Depending on your view I've either chosen a deliberately inflammatory title or a completely descriptive one. I prefer to think of it as the latter. Despite how I've chosen to phrase the title, I really strongly believe in Ibram Kendi when he writes
"Racist" is not – as Richard Spencer argues – a pejorative. [...]. It is descriptive, and the only way to undo racism is to constantly identify and describe it – and then dismantle it. The attempt to turn this usefully descriptive term into an almost unusable slur is, of course, designed to do the opposite: to freeze us into inaction.
— How to be Anti-Racist, Ibram X. X. Kendi
Or in other words "Racism is not a thing you are, it is a thing you do". This is not a call-out post. Of me, or anyone else. This is, again in the words of Kendi, "Doing the basic work, of defining the people we want to be [...]". This post is mostly by, for, and about me. Sometimes writing for public consumption is one of the best ways for me to structure my thoughts. I have written this also in the hope that I inspire other people to do some self-reflection in a similar way, but I'm trying to keep my expectations realistic. That means that this post is meant mostly for other white people. Of course, my siblings of colour are welcome to stay if they so choose, but they know these tendencies better than I ever could, and I will not presume to tell them anything they don't already know.
A bit of context
Sometimes the way I find out if an idea is really good is just by procrastinating the shit out of it and if it sticks around then I know it's a good enough idea to try out. The bad ones I either stumble on to reasons why it isn't very good or just forget about. This blog post is one of those ideas that has stuck around for years. I think the earliest inception of this idea was back in 2018 when I first started my PhD.
In case you didn't know this about me, I am non-binary. I don't often dress very non-conforming for a whole host of reasons, but what that means is that most people wouldn't "clock" me as they call it.
At the time when the story I'm about to tell you takes place, I had just moved to Wales. This was about a year after I'd discovered I was trans, meaning that I was even less secure about it and how to deal with it at that time than I am now (and that says something). It was, however, another opportunity to reinvent myself.
Getting to my actual point
On the first day, we had an introductory day to meet our department colleagues, our fellow PhD students and their research topics. You know, the standard stuff.
During that meeting, at one point one of our colleagues told the group that he was from Saudi Arabia. This set me into alarm mode pretty much immediately. As I'm sure you're well aware, Saudi Arabia is not.... a famously chill place for queer people. You know, mass public executions, surpression of women rights, persecution of gay people, that kind of stuff.
My immediate instinct was that "He's probably very transphobic", and I was afraid that if he found out, the working environment could get... unpleasant. Given that my queerness was something very new to me I also did not have very much confidence in myself to know how to handle such conflicts efficiently.
I also have quite the distrust of most institutions I am a part of. They have never really managed to actually provide me with the guidance, support or protection that they claim to extend to everyone. I blame primary school, but that's a topic for another day. My point here is that the onus has always been on me to come up with solutions for problems like these and then convince higher-ups that those solutions were both correct and necessary. So I did not count on the university of my supervisors to step in if I'd need help in a collegial conflict, especially at the beginning. Looking back at how the rest of my PhD unfolded, I maintain that this was the right decision.
Now, I did not fear for my physical safety around him. Even then I knew that even if those are the kinds of beliefs he held, he wouldn't get away with that, but the fact that train of thought went through my head is already not a good sign.
Now, let me be immediately clear here, this was racism or at least xenophobia. There was no indication except prior stereotypes that he would have been transphobic or homophobic. Maybe he was even gay himself. It's possible that he had fled Saudi Arabia for that exact reason, I don't know. The point is that I didn't give him a fair chance.
The point where this get's more complicated in my opinion is the fact that at least in my perception, my "safety" was at stake. Due to traumas in the past, I thought that I would be left to fend for myself if any conflict had presented itself. Because of that, the mere presence of someone who might be disposed to conflict with me was cause for distress. Not that I really did anything or behaved inappropriately towards him (at least as far as I know), but these kinds of internal reactions are the seeds of worse behaviour and therefore deserve introspection in my opinion.
I'm not trying to excuse my behaviour, simply to make observations about it. Mental health is not an excuse to treat people poorly or unfairly, as they say. Being queer, or having any other form of oppression for that matter, does not in any way make it okay to participate in other kinds of prejudice such as racism. It can make it harder at times, but that does not mean we do not have to do the work. Not the least of which in this case because queer history is black history.
I like the theory of intersectionality and although I don't know nearly enough about it, it rings very true to me whenever I hear about what it preaches. However, I rarely hear about this flipside of intersectionality. That might again be because I am not very learned in this field. Still, I think it's important to recognise that one kind of intersection can make you predisposed to handle other intersections much worse, (see also: Pick me gays)
And that's basically it, there is no real resolution to this story. There is no "well luckily I realised what was going on and now I've resolved to never do a racism again". These are tendencies that we have to be aware of and work against. I think it is the same reaction I have when I have to walk past a group of Maroccan (looking) people on the street. It's an instinctive fear that part of my brain tries to convince me is legitimate. It's a tendency that I still have, although I am trying to minimise it. In the end, this behaviour is about me and I want to do the work of resolving these conflicting beliefs within me. I say want to as opposed to having to although both are true. Hopefully in the process, I hope I've given you an avenue to work on for yourself as well.
P.S. Thank you to the wonderful Silvia Reis for proof reading this peice, her comments gave me the confidence I needed to finally publish this.