[CN: White privilege gone rampant]
I am reeling after just reading a recent interview with so-called “the beloved philosopher and author of Gender Trouble” entitled Why Do Men Kill Trans Women? (it’s a donotlink, because I don’t want to give it any more traffic.) At first sight it is simply an academic who shares their views on killings of trans persons of colour in the USA; upon closer inspection, it is appropriation of all the work trans activists of colour have been doing, regurgitating their work and narrative without any attribution. In academic terminology, it would – in my opinion – be close to plagiarism. But more galling is the continuing trend of privileged, white, academics speaking for communities they do not belong to. The world has seen amazing activism of transgender people of colour, transwoman and transmen, non-binary and gender non-conforming activists of colour who have bravely stood up; yet their voices are simply silenced as a white academic decides to speak about them, for them, and in words that objectify them.
Judith Butler comes out with suggestions such as: “what is really needed is an anti-racist, anti-transphobic movement that draws from the feminism of women of color and its trenchant critique of racism and police power” … as if such a movement does not exist? As if trans people have not been integral parts of movements such as Black Lives Matter? As if there are not many trans people of colour working hard within such movements? There is either a clear ignorance or willful dismissal of these activists in how she speaks; I cannot speak as to which one, but as a “beloved” academic (to use the adjective in the introduction of that article) they should know better. At some point they say that they wonder “[…] whether the younger trans women are being mentored and protected, or whether they are operating outside of networks.” There are so many problems with the underlying responsibility that Butler puts on the transgender community for (failing) to keep young trans women safe; at this point they came close to blaming the communities of trans people of colour for these killings.
Judith Butler recycles the work of the brave activists who risk their lives just walking down the street, who work hard to create a better place for their communities, and it is disrespectful; the only persons they give, at some point, the slightest credit to are Ken Corbett and Gayle Salamon. Butler’s narrative seems as if they are the first to realise the need for intersectionality between movements and issues, while this intersectionality has been the lived experience of trans people of colour, and is sure something they understand and speak to. At some point she says: “I think that trans people have to answer that question“, yet only in response to a question that asks almost abstractly whether “[…] being transgender ultimately about accepting natural human difference at large?” Only at this point Butler admits their inability to represent transgender persons, let alone trans persons of colour, while they conveniently forget this when presenting the very solutions and strategies that activists have been working on as if they are their own ideas.
As much as this is about killings in the USA, and an American academic doing this, it is a common trend even in South Africa. The sheer detachment with which privileged academics speak about the lives of transgender people of colour, as if their profession gives them the right to analyses and present in cold facts the reality that trans people of colour have to navigate every day is galling. Even white trans people who live the academic life are not free from this, as they often forget their white privilege in how they approach their academic projects; they often forget the radically different experience that white privilege awards them, even if they are trans.
The currently prevailing academic approach is one of objectification, one of a power dynamic and separation between “researcher” and “subject/participant” that is presented as “objectivity”. When such research is then done from a position of privilege, often white and cisgender lived realities are thus “accepted” as a norm against which one is measured again, especially when it comes to white cisgender researchers interrogating trans persons of colour. This needs to stop, in 2015 such an approach cannot be justified, and the privilege of especially white cisgender academics with which they speak about our lives needs to end.