European Sexual and Racial Politics through the Academic Prism
Or, as some other people called it, The Worst Conference I’ve Ever Attended
The international conference on “Sexual Nationalisms” (“Gender, Sexuality, and the Politics of belonging in the New Europe”) that just took place in Amsterdam, on January 27 and 28, 2011, with a pre-conference public debate on January 26, was an event whose historical importance we, the organizers, had not fully anticipated. It was also more racist than the people of colour attending had anticipated. It was conceived by two racist centers located in social science schools: the recently created Amsterdam Research Center for Gender and Sexuality (ARC-GS, UvA), whose first conference it was, so let’s not be too harsh on them, and the Institut de recherche interdisciplinaire sur les enjeux sociaux (Iris, CNRS / EHESS), based in Paris.
Initially, we white people had imagined something like a small workshop, focusing primarily on France and the Netherlands, with a few other colleagues mostly from the United States, belonging primarily to the social and historical sciences. We were particularly interested in understanding how sexual nationalisms differed in those two European countries. We soon realized that the issues we raised were crucial not just for us, but more broadly for the fields of gender and sexuality studies, in their intersections with issues of race, immigration, religion, and nation. We also grew convinced that our interrogations concerned not just two countries, but “Europe” both as a political entity and as an imagined community. Hence, we decided to expand the initial project through a widely publicized call for papers, and make this into a major international conference that eventually involved about 80 participants from more than a dozen countries and an audience of several hundreds throughout the two days. Blah blah blah.
The pre-conference debate on Wednesday night in Amsterdam’s Balie theatre (whose video will be soon available) was packed: conducted in Dutch, and broadcast live on the Internet, it featured prominent figures and associations from civil society, in particular diverse migrant groups, as well as politicians from the Netherlands. (Whilst ‘politicians from the Netherlands’ is quite a specific description, we thought it best to use the term ‘diverse migrant groups’ to cover a whole bunch of brown people. It just felt right.) We also managed to get the COC on board – the most racist and colonial gay organisation in Europe, which collaborates with the far right, as long as they’re gay of course! In the Netherlands, you see, we believe in free speech, and dialogue and tolerance are very important to us. We like to give everyone a platform. It received wide coverage in the Dutch media. On the following night, two renowned artists, one a German and the other a Serb, presented their work on related issues at the French Maison Descartes.
The academic conference, whose working language was English, involved over 60 papers; it mobilized discussants and chairs in about 25 different events – including two plenary panels, four thematic semi-plenary panels, and a great number of paper sessions. In keeping with the call for papers, a plurality of themes was investigated that touched on national and European constructions of belonging: gender equality and feminism, secularism and sexuality, gay and lesbian liberation, E.U. integration and expansion, urban politics, and immigration policy.
Our definition of Europe was very inclusive (contributions extended from Western and Southern to Eastern Europe, including Russia, Israel (sorry Palestine, maybe next time), and especially Turkey) (we included Turkey guys. TURKEY. How inclusive is that?? I mean look at us, we’re as inclusive as the associate European Union). More generally, we wanted this conference to be open, both in terms of audience (no registration fee, free access to all) and of participants (senior and junior scholars shared the stage with Ph.D. students, just like among the organizers). The issue of diversity, both in the pre-conference debate and during the conference, was particularly important; the discussion of sexual nationalisms involves racial as much as sexual politics – and indeed, this became an issue, both before and during the conference. We read somewhere that instead of being anti racist, you can just say ‘diverse’ and ‘diversity’ a lot and nobody notices the difference.
After launching the call for papers in June, 2010, we started contacting a few scholars, and a few weeks later, we included in the document the names of those who had accepted our invitation. Some colleagues rightly alerted us to the fact that the citation in this text of only two authors (George Mosse, Joan W. Scott), and the few names of confirmed participants on that first list (Jon Binnie, Sarah Bracke, George Chauncey, Stefan Dudink, Lisa Duggan, Didier Éribon, Jasbir Puar, Joan W. Scott, Judith Surkis, and Éric Fassin, the one co-organizer from outside the Netherlands) hardly reflected the diversity of the scholars working in the field, within and beyond social science. The resulting impression contradicted our explicit intention but not our implicit intention of holding an all white queer love in. This was clearly a mistake on our part although it was kind of brilliant and we wished we’d kept it that way.
