You Are Oppressing Me!

Student activists are increasingly being identified as threats, whether to universities as institutions of knowledge, democracy or freedom of speech. Stories in the media circulate about students liberally using illiberal tactics such as no platforming. As I pointed out in a previous post You are Oppressing Us (this post is really part 2 of that one: an us becomes a me) many of the reported instances of “no platforming” are not in fact instances of “no platforming.” Students are using multiple tactics to challenge who speaks and what is being said. They are exercising their freedom of expression to protest against how others are expressing themselves: by not turning up at events, organizing alternative events at the same time; by turning up and walking out; by not sharing platforms with those whose views or conduct they find objectionable. I would say that the figure of the no-platforming student works to conceal what is worthy of our optimism: that students care about how worlds are being reproduced by institutions such as universities; that they are not passively accepting the terms or conditions of debate but are willing to stand up, to speak out; to fight to change those terms.

The figure of the no-platforming or censoring student,which operates alongside other figures such as the over-sensitive student as I discuss here, circulates not only because of who it demonizes but who it protects. Those who are protected are often those who are represented as censored. Because: when a critique is heard as censorship a critique is not heard. In fact the allegation of censorship is often what is censoring; what stops a critique from staying in circulation.

So we have yet another round of media reports this time about the “no platforming” of the “veteran gay activist” Peter Tatchell by Fran Cowling who is the LGBT officer for the NUS. Tatchell in his own tweets about these media reports uses words like “McCarthyism,” and “witch hunting” (as well as “sectarianism”). He has since written an article in The Telegraph where he uses these terms and in which he describes himself as a “victim.” McCarthyism of course not only refers to the use of unfair allegations to stifle dissent but derives from a specific moment in time: it was about how the State used allegations of communism to stifle dissenting voices by removing persons from their office. This use of words implies: that students are now in the position of the State wielding their power against radicals and dissenters whose own livelihood and personhood is under threat.

Students as the State: Really? Yes, really.

This is yet another instance of what is reported in the press as an example of “no platforming” is in fact not “no platforming” all. The person concerned refused to share a platform with Peter Tatchell. They did not even make a public statement giving a rationale for their decision in which they used the offending words “racism” or “transphobia.”

Now: refusing to share a platform is not “no platforming.” In fact to refuse to share a platform is to give up that platform yourself.

Many of those who say they are no platformed are the same those who have many platforms available to them. In fact we are learning from how many stories are now in circulation about this episode that claims that individuals are no platformed (whether made by the individuals themselves or by others on their behalf) can be how individuals acquires even more platforms.

No platform (as a claim) = more platforms.

So how and why did this story even become a story? The practice of not sharing platforms is commonplace. I have refused to share many platforms with different speakers myself. This is not because I do not or cannot deal with those with viewpoints different from my own. I am a full-time academic, I would not have anywhere to go if that was my reason! It is because sharing a platform requires being alongside before you can position yourself for or against.  It can be a legitimating of a viewpoint as worthy of being debated. Racism is often presented in these terms: as just another viewpoint that can be expressed at the happy table of diversity. I refuse that table. I always send explanations of my decision to event organisers; I always take the time to explain why I do not wish to share a platform with such and such a speaker. I am willing to use the word “racism” in my explanation of my decision when racism is the explanation of my decision. I consider these emails confidential: I  do not want to be in a dialogue with someone about why I do not want to be in a dialogue with someone! Perhaps if some of these emails were shared with that someone, or leaked to a third party, I could end up in trouble; although I am not sure I would because, I suspect, my position (as a professor) gives me some protection; in my experience, at least, words tend to cause more trouble for those who are more precarious.

So this story became a story because emails that were not intended for public circulation were disclosed to the media. There were at least two key moments when a correspondence is turned into a story: when the event organisers shared the emails with Peter Tatchell and his team, and when Peter Tatchell and his team either shared emails or disclosed their content to a media source. My own personal view is that both moments involved parties making decisions that are breaches of the usual ethics that surround the organization of events.

We can tell from the kind of stories that have circulated about how the story came to be a story. The media reports typically frame Peter Tatchell not only as the victim but also as the savior/hero (a “national treasure” in the Guardian article linked above, no less). The various media articles uniformly ask us – the readers, the public – to be grateful to Tatchell for his long years of dedication and sacrifice for human rights. Student activists then appear as spoiled and ungrateful children; willful children, perhaps, whose concerns about, say, transphobia and racism, are interpreted as a screen through which they mask their own will and desires.

It is quite clear that this story is being told from a certain point of view.  We are given the story as a way of being given that view.

The stories read like a PR campaign. Perhaps they read like a PR campaign, because they are a PR campaign.

We are watching the machinery; clunk, clunk.

Tatchell tweets the same tweet to many parties about how the student activist concerned refuses to provide evidence of his “transphobia” and “racism” because there is no evidence to provide.  I want to focus on the question of racism “or the use of racist language” because this is what I work on.  Just as an aside here: that the Guardian article linked above uses the expression “racism or the use of racist language” implies to me that the emails refer to “the use of racist language” (why else this or?). If that is the case, then to represent the story as Tatchell being accused of racism is already misleading or we just say it is leading (it is leading us to hear racism in a certain way). As I will try to show to hear racism as accusatory – as a claim that can be or should be treated as libelous – is to participate in a silencing mechanism.

