White Privilege and Being Political

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gotprivilege

A couple of weeks ago I attended a talk by Jeremy Scahill about his book ‘Dirty Wars’ at the Auckland Readers and Writers Festival. Scahill was a war reporter who wrote this book about the war crimes and cover-ups being committed by the United States in the Middle East. At the book signing that followed, my friend asked him if there was a degree of privilege attached to him being able to write this book as a white American. His response was an immediate ‘absolutely’. He proceeded to explain how every single one of his friends who are Muslim journalists have told him that if they wrote that exact same book, they would have been detained.

I was slightly shocked when I heard this. Not because I didn’t think it was true, but because hearing a white man say it weirdly legitimised something that I’ve always thought to be true as a wheelchair user, an Indian and a Muslim woman. I greatly respect how Scahill recognises the privilege attached to his whiteness.

There are certainly double standards when it comes to who has the ‘right’ to be political. Access affects my day-to-day life but when I’ve complained about disability access and transport issues some people have responded with ‘but at least it’s better than what you would’ve had if you were still in Fiji or India’ in the tone of ‘have you no gratitude?’ Of course I appreciate the progress New Zealand has made but this doesn’t mean that I have to settle for a country that has inequalities. On a side note, I was born here and while I have an emotional connection to these two places of where I have roots, I can’t ‘still’ be in a place where I never even lived.

When it comes to expressing political concern, the same goes for ethnic and religious minorities but with more severe consequences. The political, ideological or economical climate in a particular time and place means that the group who are either oppressed or unpopular are the ones whose voices get misconstrued by the media and this filters into the psyche of the masses, leading to the irrational vilification and demonization of an entire group of people.

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Recent history is filled with such events. Those who fight for their human rights are threats and other unpopular groups are blamed for everything and gotten rid of. Jews were blamed for all of Germany’s problems pre-WW2. Black Civil Rights Activists in the USA were persecuted. The ANC were called terrorists. Idi Amin expelled the Indians from Uganda because he believed them to be money-hoarders. The same almost happened to Indo-Fijians in the 80s. Dawn Raids. Japanese Internment Camps. Palestinians throwing stones are somehow akin to IDF soldiers shotting missiles into heavily densely populated areas. I hate to think what would happen if Asian workers in modern-day slave states such as Qatar and the UAE started asking for equal rights. All of these situations are similar in the way the government in conjunction with the media made these groups out to be villains when they’re really the victims just so that the elite can protect an ideological agenda, racial superiority and the free acquiring of someone else’s resources.

The shunning that Muslims have to face around the world post-9/11 is the current example of this, to the point where being a Muslim male in the wrong place at the wrong time gets you sent to Guantanamo Bay. Being a male above the age of 16 in rural Yemen makes you a terrorist, which warrants the release of a drone missile through your village. Such paranoia is so strong that even Yusuf Islam a.k.a. Cat Stevens, who wrote “Peace Train” was banned from entering the USA with allegations that he has ties to terrorist organisations back in 2004. Both situations are equally barbaric and serve to brainwash the public into thinking we need to be feared just so that the 5 eyes, of which New Zealand is a part of, can continue with building surveillance states.

Meanwhile Muslims who live in countries where we are a minority have to tread on eggshells because we know that the media only feeds the public one narrative about us, to the point where some people resort to hiding this part of their identity to avoid judgement. One slip up or allegation and its in the papers, thereby undoing all the effort we put in to trying to convince everyone that we’re not the ‘other’, we don’t ‘hate the west’ and that we’re capable of love and goodness.

This also means that speaking out against the actions of the government carries a bigger risk for Muslims, which brings me back to the statement by Scahill. If a white man criticises New Zealand’s involvement or support of the USA’s illegal activity, it’s ok but put the same words in the mouth of an ethnic looking man with a beard and it’s a completely different story. Because of this, only those who are in positions of racial privilege can exercise the universal freedom of speech that we as a nation so proudly claim to have. Disagreeing with the government on issues such as the supporting of Israel and drone strikes does not mean you’re filled with hate. It means you disagree with the killing of innocent civilians, including plane hijackings and bombs on trains.

The building of the surveillance state has been justified by using heavy words like ‘jihad’, ‘extremism’ and ‘national security’. There are currently 16 CCTV cameras being installed in the Avondale mosque, where there were false accusations of such activities being promoted. Why they need so many, I have no idea. But what I do know is that if the mosque eventually opens, a space of reflection where Muslims go to find peace and sanctuary will be overshadowed by the overwhelming sense that Big Brother is watching, which he will be, thus nullifying the purpose of that space. Its not that we have anything to hide, it’s about the frustration of being treated as if you’re guilty until proven innocent simply because you belong to a religious group that your country, for one reason or another, is at war with.

I’m not saying that Muslims around the world are going to get shipped off somewhere en masse. But the theme of having to fabricate an enemy for political gain is a running theme throughout recent history and the current vilification of Muslims shows the persistence of that. I wrote this because as a Muslim, I want this to be the end of this ugly trend.

