Confessions of a Race Spy
I have a few little ideas I want to introduce and define for myself before I get into the nitty-gritty. To my more semantic friends, these are my personal definitions and not dictionary definitions, and yes, I am aware of that. I'll try to come back to these:
- Racism: An imprecise word referring to discrimination based on phenotype, often associated to an overarching system of domination, white supremacy. Many people understand racism to be no more than a form of discrimination. This leads to confusion when anti-racist militants use the word as short-hand for the white supremacist system.
- Discrimination: My opinion is that we need to unhook this concept from systems of domination, because recognizing that both oppressed and priviliged people make use of discrimination allows us to explain to people how discrimination and domination are different.
- White Supremacy: A term that has unfortunately become synonymous with the far-right, fascist organisations that explicitly cite white supremacy as a goal. White supremacy is in fact an ideology, one that percolates throughout society, with far-ranging effects. White supremacy exploits and aggravates hostile relationships between distinct groups of oppressed peoples. African slavery is a historical example of this strategy in action.
- POC: A person of colour, a generalized banner term for groups of racialized people organising against white supremacy. QPOC (Queer People of Colour) and APOC (Anarchist People of Colour) are two specific networks that, in the past, I have participated in.
- Passing Privilege: Examples: a queer person that can pass as straight, or a trans person that can pass a cisgendered individual. I have passing privilege as white, and also as straight. I find I am constantly having to come out as a racialized individual, and often white people will refuse my self-identification as a racialized person.
- Racialization: The process by which a person is "raced". The theory is that white supremacy does this to people as a way of excluding them from some aspect of what it is to be human. The consequence would be that the only fully human individuals are those that are not raced, and in this society that usually means white-skinned people of exclusively western european descent.
I'm also going to allow myself to use the term "white" as shorthand for "non-racialized person". I feel the term is problematic but I don't want to use more jargon than I have to in this text.
I typically tell two stories when people ask me to explain what I mean when I say I feel like a spy. They are hardly my most painful examples, nor are they the most dramatic exhibitions of racism I have witnessed. It is of these every day, banal interactions that my understanding of my place as a "spy" is constructed.
The Lebanese Problem
As an adolescent, I participated in a project called "Insight Theatre" - a roaming sex-ed show "by and for peers". Audience members would often come up to me after the show to share there stories and concerns.
I was waiting for a bus downtown after one show at a large suburban high school, when two guys who had seen the show came and sat down with me. We talked for a while and then one of them leans in close as a group of kids walks by and whispers:
"I'm not a racist or anything but what do you think of our Lebanese problem?"
Floored, I tried to intervene, get them to explain what exactly they meant, at the same time coming out as a racialized person myself and contesting their view of themselves as non-racist. I didn't do a very good job of that, and they got all huffy and left.
My father brought me up on a culture of Arab solidarity, and I was straight-up offended to be asked such a question. At the time I assumed those kids had guessed I had Arab roots and were trying to tease me somehow. Now I'm not so sure, and while I am still unreceptive to their ideas, I think they were genuinely surprised that I would take offense to what they felt was a confidential discussion about a sensitive subject in which they were afraid of being judged.
I am convinced that, had I showed up at that particular school wearing a kufiya, my hand of Fatima or any other outward sign of my leanings, those two boys would never have dared open such a conversation with me. In many ways this was the opening shot of my life-long struggle with passing privilege and what it means to be a spy.
The Le Pen Problem
Remember when Jean-Marie Le Pen of the fascist Front National party went to round two of the French presidential elections? It was my first time voting in my country of birth, where I joined the flood of expats terrified by the prospect of President Le Pen. That Christmas I flew over to visit the family and spend some time with my dying grandfather.
Talk naturally came around to the 2002 elections, and when my grandfather found out I had voted for Chirac he began browbeating me for cheating France of Le Pen. I very impolitely reminded him that my father was Algerian and that I was definitely not going to vote for a man whose policies would have prevented me from ever having been born.
My grandfather also felt betrayed, but he sought to reassure me, telling me not to worry, that I was really French and I didn't need to feel bad about having Algerian roots. I want to honor his intentions but it is difficult to do so after he refused to see the ways in which being the child of a mixed Algerian and French couple had affected my life and particularly my relationship to his country.
Why This Makes me a Spy
Aside from being emblematic of my relationship with my grandfather, the above discussions are meant to illustrate a couple of things. One is that people tend to assume, when they do not know me, that I am like them, and in the case of white people, this means they assume I am also non-racialized. The second is that even when people are aware of my roots they seek to ignore or erase parts of my experience, and when it becomes clear that I am not going to sympathize, I become, in their eyes, a sort of racial traitor. I do this by disagreeing with them, by becoming impassioned by subjects they feel distant from, and even by refusing to speak about such subjects at all.
I've had similar experiences within oppressed communities, especially among Algerian youth in France and other immigrant kids in Canada, where people will make assumptions about my experiences as a racialized person - particularly that I have the same, or a similar, experience of racism as they do. In those communities I have often reproduced racist behaviours and have been rightly called out for it - a calling out that is always tinged with a sense of shock that someone on "our side" would do or say such a thing.
These things happen because the white-supremacist system empowers me, as a light-skinned racialized person. It needs me, and others like me, to help it infiltrate these communities and inject doubt into their resistance. This is fundamentally screwed up. Remember earlier when I said that this system "exploits and aggravates hostile relationships between distinct groups of oppressed peoples?"
I have gone so far as to voluntarily exclude myself from People of Colour only spaces, even when my inclusion in the space was uncontested. I remember sharing the feeling with another light-skinned arab in the movement that we worried we were not "brown enough" to attend POC-only events. Add to that the painful experience of being raced as white from time to time in those spaces and that I cannot ignore my own oppressive behavior in those contexts. I believe I can be an ally to POC struggle, but that the specificity of my own oppression lies elsewhere.
I do identify as mixed-race and racialized, and I appreciate closed spaces and affinity groups devoted to our struggles. The ability to talk openly about our experiences and fractured identities, without nourishing sterotypes and social constructions, is a healing and mobilizing experience for me.
There comes a time when I have to step outside of closed spaces, and sometimes it is inevitable that I affirm my racial identity in those open spaces. My post on the burqa is a pretty good example of how this has bitten me. Much as I dislike such experiences of being tokenized, I find it even more difficult when I run into stark disbelief and demands that I "prove" my right to affirm my identity as an Algerian or racialized migrant to Canada.
I have regular discussions about reverse racism, frustrating discussions in which folks will often insist on reading the word racism as simple discrimination. This semantic debate obscures the actual issues in reverse racism, which is why I want to boycott the word "racism" all together.
Discussions like these are a place where my status as a race traitor actually works for me. I have found that if I validate the discrimination that people have experienced, and then reframe their experience in terms of white supremacy, folks will often "get it". Being able to situate the discrimination they feel they are experiencing as a reaction to the larger injustices of a system of domination gives them a space in which to start understanding why, even as an ally, it is vital for them to assist in dismantling white supremacy.
I will talk more about being an Ally in a future post.
This post is part of my series, A Valentine for Anti-Oppression.