Bahar Mustafa: the rise of campus racialism

Blair Spowart

Topics Free Speech

Bahar Mustafa, the welfare and diversity officer at Goldsmiths Students’ Union, recently caused a media storm after she banned white men from attending an event aimed at challenging the ‘white-centric culture of occupations’. Students have since launched a petition to have Mustafa sacked, citing her fondness for hashtags like #KillAllWhiteMen as proof that she is guilty of ‘reverse racism’. Responding to the controversy, she said that, as an ethnic-minority woman, she ‘cannot be racist or sexist to white men, because racism and sexism describe structures of privilege based on race and gender’.

Divisive and petty though Mustafa’s ‘liberation’ politics is, her no-whites rally is really nothing to get worked up about. Private campaign groups and organisations should have the liberty to organise – and discriminate – as they please. And the attempt to present Mustafa’s Twitter tirades as ‘hate speech’ will only further entrench the sort of illiberal campus politics she herself promotes.

What is concerning here is her definition of racism, which is now commonly spouted on campuses by pseudo-radicals. According to this definition, racism is not merely about racial prejudice or discrimination; in order to qualify as racist, those doing the discriminating must also occupy a position of power, of privilege, in society. The oppressor, therefore, has to be of a higher privilege level – in a predetermined hierarchy – than those they are ‘oppressing’. Ditto for every other ‘-ism’ and ‘-phobia’.

This obsession with ‘power’ and the eternal battle between the ‘oppressor’ and the ‘oppressed’ offers campus radicals a shockingly simplistic moral lens through which they now analyse every expression, action and concept. From this perspective, unfettered freedom of speech on campus, for instance, is seen as a tool of oppression, used only to entrench the privileged in their positions of power.

At best, this logic projects a patronising view of ethnic minorities as in need of constant protection from the ‘privileged’ realm of public life. At worst, it is fetishising victimhood by associating powerlessness with virtue. I only wish this way of thinking was confined to campuses, but the wider pseudo-left also deploys this kind of patronising, power-relations politics. A common criticism of the slain Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, for instance, was that they were ‘punching down’ – that is, satirising Muslims from a position of relative privilege. Similarly, while nominal leftists will happily mock the backward ways of Christianity – as a wealthy and privileged religion, it is fair game – Islam is seen as being off limits. This racialised outlook not only promotes a feeble view of particular groups — it also robs them of their moral agency, too. So, many commentators continue to interpret acts of jihadist violence as a natural response to alleged Western oppression.

This abandonment of universalism in favour of a more relativistic analysis of society has had disastrous consequences for the left, particularly in its current inability to compute anti-Semitism. Historically, the Jews were a persecuted group, but, in light of the Israeli-Gaza conflict, the tables are seen to have been turned. By suggesting that Muslims across Europe have somehow internalised the struggle in Palestine, Western commentators often rationalise and write off anti-Semitism as an understandable response to oppression. The recent attacks on a kosher supermarket in Paris and a synagogue in Copenhagen were framed by many commentators as being fuelled by the attackers’ anger over the Israel-Palestine conflict, rather than their clear hatred of Jews. Confronting anti-Semitism head-on makes the left deeply uncomfortable, because, in this twisted relativistic mush, defending the perceived ‘oppressor’ is the only moral sin. The fact that presenting all Jews as somehow powerful or privileged echoes age-old, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories never seems to register.

Rather than crowing on about the ‘reverse racism’ of one pseudo-radical, we need to challenge this deeply divisive and distorted definition of racism. Mustafa’s dodgy tweets are only the tip of the iceberg.

Blair Spowart is a student at the University of Edinburgh and an organiser for the Down With Campus Censorship! campaign.

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Topics Free Speech


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