If a newspaper came through my letterbox proudly announcing that it was produced ‘By Whites Only’, I would denounce it as racist filth, set it on fire and encourage my friends to do the same. How, then, am I to react when the latest issue of Peace News proclaims it is created ‘entirely by people of colour’ ?
My initial reaction to your boast was one of abject horror. It was racist. Is the implication that a coloured-only creative team is better than a white-only or mixed race one? Of course not. (Or rather, I should hope not.) But I feel this mentality falls into a trap all too common among many left-wing, right-on groups at the moment.
A good example here is Equal Exchange, the Fairtrade coffee suppliers, who have recently started labelling their coffee as ‘Grown By Women’. Hardly a shining example of ‘equality’. Surely Fairtrade exists to provide fair wages and equal opportunities to farmers and workers in third world countries? Unless they’re men, it would seem.
Perhaps the most dangerous element to this is that it creates – or at least enforces – the idea of division. That men are different from women. The root cause of any intolerance or prejudice, be it racism, homophobia, sexism, or anything of that ilk is the fundamental idea that there is a difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’.
By declaring that your newspaper is ‘created entirely by people of colour’, you are making a statement, which ultimately enforces the idea that being ‘coloured’ is in some way different than being white.
I have no doubt that your intentions were entirely noble, and done in the pursuit of equality and multiculturalism. But you have failed. You have emphasised the divide, and in doing so become part of everything you oppose.
Buck your ideas up!
Editor response: Thanks for your letter, Chris. It's always good to be challenged.Is it always inappropriate for a publication to be written exclusively by white people and to clearly flag itself as such? See, for example, Cooper Thompson, Emmett Shaefer and Harry Brod’s anthology White Men Challenging Racism: 35 Personal Stories (Duke University Press, 2003).In our last issue, PN co-editor Milan Rai offered three good reasons for our decision. Namely, that it would help ‘to counter (perhaps unconscious) racist preconceptions’, ‘to celebrate what people of a global majority background are capable of’ and that it would give ‘an opportunity for people of colour who might otherwise not have chosen or been chosen for the spotlight’.Clearly, none of these would apply were we to substitute ‘white people’ for ‘people of colour’.While we share your outrage at the existence of racism, is it true that referring to the differences between people – or forming groups organised around those differences – always a bad thing because it reinforces ‘the idea of division’, which you identify as the ‘root cause’ of intolerance and prejudice?Black journalist Gary Younge has written of his exasperation with those who proudly declare themselves to be 'colour-blind' when it comes to race, noting that ‘blindness doesn't mean that the grass is not green or the sky blue or my skin brown. It just means that a blind person can’t see it.’‘Choosing to ignore something or even declaring it invalid does not abolish it,’ he observes. ‘Rules, mores and traditions don’t simply expire because they are wrong. They disappear because the material reality that gave rise to them ceases to exist.’The ‘Grown by Women’ project that you attack as sexist is a good case in point.According to Equal Exchange (EE)’s web-site, while women are responsible for approximately 60-80% of the productive work on small holder coffee plantations (which produce the majority of the world's coffee) they ‘not only do not gain financially, but... are usually not included in decision making within their coffee co-operative, community or even household.’The 'Grown by Women' project – which purchases coffee directly from women farmers – was designed ‘to empower women to join [EE's] co-ops, take part in meetings and decision making and finally receive payment for the work that they do.’ It appears to have succeeded.In 2005, the SOPEXCCA coffee cooperative in Nicaragua had only five female members. It now has 280 and EE’s website quotes co-op member Norma Elena as saying: ‘I am such a different person now to who I was before. I didn't like to speak before and would always run away. I'd feel too shy to talk and would want to disappear. There are a lot of women who are scared to become organised and go to meetings, these are the people who still need our help. This is why I will continue to work for our visibility and value.’In a world of full of real differences, measures such as affirmative action and organising along identity lines can be important tools to redress inequality and injustice, and to empower marginalised and oppressed groups.Acting as if differences don't exist – and counselling others to do likewise – helps no-one and hinders many. – The white PN staff