I want to say before I proceed that I do not consider myself outside the problem I will be describing in the following sections. We can all become the problem. There is no bigger problem than those who think of themselves as a solution. And I know what it is like to be the object of critique. It can be hurtful and it is easy to become defensive. Recently for example a student used the word “transmisogyny,” to describe problems with a panel I was organizing. I immediately felt defensive. I wanted to announce my commitments! As a teacher my first principle is: treat your first reactions as pedagogy.  I learnt from my own defensiveness about how I was participating in something that I did not want to reproduce. Not wanting to reproduce something is no guarantee that you are not participating in something and can even allow you to participate in something (good intentions, in other words, can function as a safety net). Having realized this, I could have approached this student and asked her to enter into a dialogue. I could have asked to learn from her. But transmisogyny can be reproduced by the very expectation that I as a cis woman should be taught by a trans woman about it; that she spend her time on me as well as with me. I have had this happen to me with racism: white people expecting me to teach them.  Diversity work is the work of having to teach others about themselves: it is exhausting and it is what we might call a reproductive mechanism (it reproduces the relation being critiqued in the requirement to critique the relation).

It is still risky to present this example in this way because it can sound triumphant: look at me, see what I have learnt! We cannot make ourselves heroes in our melodrama without losing something, including insight. There is too much difficult work to be done; too much left to do. We can all get things wrong; we need to attend to how we get things wrong when we do.

To write from a position of self-defense in relation to transphobia (as a cis person) and racism (as a white person) is not adequate, if I can be allowed this underdescription of the problem of who becomes the solution.

Now to the purpose of this post: we have been here before.

In the past Tatchell has sent out a challenge to provide evidence of racism or his use of racist language. In the past I have taken up that challenge. I want to share in the remainder of this blog what I have written elsewhere about racism in relation to Tatchell’s work – since 2008 when I posted a comment on a website that was then shared on Alana Lentin’s blog. That comment was then reworked as a section of chapter 5 “Speaking about Racism,” from my book On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012) and in an article published in a special issue of Feminist Legal Studies (2011). I then wrote again about the issue of racism in relation to Tatchell’s work in chapter 4 of Willful Subjects. I am going to share parts of this written work here so that it is more accessible to others (I have made some cuts and a few new additions). We need other stories to circulate, ones that counter the story that has been circulating within the press.

My point is not to make this singular instance be what the story of racism in the LGBT movement is about. That is never the point. It is the bigger picture that matters. From instances we learn about worlds.

Whatever you think, I want you to note that there is a long history of challenges made against Peter Tatchell on the grounds of racism: from many activists and scholars including from queers and trans people of color in Europe (some of which I will be citing in this post) and African human rights LGBTI defenders. This history is relevant because it demonstrates a constancy of critical reflection on the kind of work being done.

I would add one final note: in my view the most serious problem derives from the manner of the responses to challenges and critiques and to those who have made them.

Racism and Censorship[i]

 In 2008 I was pleased to write an endorsement of the collection Out of Place: Interrogating Silences in Queerness/Raciality, edited by Adi Kuntsman and Esperanza Miyake. In my endorsement I described Out of Place as “a bold collection of essays that teaches us to think about what happens and can happen at the points where queerness and raciality meet. These meeting points can be startling, powerful, violent, oppressive and enabling. From reflections on forms of violence, terror and security, to considerations of how whiteness coheres in space, from accounts of the life worlds of queers and trans of colour, to critical engagement with debates about methodology, experience and activism, this book brings together some powerful new voices. The landscape of queer and critical race studies might look quite different if we listen well.”  As a queer academic of color based in the UK, it was indeed exciting to have this collection in my hands: to sense the emergence of a new scholarship premised on a will to think sexuality and race together, and to ask hard questions about the complicity of some forms of queer activism with a not-so-new world order based on Euro-American hegemony. My view (then and now) was that this would be a key publication for queer studies and critical race studies in the UK and beyond.

I was thus disappointed in 2009 to hear from the editors that the book was not going to be reissued and that it was now officially out of print. I was concerned to hear that the publishers had received complaints about the chapter by Jin Haritaworn, Tamsila Tauqir and Esra Erdem, entitled “Gay Imperialism: Gender and Sexuality Discourse in the War on Terror,” from Peter Tatchell and his legal team. The chapter offers a critique of the work Tatchell and OutRage! as an instance of a wider phenomenon they name  “gay imperialism.” The chapter has been described by Tatchell as “false and libelous.”  We can pause here and consider what the term “libelous” is doing in an act of description. To describe something as “libelous” is to evoke the spectre of the law. A libelous text would not stand up to the weight of the law. Even to describe a book as libelous can be to threaten it with the law.[ii]

Before a proper discussion about these complaints with the editors or authors, the publisher issued a formal apology to Tatchell, based on a set of counter-assertions about Tatchell and OutRage!. These counter-assertions included: that he has never “claimed the role of liberator and expert of Gay Muslims”; “that he is not Islamaphobic”; “that neither he nor Outrage are racist” and “that they have not engaged in racial politics,” and so on. As “counter-assertions” these assertions counter what are assumed to be the “assertions” of the chapter. The apology effectively aligned the publisher with Tatchell, in such a way that the publisher simultaneously aligned themselves against the authors of the chapter of the book they have published. The decision not to reprint the book is now impossible to separate from the decision to apologise to Tatchell.  As Aren Aizura (2009), Johanna Rothe (2009) and Umut Erel and Christian Klesse (2009) have pointed out the book has in effect been censored from existence. Further, the censorship of the book has been directed towards the critique of gay imperialism in particular. Note that censorship as a practice does not necessarily involve an individual actor who is doing the censoring (though it can do). To censor is to delete what is objectionable. The objection to this paper has enabled the deletion of a book.

I had been wondering about how I could respond to these events, when I read the critical accounts of censorship offered by Aizura, Rothe and Erel and Klesse. I was extremely grateful to them and to others for writing about the politics of the apology and for making explicit how racism comes up as a mode of response to critiques of racism. There are huge risks in writing or speaking about racism. Even to exercise the critical vocabulary of racism can generate a set of defenses, such that an exchange ends up being about those defenses rather than about racism (which is how such defenses are successful).  I should also admit I experienced a sense of tiredness – we might call this political fatigue – as I witnessed the events I am describing unfold. The apology as a script seemed familiar: too familiar to be rehearsed; yet so familiar it sounded like a rehearsal. We can learn from how responses to critiques of racism sound like rehearsals. It is as if there is a script that is written in advance; it is as if the very point of the script is to block the critique of racism from getting through.

