Reflections on a panel talk: the violence of white fragility and the erasure of its victims

I am sitting on a train on my way home from a panel talk on Feminism & Islamophobia, on how the two collude to undermine Muslim women, and how Muslim women are erased and reduced to “the veil”. I am exhausted and bewildered.

The panel consisted of five (four panellists and one chair) hijab-wearing women of colour. In a University setting this is a rarity. We know this. We are not the people panels are meant for, we are not the people audiences are meant to listen to.

We opened the discussion by laying out our premises: that we weren’t interested in proving ourselves, that we refused to answer questions that made inherent value judgements about our worth, that we didn’t deem secular modes of feminism which universalised white women’s experiences and aspired to equal access to be oppressors as the pinnacle of our goals, that in fact these conversations weren’t ones we had for ourselves, or on our own – we felt we were often answering to a non-Muslim voyeur.

It doesn’t need saying but we were articulate, experienced and knowledgeable. We are the best sources of knowledge on our own experience and this was a rare chance for us to be listened to rather than Muslim women’s experiences be read about in books, news stories, and documentaries made by those for whom we remain simply subjects of fascination.

We contextualised ourselves – we explained why what may sound neutral statements were often not, due to a context in which they were made. For example, a context of Europe wherein “the Muslim woman” is the visual shorthand for Islam’s perceived “Otherness” and cultural difference – which are used to justify the exclusion and management of Muslims more widely – through counter-radicalisation policies, assimilationist rhetoric, etc.

We discussed the historical and contemporary nature of that context – of colonialism’s use of feminism to justify domination; of feminism’s use of capitalism and white supremacy to justify exclusion and the use of working-class and women of colour’s labour; of white supremacy’s use of state violence, and of state violence’s weaponisation of Muslim women against Muslims in general – to justify why Muslim men deserve to be maligned, essentialised and then seen only through the lens of policing and criminality. We were comprehensive and had brilliant questions put to us by the chair, but at no point  did we pander to easy explanations or even to the idea that this conversation was of as much import to us as it seemed to be to other people.

In an audience of maybe thirty/forty people there were exactly three white (or white-passing) men and four white women. All three white men and one white woman managed to reproduce the exact violence that we, the panellists, spent around two hours outlining.

Questioner number one began by stating that he was dissatisfied that we hadn’t talked about the content of the Quran and whether it was feminist: we hadn’t addressed inheritance laws… I was thrown by the assumptions in this question: that we were trying to prove anything, that it would be an inherent good to prove the Quran was feminist, that we had an agreed upon definition of feminist, that the Quran could be reduced to a few mentions, that the Quran had to be feminist, that the Quran had a single interpretation, that Islam could be reified. When I pointed out to this man that he was reproducing the exact problem all the panellists had talked about: the way that secular colonial narratives always put the responsibility on us to “prove” ourselves – our humanity, modernity, palatability /of Islam – thus reducing us to tropes and singular possibilities – he denied that this was the case. He continued to speak, pressing on amidst the chair of the panel asking him to move on – he began to raise his voice, others in the audience started explaining why what he was doing was inappropriate at best and violent at worst: an exact reproduction of the point we were discussing.

I know this would never have happened had the panellists been white men. Even in such a small space where he was so outnumbered, his socialisation into believing that it was his right to take up as much space as he wanted, to derail the conversation, and to assert that he wanted us, as speakers, to say something we hadn’t addressed, was palpable. What made the situation even more uncanny was that the majority of people in the room were Muslim women of colour who could all see what was going on here – from our vantage point in the margins we could understand exactly what was happening as an exertion of control, an attempt to manage our conversation and our truths to fit the terms of those whose very oppression we were talking about!

It was a reproduction of the colonial weaponisation of feminism against Islam (that we had already explained in depth) – and yet, the questioner could deny that very reality because the source of proof for it was us: Muslim women – erasable, ignorable, valueless. It was a very visceral and ironic replication of our erasure and the erasure of our histories, existences and knowledge (both physically and psychologically). He spoke louder and louder, exerted his right to “not be cut off”, I wondered how strange this situation must look to an outsider.

Later the second of the white men asked the panel why we covered our hair when the idea of women covering themselves must inherently be reducing us to sexual objects. I was, again, confounded that this man had managed to sit through (at this stage) 90 minutes of us critiquing the way we were always reduced to our choice of dress, and yet still ask this question. That he could have listened for so long yet still not have heard was, again, an example of how his question was not aimed at dialogue but control – it was premised upon reducing us and implying that our answers did not matter so much as the fact that he could listen to five hijab-wearing women talk and still exert his more powerful opinion that we have no autonomy, intellect or independence – that we are merely passive pawns adhering to our own exploitation.

