Black History Month, Black Women White Uni?, Events, Projects, Projects and Campaigns

#BWWU: BME Woman White Uni – The Landscape of KCL is changing.

KCL Intersectional Feminist Society invites you to the “BME Women, White Uni” conference. The conference functions as a part of their work to celebrate the achievements of –  as well highlight the experiences of – Black and Ethnic Minorities women at the university and in wider society. Click here to request (free) tickets right now.

A Quick History.

The project began last October, after an effort to highlight the low visibility of BME women on campus (whether in photographs of alumni on the front of various King’s buildings, or otherwise), and quickly evolved into a campaign to tell the stories of the BME women at King’s.

The photographs and interviews from this will be displayed online and around campus during Black History Month. In an effort to broaden the kinds of conversations that we were having, from discussion on a lack of institutional support and representation, to the kind of work that women of colour are pioneering in various fields, we’re hosting a conference at the end of October.

To learn more about #BWWU, click here to watch a video of our society president and one of our society co-vice presidents discuss how the project develop.

The Conference Time Table.
9:45-10am: Introduction
(Hareem Ghani – KCL IFemSoc Co-Vice President, Samia Gundkalli – KCL IFemSoc BME Officer)

10am-11:30am: Introductory Panel: BME Women in Academia
(Niaomi Collett, Candice Carboo, Dr Deborah Gabriel and Professor Heidi Mirza – chaired by Dr Stephani Hatch)

11am-12pm: Workshops – “Why is My Curriculum White?”
(run by King’s Ethnic Minority Association) and “Craftivism” (run by KCLSU)

11:40am-12:40pm: BME Women in the Arts
(Cecile Emeke, Aisha Richards, Dr Shirley Thompson – chaired by Hana Riaz)

1:40pm-2:40pm: BME Women in Tech
(Antonia Anni, Dr Angela Martinez Dy, Natalie Nzeyimana – chaired by Sunayana Bhargava)

2:10pm-3:10pm: Workshops – “Why is My Curriculum White?” and “Craftivism”

2:50-3:50- BME Women, the Body and Institutions
(Dr Caroline Bressey and Dr Sadiah Qureshi – chaired by Shruti Iyer)

3:50-4pm: Closing Speech
(Shruti Iyer – KCL IFemSoc Co-Vice President, Rachel Williams – KCLSU’s Vice President of Welfare and Community)

All panels will take place in NHH L1 and other activities in the ground floor rooms surrounding it. Lunch will be provided.

Tickets are available here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/bme-women-white-uni-conference-tickets-18923400400

Any questions please email kclfemsoc@gmail.com!

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on testifying, silence, and ghosts

(trigger warning: rape, sexual assault, abuse, trauma)

(A longer version of the conversation around this.)

There is a kind of performative contradiction in speaking about silence, or in being critical of the centering of testimony while putting this on the Internet. Is this testimony about testifying, even while it evades a certain trauma narrative? I don’t know. But H, who knows more about technology than I do, once said to me that what’s on the internet stays there (regardless of any right to be forgotten). Aware of possible contradictions, then –

A primer on where I’m trying to slot this: if we understand discourses to have their own kind of bounded field with internal coherence, logic, rules, and narratives, then we see how within certain discourses it only makes sense to say certain things. Only certain statements are intelligible within the parameters and rules of the discourse. Discourse, importantly, isn’t just linguistic but organises our ways of thinking about the world into the way that we act in the world. Some statements are discursively impossible (though discourses are constantly refashioned and renegotiated, they are never entirely closed systems, allowing interventions to be possible).

What I want to apply this to is the discourse around (and also our societal understandings of) silences and speaking, specifically on the issue of violence, abuse, and trauma. We valorise the speaking “survivor” or subject. We consider “speaking” itself a form of bravery, to speak about the trauma one has undergone or lived through or lived is itself important. We place testimonial at the centre of much of the work that we do. I’ve been troubled for a long time by this – particularly by the frequent Facebook statuses, often from my friends over the last year or so in response to (yet another) rape “scandal” in the papers, urging “survivors” to “report” to save others.

Guilt here is used in the place of political responsibility, and frequently I wondered who was being absolved by pinning blame upon the body that did not speak, the person that chose silence. (The answer is self-evident.) Guilt functions to hold some morally culpable, while absolving others; while if we had chosen political responsibility, it may have asked many of us to stand up against a state that was invoking the death penalty and legislating harsh laws in our name. It is easier to hold rape culture to account by individualising – speaking to accuse. (Maybe this is what can be so threatening about silence – part of what it does is circulate, asking that we interrogate the atmosphere itself, rather than allowing for blame and victimhood to be localised onto individual bodies.)

