World Refugee Day was on the 20th June, and because of this there was a flurry of related news articles, in particular about the Syrian refugee crisis.
Having been woefully uninformed on the subject, it was deeply saddening to learn that, while there are 2.8 million Syrian refugees, the UK declined to take part in a UN-organised resettlement programme for these refugees, and has in fact allowed only 24 Syrian refugees to settle in the UK.
Yup, that’s not a typo. 24. In contrast, Germany has taken 10,000. The refusal of countries like the UK to take Syrian refugees means that places like Lebanon and Jordan have been overwhelmed - Syrian refugees now make up a quarter of Lebanon’s population.
I’m sure a large part of why the UK has acted so disgracefully during the Syrian refugee crisis is due to our toxic culture surrounding immigration and asylum seekers. The media shape and fuel the debate, engendering fear and distrust, and spreading the idea that asylum seekers/refugees are nothing but a drain on our resources.
I’m of the opinion that we should show compassion and let people in that need help, whether they are fleeing conflict or fleeing persecution in their home country due to their race/religion/gender/sexual orientation. Even if these people did ‘drain our resources’, we still have a duty to them as human beings.
However, a new study by researchers at Oxford uni suggests that even this argument doesn’t hold water - refugees can actually boost the economy of the country in which they settle. The study looked at refugees in Uganda, where 99% of refugees are earning their own income. The refugee population use mobile phones extensively, and have strong trade networks.
The success of the refugee population in Uganda can be attributed to the way in which refugees are treated there. One of the report authors, Alexander Betts, says, ’In Uganda, refugees have more rights than in many other host countries, but this study shows that given basic freedoms, refugees often find a way of earning enough to live on.”
This seems like a win-win situation - we can give people refuge from the horror they are fleeing, while empowering them to succeed, which in turn strengthens our economy. This seems like a much better alternative to the creeping racism and xenophobia that currently dominates the debate.
A run down on the whole “I, too, am Oxford” / “We are all Oxford” thing for anyone who missed it:
"I, too, am Oxford" is a recent interesting initiative by Oxford student POCs, based on a similar initiative started by Harvard students - check it out here http://itooamoxford.tumblr.com/.
It’s POCs holding up whiteboards with messages on them - mostly racist things people have said to them/racism that they have had to endure while at Oxford. The style of it reminded me of the “why I need feminism” photos that the Oxford Women’s campaign put out, and that was doing the rounds on the blogosphere not too long ago.
I think it’s incredibly important in a whitewashed society that POCs have the opportunity to speak out publicly about the racism they face on a daily basis. Too often are we shouted down or dismissed, often by white people who assume they know more about our experiences than we do.
Unsurprisingly, this is what exactly happened. A counter-initiative was created within days, called “We are all Oxford” (I won’t link to it). It was a group of Oxford students holding similar placards, except instead of sharing personal experiences, they were saying things like “We enjoyed celebrating diversity at the OUSU [Oxford University Student Union] international fair” and “Your brain, not your background, open’s Oxford’s doors”. In contrast to the original initiative, which sought to give normally unheard people a voice, these were mostly white students who, rather than sharing their experiences, were making claims that basically implied that the “I, too, am Oxford” students experiences were wrong.
The point of the placards, mostly mentioning diversity officers and the like, was to suggest that actually, Oxford is fine as it is. There is no need to talk about racism at Oxford, as it doesn’t exist - after all, OUSU held an international fair. 21 colleges at Oxbridge did not admit a single black student last year , but don’t worry, I heard OUSU’s international fair was great.
Speaking of OUSU, their response to this has been pretty awful. At first, they tweeted positively about the “We are all Oxford” campaign, and didn’t acknowledge the “I, too, am Oxford” campaign until pushed. At least the OUSU President has now come out against the “We are all Oxford” campaign.
The “We are all Oxford” campaign is ostensibly about defending Oxford as a great place to be, and highlighting the positives about the university. However, no one was claiming that Oxford is completely crap all the time, when it comes to race issues. Yes, there are diversity officers, and many non-racist students and staff, and I’m sure many BME students have a great time, and don’t experience much racism at all. However, not only do a significant number of BME students experience direct racism on a daily basis, but also there are deep structural racism issues which can be seen when looking at the data on representation.
Someone’s experience should not be dismissed or diminished, just because it is not the same as your own. It boggles my mind to think that intelligent people cannot get their head round the idea that their experience is not THE experience, that maybe other people have other perspectives. It is especially important to listen to people who are often silenced and talked down. Doing so can only be good for Oxford, and for society as a whole.
P.S I was mentioned on a Buzzfeed piece about this :) http://www.buzzfeed.com/sirajdatoo/heres-everything-you-need-to-know-about-the-b-bffl
There’s been a couple of pieces in the Telegraph blogs section that has come to my attention recently. If you didn’t already know, the Telegraph blogs section in particular is chock full of prejudice and bigotry. The actual paper isn’t quite as bad (although I have seen some vomit-inducing front pages). People tend to focus on the Daily Mail, which comes out with something extremely ethically dubious pretty much every day, but we mustn’t forget the bigoted broadsheets.
