By Rosalind Robson
As a current mature MA student at Goldsmiths University I have been watching with increasing dismay the media storm, and swirl of half-truths and lies being spread around about the Student Union’s Welfare and Diversity Office, Bahar Mustafa, and how this has developed into a nasty campaign against her.
This began with a media storm over Bahar’s organisation of a meeting for BME women/non-binary students to talk about “diversity in the curriculum” at Goldsmiths. That meeting was a follow-up to an event on the same subject, which was open to all, and part of an ongoing discussion at Goldsmiths on this subject. The holding of this meeting (and presumably any meeting) which is not open to all was said to be exclusionary, racist, sexist etc. It was also said that Bahar was offensive to white men in her behaviour around that meeting. This has been repeated ad nauseum on social media.
Then a petition calling for a vote of no-confidence in Bahar was organised. The petition has to get 200+ signatures and hopefully will not succeed. It did not repeat the complaint about the BME meeting, but did say Bahar was unrepresentative, unprofessional in her conduct and was guilty of racism and sexism. The last claim – of “racism and sexism” – was picked up by the media, with another round of articles, including, most recently, one in the local south London rag — the News Shopper.
The articles commented on Bahar’s statement of defence at a Student Union meeting in which she argued against the notion of reverse racism and sexism, i.e. if white men are not structurally discriminated against on grounds of race and/or sex they cannot be victims of racism and/or sexism. She also pointed out that, logically, as a woman of colour and structurally oppressed herself, she could not be racist or sexist against a white man. She did not however, as was argued, claim she could never be guilty of racism or other oppressive actions.
In addition, the media have complained about Bahar using hashtags that were rude against white men (a common thing on Twitter apparently). A further petition has been circulated which bundles together all of the above. A petition defending Bahar’s record is also being circulated. Oh, and did I mention? The cops have been called on Bahar, on grounds of her alleged racism/hate speech.
What really happened here? On the Facebook event for the BME meeting Bahar asked white cis men not to attend. This wasn’t, as was made out, in any way offensive; maybe a little bit cheeky, but with the clear implication that there would be other events which would be open to all. If anyone was in any doubt, the Student Union issued a statement reiterating the point that “special interest” meetings were normal, that future “open” meetings would follow.
So, the big deal is…. some BME people were helped by Bahar to meet to talk about issues that affect them!
Some students today call that kind of meeting a “safe space”; okay, but there’s an older political way of thinking about this kind of organising. Thirty years ago, even ten years ago, we would have been more likely to call this autonomous organising by oppressed groups. Meetings where women, black people, other oppressed groups got together to discuss experiences, work out ideas, and get some confidence to push for them in wider political arenas were common.
Some history needs to be rediscovered. Autonomous women’s groups in the “modern” women’s movement (now 40+ years ago), organised women who were desperate for ways to understand the shitty reality of their lives, from enforced wifedom and motherhood, to low pay, social invisibility. For socialist feminists like ourselves these discussions could not be separated off from engaging with wider political processes, in fact they were a way to build better, more coherent unity in class struggles. The fact that there were many deep-seated problems of sexism and racism in labour and left movements made autonomous organising essential. Whether you are a convinced socialist feminist or not, this sort of meeting is not apolitical.
That is why Bahar was absolutely right to defend it in political terms i.e. to argue, as she sees it, against the impossibility of reverse racism. Bahar was elected on a “ticket” of defending the most unrepresented and – whether you agree with her completely or not – she is being absolutely consistent with the politics on which she was elected. This has pissed people off and we have to ask why.
As I see it, a big part of what is going on here is an attempt to confine Bahar to her “Welfare” role, to being someone who is apolitical in what she says and does. That is the clear subtext of the no-confidence petition against her. This is a deeply sexist idea that rests on the notion that women should not take a full part in public life. It is one of the cultural divisions which drive Twitter hate campaigns. Women who stick their neck out, who are political, who are controversial, deserve to be “slapped down”, or worse.
On the issue of Bahar calling someone “white trash” on Twitter, well, she apologised for this. It didn’t seem to offend the person on the receiving end of the insult (in the context of a heated argument on free speech). This person was my AWL comrade Tom Harris who had this to say: “Calling people ‘white trash’ might be daft, but it’s hardly racist. Being white in our society is clearly not a source of racial oppression. Indeed, quite the opposite is the case. Far from being upset by the so-called ‘racism’, I had totally forgotten about the episode until this piece of ‘journalism’ [the story in the student right-wing Tab website] was brought to my attention. ” In an ironic twist on this “scandal”, Tom tried to get the above comment on the Tab website, but was blocked.
The “debate” about whether white men (talking here about people who are part of a majority white community, e.g. white English men in England, rather than minority white men like Polish, Albanian etc. migrants) can ever be the victims of racial abuse (as opposed to e.g. poverty and exploitation), I guess, is one to be had. But it’s very, very much secondary for anyone who wants to fight inequality.
No doubt too, there are also issues here about how to analyse identity and experience of oppression and what weight you give that analysis in a political fight against capitalism. In other words there are debates to be had about “identity politics”. And some of us have a big concern about the not unrelated question of the damage done to free speech at Goldsmiths when the Student Union banned the Socialist Workers Party society. But there is absolutely no chance of discussing any of these things in a calm and serious way (as, in fact, I have been able to do with Bahar in the past) while attacks like this take place. If we don’t stand up to this kind of attack we risk undermining our ability to defend all kinds of feminist politics and practice in the future.
Last but not least, the “debate” started by the no-confidencers at Goldsmiths seems to be a continuation of some students’ opposition to the recent occupation (including lobbying and petitioning to end it). A lot of the backlash was began by right-wing student scandal, sex and shit-stirring website, the Tab. Over the Easter break a large number of students participated in discussions about how to defend Goldsmiths, its courses and student services, in the context of restructuring and cuts. Because Bahar played a prominent part in the occupation she is being picked on.
Whatever our differences, all of us on the left must defend Bahar against this nasty, sexist witch-hunt.
Post-script (Sunday 24 May): It’s been pointed out that Bahar’s use of the hashtag “killwhitemen” is quite offensive. Only if you don’t think twice about it and therefore miss the ironic meaning (or maybe you have missed the news about all those young black men getting killed by the police in the US). Bahar’s explanation of these kind of hash tags is here. You can see how “performance” politics which uses irony and reclaiming of words can be badly misunderstood and can jar. Slutwalk faltered when working-class and black women pointed out how being called a slut was a pervasive and material part of their lives growing up and dealing with the sexism of young men. But many of the same women did, eventually accept the bigger picture and got on board and prioritised their support for a march against the toleration of rape and sexual violence in society. We too should focus on the bigger picture. The people who are causing most of the hue and cry about the hashtag etc., are not making reasonable points about the millions of white working-class men whose lives have been physically and mentally destroyed by brutal capitalist exploitation. They are the angry “PC gone mad” brigade who hate feminism.
Note: Small edits to correct typos and ambiguities, to add links and a point about Tab website made to this article on 24.5.15.