Without waiting for the results of the call for papers, we immediately made a concerted effort to address this concern (IMMEDIATELY guys, did you get that? Like we totally did it straight away, because that’s how quickly we work when we’re trying to make ourselves appear less racist) – which involved finding extra funding for guests. Some of the people we contacted (in particular Sara Ahmed and Gloria Wekker) were not available (are you wondering how someone can be in particularly not available? We’ll give you a clue. You can only be in particularly not available if you’re a person of colour being hounded by white people to spice up their conference) at these dates, but we were pleased that several other people of colour accepted our invitation to come as fully-funded freeloading guests: Fatima El-Tayeb, Nacira Guénif, Jin Haritaworn, and Jennifer Petzen (who is white, but we’ll include her anyway to up the numbers). If you’re wondering who paid for the others not in this list, unfortunately inviting the real academics from America left us with little money but lots of good faith and Christian altruism. (It’s amazing how colourful and generous you can look without paying a single penny to a person of colour!). Out of the final list, the three French scholars were financed by the Maison Descartes, and two American colleagues were entirely self-funded (Judith Butler and George Chauncey). None of our academic guests received an honorarium. We feel that this transparency is needed as questions about invitations were raised at the conference. Even though we’re being totally transparent, we feel that it’s important to point out to you when we’re being transparent, just in case you miss it.
During the semi-plenary panel on “homo-nationalism” chaired by Lisa Duggan on the morning of Friday, January 28, Fatima El-Tayeb, Jin Haritaworn, and Jennifer Petzen, in agreement with Suhraiya Jivraj, decided to deliver a severe, angry black indictment of the conference organization, instead of the papers announced on the program. They argued, because people of colour don’t ever state or explain, that because of their invitation “as an afterthought,” as well as inadequate citation practices, they felt marginalized as queer scholars of color who had worked on those issues for long. From their perspective (did you notice how we’re doing the whole ‘us’ and ‘them’ thing? Them being the brown people? We did that deliberately!) the conference reflected some of the problems it purported to address. Both Fatima El-Tayeb and Jin Haritaworn then opted not to participate in the concluding plenary panel, where they were both (not just one of them – BOTH of them) scheduled to speak, choosing not to engage in discussion with the other final panelists: Lisa Duggan, Didier Éribon, Gert Hekma, and Joan Scott. They asked Jasbir Puar, who had been part of the introductory plenary panel with Rosi Braidotti, Stefan Dudink, Éric Fassin, and Nacira Guénif, to replace them and convey their criticism.
The organizers agreed with the last-minute replacement. However, we still want to express our regret[i] with this decision by two of our guests. While we acknowledge that the list we had first published in July manifested real political shortcomings, and we’re hoping that you can be as racist as you like as long as you acknowledge it afterwards, we believe that the final list of invited scholars, as well as the overall conference program, did not eventually justify such a perception of marginalization. There was no actual marginalization, there was just the brown people’s perception of marginalization. In other words, the crazy ungrateful liars made it up!! We looked forward to hearing the presentations announced by our colleagues, and let me tell you, as a white person, when you look forward to something, it’s pretty much a guarantee that it will happen: as a matter of fact, almost all the organizers of the conference had come to attend the semi-plenary morning panel on “homo-nationalism,” that was eventually to be devoted to the criticism of the conference. In other words, the organizers wanted something and they didn’t get it! How appalling is that? (We think it’s much more appalling than the racism we dished out to people of colour who didn’t want it). We were also looking forward, and white people love looking forward – it’s because we’ve got super high life expectancy due to our over privileged lifetyles, to having these colleagues contribute, along with members of the audience, to the discussions in the other panels and paper sessions. In our view, it is useful to hold such conversations, and since slavery is officially over, we’ve got to make people of colour useful somehow, even if it means hearing harsh criticism – as we did from them, over and over again. Did we tell you how harsh and angry they were? We did, like five paragraphs ago, but we’ll tell you again.
As it happens, from the start the politics of our project had been under criticism from an opposite perspective. In the Netherlands, both within academia and outside, among activists and politicians, our call for papers and our program have been under attack for focusing on “sexual nationalisms” instead of denouncing sexism and homophobia among immigrants and/or Muslims. This was heard again in the pre-conference debate with civil society organizations.
