Scary Black Men and Nationalist White Feminists; Or Why White Women Actually Really Need Anti-Racism

by calendulate

GetUp recently released a call to its members to sign a petition against the granting of a visa to pop artist Chris Brown on the grounds of his history of domestic violence, most notably in the much-publicized attack on his then-partner Rihanna.

No, Chris Brown. You’re not welcome in Australia” proclaims the petition. There is an unmistakable echo here of a campaign in 2013 and again earlier this year by Christian feminist group Collective Shout against a tour by musician ‘Tyler, the Creator’ (Tyler Gregory Okonma) on the grounds that his lyrics and on-stage persona are misogynist. Collective Shout ran yet another anti-visa campaign against US boxer Floyd Mayweather in February this year, which was also successful. “This victory sends an important message not only to Floyd Mayweather but to Australia and the US – it doesn’t matter how wealthy and popular you are, domestic violence is inexcusable and we will not tolerate it,” Collective Shout’s victory statement reads.

For those of you following along at home, there is more than misogynist violence or attitudes that links these three men. Each are African-American; each has achieved fame and wealth in fields of endeavour that are heavily racialized and classed (hip-hop and boxing); each is fairly politically marginal and each is subject to the border. Collective Shout’s boasting of its impartiality and willingness to attack the wealthy and the powerful, therefore, would not seem to be borne out. The referencing by both GetUp and Collective Shout of the laws and statements of the terrifyingly racist Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection is a sinister indictment of both ‘activist’ groups’ willingness to work within the logics of a border regime which has committed far, far more violence against women than Okonma, Mayweather and Brown combined could even dream of.

This is not, by the way, in any way an attempt to defend Brown or Mayweather, both of whose behaviours I find appalling. Okonma’s case is more complicated: I would notice that he has not, in fact, been accused of actually enacting the violence he is said to endorse. There are interesting discussions to be had in relation to concerns about Okonma’s work about artistic expression, the use of alter ego and fractured identity in storytelling and the problems of using misogynist violence as metaphor or dramatic punctuation. These discussions, however, are peripheral to the core problem with these campaigns of denying visas to black men on the basis of their alleged misogyny which is, quite simply, that they are racist.

Let there be no mistake about it: these are racist campaigns. The discourse of the gentle white Australia as needing ‘protection’ from these men is racist; the fact that it is only black men who work in industries coded as ‘thuggish’ who attract this kind of attention is racist; and the reification of the border as the mechanism by which we might ‘send a message’ against misogyny is racist. (See in particular these articles for a critique of the language of ‘welcome’ which GetUp’s petition utilises.)

Finer minds than mine have done wonderful work on the imbrication of ‘feminist’ discourses and racist practises of border control, imperialism and institutional brutality (you could start with reading this and this and this and this if you are interested). What I also want to note, however, is that the white feminist strategy of appealing to racism in its focus on the misogynist violence of men of colour in particular is simply not effective. White women, in fact, need anti-racism – not just because without anti-racism our feminism is bullshit – but because the structures of misogyny share the same basis as the structures of racism; they will stand or fall together.

When George and I were first talking about this blog, I came across this article and immediately knew I wanted to write about it. The story is of a young white South African woman Jayde Panayiotou who was abducted and murdered earlier this year. The first suspect identified by police was a 31 year old black man Luthando Siyoli; a Facebook group was immediately established calling for is execution by death penalty. Panayiotou’s white husband was subsequently arrested on suspicion of having hired Siyoli and another man to kill her, upon which the Facebook group abruptly changed its name to the much more oblique “Justice for Jayde Panayiotou – Change for South Africa”.

The moral of the story is not a defence of the death penalty for the murderers of women. Rather, it serves as a poignant reminder that white women cannot rely on racialized outrage to focus public attention on the violence that they (we) experience, for the simple reason that it is in the vast majority of cases white men who perpetrate that violence. White women are overwhelmingly more likely to be beaten, raped and murdered by white men: in particular the white men who in the majority of cases are their partners and ex-partners. They are more likely to be groped, sexually harassed, emotionally abused and financially exploited by the white men who overwhelmingly make up their bosses, co-workers and male relatives. And they are most likely to see language and practices of misogyny legitimised in the halls of actual power (as opposed to the fairly marginal influence of a washed-up rapper) by the phalanx of white men known as politicians.

The white patriarchy that may or may not deign to deny a visa to one particular black man on the basis of our pleading is the same white patriarchy that oversees our reproductive exploitation, our relative poverty and our experiences of both institutionalised and personal gendered violence. As white women, we can appeal to racism for help getting attention for the misogyny we experience, but that attention will always be occasional, conditional – and focused on the men who hurt us most rarely anyway.

I’m not afraid of Chris Brown. I think he’s a gross, misogynist abuser whose music sucks. But his coming to Australia and subjecting a few stadiums full of people to his radical mediocrity in music will be like a drop in the ocean of misogyny in this country. And if you think he’s a gross, misogynist abuser, can I introduce you to the Department of Immigration of Border Protection whose litany of abuses of women – rape, psychological abuse and reproductive violence just the first that spring to mind – are on a scale of systemic horror far beyond anything Brown has or ever will do, and should immediately disqualify this kind of tactic from any organisation claiming to be motivated by feminist principles. Our feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.

With thanks to Reza Yarahmadi, Sanmati Verma and Sam Wallman.

Edited to add:

Thanks to those who noticed that an important point missing from this article is the fact that racist, pro-border, law and order-style moves against gendered violence posit a ‘feminism’ that is exclusionary and actively harmful to women of colour; a point that I’ve tried to address in more detail here.