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UPDATE 15/9/14: the femsoc committee have responded to me, and i am mostly satisfied with the way they are handling the situation. i am writing an update post now, and i will link it here when it's finished. here's the update post.



feminism has a racism problem.

historically, feminism has always excluded women of colour. white suffragettes were pretty notoriously racist and it's never quite gone away. in the intervening years, whole other women's rights movements have been formed to combat it, countless blog posts have been written about it (this is one of my favourites), and last year, the hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen went viral on twitter.

so feminism has a race problem, and my university's feminist society is no exception.

i'm not white. my family history is a little long and complicated, but the tl;dr is my father grew up in apartheid south africa and was forced out of his home before moving to the UK in the 1980s, my mother grew up in post-colonial india and i grew up in a country that only exists because india was colonised in the first place. i'm a UK national, but the price i paid was centuries' worth of violent imperialism. racism and colonialism in particular are subjects very dear to my heart.

my university has a feminist society. i'm now an alumnus but i am still subscribed to their facebook society, where members post up interesting articles, blog posts, pictures and questions related to feminism. i usually enjoy reading the stuff linked and participating in the comments. and i try not to get into arguments on the internet too often, but sometimes discussions about feminism turn into discussions about race. this is because for women of colour, myself included, the two forms of oppression cannot be untangled.

last week, we were having a discussion about reddit admins banning a black woman for being angry about a sub she mods being brigaded by users of a racist subreddit. in the comments, one of our more notorious members, who i have clashed with before in the past over her racist comments, casually used a racial slur that is generally termed unacceptable to use, even if not directed at anyone. three people called her out and one of them alerted a mod. the mod posted a comment, and this happened:




(red is the mod, blue is unrelated parties, brown is the n-word person, and i am me.)

i went to bed before i knew the thread was going to be deleted, and when i woke up i was pretty upset. i've moderated a fairly large site for a few years now and to me, this was very poor moderation. my particular issues were as follows:

  • vague wording when issuing the warning

  • not stating who was responsible, especially when that person had been pretty deliberately obtuse and passive-aggressive throughout the whole thread in addition to using racial slurs

  • equating somebody saying hate speech with people calling out said person

  • deleting the thread entirely, thus brushing everything under the rug...

  • ... and also implying that everybody who had posted on the thread was in the wrong


i intended to drop her a PM with my concerns but i spent the rest of the week rushed off my feet by things that were a bit more important. during the week somebody else posted up what was supposed to be a pretty fun thread about your guilty pleasures as a feminist. somebody mentioned game of thrones, another person asked why it was problematic, a few people explained, and i posted a comment. as soon as i did so my least favourite member of the society jumped on it and somebody came to my defence:



the debate carried on, despite the fact that fantasy and science fiction are pretty well-known for their racism (and sexism) (and that dorne is not 'clearly spain', despite being depicted as such in the tv series). here's the last few legs of the conversation, for context. i've highlighted the straw that broke the camel's back in red (although the comment about people of colour in medieval europe being "slaves or serfs" was a close second):



somebody alerted the mod. she posted this:



a few people protested at how ridiculous this was. but it got worse.

as promised, the mod messaged me with a warning. i was expecting to get told off for telling N-Word Woman that she was talking out of her arse, but apparently that wasn't what she had a problem with. emphasis mine.

Hey Sara,

Having to get in touch about comments raised on one of the feeds today. In short, it's not okay to call people racist on the group! It just goes against pretty much all the policies. You're not the only one I've messaged but because of involvement on other feeds I'm going to have to give you a warning. Obviously please message me if you want to talk about anything raised on the feed or in the message!

Otherwise have a good rest of the weekend

[name redacted]

i was shocked. this was the last thing i had expected (although i should have known otherwise). being told calling out racism was against policy? saying calling people racist was bad, even though the person in question had recently used a racial slur, been called out three times, and hadn't apologised -- on top of all the other things she'd said? the next morning (i was at a wedding when i got the message), i replied:

oh my god. did you literally just say it's not ok to call out racism? does that mean it's not ok to call out sexism too, or does the group policy only protect feminists who happen to be white?

i have actually been meaning to talk to you about some concerns i have with the moderation of this group and your comment has just made me regret i haven't done it sooner. i personally am sick and tired of racism being tolerated on the group, particularly by [N Word Woman]. this is the third, perhaps fourth time i have noticed her saying racist things that have been tolerated by the admins of the page.

she literally said that i was jealous of white culture being "more popular" than my own. how is that not a racist comment? my father lived through apartheid. he was evicted from his home (which is now worth millions of rand) and made to live in a jungle. my mother is indian and i'm sure we don't have to revisit britain's policy on indian colonialism, do we. is that not aggressive? has she received a warning for it? i'd bet money she hasn't. did she receive a warning for saying the n-word the other day? i would hope so, but i have no confidence that she did -- no confidence in you or the other mods -- because you never do this sort of thing in public. you never call it out explicitly.

when [N Word Woman] said the n-word and three people asked her to apologise, you said you were putting people on note for "derogatory language" when you should have said "racial slurs" and then you went on to say everybody who responded should have been ashamed of themselves too. and then you just brushed the problem under the carpet. by deleting the thread in which [N Word Woman] proved herself to be racist for the second or third time you just made it seem like everybody who participated in that thread was equally to blame. that's not ok. that is actively saying to black feminists that people can call them racial slurs on this group and get away with it.

