By Uswa Ahmed, BA World Philosophies
The famed Cambridge historian Mary Beard attempted to rationalise the alleged behaviour of Oxfam aid workers in Haiti after reports surfaced accusing Aid workers of sexual exploitation of women and children. Beard took to Twitter to explain that the alleged behaviour could not be ‘condoned’ but wondered ‘how hard it must be to sustain ‘civilised’ values in a disaster zone’. Her comments were slammed by critics and fellow Cambridge academics alike including Priyamvada Gopal who wrote that ‘Obviously it’s not a great idea to randomly get your d**k out, rape people etc.’ Beard went on to defend her comments, writing: ‘I find it hard to imagine that anyone out there could possibly think that I am wanting to turn a blind eye to the abuse of women and children’ and that ‘while we deplore what has happened and expect better, it is worth thinking of the context in which it took place. After receiving a further onslaught of criticism, Beard proceeded to share pictures of herself crying.
Feminist writer, Flavia Dzodan was ‘amazed by the extent of sentimentality people will go through, debasing themselves if necessary to sustain their ignorance, bigotry or both.’ Kelechi Okafor also weighed in accusing Beard of ‘failing to see the humanity in Blackness’ and questioning, ‘if it had been a country of white children and women who were sexually violated for the sake of ‘charity’ you wouldn’t be opening your long neck to spew this nonsense’.
Whilst some referred to Beard’s remarks as outright racist, others took the time to critique her choice of vocabulary. Either way, though there is a lot to unpack here, I will begin by firstly declaring how utterly unbelievable it is that Beard, an academic who teaches at one of the most distinguished institution in the world, thought that she would weigh into a sensitive issue laced with complicated implications. Her reference to an ‘alleged’ miscarriage of justice, is nothing short of victim-blaming. These comments arise from the shadows present in the depths of a tainted colonial past where the ‘civilised’ attempt to rationalise the uncomfortable discourse of colonialism. The impact of colonialism is very much alive and the burden of proof is the stains that have permeated every cell of the skeleton of our world be it in in the media or in Beard’s tweet. Nevertheless, the abuse of vulnerable women and children is not a new phenomenon. At the height of the British Empire, European men in the name of civilising the savage, would visit new worlds stealing their resources, enslaving their people, and raping their women and children. Whilst most regard the end of the British Empire as marking the end of European imperialism, like racism, it is weaved into the very fabric of modern societies across the world. It exists beneath the facade of apparent equality and in the shadows an unrepresentative political arena.
These binaries segregate the coloniser and the colonised, and position the white man as bringing the light to the savage. It is how colonialism was, and still is, vindicated and excused. Taken out of context, Beard’s tweet can be considered the contemplative thought process of how colonialism destroys the soul of the European coloniser such as in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Like Conrad’s narrator, Beard considers of how we would react if we were the colonisers. Beard choses to use the word ‘us’ as though we the reader, are on her side and are hence the Enlightened Europeans. It is this ‘them-and- us’ attitude that continues to perpetuate the binaries of colonialism.
As Beard’s fellow Cambridge academic Priyamvada Gopal also replied that if she were to post ‘picture of myself crying … every time I was made miserable by abuse or by the genteel liberal racism that is the very lifeblood of Cambridge social intercourse, I would have a [twitter] feed full of misery’. Though Beard is ‘not a nasty colonist’, she treads on a tradition of white feminism which diminishes, forgets and errantly ignores the experiences of women of colour. It looks at womanhood through a beige, middle-class lens and turns a blind eye to the issues that affect the most unrepresented individuals in society. This has the dangerous effect of pushing white women to the foreground in conversations about gender, sexual violence and workplace harassment leading to the marginalisation of the experiences of women of colour.
But these racial blind spots have the greater effect of harming people of colour in more concrete and systemic ways for the reality is that white, straight, middle-class individuals will never face the consequences of certain political decisions in the same way as their counterparts of colour. But these problems aren’t a contemporary phenomenon. When the suffragettes fought hard against a male dominated society, they literally said that a woman could live with slavery if she had to.
This brings the conversation to the recent March for Women. When I first saw posters around university I felt a certain uneasiness in my stomach. Despite the protests being described as inclusive, I knew deep down what kind of inclusivity it referred to. Whilst there may be no exclusionary or malicious intent, women of colour voicing their frustration with marches or Beard’s tweet are not us trying to sabotage but simply asking that our voices not be drowned out for we do not have the privilege of retreating into exclusive social grottos.