That he still had the singular question in mind of why we covered, in a context where we had outlined that our biggest daily struggles were economic, social, racist, etc, blew my mind. We clearly hadn’t actually been listened to, in the irony of all ironies we remained symbols to him – symbols of Islam’s backwardness, Muslims’ barbarism and ‘The West’s’ superiority (the very narrative we had been putting in question).

I asked him, if he was so worried about the sexualisation and objectification of women was he equally as concerned about the sexualisation of school girls who wear skirts? What was he doing about that? Or did he care about the marriage fantasies young girls are encouraged to have – pre-emptively imagining their sexual futures from childhood? What about the objectification and sexualisation of women wearing mini-skirts? Of the objectification of women in niqab by the likes of Boris Johnson calling them letterboxes? Or the fact that no matter what women wear they are objectified and sexualised?

Did he care that forcing women who choose to cover their bodies to uncover is the coercive and non-consensual undressing of them aka sexual harassment? Did he care as much about gender norms which inherently sexualise all children from the day they are born? Did he care that colonial fantasies of Muslim women were of our domination through uncovering us? That so much of the idea of uncovering Muslim women is latent with a sexualised white male gaze intent on dominating and conquering us – as “public unveilings” during France’s occupation of Algeria showed, and the spike in refugee and hijab porn today shows, and the slurs shouted at Muslim women to “take it off”, “give us a peek”, etc show?

His concern was disingenuous. And when explained to him that we took issue with the framing of his question which presumed our false consciousness and lack of agency, he (very loudly, amidst much argument, shouting, disarray and drama) left the room. Watching the recording somebody else made of this moment I am reminded of the irony of all ironies – that as he left (of his own accord) he shouted that this was what happened when we made people feel “dismissed“.

When he said this, and stormed out of the auditorium, I was almost impressed. Simply by being a panel of hijab-wearing Muslim women of colour in a University space we had caused him some deep discomfort. By additionally talking on our own terms and refusing to answer questions that were not questions but assertions of domination, or refusing definitions that had been made by others and imposed upon us, or by questioning the function of the words and questions he chose to use – we proved too disruptive and too threatening. The actual self-removal of a white man from the room because he was too upset made me laugh aloud.

Imagine, imagine if Muslim women of colour left rooms every time we were dismissed? Imagine if we left every time we were legitimately spoken over, shut down or erased? Every time we were disappointed or upset? In the context in which his very question had dismissed our agency, intellect, previous 90 minutes of labour and efforts the contradiction was almost hilarious. There would be no rooms with Muslim women of colour in them if we were to leave every time we were dismissed. Yet women of colour who do shout or exit debates that are actually about their existence and humanity (not just an opinion unrelated to their existence), are labelled unruly, argumentative, antagonistic, violent…

To me this contrast and what happened at this panel exactly embodies what Robin DiAngelo calls “white fragility”:

“White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility. White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium”

Image result for white fragility

The man in question had absolutely felt stressed to an intolerable level – so much so that he had to leave. Why did revealing his investment in a power dynamic startle him so? Why is power so quick to feel threatened? What amount of discomfort must he have felt to leave the room? Why is being held accountable more offensive than being denigrated and insulted?

Our first response (before the dialogue becoming an argument, his shouting and exiting the space) to explain why his question was troubling led to an immediate defensive stance of “but I’m not a colonialist or a racist how could you say that?” – which of course deliberately misconstrued our point that his narrative and the assumptions in his question came from a colonising worldview into which he, and all of Europe, has been socialised. But again, his making the conversation about his innate goodness or badness as an individual worked to derail the entire conversation about our humanity, and instead center it on his worth – again I will quote DiAngelo for a moment:

At the same time that whites are taught to see their interests and perspectives
as universal, they are also taught to value the individual and to see themselves as
individuals rather than as part of a racially socialized group. Individualism erases
history and hides the ways in which wealth has been distributed and accumulated
over generations to benefit whites today. It allows whites to view themselves as
unique and original, outside of socialization and unaffected by the relentless racial
messages in the culture. Individualism also allows whites to distance themselves
from the actions of their racial group and demand to be granted the benefit of the
doubt, as individuals, in all cases. A corollary to this unracialized identity is the
ability to recognize Whiteness as something that is significant and that operates in
society, but to not see how it relates to one’s own life. In this form, a white person
recognizes Whiteness as real, but as the individual problem of other “bad” white
people.

Later this man’s friend (the third white man) took my earlier answer (regarding objectification) to ask whether I meant that it was illegitimate for him to say that women wearing mini-skirts were objectifying themselves…

I said yes, of course (???!). A different sister brilliantly asked why he cared so much about what women were wearing – whether hijab or skirts – and why he attributed false consciousness to all our choices? I asked if he cared so much about sexualisation and the objectification of women why was he placing so much onus on the victims of it and not bothering to hold any wider social norms to account? Such as the way men are socialised to believe women are objects of sexual satisfaction, or the way capitalism sells and brands things based on sexualising women?