When I read Tatchell’s own response to the critics, entitled “Academics Smear Peter Tatchell,”[iii] it became very clear that even the critiques of his response to the critique of racism were being blocked from getting through. Tatchell claims that many of his “detractors” were “spreading further smears.” We probably think we know what it means to “spread smears.” “To smear” originally meant to spread or daub with a sticky, greasy, or dirty substance, but has now come to mean “to stain or attempt to destroy a reputation.” So these criticisms of the censorship of Gay Imperialism are read as attempts to destroy Tatchell’s reputation, as a kind of “covering over” with dirt. In fact the critiques that Tatchell is referring to are hard to describe as smears.[iv] Not only that: they actually anticipate the defence made by Tatchell, as they explore the problem of how the critique of racism offered in the original paper had been displaced by being heard as accusatory, as being about individual reputation.  We can note here that Tatchell’s response employed the exact discursive tactics challenged by the critiques by describing the critiques as accusations of censorship: “For defending myself against untrue accusations, I am now accused of ‘censorship.’“[v] In fact the critiques of the censorship of Gay Imperialism did not accuse Tatchell himself of censorship: in different, but related ways, they argue that the book has been censored in part because of the decision by the publishers, which as a decision can be located with the problematic terrain examined by the original article.

Responses to critiques of racism can take the form of counter-assertion (“how can you accuse me of racism,” “some of my best friends are Black”, “I did good work for them,” etc.). These counter-assertions might also offer an assertion of a given person’s credentials. Counter-assertions are often stronger than countering the original assertion in the form of a negative claim (“I am not racist”); they often make additional assertions in the form of a positive claim (“I am anti-racist”). These responses fail to respond to the actual critique of racism as they take the form of self-recognition (“I don’t recognize myself in the critique of racism”; “I recognize myself as an anti-racist”).  To respond to a critique requires not referring what is said or written back to one self but engaging more closely with what is being asserted.  When self-reference happens too quickly (when someone responds by defending themselves against a critique by hearing that critique as an attack on their credentials), the opportunity for an engagement is immediately lost. We could describe the censorship of the critique of gay imperialism as the loss of an opportunity.

[I want to add something here. Note that the assumption that we have to engage with views we oppose misses how engagement does not happen because of how some views are asserted. I have no doubt that engaging with people who cannot respond to critiques of their work is not an engagement but yet another opportunity for them to assert their views. This is why I often refuse some engagements. I regularly talk to people I disagree with if I am confident than an engagement is possible.]

One difficulty here is that responses to racism tend to exercise the figure of “the racist” as the one who can be charged and brought before the law.  The very appearance of this figure is what allows a reduction of racism to an individual person who suffers from a false set of beliefs.  The figure can do a great deal of work: it is relatively easy for someone to respond to a critique of racism by insisting or even showing they are not that figure (unless they are say, a member of the BNP, and even then the new vocabularies of the BNP might allow someone to say something like: “I am not racist, I just love this country”). The reduction of racism to the figure of “the racist” allows structural or institutional forms of racism to recede from view, by projecting racism onto a figure that is easily discarded (not only as someone who is “not me,” but also as someone who is “not us,” who does not represent a cultural or institutional norm).  Critiques of racism are heard as personal attacks on reputation (repeat: “how can you call me that?”), such that one of the biggest accusations you can make is the very accusation that you are accusing someone of racism. As Fiona Nicoll suggests “the very idea of suggesting that someone might be racist has been elevated into a crime to rival (if not displace) racism itself” (2004: 20).  The reduction of racism to an accusation is part of the displacement and thus reproduction of racism. Indeed, one of the best ways you can deflect attention from racism is to hear racism as an accusation. When racism is heard as accusation, public relations becomes the exercise: the response takes the form of a defense of individual or institutional reputation.

Evidence of Racism[vi]

As I noted earlier in the article “Academics smear Peter Tatchell,” we are invited to find evidence of “Islamaphobia, racism or support for imperialist wars or the ‘war on terror’” in the articles that can be downloaded from Tatchell’s website. I decided that the best way I could respond would be to take up Tatchell’s invitation. Reading through these articles, I appreciated just how important a critical response to the material remains in circulation. Many of the articles including: “Their Multiculturalism and Ours”, “Why has the left gone soft on human rights?”; “The New Dark Ages” and “Islamic Fundamentalism in Britain” show serious problems in terms of their liberal employment of racialised vocabularies.  Before I refer to examples from these pieces, however, I want to pause and reflect more on what it means to talk about racism: and in particular what it means to think about how racism operates in language. I will use the occasion of responding to this material as an opportunity to reflect on some of the complex (and not so complex) ways in which racism operates. In doing so, I will be making my own rehearsals: going over or repeating arguments that might seem familiar about how racism works particularly through its re-attribution as a problem of culture. If critiques of racism are not working, are not getting through, then it is indeed time for repetition.

So what about racism in speech? What do we even mean by racist speech? I want to stress here that racism in speech – or even racist speech – does not simply take the form of explicit articulation of ideas of racial superiority (though it can take this form). Indeed, racism in speech often works precisely because such associations do not need to be made explicit.  An example of this can be found in discourses around the “war on terror.”  Politicians can make an explicit argument that “this is not a war against Islam,” as they often do. However in the same speech they might use the term “Islamic terrorists,” indeed that term will be repeated, often in a very casual way. The term can work to associate Islam with terror through the mere proximity of the words. The repetition of the proximity makes the association “essential.”  A repetition of a proximity is an affective mechanism: the word “Islam” become sticky; it comes to carry the value of the words that it is placed near. Saying just the word “Islam” can then be enough to generate terror.  In other words, the stickiness of proximities congeals as attribute, without an explicit act of attribution having to be made (for a discussion of “sticky signs” see Ahmed 2004). Even if an argument is explicitly made that Islam does not equal terrorism, an implicit association between Islam and terror is sustained.

