‘Offended. Insulted’; Prejudice in the Left

by Falastin

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Sometimes, socialising with the Left can be a little like walking through a market in Marrakesh. You get all these people running to you, trying to explain why their organisation is better. When I’m in Djamma al Fna Square I’m generally just buying a leather bag- I like to think hard about the expensive Berber carpet before I even consider bartering for it. But when I’m at a meeting listening to some amazing speakers and those people with the patronising smiles (the “Aaw, it must be hard to be Arab and Muslim looking” smile) approach you and are all friendly and nice, you don’t realise that you’re being sold something as big as an ideology. These people tend to think I’m stupid, oppressed and naïve enough to believe anything I’m told. Unlike the Moroccan stallholders, I find them to be fake and pretentious and very bad at what they do. At least the guys in Morocco are pros.

I don’t want to get in to banter about socialists and Marxists and their tactics but people need to hear about the amount of racism and sexism inherent in the left. It makes me feel just as worse than being called a “paki” by white working class people in my neighbourhood or a “coloured person” by my stiff-upper lipped lecturers.

I’m an English Literature graduate and working at a sixth-form in my local area and loving it. Currently, I’m exploring the Black Power movements in America and the response and debate I get from my students is real and heartfelt. Sometimes emotions run high as students tell me of their experiences as both victims of racism, but also of their battle against racist friends and family. It reminded me of my students days of political activism which was only two years ago: the sit-ins, rallies outside our principal’s office, demonstrations on campus and being part of the national leftist movement.

Whilst I was university, I got stuck in to the romanticism that is the Left. A lot of the students I hung out with were like members of the Baader-Meinhof gang. Spoilt middle class brats who wanted something fun to do that would piss of their oppressive parents; rebels without a cause. Some of them were wannabe Baader-Meinhof fighters, they would copy how they dressed, their hairstyles and even travel to Germany just to take artistic photos. This one girl I knew looked just like Gudrun Ensslin, and she shared her boyfriend just like the real Gudrun, just because she felt she had to. Not because she wanted to. Some of them were just downright pretentious- they would rent expensive property in Brixton or Shoreditch or move in to a flat in an estate just so they could feel like they were living in the ‘ghetto.’  This one friend I had would always start of a conversation with, “This kid got shot outside my estate yesterday.” He was clearly excited by this horrible news.

I never became like them but at first, I thought they were genuine. I soon came to realise however that most of them were opportunists waiting to finally lead the movement. And if that looked out of reach, they’d just try and get in the pictures. Speaking to the crowds at every possible moment and joining the cheers. Meet the leaders, and if lucky enough make friends with them. And at the end of it all, they would go home and ponder on how many ‘famous’ people they knew or how they were a part of history.

One thing I never got was how happy they’d be when we’d be making our way to pro-Palestine demonstrations. In my final year the Israelis launched their barbaric attack on the people of Palestine in Gaza. They called it Operation Cast Lead and slaughtered 1300 Palestinians including over 300 children. There were demonstrations every day outside the Israeli embassy and we would all go together. I would be wishing it never happened, and that we wouldn’t need to protest because the Palestinians shouldn’t be having missiles thrown at their schools and Mosques. But my lefty friends were busy making Lowey’s tune the soundtrack to the suffering of the Palestinians. For them, the deaths of innocent women, men and children was just a memory that they could romanticise just like they did everything else.

Soon after, I became active in a national anti-imperialism organisation that was quite well known. I was asked to speak on their behalf at public meetings. The audience seemed to like me and as I made my way down the platform one by one, about seven different people approached me to join their organisations. And about twenty other people told me how ‘inspiring’ it was to see an Arab woman speak to passionately.

I went to speak at a lot of events and I did question why I was always chosen. I had the suspicion that they just wanted me as a token. But I didn’t complaint because I enjoyed putting my views across: I would never have been given that opportunity anywhere else.  One day, I received a phone call from someone who worked at the headquarters, and she asked if I was free that week. “There’s a public meeting this Thursday and currently all the panellists are white men, so we were hoping you could come along seeing as you’re Muslim.” I was shocked to say the least. Offended. Insulted. I wanted to be picked because I was intelligent, not because she couldn’t see past the colour of my skin. It felt like the time this guy shouted raghead at me in the streets. It was Ramadan and I was wearing a hijab and I was too hurt to say anything back to that thug. Neither did I protest to this woman’s blatant racism.

A few weeks later, it happened again. “We need you at an even in a few days. The audience always like you and you’re Muslim so…” I hated being treated as their symbol of ‘diversity.’ The audience liked me because it made them happy that they were listening to an Arab Muslim woman talk.  They would feel that they weren’t racist, and at social events they could sound cultured with conversations like, “this lovely Muslim girl I know- very intelligent you know. She’s not like other Arab girls.”