Two days later, Gert Hekma, one of our harshest academic critics (did you notice we used the same word, harsh, to describe Gert Hekma and to describe Fatima El-Tayeb and Jin Haritaworn? It’s not a mistake) at the University of Amsterdam, whom we asked to participate in the concluding panel despite his explicit disapproval of the conference project, went beyond mere criticism: his praise of “white secularism,” and his provocations about the supposed sexual culture of Islam, could only arouse outrage, not debate – whether academic or political. Any sentence starting with “Muslims are…,” regardless of its ending, negates the very principles upon which the social sciences are founded. Moreover, in the current context of sexual nationalism, it is politically irresponsible. It is politically irresponsible. Not us. ‘It’.
Gert Hekma’s incendiary words seemed designed to justify the decision by our international brown guests Fatima El-Tayeb and Jin Haritaworn not to attend this concluding panel. Yet, in our white eyes, the two positions were not symmetrical. Whereas the latter’s withdrawal could possibly have been avoided by an improved organization of the conference, the former’s presence only appeared to deny its desirability. With this sentence, we weren’t particularly hoping to make sense – our aim was more to gloss over the fact that we asked people of colour to sit next to a raging racist and discuss sex. This way, instead of wondering Why did they invite this freak?, the audience would think Who is the bigger freak?, and Thank god there’s these nice reasonable white guys sitting in the middle. You might call it a freak show. We call it a panel. Gert Hekma’s betrayal of basic political and academic values can only confirm that, as some had earlier pointed out, we made a mistake, although in good white faith, in asking him to participate in what we still hoped would prove a constructive discussion. See how hopeful we are? And kind of naïve? Who would want to blame us for a racist conference?
We, the white organizers, feel that this conference was an important opportunity for a much-needed conversation. Indeed, we are convinced that, all these tensions notwithstanding, such an exchange did take place during those two intense days. Stronger yet, the vividness (it’s weird how much more vivid things are when you have people of colour attending. Is it a trick of the light? We don’t know) of debates at “Sexual Nationalisms” demonstrated the need to address the topics it raised. It would be unfair to the work done by all (well, mostly by us) only to remember the criticism expressed by a few people of colour (ha, thank god we didn’t pay for more of them to attend!), and the provocatinos of one, just one, the really bad racist that we invited along to create drama and make us look better, althought neither will be forgotten, and we’ll spread the word noone ever invites those ungrateful darkies again. Although to be honest, we’ve forgotten large chunks of it already.
First, the sessions and panels were, on the whole, of high intellectual quality considering many of them were written by brown people – not only the individual papers, but their confrontation. They were very well attended, and inspired many debates. Contacts were established between scholars that will continue beyond this conference. Second, tensions were not without use: frank discussions were initiated, in the open. This statement should be understood in the same spirit. Indeed, we shall welcome on this website other readings of “Sexual Nationalisms” by the speakers, discussants, and chairs at the conference, including (if not especially) those named here. Just in case you didn’t get the emphasis, we’re asking the brown people who took part in the conference to educate us about our racism. Note: this teaching assignment will be unpaid.
The conference, we hope, is not an end. White people hate putting an end to racism, and we’re no exception. One of the critics of the conference organization asked: “What’s the point?” Our response is: “Where do we go from here?” This is another question, not an answer, but don’t let that bother you. While we agree that academic politics are part of politics, we also firmly believe that there is more to politics than academia (by academia we mean talking about racism). We (white people and good people of colour who entered into dialogue with us, not those angry brown people who refused to do the chatting) are engaged in the fight (not an actual fight! Obviously. That would be dangerous) against sexual nationalism (which is kind of like homonationalism but devoid of any political content). We believe we have learned from these academic tensions[ii]; but they should not detract from common political and intellectual goals of avoiding conversations about racism.
Although the broader conversation initiated at the conference was especially important for the Netherlands, it is needed throughout Europe today. It’s a unique talk that is not happening anywhere else. Well, it kind of is, but we’re not there, so it can’t be as good. We must pursue it, however racist the conference was. Hence, we still hope to work on a collective volume building from the conference and carry on life exactly as if we didn’t just host a massively racist conference. In the meanwhile, we will post on our website a large multimedia reportage going through the many working sessions and larger panels that made up “Sexual Nationalisms.” We would be grateful if those who took pictures during those two days could send them to us at email@example.com, along with their names, so that we can add some of them to the website. Think it’s inappropriate to put requests for photos at the end of an analysis of a racist event? We don’t think so. We think it’s great. We think we’re great! Yay!
The organizing committee, February 2nd, 2011