In Transformation of Silence into Language and Action, Audre Lorde tells us: “I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you (emphasis added). […] The machine will try grind you to dust anyway, whether or not we speak. We can sit in our corners mute forever while our sisters and our selves are wasted, while our children are distorted and destroyed, while our earth is poisoned; we can sit in our safe corners mute as bottles, and we will still be no less afraid.”

So we will live in fear whether or not we speak, so we have no reason not to. Of course Lorde speaks in the context of speaking out as solidarity-building (and as B pointed out, would probably not see speaking out as an end in itself herself), but her words are often read as supporting a kind of testimonial for the sake of testimonial. The politics of organising around sexual assault and harassment on the university campus often strategises in terms around speaking too: the collection of stories of “victims”/”survivors”, the dissemination of them. Testimonials convince that there is a problem – though the fact that we had to convince is itself telling. Who needed to be convinced that sexual assault was an endemic problem? Certainly not those of us who have lived it. Testimonial accumulation builds “awareness” (and then, of course, there is sometimes a surfeit of awareness and no moving from there). Testifying and speaking out is central to our understanding of justice, whether that’s in courtrooms or activist spaces. We speak in the courtroom, which functions as a theatre of truth-production, that renders some bodies legible and legal, and this is a process of inviting testimony. Testimony is often a form of catharsis – the legal process is intended to heal and provide restitution – and it listens with the air of objectivity or neutrality. It invites speaking out, and the legal discourse goes on to collect evidence, interpret, adjudicate using testimony whether this is in words, or otherwise. Testimony does not always have to be language. My body bore bruises for days; this felt like testimony to me, more than evidence.

The courtroom invites testimony, and often this is the reason why people use the legal process, for the sense of feeling heard (and research on people’s tribunals and the opportunity to speak, as some kind of cleansing, illustrates the need felt to give testimony, bear witness as community healing). The legal process listens with some amount of compassion, but the feminist method does not adjudicate (explicitly, or at least with the state’s coercive power, though it certainly exerts its own strength of coercion) but invites testimony and offers compassion. To listen without compassion is a form of “disembodied deafness”, it negates our ethical responsibility to other people.

In the feminist discourse on abuse and trauma, there are accepted scripts on how to respond to testimony of violence, and within this discourse, its own rules of interpretation. There are things that make sense within this narrative, and some that fall away. The listener is listening for specific things; hears some things and does not hear others. The reaction to a story follows a script, and aims in some way to collect evidence of harm – much like a courtroom. This is speaking out outside the realm of the law, but retains many of its methods of interpretation, evidence collection, its focus on rehabilitation, restitution, apology, statement, and the focus on ensuring that the speaker feels heard.

But what happens when the listener is listening for something? If listening itself, no matter how much it attempts at compassion, is following a discursive pattern, looking for some things? When we listen to a story to identify what parts of it slot into our script or commonplace understanding of trauma, we are negating other possibilities, other parts of the story that are impossible to this narrative, that are illegible within it. Other parts of the story are negated when they fall outside the script. This isn’t just listening, this is hegemonic listening: the speaking itself is meant to be cathartic, but the listener isn’t just listening but is actively looking for certain things. Certain parts of the story register, and others don’t.

Part of my own reluctance to speak (and I suspect this is true for others) is to resist this hegemonic listening: to resist knowing that my story will be slotted into the narratives that we currently have to understand trauma, that some parts will go unheard. Equally, that the response to this story from the listener fits a script ofhow to respond – it invokes a politics of injury and innocence upon the teller of the story, that seems affirmed by the listener. Victimhood can often feel like performance – you are the right kind of victim when you are brave, and braver still if you speak out. If you make your pain legible and articulate it, often for the consumption (sometimes profit) of others.

But who is this fictive audience to whom we narrate our pain? If speaking is catharsis, who do we speak to? (Because here, we certainly aren’t speaking to the state.) To choose victimhood is like asking us to claim injury and innocence at once even when neither fit quite right. And then the act of telling, or speaking out, becomes that much more difficult. How do you speak, affirm that assault happened and trauma resulted, without imputing onto oneself all the narratives that encircle this affirmation?

Speaking is political – we already know this – but then perhaps choosing silence, or choosing not to speak, is as political in the face of the overwhelming compulsion that speaking is a necessary feminist act, an end-goal in itself. A subversive silence might resist the interpretation of injury and innocence, the negation of some parts of itself in exchange for the affirmation of others. A subversive silence deviates from the script by sitting at the margins.

