The Politics of Palatability (1/2)

The Instagram post

Seun’s Instagram story was screenshotted and published both on the individual’s private Facebook page and on the public Overheard at Durham Uni page. These were her words, meant for her followers and not for the public eye to dissect. Seun, in her position of President-elect, has been criticized for referring to  ‘Tories’ in her statement, yet other people in positions of power have not been targeted and threatened in the same way she has for expressing political views. Individuals with power are allowed to hold personal opinions and should be encouraged to use those opinions for positive reform.

Labelling Tories is not ‘repulsive’ as the individual stated but is the naming of a group who has had been previously criticized for discriminatory comments and actions, both within that society and in other affiliated ones. As an analogy, stereotyping of left-wing people (predominantly by right-wing or sensationalist media sources) as ‘social justice warriors’, ‘feminazis’, ‘liberal snowflakes’ goes unquestioned and being labelled with these terms is common for people who speak out against injustices.

 

Facebook controversy

The screenshot on the individual’s Facebook page received comments in support of his condemnation of Seun, none of which were made at her role as President-elect. We condemn the individual’s use of Overheard (which was meant to be a safe and accessible platform for everyone) for demonizing Seun as racist. The public perspective was led to criticize Seun by an individual in a position of political power.

Comments have been made in support of the individual, who as been described as ‘nice’ and ‘with good intentions’. This is everyone. It’s inexcusable to repeatedly attack minorities on resources and spaces meant for debate and education. There is a difference between free speech (which has been used as an excuse to play devil’s advocate or express derogatory views without being held accountable) and using two Facebook pages, multiple platforms, and in-person actions to exhibit prejudice.

Offence was expressed at Seun’s referring to  ‘Tories’ on the individual’s post, yet the commenters attacked her personally rather than her election to SU President in light of the RON scandal.

When you refuse to understand that opinions (expressed privately or publicly) cause harm – emotional, political, and structural – politics become inseparable from a ‘nice’ identity.

 

Twitter

A Durham student voiced their experience of racism, classism, misogyny, and other biases in a Twitter thread following the shutdown of the Overheard page. Other undergraduates, postgraduates, Professors, PhD students, Doctors, of all classes, genders, races, ages, and more, voiced their experiences in support.

Allegations of harassment in clubs were made, and fetishisation of race – yet this is not new. One student spoke out against the university and was warned by the university to be ‘careful’ because of negative portrayal. Ableism at the institutional level was exposed, where one student allegedly became disabled over their time at Durham: they were forced to leave with no support and were locked in a room against their will by a member of staff.

 

RON

The RON campaign has criticised the SU for being undemocratic and dismissive of student voices. Criticizing the functioning of such institutions is a valid means to ensure the better representation of students. Previous to this controversy, this was the protocol: students’ criticisms were directed at the SU, not to the President-elect; it is not her doing. Therefore post -controversy criticisms at the President-elect cannot have been to do with RON.

Racial and gender identities are visible and at play in every situation, not because individuals are actively biased but because society creates these structures that affect every individual. The identities of PoC are inherently political and inseparable from everyday life. Drawing attention to this is controversial, because it is usually raised by PoC (and all minorities) who experience firsthand racism (whether micro-aggressions, visible individual racism, or invisible structural racism).

Being ‘colour-blind’ is a common defence: the majority of people are not biased, but societal attitudes are ingrained in all of us. Structural barriers also prevent discrimination from being challenged because the voices of minorities can be silenced or belittled and ignored. People have labelled WoC raising their voices as  a ‘detraction’ from ‘democracy’. Just the fact that they would conveniently choose to view it as ‘detraction’ rather than understand how this happened in the first place, the insidious intentions of the person who posted the screenshot, the way he set a public narrative, the way Seun was exposed in such a light to 28K students, not even considering the kind of bullying she could receive, shows that the interest of minorities has not been at the forefront. This lack of interest in their concerns is structural racism.

 

Institutional discrimination

Structural discrimination exists and is the most dangerous form, because it is invisible. It becomes visible through the actions and words of those individuals who are lower down in the institutional hierarchy, such as that of students. Being ‘colour-blind’ or blind to any discrimination is impossible, because social issues manifest themselves in every aspect of society.

It is the rising proportion of international students at universities, seen as sources of profit in an increasingly neoliberal and marketised education system. It is never having had a black lecturer during the entirety of my time at Durham. It is the irony of the Reclaim the Night feminist rally being wolf-whistled in what we all thought was a seemingly safe space.

Structural racism exists in screenshotting someone’s comments and using those comments against the individual as a way to express harmful opinions. Also, it is possible for opinions to be taken out of context (as the individual stated). But there is a difference between words which were not intended to cause harm and words intended to cause harm that have been expressed multiple times. Seun’s words were an expression of what being ‘palatable’ meant in a predominantly white, first world, upper-middle-class institution meant, as a WoC who therefore will stand out in the role of President-elect.

We as allies must try to fight defences of ‘colour-blindness’. Acknowledging privilege and using it to combat social issues is what tell apart allies from white saviours and champagne socialists. The author of a second Facebook post, which has brought to light many of the individual’s past comments, stated: “My friends of colour had already tried to call out said individual and suffered a vicious racist backlash and multiple threats for doing so. Being white enables you to call out other white people’s behaviour without the racist backlash that people of colour would receive for doing the same thing. As an ally you need to recognise this privilege and use it to draw attention to the issues people of colour have already raised but are typically not listened to or intimidated into withdrawing.”

It reaches a point where it becomes harder not to speak out, and not speaking out at any instance only enables discrimination to persist.

 

COVID-19 pandemic

Research from previous pandemics has shown how BAME groups are more adversely affected than white groups; in this time of crisis, we should be even more considerate of marginalisation. Historical oppression has created structural barriers (such as that BAME groups are more likely to live in poverty, or are statistically less likely to reach positions of power) and, as allies, we should be aware of this.

From the beginning, the virus has been used to justify xenophobia; this is a clear analogy of how racism can be disguised. Remarks have been widespread, such as Trump’s labelling it the ‘Chinese virus’ (when ‘coronavirus’ or ‘COVID-19’ is the accepted name). Less visible is the xenophobia that has increased since the pandemic began – such as viewing those who have Asian backgrounds with suspicion and the avoidance of Chinese takeaways.

 

Conclusion

It is fundamentally unjust to attack anyone on the basis of underlying stereotypes. Criticism of Seun occurred only after the Facebook controversy, which can only be interpreted as a display of hypocrisy from a group of individuals feeling attacked. Accountability is important, whether it’s individual or institutional; reform is only possible by speaking out against harmful views that are perpetrated by society.

 

Other controversies:

 

On COVID-19:

 

Featured image: ‘Dunelm House, Durham, the building occupied by Durham Students’ Union’ by Tim Packer. Available on Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

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