The first piece I’ve seen this week is actually by a Labour MP (Tom Harris) - http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/immigration/10477858/Object-to-mass-immigration-from-the-EU-Join-the-Romaphobe-club.html. Which gives support to the view I’ve taken to recently - that the Labour party is, both in rhetoric and in the views and character of the people within and representing the party, not particularly different to the Conservatives. Just as bad, pretty much.
Tom Harris’ piece is an incredibly xenophobic and cold-hearted objection to immigration from Romania and Bulgaria. He starts with the classic trope of the bigot - complaining about how it’s “taboo” to talk negatively about large-scale immigration. If it’s so taboo, how is he writing a piece for a major national newspaper? If it’s so taboo, why do I constantly hear about it from every arsehole I meet? It gets worse. He assumes that these immigrants will be anti-social, rowdy, street harassers. He says his constituents are getting angrier and resentful. Even if this were the case, why should we prioritise our lives over theirs? If they have “filthy and overcrowded living arrangements” and are “rifling through domestic wheelie bins”, shouldn’t we see it as a good thing that they can come over here, where hopefully they will have better opportunities and a better standard of living? This is the thing that no politician dares to say. Some (although not many) will make the point that immigrants actually enhance our society, our economy and British culture, something which is completely true. However, even if some British people were made worse off, why should that matter more than the immigrants whose lives are being made better? We’re all human, aren’t we?
Secondly, I personally find it disgusting that he invokes the resentment of his constituents as validation for his prejudice. In 1964 Peter Griffiths won his Smethwick seat with the slogan “if you want a n****r for a neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour”. He preyed on the racism of the electorate to win the election. There is still a lot of racism and xenophobia today, and this is something that increases when people are living with poverty and poor education. People are scared of immigration not only because of bad education and economic hardship which makes immigrants a handy scapegoat, but also because of the propaganda put about by the media (Tom Harris included) that serves to scare people and heighten racial tensions. Tom Harris’ piece was, in this sense, incredibly irresponsible.
The fact that this got published, and that Tom Harris is a Labour MP… it’s incredibly depressing.
The next thing that caught my attention was another Telegraph blog post on paternity leave… More of that to come.
Frequently, when I try to explain to a (white) friend/acquaintance that racism is still alive and well in the UK, illustrating my point with personal anecdotes, these people flat out refuse to accept that these things happened or they challenge my interpretation of events. When I wrote this piece for the Guardian on racism in Oxford (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/feb/28/oxford-cambridge-universities-race-issues) which mentioned coming across students in yellowface, I got people in the comments essentially accusing me of making things up.
While of course white people can contribute to discussions of racism, there is something problematic about denying the experiences of prejudice and discrimination that minorities have. Firstly, the experiences of minorities/people of colour have been historically discounted and neglected. Even today, in countries like the UK and US, minorities are not well represented in government and are being systematically disenfranchised - their voices are being marginalised on a societal level. This is the historical and social context in which even casual discussions take place.
Secondly, I strongly believe that the ability to understand that others have different experiences to your own is vitally important to being a decent functioning person in society. It required empathy and humility to realise that hey, maybe you don’t know everything about everything - maybe there really are things going on under your nose that you didn’t know were happening and maybe other people are better qualified to talk about it than you - empathy and humility that a lot of people seem to lack. It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that a white person might not have a perfect grip on everyday racism, a man might not understand everything about the sexism that women face, a rich person might not understand the realities of a life in poverty, and so on. Yet, this is where the denial comes from - the majority/powerful refusing to accept things might be different for the minority/oppressed than they are for them.
This isn’t confined to bigots - this happens to everyone. I have a recent example in the form of something I saw on Twitter a few days ago - a so-called intersectional feminist refusing to accept that there might be students with disabilities for whom missing a single class would be severely detrimental to their studies, because that was not her (able-bodied) experience. It is crucial, as an intersectional feminist, to recognise diversity of experience and to listen with genuine openness.
Without empathy, humility and compassion, we cannot hope to make meaningful steps towards a more equal society.
P.S. Just a reminder that I tweet at @ohheybiology if feminism/social justice activism/science geekery is your thang
DJ Grothe, the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and the guy who runs TAM, just posted this lovely Facebook status: https://www.facebook.com/djgrothe/posts/10152021454425856
In case it gets taken down, here’s the screencap:
Just another lovely reminder of the prejudice that is so prevalent throughout the leaders of the atheist community.
Not only is it transphobic, but it is incredibly cruel on an individual level - picking on one person and broadcasting something so nasty and personal to his 1063 followers. Ugh.
