[CN: examples of TERF arguments, and arguments about “reverse racism”]
There is this quote: when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression. No example is more proof of this than any discussion around the creation of safe spaces in the context of race, gender, sexuality, class, etc. Since I can remember I have gotten myself into conversations defending safe spaces that were women’s only, trans only, people of colour only, etc. And in each instance reactions came of reverse racism and “exclusionary politics”. The opposite also is very common, especially when it comes to TERF* spaces (i.e. trans women’s exclusion in women’s spaces), where then the right of a “safe space” from “men” is flaunted, ignoring the problematic and violent discourse behind trans exclusion and how it is perpetuated. Some people might argue that there is something illogical, or hypocritical in my reasoning when I defend certain spaces that are “exclusionary” while denouncing others; however, there is a clear line that defines when something is a safe space, as opposed to exclusionary.
It is really important to understand the issue of privilege in order to properly contextualise why a space would be stated to be “for _____ only”; privilege is what defines whether it is exclusionary and problematic, or whether it is about creating a safe space. To provide an anecdote to this: a few years ago, the one in nine campaign – a social justice organisation working on the sexual rights of women in South Africa – organised a training which they announced to be for “women who are assigned female at birth, socialised as women, and identify as women”; this phrasing was clear, and carefully crafted at that, to exclude all permutations of transness… transwomen, transmen, non-binary trans people. Of course this led to an outcry from trans activists and organisations, which were met with a very defensive attitude. But what I want to get to is a conversation I had with a prominent (cisgender) Black feminist who is (or was at that time) affiliated with the One in Nine Campaign**; at the Q&A at an event immediately after this controversy, I asked her why One in Nine was excluding transwomen from a women’s space. Her answer was that “there should be times where we should be allowed to organise in exclusion”… And here is the thing, her response completely ignored the cisgender privilege that was at play here; the context should be clear, transgender people are oppressed in ways cisgender people cannot phantom, and thus cisgender women – while of course facing misogyny and sexism, like any other woman – have privilege that transgender women have not. Therefore, the position that One in Nine took was trans-antagonistic, it was TERF to its fullest extend, and it was violent and problematic… as was the defense of that position.
The opposite of this, trans people organising themselves in a safe space that does not allow cisgender people to enter, is thus also different; such a space is for those who do not have cisgender privilege to be safe, to perhaps share, heal, or organise. Such safe spaces are necessary, yet they often elicit very problematic responses from those who posses the privilege that those safe spaces are meant to protect people from. An event organised by a Black queer woman in Cape Town called For Black Girls Only, drew criticism of “reverse racism” almost immediately. In fact, I recall a conversation with a white man, where he could not understand why such a racist even would be organised; what he, or any of those in the “reverse racism brigade”, didn’t seem to understand was the white privilege that this space was seeking to create a refuge from. Rhodes Must Fall, a radical Black student movement at UCT that aims to decolonise higher education, organises itself around Black Consciousness and does not allow white people to take up leadership in their spaces; their approach has been called exclusionary and racist, but it is not. In fact, in many social movements, when white people are allowed to come to meetings, one white person can drown out a hundred people of colour with their voice; white privilege emboldens white people to take up space, even if the space is clearly stated to be Black led. In such a context, it is sometimes (or, actually, often) simply necessary to create a space that is specific and safe for people of colour, for Black people***. This is not racist, it is subversion and disruption of white privilege at its very core… by denying them the power to either control the narrative in a space, or to derail it.
Such Black only, people of colour only spaces are not the same as “white only spaces”; again we need to contextualise why such a space was constituted. White people have privilege, white privilege, and there is no valid reason for them to create an exclusionary space. White people – when it comes to race – do not need a safe space, because their whiteness gives them safety. The incredulous responses from white people are in many ways an expression of white fragility; their reactions stem from an irrational fear that they, as white people, face “reverse racism”. But even further than that, it often simply is a way to perpetuate white racism, and their defense of “white only spaces” are in ignorance of the fact that on any level, white people – even in South Africa – have plenty of spaces where they dominate as white people, where any person of colour who enters the space will be profiles, scrutunised, and need to justify why they entering “their” space. And there it is, the white privilege, the perpetuation of white supremacy, through white fragility and fears… A clear example was the comment on an article that I shared on my Facebook page about a “whites only dating site”:
When white people equate the creation of safe space by people of colour to the racism inherent in any “whites only space” – whether through underlying attitudes in white dominated spaces, or through explicitly organising them – it shows how they experience the creation of safe spaces by people of colour as oppression. That is where the arguments of “reverse racism” stem from why people of colour create safe spaces. To the privileged, equality feels like oppression… and it is very much the ignorance of that privilege that leads them to feel “oppressed” while being in exactly the opposite position.
* TERF stands for “Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminism”; it is the radical feminism that has promoted “womyn born womyn” frameworks that are inherently violent to transwomen.
** I would like to state that since then I have not had an in-depth discussion about this with her, and I would not preclude that her views might have changed on this.
*** I am using the terms people of colour and Black both, as both For Black Girls Only and Rhodes Must Fall base their definition of Black in an understanding of Black Consciousness; this understanding of – as the organiser of For Black Girls Only put it – “Biko Black” encompasses “people of colour”. I am not implying that these terms are the same in any way, or that they should be used interchangeably, or that it is this simple; nor am I stating that I agree with these formulations. Rather, for the sake of the argument I positioned them next to each other in reference to the context of the paragraph.