Where exactly are we riding?

In the aftermath of the heart-wrenching scenes from the Martin Place siege, a heart-warming initiative took the world by storm. The #Illridewithyou campaign took off when a stranger offered to accompany a Muslim woman in public to comfort and protect her from the inevitable violent backlash that follows such incidents. In a truly human gesture, one young woman reached out to support another, and a movement was born, quickly going viral.

In an environment where attacks against Muslim women are commonplace, the movement is definitely a breath of fresh air. The danger, however, lies in imagining it as anything more than a genuine and friendly gesture when we measure progress against racism and Islamophobia.

In fact, the #Illridewithyou campaign is as clear an acknowledgement of racism as we’ll find. The call to ride with Muslim women only makes sense because we know full well that many Muslim women will be attacked due to the fact that some man in Martin Place – a man whom they’ve never met – did something violent. This has been the lived reality of Muslims, especially women, for well over a decade.

On the other hand, we also know that in this country, a great protection against violence is whiteness.

White people can promise to protect Muslim women by riding with them precisely because they know their skin colour will largely protect them from attack: there is little risk to themselves in the activity. By the gesture, they merely share that privilege with Muslim women, temporarily guarding them with the protection of the white shield. Much like when a man accompanies a woman to prevent her being beaten by other men, such a gesture does not fundamentally challenge the racist (or patriarchal) sense of entitlement whereby one assumes a right to beat another person because of the relative status of both. Just as importantly, both whiteness and maleness are status positions unachievable by veiled Muslim women, ensuring their status remains as always-in-need-of-protection.

This is not to take away from the vulnerability that many Muslim women have felt over the past few days, nor any sense of appreciation they may be feeling towards the campaign. It is rather to suggest that, as the campaign’s founder has urged, we should critically consider how such a movement expands well beyond initial intentions, and comes to reflect the society that we live in.

Of course it goes without saying that, in a choice between being beaten or being protected, the latter is preferable. But let us not celebrate that as equality. Both white attacker and protector are positioned on varying ends of the same racist spectrum where they decide the fate of the Other: to beat or protect? The battle currently taking place between conservative and multiculturalist is to determine whether Australia will be a white country that attacks its Others, or a white country that celebrates them.

The Muslim in these scenarios may also choose one of two positions: either recipient of white violence, or recipient of white benevolence. We may be bruised and angry, or safe and grateful, either way, our agency to determine our own fate is reduced; we are always positioned to respond to the initial white gesture.

Responses to racist attacks such as the #Illridewithyou campaign are hence not about eradicating racism, but about protecting its victims with minimal sacrifice. Such an approach reduces racism to a set of evil individuals who are intent on destroying the otherwise harmonious fabric of this country. Racism, however, is not a bad attitude but is inherently tied to institutions and discourses: power. It produces the bad people and the attitudes that accompany them.

Racism is the harmony that white moderates are fighting to protect from bigots, that ‘social cohesion’ that jails more Aboriginal people than any other on earth; that has the most draconian anti-terror laws on the planet; that locks up asylum seekers with a proud sense of satisfaction. That beacon of freedom that taught South Africa how to do apartheid and that stands proudly in isolation supporting Israel’s version today.

Racism is not an accident or an aberration. It is a historical process that created our beginning and fashions our present. It is embedded in our structures and is inherited through our language. A heartfelt hashtag is an appreciated comfort in the immediate face of physical danger, but it will not address the imbedded racism of centuries-old institutions that produce such violence in the first instance.

The true sign of solidarity is when we commit to actively undoing the privileges that we have unfairly accumulated at the expense of others, when our fight against injustice entails a costly sacrifice that we embrace wholeheartedly. Let us hope that the #Illridewithyou campaign is not a scenic cruise through white suburbia, but a genuine commitment to undoing the very whiteness it is premised upon.

Mohamad Tabbaa

Mohamad Tabbaa is a Melbourne-based criminologist and former Executive Director of the Islamic Council of Victoria, working closely with the Muslim community in Australia. His research focuses on the intersections of speech, truth and violence, with a particular focus on the question of courageous speech. You can find more of his work at motabbaalism.com.