The process of attribution in turn is bound up with the justification of action.  Attributions can be negative (x = cause of terror, oppression) but also positive (x = cause of freedom, modernity). The language of freedom can thus be exercised in justifications of war, as if freedom itself is a cultural attribute: what “we have,” and as what can be given or forced upon others.[vii] This is how a war on terror can be justified as freedom from oppression/violence. Freedom might refer here not only to freedom from oppressive regimes, or freedom understood in terms of its assumed kinship to democratic forms of government, but also the freedom of women and sexual minorities. One of the important contributions of the original chapter by Jin Haritaworn, Tamsila Tauqir and Esra Erdem (2008) was to show how the very language of gender equality and sexual freedom can become a technology for distinguishing “the West” from its others, in particular from the Islamic other. Words such as “freedom” become a mode of subject constitution. As Judith Butler also describes “a certain version and deployment about the notion of ‘freedom’ can be used as an instrument of bigotry and coercion. This happens most frightfully when women’s sexual freedom or the freedom of expression and association for lesbian and gay people is involved instrumentally to wage a cultural assault on Islam” (2009: 209).

It is indeed frightening when the terms that have been central to social movements to which we are attached are the same terms used to wage war. We do not need to withdraw our commitment to these terms; nor do we need to assume they are inherently problematic. But we do need to think through the significance of their utility.  Jasbir Puar (2007) has astutely described the forms of lesbian and gay politics that exercise (and even seek to benefit from) an opposition between sexual freedom and Islam as “homonationalism.” We must indeed be critical of any complicity between a minority project and a state project. Queer politics needs to make explicit how the languages of freedom, including sexual freedom, can be mobilized in the war on terror, and can be used to justify the extension of state racism.  Not only does sexual freedom become a cultural attribute of the West, but sexual unfreedom and sexual backwardness becomes an attribute of Islam. If liberation becomes liberation from an attribute, and that attribute is made cultural, then liberation becomes liberation from culture. For queer Muslims or queers from Muslim backgrounds this is familiar: it is assumed in becoming queer you have to be freed (by white queer communities) from your family/culture/tradition.

When governments justify war on the grounds of freedom from oppressive regimes, it helps to recognize that these justifications have a history, to refuse to hear them as “new.” As Gayatri Spivak taught us, the British empire itself was justified in these terms. Her description remains extraordinary for its precision: “white men saving brown women from brown men” (1988: 297). Homophobia too can be exercised as what “the others” need liberating from: we can reformulate her description as “white queers saving brown queers from brown straights.”  The politics of attribution is thus a central mechanism for establishing the moral ground for war. When homophobia is attributed to Islam, it becomes a cultural attribute. Homophobia would then be viewed as intrinsic to Islam, as a cultural attribute, but homophobia in the West would be viewed as extrinsic, as an individual attribute.

When freedom is used as a justification for war and empire, it too can become a cultural attribute: what we have; what we give them; what they must have.  We can learn from how racism can be exercised by or even as the language of freedom. When we are dealing with language and power we are dealing with how power often does not reveal itself: power becomes the capacity not simply to regulate speech but to generate ideas through proximity: freedom would be put near other terms, giving them both value and force.  For example, freedom of speech has recently come to be translated into “the freedom to be offensive.”  These freedoms become qualities attached to some rather than others. My own work on Islamaphobia has examined how “being hurt or offended” by racism becomes seen as the “problem” of Muslims who don’t integrate, such that Islam becomes what offends “our freedom,” what challenges our freedom (Ahmed 2010: 142-148).  None of these associations have to be articulated as a viewpoints, nothing has to be explicitly said.

It might be helpful to point out that homophobic speech can also work like this by a withdrawal from the necessity to articulate a viewpoint: for example, someone does not have to be anti-gay by saying “all gays are pedophiles” or “all gays endanger the well-being of our children,” all they need to do is put the category of pedophilia near to the category of homosexual to create this effect. Or note how if a lesbian or gay person is involved in child abuse, the category of lesbian or gay will often be made explicit in media reporting, which becomes an implicit invitation to make being lesbian and gay part of the problem: but when a heterosexual person is involved in child abuse (much more commonly) their heterosexuality is less likely to be brought up in the description, which allows heterosexuality to disappear from the problem. The way in which problems are presented makes some people and not others into problems. A critical and complex understanding of language and power is needed to get at this mechanism. We must take the time we need to get at this.

I would argue that Peter Tatchell’s writings on Islam and multiculturalism repeat and reproduce many “problematic proximities” between Islam and violence, and thus participate in the culture of Islamaphobia. Haritaworn, Tauqir and Erdem in their chapter show this: they point out how, for example, in one of his articles Tatchell makes six comparisons between the Muslim Council and the BNP, suggesting that the language of these two groups is “barely distinguishable” (2008: 80-81). We learn from the inability to distinguish between these groups: the terms “Muslim” and “fascism” become barely distinguishable in this reading of their terms as “barely distinguishable.”  Even if there is no explicit claim that Muslims are fascists, the repetition of the proximity generates its own claim. The social diagnostics of homophobia translates swiftly into a racial diagnostics. The terms we use can make the translation for us.

Consider Tatchell’s article, “Far Left Collusion with Islamo-Fascism.” The term “Islamo-Fascism” makes exactly this translation. I would describe this term (without hesitation) as a racist term, where the availability of this term as a singular term is a condensation of a history. The proximity between the two words “Islamo” and “Fascism” is signaled in the abbreviation of the dash. It is just a small line that gets us from one to the other. The term “Islamo-Fascism” unsurprisingly was exercised a great deal in official justifications of the war on terror, performing a similar function to the term “Islamic terrorists” that I discussed earlier. The nearness of the words does the work of argument without having to make an argument: Islamo – fascism as Islamo = fascism.

