I recently read Toni Morrison’s Beloved. The novel is heartbreaking from start to finish, and very much worth reading — this acknowledgement of slavery’s traumatic legacy is vital if we are to heal. It is a painful lesson but, left unlearned, enables racism to thrive unchallenged, a festering wound in our collective psyche.
Just as devastating as the story is the single sentence prefacing it: “Sixty million and more.” Beloved’s dedication is an estimate of how many African people and their descendants died as a direct result of the transatlantic slave trade. In many ways, an atrocity of this scale seems unthinkable. Yet the systematic exploitation of Black life was made possible because of the extent to which Black life was devalued. Black people had to be consistently dehumanized in order for slavery to be sustainable — if Black people were inferior, less human, white slavers did not have to question their physical and psychologically abusive behaviour towards the people they enslaved, their appropriation of Black labour, or their wealth being reliant upon a willingness to buy and sell human beings like cattle.
Slavery was legally abolished throughout the British Empire in 1833, followed by the United States in 1865. Although two centuries separate us from slavery, its impact can be clearly traced to the present day — from slavery to segregation, from segregation to police shootings. In the United States, unarmed Black people are killed by the police force at five times the rate of unarmed whites. Black Americans are twice as likely to die at the hands of the police as their white counterparts, whereas white mass murderers such as Dylann Roof are routinely brought in alive. The dehumanization of Black life continues to shape Black experience.
A white man once asked to see the palms of my hands, curious whether they would be pale or brown in colour. White women routinely touch my hair without permission, as though I’m a specimen in a petting zoo. I have lost count of how many times white men — men I have never met before — have made sexual comments about my “big Black ass” or asked whether I’m “greedy for big Black cock.” In their eyes I am a hypersexual savage, not quite human. As a child I lived in perpetual dread of being asked where I was from, “originally,” despite being Scottish born and raised. I understood that white adults sometimes found it necessary to define me as Other, but it is only in recent years that I realized they do so in order to distance themselves from that Otherness and its implications.
I had imagined, somewhat naively, that taking my place within the queer community would offer a respite from the everyday fuckery of life under white supremacist patriarchy. It didn’t — at least, not to the extent which I had hoped. The first time I ventured into queer culture I was fortunate enough to attend the Scottish Queer International Film Festival (SQIFF) — a legitimately intersectional organization, representing the stories and work of BAME (Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic), female, disabled, and working class members of the queer community; every screening complete with subtitles.
Unfortunately, this isn’t representative of my wider experience of queer community.
Lesbians are often treated like the butt of a joke, subject to ageist misogyny and the assumption that our sexual preferences can be made malleable with a dose of queer theory. There are white gay men who, without a trace of irony, will explain how they have experienced more oppression than any other demographic ever. And since so many queer spaces are predominantly white, racism often goes unchecked.
Of late, that racism has shaped an uncomfortable trend among white liberal queers: invoking the histories of slavery and colonialism in order to score points. Not only do these comparisons diminish the significance of historical, structural racism, but they contribute to the pattern of queer people of colour being marginalized from within the so-called community. The concept of a queer community is reliant on its members using their own experiences of oppression to empathize with those oppressed in a different manner (e.g. a gay man’s experience of homophobia should enable him to empathize with a lesbian woman’s experience of misogyny in addition to homophobia) — theory which doesn’t always make it into practice. That high-profile, white members of the queer community continue to demonstrate insensitivity towards the subject of race does not make positive change seem likely.
Trans non-binary activist, Jack Monroe, recently appeared on a news feature to discuss the British government’s Transgender Equality Inquiry alongside feminist academic, Dr Julia Long. Whereas Monroe appeared to welcome the Inquiry’s findings as a means of trans* people “getting recognition in legal terms,” Long pointed out that the freedom to self-identify potentially undermines the security of safe spaces designed to protect women, such as shelters. I watched the discussion with interest and thought that both parties made relevant observations. Long and Monroe each offered thought-provoking perspectives on the subject. Their views contradicted one another at points, and both were given a fair hearing by the moderator — generally how debate works. The only aspect of this discussion I found truly abhorrent happened afterwards, when Monroe tweeted the following:
Long’s disagreement with Monroe in a public debate is, in no way, on a par with the history of anti-Black racism. Even if Monroe felt uncomfortable with Long’s arguments, at no point during their exchange was Monroe in danger or marginalized. Nobody attempted to appropriate Monroe’s labour (though they have subsequently alleged that Channel 4 offered to “sort… something out” for Long), and nobody threatened Monroe with violence — Long’s only offence during the segment was disagreeing with Monroe on the nature of gender and women’s rights. But disagreement does not equate to oppression. Being unhappy with the outcome of a debate is not the same as being oppressed. Countless Black people died as a consequence of white greed and violence. The legacies of colonialism and slavery continue to shape the experiences of people of colour in the present day. To imply that listening to oppositional views (and from lesbian feminists, at that) is equivalent to facing systemic discrimination on the grounds of racial class is, at best, hyperbole and, at worst, racism.
I do not dispute that transmen and transwomen occupy a vulnerable position in society. It is significant that, of the 22 recorded murders of transwomen last year in the USA, 19 of the victims were transwomen of colour. Monroe’s blithe tweeting entirely bypassed the intersection between queer identities and racial identities. Similarly, in response to the programme, trans activist, Paris Lees, tweeted the following:
There is no "transgender debate" just as there is no "gay debate" or "black debate" or "woman debate". You support trans rights or you don't
— Paris Lees (@ParisLees) January 14, 2016
Here, Lees presents a false dichotomy. Discussion surrounding the nature of gender is not inherently “transgender debate.” Virtually everyone — even the subjects of gender neutral parenting — must live with the implications and consequences of gender. Lees’ perspective neatly side-steps structural oppression based on hierarchies of sexuality, race, and sex. Heteronormativity means that sexuality exists as part of a hierarchy in which gay, lesbian, and bisexual people are marginalized. Under white supremacy, race exists as part of a hierarchy in which people of colour are treated as a subordinate class by whites. Under patriarchy, gender exists as part of a hierarchy in which women are treated as a subordinate class by men.
Although transmen and transwomen are subject to discrimination, they are not subject to oppression as a class. It has been argued that those who do not identify as trans benefit from cisgender privilege, but there is no simple hierarchy of oppressor and oppressed in this instance. AFAB (assigned female at birth) women remain at risk of male violence against women, ranging from rape to domestic violence to female genital mutilation. In short, the gendered oppression of women is not a privilege.
To question a queer perspective of gender as Julia Long did is not to say that transgender people are not deserving of safety, respect, and employment without discrimination (though critiquing gender and being transphobic are often conflated), but rather to acknowledge that, within the debate surrounding gender, individuals and groups have different needs, at points competing.
How this competition will be resolved is, at present, unclear. In the midst of the discord — which is connected to the schism between liberal and radical — one detail gives me hope for revolution. Despite ideological differences, both sides of the debate share one factor in common, the most important thing: neither is comfortable living under patriarchy. Neither is willing to settle for the status quo.
Claire Heuchan is a Black Radical Feminist from Scotland. She is currently working towards a Master’s Degree in Gender Studies. You can follow her on Twitter @ClaireShrugged and find more of her work at sisteroutrider.wordpress.com.