By The Feminist Wire Collective
The Brooklyn-based Brecht Forum held a panel last week entitled, “What Do We Mean When We Say Privilege, Ally & Comrade? Exploring the Difficulty of Difference & Movement Building.” For a progressive organization built around the ideas of “theatre of the oppressed” and transformational movement-building, the Forum’s event represented a stunning performance of oppression. More specifically, a performance of all-too-familiar male gender privilege.
Two of the invited panelists were Brittney Cooper, Crunk Feminist Collective co-founder and Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender and Africana Studies at Rutgers University, and Kazembe Balagun, a Bronx based activist, writer, and former Outreach Coordinator at the Brecht Forum. The intent of the forum was to critically discuss organizing across difference—despite privilege. Participants were charged with the following:
Discus[sing] how useful they find the concepts privilege, allies, comrades, and solidarity. Rather than finding answers, special attention will be paid to raising questions that will help movement activists and intellectuals think through the concepts of privilege and how to organize across difference in ways that transform human beings and the world.
At some point — between discussing privilege, solidarity, and “the need to ‘liberate all Black people’” – Balagun was invited by Dr. Cooper to discuss gender. In an article titled, “On Black Men Showing Up for Black Women at the Scene of the Crime,” she writes,
The brother shared his thoughts about the need to “liberate all Black people.” It sounded good. But since we were there to talk about allyship, I needed to know more about his gender analysis, even as I kept it real about how I’ve been feeling lately about how much brothers don’t show up for Black women, without us asking, and prodding, and vigilantly managing the entire process.
In a word, I was tired.
I shared that. Because surely, a conversation about how to be better allies to each other, is a safe space.
However, a safe space it was not. Dr. Cooper continues:
This brother was not having it. He did not plan to be challenged, did not plan to have to go deep, to interrogate his own shit. Freedom-talk should’ve been enough for me.
But I’m grown. And I know better. So I asked for more.
I got cut off, yelled at, screamed on. The moderator tried gently to intervene, to ask the brother to let me speak, to wait his turn. To model allyship. To listen. But to no avail. The brother kept on screaming about his commitment to women, about all he had “done for us,” about how I wasn’t going to erase his contributions.
Then he raised his over 6 foot tall, large brown body out of the chair, and deliberately slung a cup of water across my lap, leaving it to splash in my face, on the table, on my clothes, and on the gadgets I brought with me.
Damn. You knocked the hell out of that cup of water. Did you wish it were me? Or were you merely trying to let me know what you were capable of doing to a sister who didn’t shut her mouth and listen?
Left to sit there, splashes of water, mingling with the tears that I was embarrassed to let run, because you know sisters don’t cry in public, imploring him to “back up,” to “stop yelling,” to stop using his body to intimidate me, while he continued to approach my chair menacingly, wondering what he was going to do next, anticipating my next move, anticipating his, being transported back to past sites of my own trauma, traumas that have been especially fresh and difficult this Domestic Violence Awareness Month…
I waited for anyone to stand up, to sense that I felt afraid, to stop him, to let him know his actions were unacceptable. Our co-panelist moved her chair closer to me. It was oddly comforting.
I learned a lesson: everybody wants to have an ally, but no one wants to stand up for anybody.
Eventually three men held him back, restrained him, but not with ease. He left. I breathed. I let those tears that had been threatening fall.
Then an older Black gentleman did stand up. “I WILL NOT STAND FOR THIS MALIGNING OF THE BLACK MAN…” his rant began. While waiting for him to finish, I zoned out and
Wondered what had happened here. Did this really happen here? In movement space?
Tiredness descended. And humiliation. And loneliness. And weariness. And anger at being disrespected. And embarrassment for you. And concern for you and what you must be going through – to show your ass like that. And questioning myself about what I did to cause your outburst. And checking myself for victim-blaming myself. And anger at myself for caring about you and what you must be going through. Especially since you couldn’t find space to care about me and what I must be going through.
[To read Dr. Cooper’s article in its entirety, visit CFC.]