Political awareness can mean having to navigate these ruptures, breaks, and fragments in consciousness. If there are ruptures between our feminist method in collecting knowledge, of finding these stories and making them valid and our lived experience of subversive silence precisely against this method, then the method must either change or account for the existence of its own script of listening. Feminist epistemology reclaims the experiences of those who have never been the speaker of truth-claims, who have been dismissed as incapable of rising above their subjectivities, claims their de-validated words and renders them legitimate and valid as knowledge. Feminist method crucially also looks for silence – but where do we begin to look for subversive silence, silence that precisely resists the logic of feminist method? Where do we account for the existence of subversive silence that resists the hegemonic (even if compassionate) listener? The epistemological difficulty of silence is that it is intangible, entirely out of reach. It doesn’t just exist in the margins, it defiantly refuses to be given shape at all.

It seems like an impossible question to me, simply because there might not be a way to entirely escape hegemonic listening –– even when it is compassionate. Discourses may well always have scripts and the attendant behaviours that come with it: there will always be statements that make more sense within the discourse and others that are impossible to its logic. But part of what I’m trying to challenge is the very idea that knowledge must be tangible, that it exists to be collected in some way. What do we lose with our obsession with testifying? What do we miss in the self-congratulatory way we talk about getting people to “speak up”, “break the silence”? I do also mean in a very real material sense – there are entire industries that secure funding off the claim to empower women in some way, to facilitate a process by which they allow women to speak. We fixate on the testifying subject, or the subject that wants to be heard. Testimonial as activism means that we may be missing those that resist its form.

Not all silence is intentionally subversive (as S pointed out), or even intentional, willed. Many of us do not speak for other reasons – in fraught situations, speaking is not an option afforded to us. Subversive silence is not inherently more valuable as a tool of resistance, and it’s dangerous to romanticise silence precisely because of the possibilities that speaking too offers. But subversive silence againsthegemonic listening is not the silence that feminists are often pointing to when we condemn cultures of silence, and reward the speaking subject (either with our praise, retweets, or money). Picking out subversive silence that operates against our scripts of understanding trauma, however, allows us to see how our methods of listening (or failure to listen) hides people and stories. All silences are often combinations of unintentional silences, reflective silences, and subversive silences – and feminism has a responsibility to account for this. Feminism will never push a person to “report” to the authorities, but still places a premium on speaking as knowledge. My criticism isn’t to glorify silence as resistance – speaking out is something we cannot not want – but I contest that speaking out is the only way to produce knowledge, claim pain, and transcend pain. Silence embodies itself through gesture – passed through knowing glance, offhand comment – between generations and groups.

(And, of course, there are contradictions within this too: my own subversive silence is being enacted, brought to life in my very acknowledgement here that it exists. What’s fascinating about social media and internet feminist activism is that it circumvents the juridical process and its claim to truth, its claim of arbitrating justice, and the ways it fails marginalised groups –– but it continues to affirm testifying. “Reporting” assault and trauma might have different meanings in this sphere; sometimes I think that even acknowledging that it has occurred is a form of recording it, and reporting it. It offers a way of legibility and healing outside the legal process, while still absorbing many of its impulses.)

If justice is an infinite project, and also a project that is continually deferred, then one way of approaching justice might be to resist the use of hegemonic scripts to understand and narrate harassment, violence, and trauma. One possible way of living the revolution is to “live the ethical life” –– in the here and now –– and that requires a listening that does not search, that does more than extend our ears and sight. It might involve being wary of the limits of the discursive understanding of violence that we have (which is limited in so many other ways than the ones I’ve outlined), and it might avoid the script that collects knowledge, that valorises those that speak out, that prescribes a correct method of listening to a story and affirming the injured body.

I’ve been obsessed for a long time with the metaphorical idea of the feminist “surviving” body and the precarity of its silence, as a ghost body. I’m referring to the silence – while acknowledging the danger in engaging in metaphors that seem to suggest that the surviving body is diminished somehow, or less human (seeing as we have patriarchal discourse do enough of that for us anyway). Often, in the aftermath of my own experiences of assault, I would seek confirmation in everyday objects and actions that I still occupied corporeal form: I would look for my reflection, I would check the mirrors above the bus doors before exiting, crane my neck to look at the CCTV camera on the upper deck, bite my lip hard to make sure I was still there. There’s a physicality and an unsureness of it that was generated within my body (though I’m not sure if this fits the standard survivor script; maybe me speaking about it now will absorb it into that script). The idea of the ghostly subversive silences that animate the work that we do, that haunt the projects we embark on might be a useful methodological tool. Not in that we are the ghosts, but rather, that we are aware of their presence when we invoke hegemonic narratives to understand and speak of trauma. If subversive silence, or any silence, is enacted through gesture and omission, then it is the ghost in the house hiding from dominant understandings of violence. Unpicking subversive silences specifically (as opposed to other silences) is not to place it as more valuable, but to demonstrate that it exists against us, not patriarchy.