His concern was, again, clearly disingenuous but when called out he reverted to the mode of both previous men – getting defensive, asking the same question again and again, demanding we “let him finish”, and despite our engaging and refuting its premise, continuing to demand an explanation. Similar to the others, his defensiveness and aggression stemmed from wanting to be distanced from the context that he lived in and granted an individuality that he was refusing to grant us (and which just doesn’t exist).

Altogether the three men derailed our conversations for a good while. One white woman – their friend who also left the room when questioner number two did – equally reproduced the very problems we said we were tired of – repeatedly asking that if we were content to be Muslim women, whether we could justify legislation in Morocco, or explain policy in Iran – a whole array of different geopolitical references were thrown at us to the extent that I was amazed this woman even thought we had answers (of course, she didn’t, her questions again weren’t questions)… The irony was palpable: the unreasonable burden upon Muslim women to explain ourselves, the unreasonable homogenisation of Muslims and Islam, of individuals and states…  and of Muslim women as responsible for all of it. It’s exhausting. It’s not new, it’s not novel, I’m not surprised, but I have to write this to acknowledge the exhaustion.

The thing that struck me well before any of this analysis was actually my own body’s reaction. As the first man raised his question to get us to “prove” something of Islam on his terms – my heart began to thud in my chest. It was a thudding I haven’t felt for a long time – a trauma response – I felt a quietness descend on my ears. It was clearly a response based on knowledge and past experience that this was not a question but an assertion of domination, an attempt to manage and control my voice and to denigrate me.

This was every time my humanity has been questioned, every time my right to exist as I do has been denied, every time I had been approached with feigned ignorance, every time a man had shouted at me to explain myself, every time whiteness had made me prove anything on its own terms of reference, every time I had been assumed to be less-than, not-quite, and coloniality assumed to be morally superior.

I feel a harrowing sadness that there are those experiences in me and so many others that we have deliberately repressed (only sparked by this conversation today have I remembered so much of the daily stress from such lines of questioning that I faced during my undergraduate degree). It reminded me why I avoid these specific types of conversations these days – because of the people who show up not to learn, or ask questions, or listen – but to prove their own hypotheses and to demand explanations.

I wondered at the different reactions from all of us in the room. An aspect of my learned response is to answer immediately to such questions – I watched myself do it, quickly take up the terms and refute them, quickly try to end the interrogation whilst also exposing it’s injustice – it is something I was practiced in at a time when I was more used to this on a daily basis. But tonight I oscillated between engagement, disengagement, attempts to explain, questioning the function of the question itself, sarcasm, rolling my eyes, trying to be kind, etcetera.

But what really struck me was how much time we gave each of these derailers. How much space we gave them to talk such dehumanising and violent words to us, how much time we gave to explaining why it hurt us… To me this was another trauma response – we all know there is a penalty for not responding to white men in this way. We have all been socialised to know through our own or other’s experiences that white men deserve engagement, that white men must not be upset, that our humanity sort of does deserve to be in question. To ignore or outright reject the space the questioners took up came hard to us – even in the moment of psychological attack and invalidation, so many of us still prioritised the labour of explaining, proving and showing ourselves, our intentions and our feelings, to the attacker. Again, were the roles reversed, this would be inconceivable.

It breaks my heart that we play this rigged game. I cannot imagine ever going to a panel event and feigning disingenuity in my questions whilst so aggressively asking the panel to account personally to me for not talking about the things I wanted them to talk about in the way I wanted to talk about them. I cannot imagine taking up so much time with questions that exposed I hadn’t listened to or valued anything the panellists had said previously.

For example, the first questioner said that he wanted to know why we wore hijab in the same way that he would ask his friend ‘Tom, why are you wearing that t-shirt?’… the problem is, we all know Tom would never be asked that, and Tom doesn’t live in a continent where wearing t-shirts makes him a focal point of attention, harassment and dehumanisation – where t-shirts are banned in some countries and where every time there’s a sensational news story it is accompanied by a picture of a man in a t-shirt. And Tom doesn’t live in a continent where he is made to be distinct, culturally backwards, deficient, socially reprehensible and dangerous because he wears t-shirts…

We all noted the irony that we had talked about privilege and the beneficiaries of oppression on the panel and yet in that very same room those who were beneficiaries were unable to see it. Whiteness exerted itself in exactly the way we had discussed it would. In a sense, our point was proven in a more meta way than we could have anticipated.

.