One of Tatchell’s primary motifs about the politics of the left – that they are “going soft” – needs to be challenged. The rhetoric of “going soft” is of course often exercised within mainstream politics (both Tory and Labour): going soft on immigration would be a case in point. For Tatchell the left is going soft on human rights. What can this mean? One has to note that many in the left (activists as well as scholars) have historically been critical of the language of human rights given that human rights often assume the “abstract individual” as the primary subject of politics (an individual who is abstracted from the qualities of some more than others); and given that rights discourse has been used to justify acts of violence. We need as well to remind ourselves of the reasons why anti-racist activists and scholars have been critical of the languages of universalism (see my post on what I call “melancholic universalism” for a discussion of some of these reasons). Note, I am not saying that this is the only way that rights discourse has been used but I am suggesting we need to understand the utility of rights discourse to imperialism. My own view is that rights discourse can be useful for pragmatic reasons: it is a question of how it is used, by whom, and for what purpose. But the idea that the left is going soft on human rights is simply a failure to recognize any of these histories of internal critique.

The construction of “the left” and its failures within Tatchell’s writing does its own work. Another example: the article “Why has the Left Gone Soft on Human rights” suggests that the left’s “perverse interpretation of multiculturalism” has “resulted in race and religion ruling the roost in a tainted hierarchy of oppression.” The implication here is that “political correctness” (which would be a fair translation of this perversity) about “race and religion” have prevented those in the left from challenging sexism and homophobia in minority cultures. What is so odd about the timing of this utterance is that multiculturalism is increasingly and officially being articulated as a problem (what Tatchell is describing is hardly a dominant view). Multiculturalism is officially described as a problem because of how it is assumed to encourage segregation. The so-called failure of integration is easily and often narrated as the failure of ethnic minorities to integrate (not the failure of , say, the white upper classes to integrate).  The failure of multiculturalism in Tatchell’s article is identified with the failure to be critical of minority cultures (for their homophobia, sexism etc.). The problem with multiculturalism becomes not only a problem with minorities, but also because it prevents us from speaking of them as a problem.  In other words, multiculturalism becomes a problem because it prevents “us” from being critical of minorities. We might note a performative contradiction at work here: a viewpoint that we cannot be critical of minority cultures is offered as a way of being critical of minority cultures.

By implication the new minority position becomes the position which critiques minority cultures: the new minority becomes those who are “being hard” on minority cultures rather than “being soft” on them.  Crucial to what I would call “the inflationary nature” of this logic is the argument that racism is taken more seriously than homophobia (“ruling the roost”). I believe homophobia should be taken seriously, but the idea that racism is being taken seriously “over” homophobia needs to be challenged: not only is racism often protected under the banner of freedom of speech; but racism as a set of practices can be concealed by the very discourses of equality that are supposedly signs of racism being taken seriously (for discussion  see Ahmed 2012). And that is just the polite forms of racism.

Furthermore, as Haritaworn, Tauqir and Erdem showed in their chapter, the very narrative that “race and religion” is privileged over sexuality as an axis of oppression becomes a means of suggesting that ethnic minorities are privileged over sexual minorities (2008: 81). Such a narrative immediately constitutes these groups as being in opposition: as if there is no overlap, as if there are no sexual minorities who are also ethnic minorities. Queers of colour can disorder this political order by entering the debate as subjects with our own voices. The idea that race is taken “more seriously” only makes sense from the point of view of those who can inhabit whiteness, where inhabitance is also about the exercise of privilege (a sign of privilege is not noticing one’s privilege).  The experience of racism teaches you the myriad and complex ways in which racism is not visible to those who do not experience it. Much of this experience I would describe as the everyday experience of not being white in a world that assumes whiteness as a norm. To inhabit whiteness as a white person can mean not coming up against race in how you encounter others in everyday and institutional spaces. Put simply (and clearly it is still the time to make this simple point): white queer subjects might be very aware of heteronormativity because of being queer (queerness as estrangement from social and sexual norms) but not be aware of whiteness because of being white (whiteness as an alignment with social and racial norms). Taking racism seriously is what we must aim for, and part of this seriousness needs to be the recognition of what we might call “institutional whiteness.”

In another article entitled “Their Multiculturalism and Ours,” Tatchell suggests that the left has “gone soft” on its commitment to human rights because they are “paralysed by fear of being branded racist.” He then suggests that “allegations of ‘Islamaphobia’ and racism are increasingly manufactured.” Racism becomes here a fabrication, a system of rule, an invention that serves a purpose (by preventing a critique of minority culture). The very idea of racism is identified as a form of cultural paralysis.

Let me step away from Tatchell’s specific article at this point. I would suggest that one of the crudest ways that racism is reproduced is through the denial that racism exists. It then appears as if the ones who bring it up are bringing it into existence. Furthermore, the idea that racism does not “really” exist (in the way they say it does) can become a justification for racism (as if racism is what stops us from being allowed to be racist, for example, by representing such and such a minority as the cause of our problems). Racism is then often enacted in the same speech acts in which it is denied. One of our tasks must be to account for these forms of denial.

Returning to Tatchell’s article, one of his examples is the veil. He refers to the defense of “the veiling of girl children in many Islamic societies” and the attempt to “import this sexist oppression into Britain.” Later in the same article he suggests that “even in the West” people are now saying that “we must accept and respect this cultural difference.” One notes here that there is no engagement with any voices of Islamic feminists in this article.  The assumption that the veil can only signify oppression thus enables Tatchell to take up the position as the one speaking for “the minority in the minority.”  The assumption that Islamic girls concerned are “young and powerless” translates into a moral authority to speak on their behalf. There is no engagement at all with how much speaking for the minority of the minority has been a position of majority privilege historically.  We can return to Spivak’s precision: “white men saving brown women from brown men” (1988: 297). When the other is spoken for, the other does not speak (or as she famously describes”the subaltern does not speak”, which is to say, the conditions are not in place for her voice to be heard).