The ghost shimmers. At night, it might bang on a few creaky pipes. It is tangible enough for us to remember that subversive silences exist, enough for us to alter our method to be quiet enough to hear the pipes, but not enough for us to question, to force testimony out of. It resists our penetrating questions and resists the fitting of its story into a larger hegemonic narrative of what it is to be abused, assaulted, ghostly. It animates the work that we do, because we know it might be around us. It informs our approach by simply asking us to be aware of the bodies and stories that resist our method, while being able to claim silence and intangibility as knowledge itself. The ghost cannot offer testimony, and by definition it mocks the idea of a trial, but it could still occupy the witness stand.

This piece was cross posted with permission from Shruti Iyer’s blog. Click here to see it in its original format. 

If you want to write for us, come check out our Writing Topics Page. Or if you want to find more fantastic intersectional articles from us, go check out our Contents Page

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Article

It’s Complicated: On Being “Academically” Transgender

by Lexi Kamen Turner (1st year Film Studies BA student, KCL iFemSoc Events Organiser)

“Are you gay?”
“No.”
“Straight, then?”
“No.”
“So, you’re bi?”
“It’s a bit more complicated than that.”

I don’t miss those conversations. Trying to explain that, as well being queer/pan/omni/whatever, my attraction to women was in a way I could only describe as lesbian, before I had discarded completely with the old name and pronouns was an uphill struggle of Sisyphean proportions. Whatever percentage of my last post on here I spent deriding the easy-for-cis-people-to-swallow and utterly normative story of “always feeing like an X trapped in a Y’s body” (pardon the pun) and playing with these toys instead of those toys etc etc, I couldn’t help but desire a narrative as concise as that. I imagine most other trans* folk probably feel the same, too.

That said: in some ways, my story is very simple. I didn’t feel right, I tried different things to feel righter, many of them disastrously self-destructive, and then I aspired to be the very truest to myself that I could manage. I still fall victim to the desire for “simplicity,” but that is largely because I cannot help but still occasionally fall victim to the cisheteronormative society that dominated so much of the misinformation I was given about people like me in my younger years, and what most people throughout the world accept willingly. Speaking only for myself, the swirling grey mass of malaise and confusion that filled my head and heart for the first two decades of my life was more complex than any written or spoken word on the issues of gender identity ever could be: whether it was the warm, welcoming grooviness of Kate Bornstein’s books on gender outlaws, the smokey sexiness of Justin Vivian Bond, the analytic discourse of Judith Butler, the impassioned and visceral battle cries of Sylvia Rivera, the profoundly important activism and comedy of Riki Wilchins, the documentaries of Susan Stryker, the cutting relatability of Julia Serano and Natalie Reed… I took it all in and, for one of the first times in my life, gained a sense of nigh-ecstatic clarity to know that I had no obligation to live according to the stipulations of a birth certificate, the signing for which I distinctly do not remember being around to witness; that other people had transitioned before and had achieved fulfilment from it, no matter the resistance society gave them.

As such, discovering and engaging with all discussions of gender and Feminism and liberation relating to it was like oxygen in contrast to the suffocation of dysphoria and I did not stop to consider any sort of order in which I should read all this literature; certainly not one relating to the “academic” level of the work. As I shared videos, recordings and literature related to transition and Transfeminism amongst my cis friends, the people who engaged with the material were not defined by their education but by their willingness.

So, when Lisa Millbank of RadTransFem left this comment underneath our Reading List,
readinglistcomment

(NB: I have of course changed the reading list since)

I was given pause for thought.