And that was the other problem. Men, and in particular the leaders- in the Left were always calling me a ‘girl.’ As if they could get any more sexist. Ironically, these were the same men preaching feminism. Ardent feminists in the movement patronised from a woman to a girl wouldn’t say a thing because they were in awe of the leaders they were now friends with. They thought their lives would be played in black and white reels in fifty years time and that made them content, if not jump over the moon at the prospect of fame. I always felt that women were underrepresented in the Left. Sometimes, they would only have extra female speakers because “it would look bad if we only have two.” They would settle for someone they didn’t even like just for the sake of appearances. I know this because after a while, they’d gotten so used to me that I think they forgot I was both Black and a woman. Their racism and sexism got worse and too wounded by their blows I would stay silent only to write it all down later when I got home.  One time, I heard a discussion about Egypt and “how Arab men are very perverted.” Funnily enough, the same man who said that had his eyes all over a young girl who stepped on to the train.

A while later, they were saying how “tired they are of the local Asian community not joining our cause. We’re fighting racism for them. How can they expect change if they don’t support us?” I asked them what they meant by that. We should all attend meetings about anti-racism held by white people because that will tackle racism? Not surprisingly, I didn’t get a response. That was the last straw for me. It’s hard to explain what I’ve experienced and I’m sure lots of people reading this will think, “it’s not that bad. Get over it” or “that’s not necessarily racism/sexism.” I find myself too angry to express myself properly. Prejudice isn’t just a few words here and there. It’s an idea of superiority within them and the feeling of inferiority they inflict on you.

It all proved to me that women and Black people are not equal in the Left; far from it. We are always second best if not tokens and trophies. It’s so frustrating because there is so much in this society, this country, this world that we need to help change, and on the outset you think the Left has similar ideas. But for people who proclaim to have views then act in a different way there is only one conclusion- that they are deceiving their supporters for the sake of power. We need to organise and not fall in to the Lefty cliché of ‘recruiting.’ That way everyone in the cause is genuine and passionate about making the difference.

I would have liked to speak on that platform- not as the Black Muslim woman who is friends with the white people who set up the stage, or the Black Muslim woman who was the dash of colour to the room. But as a Black Muslim woman who is seen for she is.

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~ by Bobi Pasquale on May 16, 2011.

5 Responses to “‘Offended. Insulted’; Prejudice in the Left”

  1. I got into a huge argument with some comrades years ago over inviting someone from another city to come speak at one of our events because we needed more “diversity” on our panel. I brought up tokenism and it was a perfect opportunity in their eyes to get me to read a bunch of shit that didn’t address the fact we were treating this person like a token. Sure their politics are very similar to ours but the fact that we want her there for some color instead of for who she is and what she can bring. Not to mention they asked her to talk about a subject she knew nothing about when one white woman locally was an expert in that subject.

    Embarassingly bad.