Now the consequence of my own critique would not be that we cannot attend to the violations of the rights of women or girls in Islamic cultures. As a feminist I think we need to attend to violence against women and girls, wherever it happens. But we also want to ask critical questions about the politics of attention. We might note that the problem of sexism, sexual harassment and sexual violence in “the West” does not come up in the same way, because if it does come up, sexism, sexual harassment and sexual violence are typically identified as about problem individuals not a cultural problem.  The problem of violence against girls and women in so-called Western countries is rarely denoted as a problem of culture.So if a white man attacks a woman, and if he is put on trial, his whiteness would be inessential or incidental, an irrelevant detail. If a brown man – he might be an immigrant, he might be a Muslim -attacks a woman, his brownness becomes essential: perhaps the violence is identified as originating with immigrants or Muslims. Summary: some forms of violence are represented as intrinsic to some forms of culture (as as cultural problem or a problem with culture); other forms of violence get represented as extrinsic to others (as an individual problem or a problem with individuals).

Racism increasingly operates through the idea of “culture” as being what minorities “have.”[viii] Culture here becomes something fixed but only for some cultures (culture becomes their nature). Making violence into a problem of culture is thus a way of racializing violence. Much racism today operates as or through the racialisation of violence.  And as Sara Farris has recently noted “when sexism is racialised and depicted as the exclusive domain of the non-western or non-Christian Other, all women end up losing.”

In “The New Dark Ages: Peter Tatchell Documents The Global Threat of Islamic fundamentalism” the racialisation of violence becomes explicit. You don’t need to read Frantz Fanon to discuss the problem with the use of the very term “the new dark ages” though Fanon, as always would help. The term “the dark ages” derived from Latin was first recorded in 1602 to indicate the decline of the Roman empires. The term however borrowed from long-standing metaphors of light and darkness, signifying truth and falsity, as well as proximity and distance from God. These metaphors participates in a racial history: “dark” has come to signify, as Frantz Fanon (1986) pointed out, the other side of man, the lower side, what is emotional, primitive, behind, beneath, evil. Dark becomes death, illness, decay, loss, incivility, absence. Darkness might seem to acquire these meanings by being detached from the literal referent of dark bodies. But actually in gathering these meanings, darkness becomes all the more sticky: not only sticking to those bodies that can be recognized as dark, but assigning those bodies with negative value. Black bodies become legible not only as not white, but as not being, or as being not.

Let me repeat: we do not need to read Frantz Fanon to discuss the problem with the use of the very term “the new dark ages,” though Fanon as always would help.

What is new about the new dark ages? Tatchell suggests that the “New Dark Ages are already with us: “For hundreds of millions of people in parts of the Middle-East, Africa and South-East Asia, the ascendancy of Islamic fundamentalism has ushered in an era of religious obscurantism and intolerance.” The expression “the New Dark Ages” names the ascendancy of “Islamic fundamentalism” and thus names Islam (we have already noted the problem of proximity: Islam becomes fundamentalism through the repetition of the proximity between the terms).  The rise of Islam becomes identified with the return to the Middle Ages; the collapse of the Roman Empire; and the disintegration of Europe. The  article talks of “the zealotry of the original dark ages in medieval Europe, when Christian fundamentalists excommunicated and scientists as heretics, tortured non-believers, drowned women as witches, and burned sodomites at the stake.” Note here that Christian violence is made into the past, a “making past” that renders Christian violence something that is no longer. The threat of Islam is made dramatic in its presence. Islam becomes associated not only with the threat of an individual death, but with the potential death of civilization. The threat of Islam is thus posed as a future threat by associating Islam with a past that we have left behind.[ix] When a threat is made present, then fighting becomes about a matter of survival.[x]

In another later article, “The Global Struggle for Queer Freedom” Tatchell uses the term “the homophobic dark ages.”  Homophobia itself becomes a sign and symptom of the primitive, of the racial other, of a racial time that “we” have overcome. There is probably no clearer example of how the very use of the language of homophobia can reproduce racism.  We could mention here that more than half the countries that criminalize homosexuality have laws that originated with British colonialism.[xi] We do need to talk about the problem of homophobia – just as we need to talk about sexism and transphobia – but to find this problem elsewhere (introduced by the one deemed foreign) can be a way of not addressing the problem here. Indeed, the appearance of having solved it or achieved it can then be used as evidence of cultural superiority. We give this becoming a word: racism. 

Feel Like An Arm, Act Like A Rod[xii] 

This is already a very long post. If you have got this far, thank you! But I want to share one more set of comments about how Tatchell make use of racist language, from my most recent book, Willful Subjects (2014). In this section I am trying to complicate my own arguments about willfulness. If my book begins with a wayward willful arm that is beaten by a willing rod (that grim Grimm story), I point out in this section how a rod can appear as an arm; how it can be involved in beating the others by creating the impression of being the one beaten.

The example: in 2011 a demonstration against the English Defence League, a far right group with an anti-immigrant and anti-Islam stance, took place in Tower Hamlets, East London. Prior to the march, Peter Tatchell announced his willingness to demonstrate as a gesture of solidarity with Muslims. He wrote the following invitation or request to the queer community: “I urge everyone to support the Saturday’s protest against the far right English Defence League (EDL), as it attempts to threaten and intimidate the Muslim community.” He also indicates his own will to be present under, we might say, the queer sign: “I will be there with a placard reading: Gays and Muslims UNITE! Stop the EDL.”[xiii]

The sign might seem to promise solidarity between willful parts: Gays and Muslims, those whose particular will is not given expressed by the national will (although we can note this “and” assumes the parts as apart: the Gay Muslim disappears in this “and”). In a follow up article, Tatchell refers again to his placard. This time he makes clear that the sign has two sides.[xiv] On the other side is the following: “Stop EDL and far-right Islamists. No to ALL hate.” Let’s think about the two sides of the sign: one says “yes” to solidarity between Gays and Muslims, the other says no to “the EDL” and “far-right Islamists.” On the other side of the sign, the other side of “yes” saying to Muslims is “no” that creates what we can call a problematic proximity between the EDL and Islamism. On the other side “Islam” appears only as “far-right Islamism.”