frankly, you need to start calling people out in public. you need to give them explicit public warnings. if it happens behind closed doors, the other members of the society will have no trust in your leadership. in fact, you have just proven to me that i shouldn't have any. given how [N Word Woman] is still in the group after literally saying racial slurs and not apologising -- given how she hasn't been made to apologise -- given how you've just protected her after she said some vile, absolutely racist things...

if i had come to you saying she was being racist, what would you have done? posted on the thread reminding everyone to play nice? would it have stopped her from saying something racist next time? current evidence points to no.

so tl;dr i won't stop calling out racism until the mods make a concerted effort to stamp it out themselves. if that makes me the bad guy i'll leave the group because i don't want to be involved in a group that prioritises keeping the peace over being inclusive to women of all colours.


i received a rather swift response. (emphasis mine again.)

Sara,

It is not your job to call out or reprimand racism. Doing so makes you guilty of breaking policy. This calls into question your place in the group.

I have messaged [N-Word Woman] several times and I've requested that when we review policy later this month that people start getting banned from the group for this continued aggressive behaviour. However responding to it and not to me means that you are now also guilty of that aggressive behaviour and could also be banned. So I hope that responds to some of your concerns about how we respond to policy.

I am not planning on calling people out in public, because that would, to my mind, not help the group shake it's reputation of being an overly aggressive space. Hanging out someone to dry like that sounds like online bullying and I'm not going to do it.

I am very sorry that you haven't come to me sooner about your concerns. For example the one about [N-Word Woman], as in the feed when she used the n word she got another warning and if you had come to me about it you would have known this instead of it upsetting you, as it obviously has done.

Until the review, which you are welcome to attend, I can't start banning people from the group. This is something I've brought up and would like to do so I'm sure your voice in support would be useful!

to summarise: calling out racism means my place in a feminist society is now being "called into question". transparency must be sacrificed to spare the feelings of racists in case they feel bullied. moderation must be done in secret so we don't look scary. you have to ask us if we're doing our jobs! and don't forget, if you call out racism, you are as bad as the racist. but hey, come along to the review! your voice would be appreciated!!

i've replied to her message but have yet to receive one in response. when i do, i will update this post. UPDATE 15/09/14: i received a reply and i am very disappointed. it's at the bottom of this post.

am i surprised? no, unfortunately. but i am pissed off. i'm angry that people running a space i considered safe are willing to tolerate bigoted opinions without reprimand. i'm angry that moderators care more about image than content. i'm angry that there are people who call themselves feminists who still consider racism to be an abstract concept. i'm angry that more people aren't speaking out about this.

that's why i wrote this blog post. i removed names because i don't want to publicly shame anyone (despite what the mods may think!) but i do want to expose some shocking behaviour and let people know that i won't be silenced.

UPDATE 15/09/14: so i didn't want to post what i responded to her until i had a reply, because i wasn't interested in trying to pressure her for one. i also refrained from posting this to the femsoc page because i wanted to give her a chance to respond to me, in the hopes that this might have a happy ending.

how optimistic was i?

this is what i sent her in response to her last pm:

[name redacted], it is everybody's responsibility to call out racism, particularly within an activist movement. not calling it out is tolerating and enabling it. furthermore, my job isn't having to ask you if somebody has been warned for hate speech and i find it ridiculous that you think members should have to ask you if somebody has been warned or not. your job is making it apparent that the society's facebook page is not a welcome place for racists and a part of that is making it apparent that the page is strongly moderated.

i find it very telling that the punishment for responding to hate speech is the same as actually saying it. to me that is totally unacceptable. i also find it interesting that you think maintaining a strong presence as a moderator constitutes online bullying. naming someone and saying "this is unacceptable" is far more effective than making a vague statement about wrongdoing and is hardly 'hanging someone out to dry'. when you don't present a transparent moderating system -- i.e. talking behind closed doors -- particularly when other people are involved. it really does leave the impression that the moderation is lax.

you also didn't answer all of my questions -- did [N-Word Woman] get warned for being racist (again, on the thread with 'aggressive behaviour'), or would she only have been warned had i or somebody else reported it? i really shouldn't have to be asking this at all.

furthermore i am very confused about your stand on the current policy. on the one hand you are enforcing it but on the other you won't ban people for repeatedly infringing it. why is that?


in my mind i was polite, if very direct. i believed this was my right as a member asking questions about the mods' policy. i believed that pointing out inconsistencies in the moderation would help the moderators with their jobs. i believed that maybe something productive could come out of this conversation.

i received this reply at 22:34 last night, after i'd gone to bed:

Sorry Sara I'm not going to respond anymore as I feel you're being personally aggressive towards me. I've also been authorised to remove you from the group. Please don't message me again.
[name redacted]


oh. well. so my university's feminist society has banned me for calling out racism, while the person who has repeatedly said racist things is still a member. somebody else permitted this, so it's not a case of one lone mod. furthermore, nobody even has an inkling i've been removed because the mod team hasn't made it explicit that calling out racism -- and then questioning the mods about it -- is against group policy.

i'm going to take this higher up, if i can. this is completely unacceptable behaviour from people who are supposed to be moderating a safe space. if it concerns you, i would urge you to write to the femsoc committee (apparently their only contact is through the facebook page or the bristol university union's equality rep, alice phillips, at alice.phillips@bristol.ac.uk.

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