/ 6 June 2017

When an Afro-feminist festival defies white supremacy

The white identity is so central to France that any event that brings white dominance into question swiftly triggers a solidarity that breaks down partisan political divides.
The white identity is so central to France that any event that brings white dominance into question swiftly triggers a solidarity that breaks down partisan political divides.

Over the past week, France has been engulfed in a scandal over a festival organised by black feminists that was allegedly going to be “forbidden to whites”.

The controversy was instigated by the National Front (NP), the extreme right-wing party led by Marine Le Pen. On May 26, Wallerand de Saint-Just, NP treasurer who also is an elected official of the city of Paris, challenged the Socialist Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, to explain why the city was putting on an event “promoting a concept that is blatantly racist and anti-republican”.

The International League against Racism and Antisemitism (LICRA), an anti-racist organisation close to the French government, also joined in on the condemnation of the festival and claimed that Rosa Parks “would be turning in her grave”, referring to the American civil rights icon. “The fight against racism has become an alibi for identity isolationism,” the organisation said.

On May 28, Hidalgo responded to the controversy on Twitter and firmly condemned the organisation of an event, “prohibited to white people”. “I am asking for this festival to be banned,” the mayor said, adding that she also reserved the right “to prosecute the organisers for discrimination”.

The event that triggered this storm was the Nyansapo Festival, organised by the Afro-feminist collective Mwasi. The festival is scheduled to take place on July 28-30 in Paris and contrary to what its detractors assert, it is going to be open to all.

However, some “non-mixed” workshops reserved solely for black women, will also be set up as part of the festival. These workshops will provide a safe space for black women to have private conversations among themselves. It is true that these workshops will not welcome whites, but they will also not welcome people of Arab, Asian or Roma origin and will not even open their doors to black men.

It is understandable why the extreme right, in its racist logic, tries to sabotage a festival organised by black women by outrageously focusing on the “unfair” treatment of whites.

However, it is hard to understand how a defamatory campaign by a nationalist party could find such an echo among left-wing politicians and institutions working to eliminate racism. How can they form an unlikely alliance with the far-right and parrot the false accusations coming from these groups?

The answer is simple: the miracle of “white supremacy”. The white identity is so central to France that any event that brings white dominance into question swiftly triggers a solidarity that breaks down partisan political divides.

Throughout history and all over the world, non-mixing has been an indispensable tool for bringing subordinate groups together by allowing them to discuss their conditions and develop strategies to build their emancipation in complete safety.

Would we blame trade unionists for not inviting their employers to their meetings? Would we force women who are victims of rape to welcome men into theirs? Certainly not.

Moreover, the city of Paris already hosts several non-mixed, women’s associations such as “the House of the women of Paris”, without any polemic or controversy.

The history of French feminism is built on the idea of non-mixing. In the 1970s, the Women’s Liberation Movement (MLF), inspired by American black movements, chose gender-based non-mixing as its mode of political organisation.

In 1970, the MLF stated “We have arrived at the necessity of non-mixing. We realised that, like all other oppressed groups, it is up to us to take charge of our own liberation”. Thanks to these meetings, French women had the opportunity to enunciate their priority demands and they gained the right to abortion, among other things.

Political scientist Françoise Verges, who took part in these meetings, remembers the numerous attacks that they faced at the time, but she believes that the controversy surrounding the Nyansapo Festival is still a first: “Never before has an anti-racist organisation or a left-wing elected representative sought to use the law to prohibit [these meetings] … This is the first time that an organisation that calls itself anti-racist and a left-wing politician trust the fachosphere”.

According to the academic, the reasoning behind this unprecedented trust is unequivocal: “The left-wing politician and the so-called anti-racist organisation are reacting this way because [the festival is for] black women”.

“They are not disturbed by the non-mixed nature of the event; they are disturbed because this non-mixing is practised by black women”.

In France, black women are subject to multiple types of discrimination every day and they often struggle to be recognised as French citizens. Non-mixed meetings allow them to interact with each other freely. In these meetings, they get a chance to be removed from the gaze of the dominant ones, who tend to monopolise discussions and ask questions or offer comments that slow down the conversation.

Black women must be allowed to come together without being forced to justify their actions to people who do not face similar oppressions. They must be free to express their anger and resentment without the fear of vexing others.

In our country, black women are invisible in the public sphere. The few who dare to venture there are frequently exposed to outrageous insults, such as the former minister of justice, Christiane Taubira, who has been compared to an ape on several occasions.

Why should black women open up one of the few spheres dedicated to them to please people who already have wide access to the public sphere?

LICRA and other critics of the Nyansapo Festival have drawn a parallel between the non-mixing nature of the festival and the practice of apartheid. This is an odious comparison, because the festival does not propose a separatist society project, but instead it aims to provide black women with a space where they can temporarily escape from the clutches of oppression and breathe freely. This does not deprive any other group of their rights and it can in no way be compared to a state-sponsored regime, which is based on establishing a racial hierarchy and officially depriving parts of a population of goods and services.

“We think we are in the best position to grasp the weapons of our own emancipation,” say the feminists of Mwasi. History has proved this so many times before, those directly affected by exclusion are the ones most qualified to lead their own liberation.

France is struggling to embrace its multicultural face. Officially, it does not recognise ethnic, religious, linguistic or cultural minorities. In this context, daring to identify as a black woman is an unbearable subversion. In France, minorities that are trying to achieve autonomy are labeled “communitarian”. They are accused of threatening national cohesion and the republican French “universalist” ideal.

This ideal, however, is belied every single day by the massive discrimination that affects the non-white members of the French population, whether as they struggle to find employment or as they face police violence.

In 2014, Anne Hidalgo presented herself, without any embarrassment, as the mayor of Paris who would head the twenty white candidates that ran under the Socialist Party’s ticket to become the mayors of Parisian districts. There was not a single Arab, Black or Asian person to represent the inhabitants of one of the most multicultural cities in Europe. Just like the ones that govern other French circles of power – economic, media and political – the white “communitarianism” of the municipality of Paris under Hidalgo was never questioned.

To overcome systemic racism in France and in other Western democracies, it is not the minority survival initiatives that should be combatted, but the centrality of white domination. – Al Jazeera

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect  the Mail and Guardian’s editorial policy.