Why am I writing this? I suppose to document it. To document as a reminder to myself and to others that these violences happen. That even now in my life when I feel more sheltered from these daily catastrophes because I can choose who I spend my time with – there are those who still passionately do not see me as human. The second questioner (the one who stormed out) – was pushed by one of the audience members to answer the question of whether what he was really just saying was “Muslim women are thick because I think they think Islam is patriarchal and they choose it”. He said yes.

I suppose I am writing this because I am trying to wonder how to heal from the constant dehumanisation that we face. The constant insults, abuse, erasure and vitriol. I am thinking about what it means for me to speak so much and to not be heard. To produce so prolifically and yet not be engaged with on my own terms. To have been there and back again in terms of proving myself, and still be asked to prove myself. But I suppose that’s the catch of it all: our proof will never be enough.

I am reminded of trying to learn to surf; of clutching the board and walking into the ocean and the ocean being so expansive and me being so small and trying to climb atop the board but being rammed every few seconds by waves stronger than the whole of me, and being knocked back and back unable to catch a breathe between until I was back in the shallows where I started despite having walked and walked and pushed and pushed.

.

I am amazed that every woman of colour in that room knew exactly what was taking place and still made room to be compassionate and put the feelings of the aggressor above our own. I am sad that when I asked the room – what would a space look like where you felt safe enough to be your full authentic self? – every woman fell silent and shook their heads.

I also reflect on some final thoughts:

One: the danger of words. Some of the questioners were clearly basing their arguments on the arguments of others that they had read – I sensed some were drawing on the types who make their living off denigrating Islam and saying the Quran is a text that is flawed but also singular and inherently powerful enough to move people to action. It really does sadden me that they so virulently believe those writers so that even when you just ask who benefits from such narratives, or if there is a political function to such assumptions, or why such voices might have platforms they shout and leave and are aggrieved you have situated them in real contexts.

Two: Toni Morrison’s ever relevant point that one of the central functions of racism is distraction. It is the act of asking racialised people to “prove” themselves to whiteness.

Three: I also reflect on the fact that I draw my strength and safety from other women of colour. That our being in spaces like that together, witnessing such violence together, having each others’ backs and validating each other’s truths is the most powerful thing we can do. It is not just survival but also recovery. To heal a wound you have to first acknowledge it. In a world which denies it is hurting us we sometimes forget we are wounded. And thus I feel an automatic love for women of colour who look at me and tell me they see my wounds, and they share them. Even such small acknowledgement is the difference between suffocating and breathing.

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Perhaps I am writing this to validate my own self then. Perhaps this is not so different to why I began writing here five years ago. I am writing to witness and acknowledge the wounds. In acknowledging them perhaps there is a chance to recover from them.

Recently a new friend told me that sometimes our denial of the fact we are in pain is itself the recognition that to acknowledge our pain would hurt too much.

Perhaps I am writing this because I don’t know what else to do. I have always written because I don’t know where else to put these things. I don’t know where else the pain is meant to go. So I spill on these pages and I allow myself to write until I feel clear, clean, empty. And even still, I wonder what it would look like to feel safe enough to write about all the things that fill me.

May Allah fortify us all. Ameen.

10 thoughts on “Reflections on a panel talk: the violence of white fragility and the erasure of its victims

  1. It was clearly a response based on knowledge and past experience that this was not a question but an assertion of domination, an attempt to manage and control my voice and to denigrate me. “ASSERTION OF DOMINATION”. Yes. That. Men do it daily.

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  2. We have to be strong, my sister. This academic world is so hypocrit they only believe they are promoting Free Speech and Open Debate spaces.

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    1. Anti-white sentiment is strong amongst Muslims. This is also the case where gangs of Pakistani Muslims target white children for abuse in towns across England!

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  3. Wow thank you so much for these words…they are so important as it touches many moments that I too have experienced such racism. This confirmation speaks volumes to our shared oppression but more importantly it helps build confidence and indeed solidarity through such exposure.

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  4. I’m so glad that you wrote about this, I was at the talk too and I was totally outraged but I also felt so uplifted when I left. I was glad to be in a safe place amongst others I could sympathise with but also learn from. I’m not muslim but I learned so much just from you and the other amazing women on the panel, even the audience. Like genuinely, I didn’t lose focus for one second which is crazy because sometimes even just being in a lecture hall sends me to sleep. I hope things like this continue to happen. I think a lot of the time groups who are marginalised forget they don’t have everything in common and hearing the experiences of muslim women really opened my eyes.

    In some ways I’m grateful those disruptive people showed up, it was actually kind of funny how they embodied literally everything oppressive that was spoken about. Although, I’m disappointed these are the people I’m sharing my uni experience with.

    Anyway, I just wanted to say thank you. I thought I was going slightly mad with my “hyper-self awareness” but you guys on the panel reassuring me and encouraging me to see the beauty in that uplifted me. It made me feel like my feelings were valid and I didn’t know that I needed that affirmation until I received it.

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