  2. Although I can’t comment on your specific experience I can say that you shouldn’t take that and generalise on to the left in it’s entirety. With that in mind I would like to comment on some of the things raised here; because there is a degree of truth here that is somewhat pervasive, but also a lack of understanding as to why this is and what we can do to deal with it. I feel the conclusion here is chucking the baby out with the bath water, and edges close to ideas of beyond left and right (which is something of another discussion, but I’m proud to be on the left while being quite happy to admit it isn’t, nor ever will be, perfect as I’ll come to)
    The adoption of leftist principles, or even a hard-won understanding of something more specific (i.e. Marxism) doesn’t not imbue on the individual the somewhat God-like power of understanding all peoples at all times. As a white male I cannot understand your experience as an Asian Muslim Woman any more than I can understand the experience of Palestinians. I can grasp sets of hard facts, perceive brutality and oppression, know that I want these things done away with, but I cannot generalise my own experience on to yours, or anybody else’s, specific experience. I can understand what oppression entails, how it manifests itself, even what it does to a person – but a white male will never actually have the same experiences that an Asian woman might.
    From this it’s plain to see that wanting to do away with a society that is oppressive (that has forms of racism, sexism etc.) does not turn you suddenly in to an individual that has thrown out all ideas of racism and sexism. The ideologies are simply too pervasive. Having grown up in a class society, existed in a class society, had my experiences within a class society, been taught in a class society, I will always be a product of a class society. Arriving at an understanding that I want to do away with racism and sexism allows me to do only one thing as an individual: challenge myself, and happily be challenged by others (especially those with the direct experience of these forms), as part of a process – but not a process that, for an individual, has an ending where suddenly I will no more have any such prejudices.
    To say otherwise is to fall on to the logic that racism and sexism are not products of class societies, but are things that exist separately from them and therefore can be abolished without abolishing the entire structure. This I do not agree with, and I think we’ve seen the limits of challenging forms of oppression in a reformist manner over and over again.
    So undoubtedly, as a woman, you will still encounter sexism on the left. Among creatures that are flawed this is inevitable. We don’t actually have to like that to understand it. There are, then, two reasons why the left is so insistent about having panels balanced racially and sexually. The first is to practice what we actually preach: the modes of organisation of a new society do not exist in a far flung future; they must exist today, in embryo, in the current system. We may exist only as a poor caricature of an equal society, but there is significant worth in making that attempt (and this statement can apply as much to how we organise as it can to how we tackle prejudice within ourselves as individuals). The second, the more concrete, is to actually arrive at an understanding of the specific experiences of groups that are oppressed in ways white males simply are not. To not put Arab Women on platforms would be to not even make an attempt to understand the specific experience of Arab Women; not to mention (since you mention anti-imperialism) the fact that it is Arabs that are engaged in the key anti-imperialist struggles of the day. A British born Arab may not have actually gone through the experiences that Arabs in the middle east have, but I daresay they may be able to offer insights in to the situation that, again, white men cannot. The alternative would be not to pay attention to the make-up of platforms, which I think would be far more disastrous. You highlight the fact that there is, and will always be, a fine line when attempting to do these things between sincerity in our attempts to combat oppression and doing it for the sake of it. Occasionally we won’t get it right, you may even contend often, but I’ve never listened to female speaker and thought “she’s just here for the sake of it” – if you aren’t a person that can actually address the subject at hand then I don’t think you’d be invited regardless of race or sex, and that means that these invitations come from much more than simple ‘tokenism’. How will we ever attempt to actually tackle superiority / inferiority if we do not invite those that feel inferior, give them the platforms to say what they want to say, and most of all, the confidence to be able to actually tackle superiority?
    Even if you do accept my argument you mention things that do strike me as particularly stupid things to say (“how Arab men are very perverted.”); but, then, such things should be challenged. If this was a Leftist that said it you shouldn’t have a hard time challenging it and him going home thinking that he would never say or think such a silly generalised statement again. The point here is that once you arrive at the appreciation of the possibility of a society where racism and sexism is gone it makes it much easier to challenge, and have challenged, the remnants of these ideologies that continue to exist within yourself. And this brings me round to why organisations, and recruiting, are so necessary!
    We cannot generalise our own experiences on to somebody elses, but we can make an attempt to arrive at an understanding of them. This is necessarily a collective process; it is something we have to do together. To exist in practice as individuals is to not offer any challenge. This is why we must come together in organisations – places where we practice together, with unity in action, collectively. Where males approach feminist struggles they need to be acting in practice alongside women. Where we approach the struggle of Palestine we need to be acting, ideally, alongside Palestinians.
    It is inevitable that it will be the least oppressed sections of the working class that organise first, often the most privileged sections. So yes, white males may well be the first to the struggle. Yes, it may well be sections of the working class that have been elevated to the intelligentsia that form the core of organisations initially. Such is the working of the system that it will be the least demoralised, better equipped (economically, technologically, intellectually, socially), people that begin to organise. The reason we are so adamant about recruitment is to broaden this out beyond these groups. There is the aspect I’ve already mentioned – that if males want to tackle feminist issues then they should be in organisations with women. But also if we want to challenge people and challenge ourselves we’re best to do this in a group, in an organisation – thus why we recruit to it. Our strength is numbers, together – you don’t achieve that by not recruiting.

    So when you say “racism and sexism inherent in the left” you speak truth, they are inherent in so far as they are, to a degree, inherent in all individuals born of a class system from whence racism and sexism stem. Simply wanting to abolish them does not abolish them, we cannot think ourselves free – but we can act. For that, you need an organisation; and an organisation that recruits lots and lots of people from all backgrounds, races etc. until it is strong enough to actually win. To experience frustration and disillusionment with the left is quite understandable, to cut yourself off from it is no solution at all.

  3. I think the few specific experiences (although, of course people would have had similar) doesn’t mean sweeping statements of ‘inherent’ racism and sexism can be made. I’ve heard similar comments to “tired they are of the local Asian community not joining our cause. We’re fighting racism for them” said at meetings before but it seems as though you’re implying this is an example of ‘inherent racism’. Whenever I’ve come across this from before it’s from frustrated, not racist activists and I can understand some of these frustrations when people work tirelessly to stand against racism and it’s not engaging the community (feels like bashing your head against a wall and there get’s to a point where silly comments are made completly out-of-context) but I agree it is dissapointing when things like that are said ultimately us on the left should wonder why people aren’t engaging in campaigns and try to understand the alienation.

    I think it’s terrible that you feel like you’ve only been invited to meetings as a ‘token muslim or woman’ and it is definatly an issue which needs to be discussed and tackled.

  4. I don’t know of much pro-Palestinian feeling on the British left – and what I do know of comes from people who have married Palestinians, and consequently for whom Palestinians have actual dimension, actual lives, and are not just emblems of suffering that can be pinned onto a post-colonial, or anti-American, or nativist agenda. In my experience, the British left doesn’t really care to know what is going on in Palestinian society, what trade unionists in Gaza are doing, who are the political players, what the variety of views about conflict resolution are. Primarily, and bizarrely in the absence of much curiosity about Palestinian outside what is being done to them by Israelis, the contemporary British left are above all have it in for Israel (another caricature). How things got this way, I don’t really understand. All I know is that what Falastin writes about is familiar to me.

  5. […] Falastin, objectified, essentialised and generally let down by the British left which typically doesn’t have a clue about Palestinians, and doesn’t care to: […]

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