. Racism and sexism are interconnected. Failure in recognizing this shows when we see anti-racism plagued with sexism or feminism plagued with racism.
While I was stressing on these points with someone and talking about how US wars and propaganda use the struggles of Muslim women as sympathy tools to (1) Orientalize all Muslim women as veiled and oppressed, (2) demonize all Muslim men, (2) uphold ethnocentric, western supremacist ideologies, and (3) invade, bomb, and occupy Muslim lands (and killing, bombing, raping Muslim women in the process), my “tone” was called into account. In other words, since my tone was fiercely critical of US imperialism, I was told I should be more “witty” and use “sarcasm” to win the “hearts and minds” of the person I was debating. This is the “tone argument,” which another blogger beautifully identifies as a “logical fallacy” where “you object to someone else’s argument based on its tone: it is too angry, too hateful, not calm enough, not nice enough, etc.” Furthermore, the “tone argument” isn’t concerned about whether or not the truth was spoken. It is used to “derail and silence” and “dismiss you as an unreasonable person.”
Ok, I wrote more than I anticipated on writing. The real reason why I wrote this post was to introduce this important and amazing piece that was published on “People of Color Organize!” It’s titled, Fourteen Ways Your Racism is Showing. It is written from the perspective of a black woman and addressed to white feminists, but I think it can be applied to other racialized and stigmatized peoples. Having said that, it is important to keep in mind that this isn’t to perpetuate the “shared oppression” narrative – certainly, all of us experience oppression differently due to our race, gender, class, sexual orientation, religion, etc. Anyway, I’ve pasted the entire post below. I hope everyone finds it as important and helpful as I did.
Your racism is showing when we are invisible to you; an afterthought solicited to integrate your white organizations.
Your racism is showing when in frustrated anger, you don’t understand why we won’t do your racism work for you. Do it yourself. Educate yourself. Don’t ask another Black woman to explain it all to you. Read a book
Your racism is showing when you pay too much attention to us. We resent your staring scrutiny that reveals how much we are oddities to you.
Your racism is showing in your cowardly fear of us; when you send someone else to talk to us on your behalf, perhaps another sister; when conflict resolution with us means you call the police. When you ignore what the police do to Black people and call them anyway, your racism is showing.
Your racism is showing when you eagerly embrace the lone Black woman in your collective, while fearing, resenting, suspecting and attacking a vocal, assertive group of Black women. One Black woman you can handle, but organized Black women are a real problem. You just can’t handle us having any real power.
Your racism is showing when you comment on our gorgeous “ethnic clothing or ask us why we wear dreads when we are perfect strangers to you. Would you do the same to a white stranger wearing Ralph Lauren and a page boy? These are also ethnic styles.
Your racism is showing when you demand to know our ethnicity, if we don’t look like your idea of a Black person. We are not accountable to you for how our bodies look. And we don’t have to be “nice” to you and tolerate your prying.
Your racism is showing when you insist upon defining our reality. You do not live inside our skin, so do not tell us how we should perceive this world. We exist and so does our reality.
Your racism is showing when our anger makes you panic. Even when we are not angry at you or your racism, but some simple, ordinary thing. When our expressed anger translates to you as a threat of violence, this is your unacknowledged fear of retribution or exposure and it is revealing your guilt.
Your racism is showing when YOU, by your interference, will not allow us to have our own space. We realize you never expected to be denied access to anything and any place, but sometimes you should stay away from Black women’s spaces. You do not have to be there just in case something exotic is going on or just in case we are plotting against you. In these instances, you are not just uninvited guests, you are infiltrators. This is a hostile act.
Your racism is showing when you cry, “Reverse discrimination!” There is no such thing. Only privileged people who have never lived with discrimination, think there can be a “reverse.” This means thatyou think it shouldn’t happen to you, only to the other people it normally happens to — like US.
Your racism is showing when you exclaim that we are paranoid and expecting racism around every corner. Racism inhabits this society at a core level. Ifwe weren’t constantly on our guard, we, as a people, would be dead by now.
Your racism is showing when you daim you have none. This economy and culture would not have existed without slave labour to build it. The invasion and exploitation of the Americas depended upon the conviction that people of colour were less than human. Otherwise, we could not have been so cruelly used. You grew up in a racist society. How could you not be racist? You cannot simply decide that racism is “bad” and therefore you are no longer racist. This is not unlearning racism. Black people could not afford to be this naive.
Your racism is showing when you think that all racists are violent, ignorant, card-carrying Nazis. You are fooling yourself, but not us, if you think that racism refers to the unconnected, isolated, “just-plain-meann actions and attitudes of bad people. Most racists are nice folks, especially in this country. Racism is systemic and cannot be separated out from this culture.
We do not want to witness or dry your tears. Yes, racism hurts. It hurts you, but please do not entertain the notion that it hurts much as us. Racism kills us, not you. Your tears will not garner our sympathy. We are no longer your property, therefore we will no longer take care of you. We don’t want to see your foolishness, so take your racism work to your own place and do it there.
TO WHITE FEMINISTS, BE YOU LIBERAL, RADICAL, SEPARATIST, RICH, OR NOT-YOUR RACISM IS SHOWING. YOU CAN EXPECT TO HEAR FROM VOCAL, ORGANIZED BLACK WOMEN WHO WILL BE IN YOUR FACE ABOUT IT.
- Carol Camper, “To White Feminists” Canadian Woman Studies, 1994