Saturday, October 26, 2013

Why do some white folks ask what we should do, to be an ally, when a Black woman is being abused in public by a Black man?

image is from here
This post is in response to a discussion over to Crunk Feminist Collective. You can read that post and the comments there first if you want, but it's not necessary. But to do so, click on the title of that post just below:

On Black Men Showing Up for Black Women at the Scene of the Crime

The reason it's not necessary is because white folks are asking questions there what white folks ask far too often in the wrong spaces: What should I do to be a good ally to people of color? Usually this assumes people of color exist to educate whites about how to be anti-racist/anti-sexist. And usually in contexts where people of color are not there to teach whites anything. (I mean, like not in a classroom with bell hooks as the professor teaching a course to people of color and whites on how to support one another across various political struggles.)

Too often, in PoC spaces or in conversations led by people of color about something awful that happened to someone, white comments become a white-centered distraction from the main issues.

But related to the post above, I wonder to what extent the Brecht Center is a white-majority or white-run space, an academic space. I wonder how that contributed to the lack of response from the audience to Crunktastic being intimidated, threatened, and assaulted at a progressive political panel discussion, by a well-known Black male activist, Kazembe Balagun. My experience of white and class-privileged academic spaces is that there is an expectation that audiences remain passive witnesses to what's going on (or down) onstage. That to do otherwise is to break the unwritten cultural rules of (non)engagement. I wonder if that's part of this story.

But there are always plenty of explanations for why folks don't intervene on violence against women, including racist misogyny (rarely identified as such). It shows up in male-bonding rituals. It shows up in the refusal of the public to see the harassment, disrespect, disregard, harassment, violation, and abuse of women of color as violence. Other dynamics are described later on in this post.

At issue is our collective response-ability to co-create anti-colonial, anti-patriarchal spaces in which to organise and, well, just live with dignity and relative safety. I've seen response-ability shut down by anti-activist liberal white and male self-reflection. "What can I do that won't be seen as racist or sexist?" is a question in service to white male supremacy. Because "how privileged folks are perceived" already presumes the issue is the image of the oppressors, not the harm done to the oppressed.

I'm making space here, at a white person's blog, for some of that discussion. A white woman at CFC left a comment, which I'm excerpting just below. The reason I'm copying and pasting it here is because she acknowledges this is a conversation that maybe shouldn't happen there and then, at CFC. And I agree. Other whites on that comments page appear to me to be making this about liberal white guilt and the matter of whether we should do anything, rather than about what we must do to intervene when we witness violence occurring right before us in social spaces.

I can’t pretend that the dynamics of my interactions with black women aren’t colored by our different races. I do not want to presume to act or speak for a black woman who is perfectly capable of acting or speaking for herself. Nor do I want to appear to be attempting to exert authority over a space for black people based on my white skin. It can be difficult at times to decide whether my intervention in a tense situation would be seen as welcome support or as hijacking. In this situation, I think the answer is clear (both from my own judgment and from the message of the post), but it’s not always.
Obviously, how a white woman would have felt/what she should have done should not be the center of the discussion here. What happened should be. But there seems to be a substantial discussion going on around that, and thus probably room for a thread or two on this point: that is, how SHOULD an ally best respond in this situation? There may actually be a different answer for other black men, for white women, for white men, etc.
Should whites respond differently to violence happening when the aggressor is a Black man and the person harmed is a Black woman? Are the responsibilities of a white ally to a Black woman facing male supremacist hostility from a Black man (or from a white man, or a man of color who isn't Black) different than the responsibilities of an ally to a white woman facing male supremacist hostility--from a white or Black man, or another man of color?

Beyond, "Don't do something racist", I don't think so. 

But it is, unfortunately, the case that we whites can be confused about what it is to be racist.

One way racism shows up is whites thinking that intervening when a Black woman is being abused by a Black man is in and of itself racist. When, in fact, not intervening is the act of racism, and sexism.

This was going to be my reply at CFC but I've decided to put it here instead and link to this post over there.
Dynamics are raced, yes. Always. And gendered. Whatever I did there, if I were there, would have been the actions of a white male. But our race and gender doesn't mean we're not capable of responding to other humans as human beings. 
I read another comment, in response to the one quoted above, stating clearly that the woman assaulted is a human being and ought to be responded to as the human being that she is
I thought about how whites use our whiteness as a way (and too often an excuse) to not do something we'd do if it were happening to someone white. We don't tend to ask ourselves, when in an all-white forum or social space, "How might my whiteness be a problem here, in possibly intervening when a white man is harming a white woman?" I'm just as white in all-white spaces too. That whole way of responding or not and acting or not is white supremacist to me. 

Black, Brown, white, female, trans, male: if I'm a person in the room, and I see someone being assaulted, I intervene, if I care and if I can. I do what I can do, given my own limitations, strengths, privileges, and experiences of trauma and resistance.  
One thing I've seen play out far too often is that whites assume a Black woman (a particular Black woman, any Black woman, or all Black women) is strong enough to handle things on her own. While whites often want someone (of color) to have our back, it is assumed by whites that a Black woman has her own back and doesn't need anything more. The misogynist-racist Super-woman stereotype. There's the issue of Black woman-as-mammy whose only role is to take care of whites. In such a racist imagination, how could she possibly need whites to emotionally or physically take care of her? In reality, in what spaces would whites do so at all without expecting public or private props?
I've seen how Black women's womanness is erased and how Black women's Blackness is eraced. Each of which contributes to how Black women's humanity is made invisible socially by white and male supremacy.
When women's liberation is discussed in white spaces, the talk often assumes an alleged common denominator of white experience. So Black women, and other women of color, are assumed to be part of that struggle--to be "women"--only to the extent that they share the experiences, analysis, and agendas of whites. Usually unasked and unanswered in such spaces is this question: how could white experience be a common denominator for all women, most of whom are not white?) In my experience, when women of color assert their womanness not in white or colonial terms, or outside a white frame of experience, whites often claim they are being divisive, disruptive, or collaborators with patriarchy. (In truth, whites invisibilising whiteness is always in service to colonial patriarchy.)
When Black liberation is discussed in Black spaces, the talk often assumes a common denominator of Black men's experience. So Black women, again, are assumed to be part of the struggle only to the extent that their lives and struggles match up with men's. When Black women assert their own experiences as distinct from men's, the men often rebuke, retaliate, and revolt against the women, proving the point far too predictably.

What gets lost, obviously, is the humanity of Black women as Black, as women, and as Black Women whose lives, however personally complex and culturally dissimilar, do not and cannot only mirror the struggles Black men and white women face, in part because Black women are oppressed by both groups and by white men too.
I open the post to comments and conversation.