22 COMMENTS

  1. I am white privileged and agree with what you say. I agree with all that you say about drone strikes and the behaviour of the IDF.

    On the other side of the coin (and this will result in abuse being hurled at me) I hear little protest about such matters as a Sudanese court condemning a Christian woman to death, the slaughter of innocents in Syria, the undeniable attitude of certain groups towards women, the persecution of Christians in some countries.

    Intolerance, bigotry, cruelty, persecution are not a monopoly of the privileged white male. You talk of Jews being blamed for the problems in Germany before the war. There are many who would blame the Jews for the economic woes of the last few years. Will your voice be heard if these voices become more strident?

    Hatred breeds hatred. Drone strikes breed a desire for revenge. A suicide bomb attack results in further demonisation of Muslims. So why not be even handed and condemn violence from whatever quarter it comes.

  2. I am white privileged and agree with what you say. I agree with all that you say about drone strikes and the behaviour of the IDF.
    On the other side of the coin (and this will result in abuse being hurled at me) I hear little protest about such matters as a Sudanese court condemning a Christian woman to death, the slaughter of innocents in Syria, the undeniable attitude of certain groups towards women, the persecution of Christians in some countries.
    Intolerance, bigotry, cruelty, persecution are not a monopoly of the privileged white male. You talk of Jews being blamed for the problems in Germany before the war. There are many who would blame the Jews for the economic woes of the last few years. Will your voice be heard if these voices become more strident?
    Hatred breeds hatred. Drone strikes breed a desire for revenge. A suicide bomb attack results in further demonisation of Muslims. So why not be even handed and condemn violence from whatever quarter it comes. Clearly you are even handed in this but from many others who protest I see no such balance.

  3. I agree with you most of the time, until I hear of such things as the prospect of the Sudanese woman being hanged because of religion. It is those times that I wish that religion was simply banished from the world.
    I am, of course, an atheist and the more I see of religion the happier I am that I am.
    I don’t mind people having faith, but religion is just a tool for some to use to control others, I cannot be bothered with it.

  4. Latifa, your articles are a welcome addition to my week. They are considered, informed, have integrity, and are well written.

    I have long ago rejected organised religion from my life because of the harmful ways in which it has been used by people with hearts polluted by evil, but I recognise that faith and religious identity are core needs for many fellow travellers.

    Growing up in the complex and fraught milieu of apartheid South Africa, I have personal experience of how cultural, governmental and social instruments are leveraged to promote distrust and hate; to demonise individuals and groups. Your description of this process is both accurate and worrying; worrying because it is a reminder that these forces are always alive, even in this supposedly accepting and tolerant society.

    I’ve watched since 2011 with growing alarm the demonisation of Muslims by governments and in popular media, and more recently how the leaders of those dispossessed of hope because of economic crises have once again directed their anger at the outsider.

    All of which reminds me of pastor Martin Niemöller’s famous observation:

    “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–
    Because I was not a Socialist.

    “Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–
    Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

    “Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
    Because I was not a Jew.

    “Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.”

  5. I hear of such things as the prospect of the Sudanese woman being hanged because of religion Islamic religious code

    Lets not beat about the bush.

    • Such sweeping statements are hardly helpful and ignore the fact that, for example, countless thousands of non-Christians were killed in the most horrific of ways for refusing to convert to Christianity; and many millions more of all faiths and races just for being who they were individually or collectively during the sadly inevitable spikes in popular hatred.

      When you consider the actions of people ascribing to any faith or political system over the span of more than a few years, it becomes obvious that no single ethnic group or religion has the monopoly over atrocity or virtue and that the demonisation de jour is little more than the result of manufactured consent. Context and nuance are everything when discussing ethics and morality, as is a long view of history.

      • Such sweeping statements are hardly helpful

        They are appropriate. Whether they are helpful is dependant on whether you wish to face up to them or not.

        Bringing historical context into the matter does not address the present. One cannot excuse or ignore barbarities currently committed under the name of Islam by citing similar action committed in the past under the name of other religions or cultures.

        The whole tenor of this blog article ignores the obvious probability that the suspicion accorded by many in the West to Muslims is perfectly rational. People observe the outcomes of Islamic Sharia Law and view it as abhorrent to the values of modern secular society. Muslims are the representatives of their faith, and that being so their problem is contained in their own baggage.

  6. Spending all our time dissecting privilege, is a good way to make sure nothing of substance is ever actually discussed.

    • Actually, in multicultural societies with wide income disparities, ignoring privilege is a good way to ensure nothing of substance is ever discussed.

  7. brilliant piece by Latifa. I wish our Muslim leaders in New Zealand had the intelligence and the guts to speak out like you.i think you should be in the committee instead of this nzma clown that comes on tv

  8. I would say, Latifa, that you have jumped the gun and taken his reply completely out of context, and that being busy signing books and hearing your friend’s question he only answered affirmative to the part about it being a “privilege” to be able to write such a book and not be arrested !!!
    It has nothing to do with being “white”. Indeed from a global perspective, “white” race is a minority nowadays!

