[My thoughts on the Mary Beard Haiti tweet controversy. Expressed in the form of an open letter.]
Let me start by saying that I don’t think you are a racist, a neo-colonialist or any other such pejorative that might have been lobbed at you this past week. In truth I’m a great admirer of your work; it’s not easy to make Classics cool (the ennui of Friday afternoon’s double Latin is a memory not easily exorcised) yet you’ve managed to ignite the interest of thousands in what is after all, the foundational story of the West. Kudos to you.
However, a lifetime immersed in the veneration of one civilisation and cultural narrative carries with it a tendency to render one purblind to alternative perspectives, especially those that might force the re-evaluation of fundamental and cherished assumptions. I wish to make clear that I have no truck with reflexive anti-Whiteness or anti-Westerness for that matter, as much as I might criticise both (what constitutes “Whiteness” is a subject way beyond the scope of this missive). The West as a civilisation has bequeathed much that is useful to human advancement and though colonialism was certainly a crime and the wounds it inflicted run deep I believe there is some merit in the argument that introspection and self-betterment matter more now than constant obsessing over historical injustice.
Though Person of Colour (POC) has never been my chosen badge of identity, growing up I was all too aware that it was how White British mainstream society viewed me (or to use the cruder street vernacular – a “paki”). A childhood of racially inspired micro-aggressions, and in many instances macro-aggressions, is not an experience I suspect you will be familiar with nor of the disparity in how people of colour were (and often still are) treated at school as compared to their white counterparts. It’s hard to transcribe the emotional experience of a young child realising that the rules are not applied impartially; I don’t suppose you can relate to having teachers shout at you for relatively innocuous infractions yet deliver polite admonishments to your classmates of another colour (white) for more serious offences. Oh, and I’m almost certain that the history of Africa and Asia didn’t feature in your school’s curriculum except maybe for cursory mentions as those lands that Europeans were gracious enough to gift the fruits of their industrial and cultural endeavours.
Given this, I completely understand why you were so taken aback at the visceral reaction by many POC to both your original tweet and your subsequent attempt at clarification/exculpation. What I do find harder to process, however, is your resort to self-pity and an unwillingness to engage publicly with cogent, intellectual criticism. As someone in the public arena, with a panoply of mainstream media channels at her disposal, could you not afford at least one of your polite critics (the erudite and effervescent Dr Priyamvada Gopal springs to mind) the dignity of open debate? It came as no great surprise that a predominantly white network of journalists, authors and feminists closed ranks around you decrying any criticism of your statements as “victimhood” seeking and bullying/abuse.
I have a problem with verbosity, I’ve been told, so I’ll cut to the chase. It’s about double standards, Mary and after decades of enduring it, many POC are fed up. And what makes it worse is the point-blank refusal of (many) people of your background to understand that you are part and parcel of this perennial problem. You tweeted that you and (many of) your critics are actually on the same side but I’m afraid that given what you’ve written over the past week and your accompanying behaviour that’s not a view they would likely share.
In the Times Literary Supplement (a publication itself in serious need of more POC contributors) you wrote:
Yesterday evening, I tweeted this: ‘Of course one can’t condone the (alleged) behaviour of Oxfam staff in Haiti and elsewhere. But I do wonder how hard it must be to sustain “civilised” values in a disaster zone. And overall I still respect those who go in and help out, where most of us would not tread.’
This has to put it mildly been divisive….
Let me put it succinctly – it’s plain wrong. Your piece’s subsequent tortuous attempts at contextualisation could not elide that you posited working in a disaster zone as some sort of mitigatory factor in the sexual abuse of destitute vulnerable black Haitian girls by predominantly white Western “aid” workers. You further wrote:
99% of us have no idea of the stresses of working in these environments (and yes, living in them is worse, as there is no escape route).
I have been to Africa and seen Western aid workers in action. While it’s never pleasant to witness human suffering, as you point out, the fact that it is not an experience you are personally enduring combined with the constant knowledge that you are but a sojourner in their dystopia, ensures that stress levels remain relatively low. Not to mention the fact – especially true of the managerial cadre – that Western NGO employees tend to live in secure compounds surrounded by comforts and luxuries more akin to upmarket hotels. Saturday night parties and evenings in the bar laughing and drinking are my recollections of Western aid workers. And even should you find yourself stressed at the miasma of suffering and despair in which you find yourself enveloped, I still fail to see the nexus with organising sex parties staffed by indigent young local girls. Oh and your reference to the French Resistance was really quite bizarre. I’ll readily confess to not having the faintest at what you were driving at there.
No, I’m sorry, Mary but I strongly doubt that the sexual depredations of those criminals were a result of their stress levels, rather it’s the emanation of a deeply rooted conviction that certain lands (“shithole countries” as the “leader of the free world” terms them) and their inhabitants are inherently fit and ripe for exploitation.
The Times expose, regurgitating a 2008 Save the Children report, talked of young children as young as six “trading sex with aid workers”. Leaving aside the fact that in no European jurisdiction can a six year old legally give consent to sexual activity the narrative and choice of language employed when it comes to such abuses by white Europeans/Americans stands in stark contrast to that utilised when the perpetrators are POC. There was no talk of vulnerable (and most of the victims came from broken homes) young white girls “trading sex for luxuries and companionship” when it came to Rotherham and Rochdale, only of how sick and depraved the perpetrators and their culture was. Years on end working long hours for relatively little pay in the night economy of run down towns is also stressful, Mary yet could you imagine the splutters of sanctimonious outrage by the TLS’ readership were a POC to adduce that as some sort of mitigation, however tenuous, for what happened there? Or how about a piece outlining the mitigation for Mohammed Emwazi’s (aka ‘Jihadi John’) murderous rampage?
I could write an entire essay cataloguing the various euphemisms and dysphemism double standards that pervade mainstream media reporting but that of course was not the purpose of this open letter to you. Seeing as you wanted to reassure anti-colonialists that you are on their side let me conclude by offering you some sincere advice. Centuries of colonial attitudes are not swept away by a proliferation of POC sports professionals and musicians. It doesn’t come from holding seminars on diversity and inclusivity or from the bestowal of token radio shows or column spaces to a handful of privately educated POC. It doesn’t even come from POC standing up and demanding from the majority the respect and recognition they for so long have given short thrift to. By far the hardest hammer in the anti-colonialism armoury is the refusal of members of the privileged white class to engage the rhetoric of colonialism, to actively fight for the disestablishment of the entrenched power structures and narratives from which they have so handsomely benefited and to further the cause of talented, qualified POC struggling to make headway in careers that for so long had been all but closed to them. If, as you allude to in your TLS piece, keeping your head down is your preferred option then so be it but then perhaps you might consider restricting your commentary to your own bailiwick? And on that note let me wish you all the best and I look forward to watching your forthcoming BBC series Civilisations.
GleamingRazor (an anonymous admirer)