‘But what about the aid worker?’

Cambridge Professor Mary Beard’s tweets about the Oxfam scandal expose the violence and fragility of white feminism.

Mary Beard
As her tweet makes unambiguously clear, it is a given for Beard that Oxfam staff were 'civilised' prior to being "barbarised" by the Haitian context, writes Tilley [Reuters]

As white women, we are implicated in a long and shameful history of justifying harm to (and indeed inflicting harm upon) racialised bodies. Our role in maintaining enslavement and settler and franchise colonialism is clear; we have owned plantations and enriched ourselves on the profits of enslaved labour; we have urged women of the global South variously out of hijabs and into domestic kitchens; and in the present, our orientation towards women of colour remains lightly or heavily inflected with a preoccupation for intervening in their habits of faith and body, while denying their struggles, intellect and suffering.

And yet, this is not a history we carry around with us in the same way that we consciously bear our historical connections to moments of female liberation. In the dominant collective imagination, we claim our kinship with lines of survivors, suffragettes, abolitionists and feminist pioneers. However, if we took the time to connect these histories, we would understand that within white feminism the category of “woman” has always been a tightly bordered one. Indeed, just as in a broader racialised system only those racialised as white have an unqualified claim on the human, within white iterations of feminism women of colour have not had an unqualified claim on the figure of the woman. “Ain’t I a woman?” remains as germane a question as when Sojourner Truth referenced such exclusions in the mid-19th century. This system itself provides the historical framing for white women’s rationalisation of harm done by white men to those brown bodies which have been excluded from both “the human” and “the woman” in our collective consciousness.

All of this wretched history and present was referenced, consciously or unconsciously, when on Saturday Mary Beard, a professor of classics at the University of Cambridge, wrote the following tweet with a careless slip of the fingers:

She is referring here to aid workers’ sexual exploitation of women and girls in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, which left between 100,000 and 300,000 people dead and countless others destitute. This exploitation by powerful men of women and girls in the most abject of circumstances has been misleadingly framed broadly in terms of “sex work” and “sex parties” in dominant narratives in the Western press. In reality, at best we can speak of indefensible exploitation across the most pronounced disparities of power and wealth by those who were entrusted to provide aid rather than add to the suffering.

Our broader connection with Haiti, as white women, is an exceptional one. Nowhere, even across all of the imagined “shithole” terrains of the global South, provokes quite so much anxiety as the location of the first black republic. Haiti is the site of a rebellion of the enslaved which overthrew French colonial rule in 1804 and opened the possibility of radical emancipation. Through this struggle, Haiti informed the very foundation of modernity itself and brought an end to the idea that white rule was inexorable. There is no site as radically agential, nor as fundamentally troubling, within the white imagination.

As her tweet makes unambiguously clear, it is a given for Beard that Oxfam staff, such as Roland van Hauwermeiren, were “civilised” prior to being “barbarised” by the Haitian context. The degree of separation provided by scare quotes does not remove the sentiment that those exploiting Haitians in their time of pain were assumed to be of good moral standing before they arrived. Through this expression, Beard is mining a deep vein of colonial anxiety around the degrading effects of racialised contexts generally, and of Haiti, in particular. The emotional disturbance of the “civilised” when in contexts blighted by the absence of civilisation has been a historical concern of the European in tropical contexts.

In a later blog post, Beard provided a reinforcement of her original sentiment expressed in the words:

“Most aid workers deal with [the stresses of the environments they work in] I suspect, by drink and cigarettes. But that kind of societal, infrastructural breakdown provides a space for much worse. That is not to condone the awful things that happened but to contextualise them.”

Much of the response from Beard’s followers has been to echo her reasoning. An astonishing number of Twitter users have restated the need to understand, rationalise, and contextualise the behaviour of aid workers who engaged in the exploitation of Haitians. Their consciousness is very much connected to the psychology of the aid staff to the point of the complete marginalisation of survivors. This reminds me of Gloria Wekker’s account of when Saidiya Hartman delivered a lecture in Amsterdam in 2013, focusing on the story of the brutal torture and murder of an enslaved African girl by a ship’s European captain during the Middle Passage. After the reading, the air in the room weighed heavy with the girl’s story of unimaginable suffering. And yet the atmosphere was rapidly shattered by the first white interjection to follow the story, delivered in the form of the words: “But what about the captain?” To the consternation of many others present, whose thoughts were with the enslaved girl and her suffering, the intervenor wanted to know more about the motivations and fate of the perpetrator.

Our “what about the captain?” moments deserve critical engagement and scrutiny for the troubling layers of historically informed alliances and reflex sympathies they imply.

After tweeting, Beard did receive intelligent and critical engagement from a number of quarters, most eloquently from Priyamvada Gopal, her Cambridge peer, who wrote an extensive and compelling reply relating the debate to the “genteel and patrician casual racism” which remains the norm at Oxbridge. Outside of this critical engagement, any personal attacks and unkind trolling are utterly indefensible. Beard then tweeted a picture of herself in tears and her engagement with the debate ended there.

As many others have pointed out, this response also deserves scrutiny. As white women, we do tend to cultivate a dual subjectivity. With an easy sleight of the hand, we rationalise the violence enacted by men on racialised bodies. And when challenged, we are known for collapsing into distressed sobs, rather than listening and engaging with why our words and actions might be problematic. The location of trauma is shifted onto the weeping woman, and those engaging are recast outside of the bounds of “civility”.

To be clear; some of us still don’t get how we are embroiled in, and reproduce, power relations which are so deeply embedded and historically formed. Some of us get it, but still get it wrong often enough. All of us need to try harder. For 400 years, we walked to get here, step by step along our own elevated path, denying the role women of colour had in building this path, even as we watched them lay the stones ahead of us. We still deny, evacuate and silence their agency, intellect and labour, even while this sustains us. But the path away from here need not take another 400 years to travel. There is an easy route to a real sisterhood based on humility and consciousness of our own implication in forms of violence and domination. So what do we need to do now, collectively? We need to show up, to stand down, to get to the back, to listen, to applaud, to engage, to listen again, to learn to speak out when it’s right and stay quiet when it’s not; in short, we need to learn to “ride or die” with women of colour and break the cycles of violence and fragility we reproduce.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.