  9. I am white and privileged and agree with what you say

    My aunt was raped at aged 16 in a Czech internment camp by a Russian soldier, her mother died of cholera.

    My mother also lost two siblings in the camp

    My white father was beaten by a teacher in leg irons for being left handed. He was unable to speak for a whole year as a result.

    My parents worked hard and long hours so I could get a good education and go to university

    #checkmypriviledge

  10. I’m sorry Latifa, I didn’t read your article through properly and I’m afraid it is I who “jumped the gun”.

    I was looking too far ahead. We live in perilous times and I will stick to saying that being “white” will soon mean nothing if one dares to criticise the State,- (lists are already being compiled by NSA)

    (eg In some countries already one can be arrested & jailed for simply questioning “The Holocaust”, and skin colour is truly irrelevant.)

    – What does THIS say?

    BIG HINT: “to find out who rules over you, simply find out who you are NOT allowed to criticise” -( Voltaire)

    Find out WHO hates Muslims & Christians,(traditionally “white” countries) and WHO really owns / controls the USA, the International Banking system (-ie ALL countries economy’s)
    the Media, publishing& printing companies, Hollywood & the film industry, the Internet, … and in all & any positions of power.

    You will NEVER read this on mainstream news (for reason I just stated) but there is plenty of incriminating evidence that they were responsible for 9/11 – in order to
    1) implicate & blame Muslim/ Middle Eastern countries & justify war
    2) to implement Mass Surveillance systems in all countries in order to control ALL people

    ( Anyone who thinks this is ” conspiracy theory” is deluded. Too lazy/too tired to engage their own cognitive skills and so have succumbed to being supplied with outside “given” opinions. Look up “psychological warfare”. Still being practised today. History has not changed (despite efforts by those controlling/suppressing it)

  11. Yes, I know it is not easy, but believe me, I am “white”, come from continental Europe, and have not got an English sounding name, so I face a lot of discrimination also.

    Skin colour and certain cultural backgrounds make it difficult to get on and ahead, but even if you may have the same colour, you are also exposed to discrimination, at least once a foreign person with an accent, a different way of thinking and certainly a different name exposes him or herself.

    So do not think it is just all about skin and culture, the Irish have been fighting each other over religious “culture” for a long time, so do other groups within Europe, Asia, Africa and elsewhere, who may have similar or same “colours” but who are “different” in other respects.

    As we have entered the “Asian” millenia, where new powers are rising, we will as white groups soon be put into the same category as “brown” or “dark skinned” by new elites, I fear.

    I wish it was a better world, but you are not alone, Latifa, nor are many others. Widen your perception and understanding, and we will all be getting closer to meet somewhere, on common grounds.

  12. New Zealand has no tradition of vilification of Muslims.

    If currently the anti-social behaviour of some individuals draws attention to themselves as Muslims, that will be a sad change and an issue which I hope true Muslims will take note of and act appropriately.

    Any minority has its honour to uphold if not also its oath of allegiance as citizens.

  13. Its not privilege – its a right. The fact that some may be persuaded (ie: pressured) not to write such stuff does not make his action a privilege.

    Many these days are pressured not to write or report information about climate change – but that is cowardice on their behalf – because if they crumble to that pressure then we have the McCarthy type effect that swept across USA last century; or to go back a bit further- the Salem witch trials were people were too scared to tell the accusers that they were wrong. You have to stand up to this type of social censorship.

    We have the same thing with the word ‘Racist’ – which is often spouted by those in a corner – as did the greens co-leader recently ewhen comments were made about the cost of her clothes. This sort of action is simply dishonest and is an action to try shut people up. We also see it with recent stories about the ‘N’ word – nigger. what the hell is wrong with people that they are so scared of this sort of stuff. I hear the local maoris calling themselves niggers (I think I have even heard it used on Radio Live – without any sort of reaction- because it was used by a maori).

    Currently there is much pressure from within Islam to maintain its barbaric set of customary rules. We are regularly told that its the religion of peace and all that sort of bullshit – but it has a very nasty streak in it somewhere and if the likes of you Latifa are prepared to sit back and accept that – then thats your funeral. Its not a priviledge to say that Islam is not good for its people – especially women; its a right. Yes sometimes there are consequences for ones action – but you are either prepared to face those consequences or you have to live with the status quo – and not wail and moan about it.

  14. Less of the (non) white = (non) Muslim would be nice. Who would not throw their moralities away in the face of such pitiable confusion?

    • That disjointed rant scrapes a C. I would comment “what is your argumentl it reads like a biased rant”

      • Latifa, I apologise for my ill-considered reaction above. I have since re-read the article and found it pleasantly well-written. I would just make the point that white men are not much valued either, at least that’s my experience.

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