The funny thing about coming out / transitioning – much like being someone in recovery from trauma, a professional artist, a writer or, for that matter, setting up a society – is that within almost no time at all, you’ll discover that someone else is wondering how you “managed it.” They want to know what resources you turned to, which figures you venerate, what sort of support network you were able to find/establish. Then answer for me, and everyone else is a very simple “whatever I could get.” As such, the concept of starting with the “simpler” texts and moving on to the more “advanced” ones later struck me as something only someone with a limited degree of investment in understanding the plights and issues related to Transfeminism and gender theory would have the desire to do. This also of course ignores the horses-for-courses aspect of all of these pursuits: there may well be people who find themselves experiencing too much of a personality clash with the writings of Kate Bornstein or Julia Serano or Natalie Reed, but feel right at home, following Judith Butler on a journey through Beauvoir, Wittig and Lacan.

As Lisa Millbank has since Monday posted on the subject of “simple” vs “advanced” writing:

The way I see it, our different “worlds of sense” (María Lugones) are closer together or further apart, and a journey to a distant world of sense may be an “advanced” journey for me, but not-even-a-journey for someone else for whom that world is one of her homes. So in naming some journeys more “advanced” than others, we’re de facto measuring their distance from a “centre” of thought/sense, a centre which corresponds closely to cultural defaults.

I have more thoughts around the fact that pieces of writing aren’t just passive reflections of “worlds of sense”, but acts in themselves, acts which may be designed to make the reader feel small, bore them, liberate them, immobilise their thought, enhance the writer’s access to power, demonstrate loyalty or disloyalty to different thought systems, etc. But “advanced” doesn’t seem like a good, direct way to name journeys/worlds which differ in those ways.

The term “academic” has a problematic ambiguity, considering its second meaning relates specifically to the concept of theoretical/hypothetical existence, with too much of an emphasis on “understanding.” As far as I am concerned, trans* folk rarely need the understanding of cis people. When one’s recent history is one of anarchy and protest, there is only so far to which one is willing to be assimilated into public consciousness. Rather, our existence as people is regularly forgotten by people who would put a majority of texts relating to our existence in the “advanced/academic” camp: we are made problems to be solved at some stage, but no rush if you don’t feel like tackling the subject.

The lexicon relating to this problem-solving approach to trans* people is one of the most easy-to-spot signs of the permeation of cissexism into even the most allegedly close and well-meaning people. Tonnes of trans* folk are ejected from their family homes, from bathrooms, from shelters, from hospitals purely because it is too “difficult” for the cis folk to “understand;” where cis women are celebrated for their mystique, we must be dissected, one way or another. (I should perhaps stress that this is a “celebration” only in official name only; cis women are discussed horrifically and regularly but most respected talk show hosts stop short of asking them to describe in detail their genitalia. Whilst a tabloid is not above showing the world what a cis woman looks like without makeup, an interviewer would rarely expect to get away with that to the point that she would then still be expected to give the interview after, unlike trans* people who are forced to put up with “before-and-after” shots almost every time.)

Disgusting charlatan Dan Savage stated that “Tumblr-enabled debates about sexual identity, gender identity, sexual orientation, and sexual interests take on the flavor of those how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin debates that obsessed theologians in the Middle Ages.” Although he was, in my opinion, as per usual, trying to silence any voice at risk of proving his sexist transphobic, bi-erasing, racist (etc) “activism” to be as irrelevant as it truly is, he might have had a point when it comes to the presentation of these issues when done so for the benefit of cis / non-Queer eyes to read. I regularly find myself simplifying my own identity for the benefit of those who struggle with the very concept of transfemininity on the most basic of levels. Too often do we find ourselves either simplified out of existence or disregarded as being “too complex” to be bothered about right now, when everyone in the world has an idea of what a gay marriage might look like. The demands placed on trans* people to make information about them palatable, having spent so many years in a society where the information on trans* people was rendered obscure by design is a frustrating task. It was cissexism that taught us to hate ourselves and we should not be talked over or pigeon-holed in our desire to make information about us available. But, please understand, cis folk: it is not for you. It is the trans* youths who are at risk of ill-health and self-destructive behaviour if they are not given the tools to understanding what it is to be transgender. Cis people should be able not to attack us without ever having read Leslie Feinberg, one would hope.

Regardless of whether our societal status is a monster or as a thought experiment, we are dehumanized via this process. As Susan Stryker writes in her breathtaking piece My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage

[Transgender] rage itself is generated by the subject’s situation in  a field governed by the unstable but indissoluble relationship between language and materiality, a situation in which language organizes and brings into signification matter that simultaneously eludes definitive representation and demands its own perpetual re-articulation in symbolic terms.

If we are not people first, we are nothing at all; no lived human experience is academic.

 

If you want to write for us, come check out our Writing Topics Page. Or if you want to find more fantastic intersectional articles from us, go check out our Contents Page

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