We realise the significance of these different sides of the placard if we read the narrative. Tatchell uses the occasion of recalling the experience of the march against the EDL (an organization that has an anti-Islam but “gay friendly” stance) to speak out not against the EDL, which recedes or becomes background, but against what he calls Islamic fundamentalism. In fact Tatchell uses the occasion to argue that Islamist goals are “much more dangerous” than that of the EDL. One has to note that Tatchell is adopting here the very language of the EDL.[xv] It is easy to identify the problems with this identification of Islamism as the “bigger threat” in the context of a protest against those who perceive Islam as the “bigger threat.”

But how does one read the insistence on the right to be visible as a gay man in a protest, to carry a queer sign? One could say surely he is right; surely queers have a right to gather whenever and wherever? But travelling under the queer sign can become part of the management of the racial space of the nation. As Jin Haritaworn (2010) has noted in a sharp critique of gay imperialism, the use of kiss-ins near Mosques by mainstream LGBT groups in Berlin shows how what appears as an assertion of a sexual minority can function as the assertion of a racial majority. Travelling under the queer sign becomes a way of occupying political space and of claiming territory as one’s own residence or home. This is how the content of this sign does come to matter: the queer sign is not empty in the sense that it cannot be filled by anybody. The queer sign becomes aligned with the state apparatus, a happy sign, depending on the unhappiness of the Muslim other; it can achieve its status as voluntary stigma by willing the very signs of an involuntary Islamic homophobia. The Muslim others becomes unwilling citizens: unwilling to integrate, unwilling to love the love that is willingly (although conditionally) endorsed by the nation.

We learn that if insistence is a political grammar, it is not always legible.  It might appear that organizing under the queer sign requires willfulness. And yes, sometimes, maybe even often, it does. But sometimes it does not: you might feel like an arm but act like a rod. This is a complicating point: one that I want to complicate my own argument thus far in this chapter. The very assumption of willfulness can protect some from realizing how their goals are already accomplished by the general will. It can be whiteness that allows some queers to accomplish their goals; it can be the unseeing of whiteness that also allows some queers not to see how they appear to others when, for instance, they carry a sign that makes Islam proximate to the EDL; it can be unseeing whiteness that allow some queers not to see how that very proximity can be a threat. What is assumed as a willful queerness can be a willing whiteness. Jasbir Puar’s (2007) important critique of homonationalism could be read as an account of how wayward queers can and do become the straightening parts. This kind of queer politics aims to become part of the nation where partness is achieved by or through the very projection of willfulness onto others.

It is important to describe the racism of this projection. But to describe the projection of willfulness as racism is to be heard as willful. When queers of color talk about racism in queer politics, we become killjoys, killers of queer joy; the ones who are getting in the way of queer happiness. It is then as if: we are preventing ourselves from taking up our seats at the table.

Sometimes, the only possible politics we have available to us is to refuse that seat. I write this post in solidarity with those who have refused that seat.


Ahmed, Sara (2014). Willful Subjects. Durham: Duke University Press.

———- (2012). On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham: Duke University Press.

———- (2010). The Promise of Happiness. Durham: Duke University Press.

———- (2004). The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh:  Edinburgh University Press.

Aizura, Aren (2009). “Racism and the Censorship of Gay Imperialism,”

Butler, Judith(2004). Undoing  Gender.  New York: Routledge.

Erel, Umut and Christian Klesse (2009). “Out of Place: Silencing Voices on Queerness/Raciality”.

Fanon, Frantz (1986). Black Skin, White Masks. London: Pluto.

Haritaworn, Jin (2010). “Queer Injuries: The Racial Politics of ‘Homophobic Hate Crime,’” Social Justice. 37 (1): 69-89.

Haritaworn, Jin, Esra  Erdem and Tamsila Tauqir(2008) “Gay Imperialism: The Role of Gender and Sexuality Discourses in the “War on Terror,”” with Esra  Erdem and Tamsila Tauqir, in Esperanza Miyake and  Adi Kuntsman (eds.), Out of  Place: Silences in Queerness/Raciality, York: Raw Nerve Books, pp. 9-33.

Nicoll, Fiona (2004). ‘“Are you calling me a racist?”: Teaching Critical Whiteness Theory in Indigenous Sovereignty’, borderlands, 3.2.

Puar, Jasbir (2007). Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times.  Durham:Duke University Press.

Razak, Shareen N. (2007). Casting Out: The Eviction of Muslims from Western Law and Politics. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Rothe, Johanna (2009). “Out of Place, Out of Print: On the Censorship of the First  Queerness/Raciality  Collection in Britain.”


[i] This section is drawn from On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012).

[ii]  I am suggesting here that whether or not Peter Tatchell and his team threatened the publisher with the law, their use of the language of libel to describe the article constituted a threat.  Tatchell says they did not threaten litigation: my point would be that they did not need to, whether or not they did.

[iii] All of Peter Tatchell’s writings referred to in this piece can be downloaded from his website: Last accessed August 18 2010.

[iv]  Tatchell in this supplementary response refers directly only to Erel and Klesse: however the article also uses terms like “my detractors” and “my critics” suggesting the object of the response is more generalized, as well as I would suggest anticipatory as a mode of defense (“my critics “easily becomes “anyone” who would agree with the criticisms made in the original chapter).