So, I came across this picture on Pinterest:
Apparently it’s for a “gender reveal party”, which I didn’t even know was a thing. The idea is that expecting parents find out the “gender” of the baby and announce it while having a big party, or something.
Obviously, this idea is so dumb for so many reasons. It’s impossible to know the gender of a foetus. A foetus does not have a gender. Gender is a social construct. I guess what they’re referring to is sex, although sex is not purely biological, but is also informed by social and cultural norms.
The second weird thing is - why is everyone so interested? As a society, we have such an obsession with gender - constantly gendering things that really don’t require gendering in any way, and working super hard to uphold the gender binary. Gender reveal parties are a symptom of people’s obsession with gender as a primary, defining characteristic of someone, as well as the well-established gender roles that come with assigning people one gender or another. Finding out the “gender” of a foetus means that relatives and friends “know” whether to buy blue cars or pink dolls, t shirts or dresses - ensuring the future person will know the gender they’ve been assigned by society before they were even born, and exactly how they’re supposed to look and act based on that assignment.
There’s one more fishy thing about this picture - the chalkboard sign itself. That’s actually what made me stop and look at the picture in the first place. It reads “almost time to see, which will it be? A bouncing little he or a pretty little she?” (emphasis mine). Once again, we see the reinforcement of traditional gender roles - men as active doers and women as passive objects to be looked at.
This stuff starts from before a baby is even born and is reinforced over and over again.
I love Hallowe’en. It’s my favourite holiday of the year. Scary stuff, fancy dress, trick or treating - I love it all. Unfortunately, Hallowe’en and racism go hand in hand. Last year at a party I attended, someone came dressed as a “rich Arab”. Yup, there’s pretty much no way that can not be racist. He was wearing a sheet and a teatowel. This was actually not the most depressing thing about the whole scenario, though - whenever I tried recounting this story (actually a story about my partner in which the racist guy was incidental), people would stop me and argue that the costume was not, in fact, racist.
So, I just wanted to say a few words on why racist costumes are racist (something which I really really wish wasn’t necessary). The classic objection that all racists make is “but it wouldn’t be racist to dress up as [X Western Culture], would it? So why is it racist the other way around?”, sometimes throwing in “Isn’t it more racist to have this double standard?”
Case in point: Vice recently ran a piece on an Australian woman who held an “Africa” themed birthday party. I mean, this is just racist straight off the bat, before we’ve even seen the costumes - and it gets worse. If you want to see the full horror - http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/someone-thought-a-blackface-birthday-party-was-a-good-idea. Everyone is in blackface, wearing really racist costumes - there’s even someone in a KKK outfit for literally no reason except RACISM. Even for internet commenters, who usually love to construct some convoluted way that really racist things aren’t racist, this was indefensible. Yet, the hostess in question tried to defend it, saying “"I am 100% sure that parties would be held that would be ‘Australian themed’ or American themed or even countries of the world, and in that instance I don’t believe anyone would be offended. People wear oktoberfest cotumes [sic] to parties and no one cracks it that they are not German?".
Okay. What’s wrong with this line of reasoning? The premise is true - it is fine to dress up as an American or German or French person. Even whiteface, which people often bring up as a rhetorical device to argue for the acceptability of blackface but which I’ve never actually seen anyone attempt, would be pretty much fine.
Firstly, let’s disabuse anyone of the notion that racism is a two-way street. Racism isn’t just saying or doing something related to someone’s race. Racism sits within a historical and political and social context. Let’s take the example of blackface. Blackface has clear cultural baggage - it has been used as a way of demeaning, degrading and mocking black people since the 19th century, and stretching well into the 20th. Aside from the clear pejorative connotations, it exoticises, it others. And that’s what it still signifies today. Whiteface, on the other hand, has no such baggage. White people are not mocked for how they look or act - they are the norm, the standard.
This can be applied to wider examples of racist costuming, and isn’t constrained to the past. Cultural appropriation, stereotyping, caricaturing - all of these feed into the way minorities are treated in society today. Dressing as a “sexy Native American woman” (http://bit.ly/16GFRWc) is awful not just because of the historical context of hypersexualisation of Native American women, but also because 1 in 3 Native American women have been raped and 86% of these rapes are carried out by non-Native men (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/sep/08/sexual-violence-native-american-communities). There are no such attitudes towards German women. There are no such statistics.
And finally, I’d just like to remind everyone that - this is not about offence. Even if everyone there was totally fine with it all, it was just a “bit of fun”, and besides, one of your best friends is black and they promised they were totally cool with it… It’s still racist. It’s not just offensive, it’s racist. Racist costumes are racist because they perpetuate stereotypes and ultimately negative attitudes about minorities. They affect the way people see and treat eachother. They contribute to deep-rooted societal problems. They reinforce oppression.
And if anyone’s still living in the illusion that we live in a post-racial society? Search #stopblackgirls2013 on Twitter. It will quickly disabuse you of that notion.
Dressed as a white character for Halloween and I didn’t even have to white up!