I was first introduced to the Bahar Mustafa saga by friends from Goldsmiths who had seen the invite to the event politely asking those who were not women (or non-binary people) of colour not to attend. My friends were saying that this was ridiculous – lefty student politics gone mad. I said that I didn’t agree: that as a white woman I wouldn’t want to be in an organising space for women of colour. That my presence there may make it more difficult for people to express their grievances – in the same way that I find discussions of sexual assault more difficult when there are men in the room. I have every other space in the world as a white person – why shouldn’t they have theirs? I don’t think this means I can’t be an ally, or that ‘he for she’ doesn’t have a place in feminism, but that there is a point at which I can get involved and it’s after they’ve decided what their aims are, what their struggle is. My place as an ally, so far as I understand it, is to stand by women of colour on the issues they choose to campaign on – certainly not to be at the meetings where they are deciding on these issues.
Little did I know when I was having this discussion with my flatmates in the safety of my liberal-gender-and-race-theory-aware flat that this very discussion was about to explode in the national media. From the Huffington Post to the Guardian to the Daily Mail, everyone seems to have an opinion on Bahar. First on the original invite, and then on her use of the hashtag #killallwhitemen. Suddenly everyone in the playgroup who has the luxury of hundreds of toys to play with, wanted the one toy that another kid had. I would really love to know which white men were so keen to attend this meeting to the point that they felt that writing to the national press and starting petitions was a reasonable response. Moreover I’m fascinated to know how they cannot see the irony of the way they have been hounding a woman of colour online. I don’t know what led her to close her twitter account but the frequency of rape threats sent to any woman who puts herself in the public domain gives me a pretty good idea of what kind of experience she may have been having. Yet people are confused as to why she may want a space they cannot access.
I am not going to claim that the #killallwhitemen wasn’t a bad PR move. But this girl isn’t a PR professional. She’s a student union president who is doing her utmost to support equality and diversity at Goldsmiths University. Up until a month ago no one cared what she wrote on her twitter feed, and why would she suppose that this would suddenly change? A petition has been circulated calling for her resignation based on an alleged contravention of the EU convention against incitement to genocide, and the police have been called to investigate. Yet no huge petitions, no national media coverage and certainly no police have been involved in the problems on Goldsmith’s campus that lead to Bahar calling this meeting. Only when a strong, articulate woman of colour makes an obviously ironic, if of poor taste, joke ‘threatening’ the holders of almost all the power in the world are these kinds of forces mobilised. This makes me angry to my core, but more than that it makes me feel for her. As a white person I feel responsible, to some degree at least, for other white people’s actions when it comes to race. I feel an unbearable level of rage and a massive desire to find her and tell her – I’m with you.
More important than my deep-rooted anger, however, are the differences between the discussions in my flat and those in the wider media. I am usually under the assumption that the words I use are understood by those around me. We have a communal understanding of the labels applied to different situations, and what those labels represent. Yet watching Bahar try to defend herself to the media has made me realise how I can’t always assume that to be true. I agree with Bahar that people of colour cannot be racist against white people – because racism involves an inherent power dynamic based on a history of oppression. Similarly women can’t be sexist. Now that doesn’t mean these groups can’t be discriminatory, prejudiced or even just horrible people. It doesn’t even mean that they can’t be active contributors to oppressive structures. But it does mean that those, heavily loaded, words aren’t the right ones to describe them. As Bahar put it “I, as an ethnic minority woman, cannot be racist or sexist towards white men, because racism and sexism describe structures of privilege based on race and gender, And therefore women of colour and non-binary genders cannot be racist or sexist as we do not stand to benefit from such a system.
“In order for our actions to have been deemed racist or sexist, the current system would have to be one which enables only women and people of colour to benefit economically and socially on such a large scale and to the systematic exclusion of white people and men who for the past 400 years would have had to have been subjected to colonisation. Reverse racism and reverse sexism are not real.”
As I watched Bahar’s attempt to explain this nuanced concept to the media at large it dawned on me – she isn’t engaging with an audience schooled in gender and race politics. She wasn’t talking to people who had a shared understanding of labels, in the way that she, and I, had got used to.
Similarly as soon as I saw the hashtag I understood it to be an ironic, power-reclaiming device against the ‘feminazi’ taunts often thrown towards feminists – particularly those who are non-white. Taken outside of the circle of feminists and activists who I surround myself with though, it has been seen as incitement to violence, a completely inappropriate use of violence, which is never funny. The national media isn’t blameless in this faltering understanding. More effort can, and should, be made to understand the meaning of words as meant by those who use them. More effort should be made to fairly represent those fighting against immeasurable imbalances of power.
However Bahar, and all of us who stand with her, also need to think about how to overcome those barriers. Through no fault of her own, Bahar has become an unfortunate symbol of how far we still have to go in explaining to people the structural inequalities in power – both in terms of race and sex. This shouldn’t be a fight that Bahar has to take on her own. As a white person it is my job to explain to my friends, family and anyone else who I come into contact with why exactly she can’t be racist. To do that I need to take the time to explain what racism actually means, to accept their initial scoffs and looks of disgust. Because what is needed is a complete re-understanding of what words like ‘sexism’ and ‘racism’ mean. We need to explain that these concepts are about more than offensive words, or doors closed in faces – they are about entire structures of power. To do this we need to be willing to start every conversation by explaining our terms – by ensuring a common language. Liberation movements will continue to struggle if the language we are using has completely different meanings to us than to everyone else. To succeed we need to start by explaining our language – and stop assuming that everyone we’re interacting with has, or should have, an in-depth understanding of the academia of gender and race. Bahar – #istandwithyou.