Response to Mary Beard

Dear Mary,

Thank you for your tweet suggesting we talk and the subsequent email proposing a date. Works for me.

Much as I look forward to our private meeting, I think it’s necessary for some part of this conversation to be public because at the end of the day it is not just about you and me, or about an isolated tweet which we know to have shocked and disappointed many of your followers. It is about what is still acceptable and, indeed, valorised in public discourse in Britain and as such needs to be examined with a degree of detachment. I know you’ve had a rough day of being challenged and called out on this, never a fun experience. If it’s any comfort, I — and almost every other woman of colour I know — deal with constant verbal aggression, if not worse, and as such we can empathise fully with feeling attacked for honesty. I’ve never written a newspaper article that hasn’t elicited volumes of racist and sexist abuse below the line and, frankly, I am too worn-down to cry about it these days; keeping it together is what takes my energies. Keeping it together, quite specifically, in Cambridge where there is little direct abuse but plenty of genteel and patrician casual racism passing as frank and well-meaning observations. I was informed not long ago by a leading feminist light in a college that while we still battled misogyny here, racism was a thing of the past and it was outrageous of me to raise it as an issue. The sad truth is that among those who deny that racism is still a problem at Cambridge, there is a preponderance of white feminists.

I’m afraid that your good intentions notwithstanding, it is precisely this genteel patrician racist manner and this context of entrenched denial in which your tweet on Haiti, ‘civilised’ values (scare quotes noted but not enough, I’m afraid) and disaster zones was received. It was, as you now know, received with enormous shock. (Not by me though — I’m used to this kind of casual magisterial apologetic coming out of the mouths of my Cambridge colleagues; it’s the stuff of everyday college lunch table conversations and hence I’ve taken the simple step of not dining in colleges as far as is feasible ). Your subsequent blog post, to not put too fine a point on it, did little to help your cause and is regarded by many as a ‘no-pology’, a stubborn refusal to see what was wrong with your original post and taking refuge instead in the familiar posture of wounded white innocence. This too is familiar to me at Cambridge: on the rare occasions I’ve bothered to raise questions of, let us say, ‘racially dodgy’ remarks that bring Cambridge or particular colleges into disrepute, I’ve been instantly shut down by what you would recognise, I am sure, as ‘snowflake’ behaviour: outrage, wounded innocence, protestations of good intentions, and finally the declaration that it’s not the racist pronouncements that are the problem but the person (me, in this instance) who calls them out. It is accompanied by another gesture which also manifests in your blogpost: a pronouncement that self-evidently the person who made the remark cannot possibly have made a racist observation because they do not consider themselves to be racist. Imagine if every misogynist you encountered made the same gesture — and they usually do: ‘I love women, OF COURSE I am not sexist, everyone knows I am not sexist.’ What would you say to him?

Your blogpost is not an adequate intellectual response to your, well, frankly outrageous tweet; it’s a series of postures of innocence and a continued refusal to analyse a problem in all its thorny difficulty. To those who felt violated and aggressed by the original tweet, your blogpost was a further slap in the face: a stubborn refusal to see what was so profoundly and deeply wrong with your claims in addition to bizarre, indeed cringe-making comparisons between the French resistance and aid workers. What is striking in both tweet and putatively exculpatory blogpost is your inability to see beyond Western agency: Western aid workers as resistance fighters, white aid workers as Mr Kurtz figures caving in the strain of ‘The horror, the horror.’ Black agency, Haitian agency figures nowhere in your vision, however much on the side of the anticolonial you might consider yourself to be. (At the end of the day these things aren’t identities to be espoused; it’s the words and actions that show which ‘side’ you are on). Ironically, of course Haiti is emblematic of both black agency and the long history of the Western silencing of it, as the crucible of the most important revolution of the 18th century, no, not the French one but the uprising of black people against French colonial rule. And frankly, the claim that tweets aren’t long enough for ‘nuance’ simply doesn’t wash. As Theodor Adorno shows us with exemplary economy, it is part of intellectual morality to be utterly precise and clear even in the shortest of sentences particularly when it comes to matters of life, livelihood and the dignity of peoples. And no, it won’t do to charge your critics with ‘rectitude’ and ‘moral certainty’ which is, of course, code for ‘political correctness gone mad’, the standard charge the misogynists you challenge so well levy against criticism of their behaviour. I think you can do better.

Sometimes it’s okay, indeed necessary and noble to say: ‘I put my hands up in the air. I obviously got this completely wrong. I don’t fully understand how that happened but I’m willing to learn from my critics just as I hope and expect people will learn from me.’ As an upper-caste woman from a liberal-ish Hindu family in India, I grew up with whole sets of unexamined assumptions and well-meaning notions that didn’t just magically disappear with my feminist education or my radical university years at JNU. It has taken a lot painful listening and learning from Dalit and other non-upper-caste intellectuals and campaigners for me to even begin the process of unlearning some of my habitual notions, for me to even get to the point where I realise how deeply ‘casted’ my habits of mind can be. It’s not fun and it takes a measure of humility, not something we mouthy women take to very easily. But it has to be done. The hardest thing to learn was that saying I was on the side of the oppressed castes was not enough; that all my progressive and radical aspirations notwithstanding, it was possible for me to be less than sound in some of my analyses and articulations.

I am not going to go over again what was wrong with that tweet: lots of people have done so already and I am really very much hoping that when the heat and dust has settled, you will reflect on some of the more measured if nonetheless stern responses and rethink your habits of mind. If you want to have a genuine discussion, you’d be more than welcome to come and meet my third years who next week will be discussing precisely Haiti and the Haitian revolution as they read Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s work on the elision of black agency in European historiography and European habits of thought. But I will urge you to rethink the problematic concept of a ‘disaster zone’ (Trump was more upfront — he called them ‘shitholes’) and what that really means in geopolitical terms in terms of who does what and who is responsible for their appearance as spaces of catastrophe. Still more troubling is your notion that moral bearings (‘civilised values’!) understandably disappear in spaces where people struggle with the worst things that can happen to human beings. We know that, in fact, some of the most courageous human actions, borne of deep decency, manifest themselves in these situations and not on the part of white saviours but those at the sharp end of misery. We also know that in zones like Hollywood, or indeed, academia, that have very little truck with ‘disaster’, notwithstanding the copious amounts of mediocrity they put out, we have seen depraved behaviour and enormous amounts of misconduct. Best case scenario your tweet connecting depraved behaviour and ‘disaster zones’ was a non sequitur.

I am not going to post a picture of myself crying. If I posted every time I was made miserable by abuse or by the genteel liberal racism that is the very lifeblood of Cambridge social intercourse, I would have a feed full of misery. And it would be manipulative. I cry privately — a lot. But I think the time has come, long since, for Britain’s white thought leaders and Oxbridge’s more progressive elements to listen and learn with a degree of open-mindedness and humility instead of retreating into postures of self-pity or defensiveness. And private interactions notwithstanding, this conversation has to be public, searing, open and mutually transformative. And since I’ve just finished a book on anticolonialism and Britain, let me tell you: we anticolonialists are emphatically NOT relativists. Relativism as you use it has long been the go-to excuse of colonialism when challenged with inconsistency and selective use of values. Anticolonialists have long held white people and empire to account not through relativism but by pointing to hypocrisy and contradiction.

See you at Fitzbillies — I’ll be having the coffee-walnut cake.

With every good wish,

Priya