Resisting Whiteness (Pleasance Theatre, Edinburgh)
Organized by a collective of queer and trans people of colour in Edinburgh and Glasgow, yesterday's Resisting Whiteness combined both conference and safe-space for people of colour to discuss generally (but not only) LGBTQIA+ issues seldom if ever discussed in white-majority spaces. A sell-out three hundred strong audience highlighted in its numbers the interest and the need for this kind of space; where socially ingrained racism is a fact not to be denied, but the accepted starting point for unpacking the challenges of living in a hegemonically white society.
The four main panels each took a particular focus: Structures & Change, Labour & Trauma, Being & Nationalism, and Strategy & Change.
The third, on Being & Nationalism, was arguably the most entertaining, with regular explosions of audience laughter and applause. For this, award-winning novelist Jackie Kay was complicit, her story-teller's eye for resonant details revealing how much Scotland has changed over the past thirty years, becoming a mature, informed and diverse Remainer democracy on a Brexit island. It didn't hurt that Kay was able to summon anecdotal gems about lesbian scenes on remote Scottish islands, as well as her friendship to the iconic writer Audre Lorde. Poignantly funny stories too emerged about growing up with her brother as Glaswegian people of colour, and the omnipresent 'But where are you from really?' Suki Sangha also shared Kay's bond with Glasgow, combining it with an internationalist politics and a call, like other panel members throughout the day, for a national discussion on Scotland's role in the slave trade. As Kay said, criticism doesn't have to be a bad thing, but can lead to a new openness, a rebirth for Scotland as a modern European nation.
Exploring substantial, internal themes, was the panel on Labour & Trauma, with its spotlight on mental health. The chair, Rianna Walcott, expressed her rejection of white psychotherapy, its inadequacy and unconsciously white presumptions, exacerbating damage when used to treat patients of colour. Dr Erica Mapule McInnis spoke of the trauma of the colonized, of its multiple forms, unrecognized by white psychotherapy: in the potential anomie of diaspora, in the degradation of the asylum system, and in the colonial and post-colonial expectation for people of colour not to integrate but rather submerge and suppress all the wrongs they and their descendants have suffered and continue to suffer. Amal Azzudin among others noted how 'Just get on with it' becomes a weary ancestral tolerance passed down to each generation, with stigma attached to asking for support. As Dr Ima Jackson would say in the final panel, the language for making sense of white hegemony provides no support for the colonized/subordinated: 'multiculturalism,' 'colourblindness,' 'Equality and Diversity;' words and concepts that make no attempt to address hidden white histories and biases, but instead provide the illusion of support in a weird kind of white vacuum. Solutions offered included the value of support systems and networks within the community. A loud cheer emerged from the audience when Gulaine Kinouani diagnosed one particular source of racism and suffering: 'there is a danger in using "therapy" as a plaster over the wound and not looking at the deeper causes, namely capitalism.' Kinouani's analysis was resonant: of how capitalism commodifies people, either ascribes value or removes it from them, structuring society in terms of the bottom line, while consolidating prejudices and feeding us the familiar white-majority, middle-class narrative that we are all born into, irrespective of its honesty.
Finally, to the beginning: panel 1 was asked how white allies should lend their support. The trade union activist Layla-Roxanne Hill got laughter for stating it simply: See it, say it, sort it. Co-panellist Jacob V Joyce similarly raised the wearying experience of dealing with stupid questions, and how people of colour don't see their function as a resource of answers and solutions for inquiring minds. If white people see injustice, then they should speak up immediately. If they want to know more, they can study it, and contribute to changing a mainstream culture that as Reeta Loi said, cocoons everyone in pre-constructed white-centred distortions.And for me, as a white audience member walking home afterwards, the uncomfortable feeling of my own white environment in the LGBTQIA+ scene. How do I address this disconnection, between a virtually all-white trans/queer network (of which I belong in Edinburgh), and an alternative that sees its experiences as completely different and marginalized, and which requires its own safe space to express itself? Is this even bridgeable? Or do I accept how the LGBTQIA+ scene simply replicates the imbalances and structural, unconscious racisms and politics of society as a whole? I imagine dialogues of contestation that barely go beyond Step 1 (or should that be 'Round 1'?), as white, middle-class, comfort-zone trans/queers deny the omnipresence of racism, or perhaps, fail to turn up to such discussions. 'Racism doesn't affect me; therefore it doesn't bother me.' And perhaps, more eye-rollingly, 'This is a neutral site, a broad church: don't bring race or politics into it.' Isn't this the silent (or not so silent) refrain of complacent white LGBTQIA+ networks? Great if people of colour want to attend, no big deal if they don't? Perhaps these dialogues can only begin from within our all-white spaces, as we ask ourselves and each other, are we comfortable with the marginalization, discomfort, and absence of queer and trans people of colour?
(Image from twitter feed of @Nosakhaer)