[v] My argument here does not rest on a semantic distinction between “accusation” and “critique” but a sense that the word “accusation” is heard in a particular way (or is a way of hearing). Indeed the two words “racism” and “accusation” when stuck together tend to conjure up a scene, of an individual subject who is under attack: a sense we might say of injury, of being hurt and damaged.  This distinction between critique and accusation is subtle but affective.

[vi] This section is derived from my 2011 paper “Problematic Proximities: or Why Critiques of Gay Imperialism Matter,” from Feminist Legal Studies. I include a download link to the whole special issue – which contains some important critiques of gay imperialism:

[vii] In the article in The Telegraph linked above, Tatchell refers to “enlightenment values” and John Stuart Mills’ On Liberty in particular. I should add here that the period of the Enlightenment coincided with the expansion of European imperialism and the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Many Enlightenment thinkers were deeply racist (think Hegel, think Kant), identifying history and reason with white people; others found ways to reconcile slavery with liberalism (think Locke). We are not rejecting ideas by pointing this out; we are complicating the history of ideas; we are opening those ideas up by considering  histories of  their usage. Even ideas we agree with can be used to support systems we oppose. Also note John Stuart Mill was a utilitarian philosopher. He was also employed by the East India Company, the company which when it was dissolved, became the British Raj (his father James Mills another utilitarian philosopher who wrote the volume A History of British India – one of the most racist and Orientalist body of work you could find – also had a role in this company). This is no mere coincidence: empire was routinely justified using utilitarian logics (maximizing happiness). Also note today this history of European imperialism is routinely recalled as happy history of “giving” modernity (and with it law, liberty, equality) to others rather than a violent history of conquest, invasion and destruction. It is this happy version of the British Empire that is presented in the book, Life in the UK, upon which citizenship tests are based. It is the dominance of this way of telling the imperial story that explains why so many people in the UK can still be “proud” of empire. How we tell these histories really does matter. Recognizing that liberty can be used to justify war and oppression does makes a difference. For further discussion see the chapter “Melancholic Migrants” from my book The Promise of Happiness (2010).

[viii]  Th mechanisms whereby “culture” becomes racialized  are complex; and we have before us a long history of critical work that attends to these complexities. Feminist postcolonial scholars have focused on how “culture” becomes associated with minorities and in particular with Muslim women: see for example the work of Shareen Razack (2007).

[ix] In other words, temporality is crucial to the work of this narrative: Christian/Western/European violence becomes “in the past” as a way of Muslim violence into the present. I would argue that racism in the contemporary context is itself associated with the past, as what we have overcome or left behind. For example, Trevor Phillips during an interview he gave on the BBC to mark the 10th anniversary of the Macpherson report on January 19 2009 says the following: “the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry was a great shock to the system. It shook people out of their complacency and meant that we had new laws and a new attitude and that meant for example that the police have changed their behaviour quite dramatically. Nothing’s perfect, there is still a lot of work to do, but we are in a different place than we were before.” We can notice in this description that the introduction of the language of institutional racism becomes a form of shock therapy that is understood to be the origin of new attitudes and new behavior.  Not only are institutions given psychological attributes in this account, but we have a clear narrative sequence of before and after, in which what comes after the recognition of institutional racism is marked by its difference to what came before.  In other words, the institution in being shocked into recognizing its racism is no longer racist. For Phillips “the we” of the police slides immediately into “the we” of the nation: “we are in a new situation. Britain is a modern diverse country. Britain is the best place to live in Europe if you’re not white.”The “shock” of recognizing institutional racism is what allows recovery from racism and even the emergence of racial equality. For Phillips any racism within an institution is explained as not really “going on” even when it is ongoing: “In many of our institutions, there are still old-fashioned attitudes that don’t really catch up with where modern Britain is at and how British people today feel. That’s the next task that we’ve got to tackle.” Racism becomes in this description about what is ‘old-fashioned’ as if it lingers only insofar as institutions are not expressing what is in fashion. Racism enters contemporary discourses of race equality as an anachronism.

[x] In this respect, the argument made here shares some features with fascist accounts which also position minority cultures as threatening the survival of the nation (see Ahmed 2004). Rather the survival being a matter of kinship and blood, it becomes a matter of the transmission of the right values (including rights, diversity and equality). This is very close to existing government rhetoric about “British values,” which constructs intolerance as other than British values. Othering works now by perceiving the other not as intolerable but as intolerant. With reference to note [ix] , even empire can be used as evidence of British tolerance. Trevor Phillips describes empire as demonstrating the British are “not by nature bigots.” As he puts it: “we mixed and mingled with people very different from those of these islands. Yes: conquest, violence, slavery, settlement, occupation re-described as a party. There is a politics to who is perceived as tolerant and intolerant. When values become attributes of bodies, then values become mechanisms for inclusion and exclusion.

[xi] See:

[xii] This section is from chapter 4, “Willfulness as a Style of Politics,” of Willful Subjects (2014).

[xiii] See:

[xiv] See:

[xv] More recently Peter Tatchell suggested that the problem with UKIP is their lack of support for Gay Pride (otherwise it should be included in Gay Pride). This reveals exactly the problem with “happy diversity” as a politics. UKIP rests on anti-immigration stance even if its racism is more hidden than BNP (though it is not really that hidden!). The inclusion of UKIP would mean that many of us – queer and trans people of colour -would not be included in a Gay Pride event. When racism becomes just another body that can be included in queer space, queer space is made white.

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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7 Responses to You Are Oppressing Me!

  1. Matt Groaning says:

    Worth noting another example of Tatchell’s racism:
    “Malcolm X, real name Malcolm Little,”
    Because the real name of an Afro-American is that of a slave ower.

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  4. Marc says:

    Thank you for taking the time to write this thoughtful and instructive piece.

  5. Pingback: Frantz Fanon & White Queer Studies | Gukira

  6. Pingback: You Are Oppressing Me! | Speechaxe

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