In succumbing to the politics of exclusion, some feminists recreate the very structure that oppresses them

“I, an ethnic minority woman, cannot be racist or sexist towards white men, because racism and sexism describes structures of privilege based on race and gender,” explains Bahar Mustafa, a students’ union diversity officer at Goldsmiths University. “And therefore women of colour and minority genders cannot be racist or sexist because we do not stand to benefit from such a system.”[1]

I’m seeing this argument a lot lately, and I have to say, I’m not impressed. In this case, Mustafa had requested white and male students not attend “students’ union event for black and ethnic minority students in April.”[2]

Which is to say that a Black woman like former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has worked to uphold structures of imperialist wealthy white male privilege, if she went back to school at Goldsmiths, would be welcome by the simple fact of her birth; however, by the simple fact of their births, white males would not. Racism and sexism, according to Mustafa, can only be done by white males.[3]

Which is to say that identity counts for more than actions. That identity counts for more than character. That identity counts for more than motivation.

When whites or males do this, it is racism or sexism. When “women of colour and minority genders” do it, it is not. Because, Mustafa explains, “we do not stand to benefit from such a system.”[4]

This assumes that white males are powerful and other people are not and would be a Manichean binary if Mustafa equated power with evil. She doesn’t. At least when she exercises it. Or, it would seem, when Condoleezza Rice exercises it.

In response to the furor, the union said, “Goldsmiths Students’ Union places huge importance on equality and diversity. It is in this vein that we host spaces where specific minority groups who experience similar discrimination can talk together confidently about overcoming the structural disadvantages and prejudice they face in society.” They say they are “reviewing the way these events are communicated to avoid any future misunderstandings.”[5] In short, this is about a ‘safe space.’

But the ‘safe space’ is threatened by white males simply because they are white males. And not by women of color who, for whatever reason but often in order even to get a job or to rise within a hierarchy, enable the very power structures that Mustafa and others object to.

This is not a position that makes sense. Lorraine Code argues against binary thinking because she says, such thinking always privileges the wealthy over the poor, whites over non-whites, men over women, heterosexuals over other sexual identities, etc.[6] She doesn’t say this thinking is harmful when white men do it and not harmful when women of color do it. She simply attacks the way of thinking. And she’s not the only one.[7] As I explained in 2012, “Code wants us to find truth with rather than against, an approach that both challenges the entire conception of authority in commercial society and declines to rebel against it.”[8]

I’m actually more radical than that. I think we do need to rebel against the power structures and I think the tactics of nonviolence have their limits,[9] particularly where the ruling elite are using our divisions—however socially constructed—against us.[10]

But it is important to correctly identify the enemy. The enemy is much more the system of social organization, that yes, mostly wealthy white males benefit from, than it is any particular individual. It is a system that threatens all of us, and indeed a great many living things on the planet,[11] because the attitude that privileges some people over others is the same attitude that privileges humans over the environment, and humans over non-human animals. And the way that we treat the environment and non-human animals is reflected in how we treat each other.[12] Which I think[13] is why Code wants us to find truth with rather than against.[14] She worries, I think, that in demonizing or even devaluing individuals because of their social location that we have failed to overcome the patterns of domination that are the real problem.

This is where Mustafa and others like her are making a serious mistake. It’s also, by the way, the difficulty that must be overcome in any violent rebellion against the system of social organization that oppresses us. We have always only managed to change who is in power, rather than the paradigm of how we treat each other.

  1. [1]James Rush, “Goldsmiths Students’ Union diversity officer explains she cannot be racist or sexist because she is an ethnic minority woman,” Independent, May 12, 2015, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/goldsmiths-students-union-diversity-officer-says-she-cannot-be-racist-or-sexist-to-white-men-because-she-is-an-ethnic-minority-woman-10244520.html
  2. [2]James Rush, “Goldsmiths Students’ Union diversity officer explains she cannot be racist or sexist because she is an ethnic minority woman,” Independent, May 12, 2015, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/goldsmiths-students-union-diversity-officer-says-she-cannot-be-racist-or-sexist-to-white-men-because-she-is-an-ethnic-minority-woman-10244520.html
  3. [3]James Rush, “Goldsmiths Students’ Union diversity officer explains she cannot be racist or sexist because she is an ethnic minority woman,” Independent, May 12, 2015, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/goldsmiths-students-union-diversity-officer-says-she-cannot-be-racist-or-sexist-to-white-men-because-she-is-an-ethnic-minority-woman-10244520.html
  4. [4]James Rush, “Goldsmiths Students’ Union diversity officer explains she cannot be racist or sexist because she is an ethnic minority woman,” Independent, May 12, 2015, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/goldsmiths-students-union-diversity-officer-says-she-cannot-be-racist-or-sexist-to-white-men-because-she-is-an-ethnic-minority-woman-10244520.html
  5. [5]Goldsmiths Students’ Union, quoted in James Rush, “Goldsmiths Students’ Union diversity officer explains she cannot be racist or sexist because she is an ethnic minority woman,” Independent, May 12, 2015, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/goldsmiths-students-union-diversity-officer-says-she-cannot-be-racist-or-sexist-to-white-men-because-she-is-an-ethnic-minority-woman-10244520.html
  6. [6]Lorraine Code, What Can She Know? Feminist Theory and the Construction of Knowledge (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 1991).
  7. [7]Cornel West, “The New Cultural Politics of Difference,” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 511-521.
  8. [8]David Benfell, “We ‘need to know how it works’,” May 15, 2012, https://parts-unknown.org/wp/2012/03/15/we-need-to-know-how-it-works/
  9. [9]David Benfell, “It’s time to shut up about nonviolence,” Not Housebroken, April 29, 2015, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=7488
  10. [10]David Benfell, “We ‘need to know how it works’,” May 15, 2012, https://parts-unknown.org/wp/2012/03/15/we-need-to-know-how-it-works/
  11. [11]David Benfell, “‘We have found the enemy, and he is us’ — and our system of social organization,” March 6, 2013, https://parts-unknown.org/wp/2013/03/06/we-have-found-the-enemy-and-he-is-us-and-our-system-of-social-organization/
  12. [12]Greta Gaard, “Vegetarian Ecofeminism: A Review Essay,” Frontiers 23, no. 3 (2002): 117-146.
  13. [13]David Benfell, “We ‘need to know how it works’,” May 15, 2012, https://parts-unknown.org/wp/2012/03/15/we-need-to-know-how-it-works/
  14. [14]Lorraine Code, What Can She Know? Feminist Theory and the Construction of Knowledge (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 1991).

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