More by Mohamad Tabbaa ›

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  1. “Responses to racist attacks such as the #Illridewithyou campaign are hence not about eradicating racism, but about protecting its victims with minimal sacrifice. Such an approach reduces racism to a set of evil individuals who are intent on destroying the otherwise harmonious fabric of this country. Racism, however, is not a bad attitude but is inherently tied to institutions and discourses: power. It produces the bad people and the attitudes that accompany them.”

    That sums it up for me. It’s a nice gesture, but ultimately to me it feels narcissistic, like after weeks of seeing hash tag campaigns like #icantbreathe Australia FINALLY gets the opportunity for its own! Yay us! Except that our hash tag is tied to nothing on the streets (where is the proof the social media posts were actually responded to?) and wasn’t in response to real, structural racism, only PERCEIVED racism. Reading the articles about how it started (ugh, is it our narcissim or need for the latest, meaningless scoop, I can’t tell) it’s as if ‘punching’ in a status update is some valiant act to stamp out racism.

    It feels exactly as you say: giving a white hand (white knight?) to Muslims where their only choice is to respond, to vitriol or ‘valiance’. How about, as is what happened in Melbourne the day after, people just stand up to racism when and if it happens? How about, like with #icantbreathe, we take to the streets to burn down racism at its roots?

    That said I was walking the dog this morning and an older man (European roots I would say, not the best English) was ranting about Muslims/Asians taking over Bankstown etc so I can’t say racism isn’t a thing. If the hash tag made Muslims feel safer or the sign of solidarity touched some hearts, great. I just hope it also had a real effect and/or didn’t cause any harm (by ostracising anyone who questioned why suddenly people were standing up FOR them).

    But, you know, I’m a privileged white dude so what do I know?

    1. The victims were in the Linde Cafe being threatened with beheading by a self-admitted pious Muslim.

      There have been no Muslim “victims” anywhere in Sydney so no one for left-wing progressives to “stand up” for.
      It’s pure fabrication and plays into the hands of the Islamist doctrine of victimhood to justify their violence against non-Muslims.

  2. To use the now cliché, from little things big things grow – after the happenings in Martin Place one woman reached out to offer solidarity to another woman, and the gesture went viral; one person lay a bunch of flowers and a collection ensued. Collective messages are better than individual messages any day, regardless of deep structural social problems remaining unchanged.

  3. The woman who started #illridewithyou was not white. But hey – why let the facts get in the way of your derision? This article is unfortunately utterly predictable (and, by the way, deeply narcissistic).

    The response of the #illridewithyou campaign is about a reaching out with genuine compassion and solidarity in the time of a traumatic event. It’s a denial of those who would use this to their own divisive ends, either in person on public transport, or through the right-wing media.

    This may be hard to see from the rarefied atmosphere of the Doctorate level at the University of Melbourne. Certainly the practical effects of people participating in a political action, and the awareness-raising that is a natural corollary of this, will be impossible to see by someone blinded by the intoxicating moral purity of abstract theorising.

    The author should ponder, however, the extent to which his derision supplements those on the right who have reacted with predictable fury (and derision) to the #illridewithyou campaign. But somehow i get the feeling that this is the point. The sad fact is that there are those on the left, as well as the right, who deep down like the idea of the community split up into little identity enclaves. Who only feel satisfied by an obsessional focus on the things that divide us. It’s pathetic, really.

    1. Those of us who are not as academically superior as the author of the OP will continue to use #Illridewithyou in the spirit in which it was intended. We will leave the high handed lectures to him.

  4. Horrid racist article. I’m a white make who has been attacked more than once on public transport. White safety hey? Attacks on Muslim women common place? Provide evidence or retract.

  5. Although your article conveys some interesting points, I believe you are taking the #I’llridewithyou wording too literal. Yes it began by one woman (not white) offering to ride with another who felt judged, unsafe, uncomfortable etc. But for many others the use of this hash tag has deeper meanings,i.e #iwillnotjudgeyou #idonotblameyou #iacceptyou. That by no means displays a superiority complex on behalf of Australians. Overly analysed and negative articles such as this are not needed at a such a time.

  6. Being white does not provide any safety when standing up to the types of people who will harass or attack a woman in a headscarf. It is not about protecting people with our “whiteness” it is about saying, “We as Australians will not put up with you scapegoating innocent Women and Children. We will not sit back and allow you to think that this is Australian.”

