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.