    100 years ago bigots, like those who would attack women in a head scarf, attacked my ancestors, ancestors who were born in this country, who were white, spoke English and were productive members of the country, the reason they were targeted? They had German ancestry and Australia was at war with Germany, and The Bryce Report told them that Germans were baby killing savages.

  7. One of the benefits of #illridewithyou that few people have noticed, it seems to me, is that it actually makes people on the ground (on plains, trains and automobiles) think a little about how they respond to acts of racism and xenophobia against the ‘other’. Many of the white folk are quiet in the face of these attacks, not wanting ‘confrontation’. I’d like to think that as little as this campaign achieves, it will be to ask people to reconsider that silence means conformity. Not staying silent, can be, and lead to, acts of great resistance.

  8. Humanity is as full spectrum of color. Wherever we coming from, which one we choose to be in, there would be any one that judge and diffract you as too dark or too pale. The spontaneous hashtag #illridewithyou i believe it sourcing from a heartfelt, it’s universal of human being – heart-, as that given to everyone that was born in the same condition, originally sacred.

  9. Interesting article Mohamad Tabbaa. I think there is much to be said for institutional racism playing a large part for the structuring for western societies. The thing is…most Australians dont really understand their history in terms of how the ideology of ‘white supremacy/superiority’ has been practiced via institutions and how it still prevails. Many people will take what you say as ‘personal’ because they dont understand the difference between the terms ‘racial prejudice’ and ‘racism’ within the academic circles like sociologists and other social thinkers. Many people will think in terms of the dictionary version of the meaning of racism when really to many social thinkers the words ‘racial prejudice’ is what the dictionar is speaking of. ‘Racial prejudice’ + institutional power= racism because anyone can believe in any ideology but if they dont have the institutional power to enact said ideology then its not worth anything on ‘the ground’. Do you think that the terminology and ideas that you are touching on in your article/writing actually explains the next step? If you are advocating a further step for the white Australian (the ‘dominant group’)and see that there is a responsibility for them and you feel perhaps that you are part of the minority group or racial/cultural other then what is your responsibility…sorry but the concepts to me seem sound and are not at all unfamiliar but but do you think that the expression of such concepts you have given actually clearly covey themselves to the average person on the street? (whether dominant group or minority group) What do you think.
    PS’ for the person who said this article was horribly racist…you really dont know what racism really is beyond the dictionary version or by being a consistent victim of racism. You dont.

    1. at bottom notions of race, whether as prejudice or inscribed within the power structures of institutional systems and discourses, are based in inherited biological characteristics – skin colour, eye shape, nose and hair type etc. – that’s the material base, that’s where the hate and lack of tolerance stems from – which is why ethnicity would be a better term to use, as we all have physical and cultural identities, as much as some cultural groups like to see themselves born free of such a taint – for example, with the rise of multiculturalism in australia, immigrants from western and eastern europe were called ‘ethnics’, as if australian anglo-celts were somehow conceived and born via a blank slate, which is why the i’llridewithyou hashtag is a good one – riding with someone who is different physically and culturally, being in their company, overcoming the fear, having close bodily contact and speaking with them, is a good first way to overcome racism based in different bodily and cultural characteristics, on this reckoning

  10. Don’t let the facts get in the way of a a story Mohammed, but the person who started this campaign was not white, and was not a man. Your simplistic generalisations may satisfy your formula but it’s not how life actually is, and your inability or unwillingness to see human kindness and positive action is a bit sad.

  11. Two women, neither of pallor, reach out to protect other women from a religious minority. To be applauded. And Tessa Kum’s fiction (from the Baggage anthology) is a very strong expression of protest against racism. Overland should be publishing it.

  12. I agree with you and I think this needed to be said but I would add that what attracted me to #illridewithyou is that I imagined it as a publicly visible and instantly recognisable badge or icon in public space, on Tshirts and stickers and badges and bags everywhere, so that women AND EVERYONE ELSE feels safer.

    For Muslim and non-Muslim Australians alike it says we’re on the side of peace and justice for all.


  13. Just how many of the “inevitable” violent physical backlash attacks on Muslim women did we see in the end?
    Isn’t it lucky that Muslim society isn’t racist and patriarchal too, otherwise where would a Muslim woman (or a Yazidi woman, or a Nigerian woman, or a Saudi woman…)turn for liberation from oppression by our awful Western civilisation?

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