A few days after the incident, Matt Birkhold, executive director of the Brecht Forum and others, were busily working on what unfortunately looks like damage control. In a statement posted on Facebook, Birkhold made it explicitly clear that “what happened during our Wednesday night on privilege and allies is inexcusable and indefensible.” However, he then quickly clarified that “no individual on the panel is a current employee of the Brecht Forum. We are currently a one person staff and I am working diligently to process this in a way that is loving and honest.” These efforts are distancing and self-protective, at best.
While Balagun may not be a “current employee,” he is the former Outreach Coordinator for the Brecht Forum. According to one commenter on CFC:
Kazembe Balagun left the Brecht Forum this past summer… before we moved to Brooklyn. So he is no longer an employee of the Brecht Forum. Several times in the past he has “moved” on Sisters or “went off” or stormed out of meetings. The Brecht Forum Board had strongly suggested that he seek help for his periodic individualistic and ofttimes chauvinistic meltdowns. We as a board of trustees were liberal with our tolerance of his behavior… even after we have talked with him to seek some counseling because it appeared that he was working on his “snapping out/rage” issues.
When we learned of the incident from our sister-comrade Brittney Cooper, we immediately reached out to Birkhold for his response. In his favor, he’s a relatively new employee of the Brecht Forum and has only recently learned about Balagun’s “snapping and outrage.” But what does it mean that the Brecht Forum invited someone with a history of women-centered assault to co-lead a panel on privilege, allies, comrades, and solidarity? While Birkhold may not have known about it, others certainly did.
What does it mean for the Board of the Brecht Forum and others to tolerate such un-ally-like and abusive behavior, again and again? What does it mean that the Brecht Forum seems most concerned about attempting to safeguard its own image and less concerned with the trauma against a woman of color perpetuated in its space? Truth be told, what we really hear the Brecht folks saying is, “Balagun was a visitor in our house, so don’t blame us for his behavior.” Yet the bottom line is this: the Brecht Forum and its affiliates failed to create a safe space. In the very moment of oppression and violence, they did not speak up, they did not act out in the name of justice and decency, and they did not intervene on Dr. Cooper’s behalf.
Nor, in fact, did anybody else at this forum on “allies,” except for the other woman panelist who inched her chair closer to Dr. Cooper’s. Indeed, we are particularly struck by the failure of those in attendance to protect and intervene, to right a wrong in this theatre of the oppressed. Here, again, the trauma of Black women becomes spectacle. Folk feel comfortable, or maybe even uncomfortable, witnessing–but they don’t seem compelled to act. The abuse of Black women in private and public spaces such as what happened at the Forum has become so common, so expected – is it like watching a good TV drama?
Let us be clear here: we hold Kazembe Balagun and the Brecht Forum accountable for this incident, but what happened to Dr. Cooper is not isolated. The incident speaks to the larger issue of physical, verbal, emotional, and intellectual violence against women. And it speaks to the larger issue of sexism, patriarchy, male privilege, and the silencing, intimidation, and disempowerment of women within activist and academic circles. To dismiss the assault on Dr. Cooper as something out-of-the-ordinary or to deny the roots of this incident and broader structural issues only serves to perpetuate the problem. Individual violence begets institutional violence and back again, and male privilege is secured.
This violent-domination-patriarchal masculinity is not working for us.
As bell hooks argues in “Feminist Masculinity” (Feminism is for Everybody),” this kind of masculinity encourages men to be “pathologically narcissistic, infantile, and psychologically dependent on the privileges (however relative) that they receive simply for having been born male.” And unfortunately, men feel like their lives are threatened when these privileges are taken away and often throw temper tantrums in an effort to make women “pay.”
We encounter this type of behavior at The Feminist Wire in the comments posted to the site after we publish a piece. We delete more comments than we publish because they are so often from very angry men whose privilege is being challenged. We and our authors are told that we deserve to be raped. That we deserve to be killed. That we are cunts, bitches, liars, and whores. That we are advancing our own careers on the backs of men. That our attitudes need adjustment by dick or stick. We are told that we, and our colleagues, and our daughters, and our students, are not safe. And when we refuse to publish the comments, we hear from these same men, now more rabidly furious that their voices were not allowed to stand, to take up space.
What happened at the Brecht Forum embodies some important limitations of the “ally discourse” (we are indebted to Mia McKenzie, @hystericalblackness, and @PrisonCulture for their challenging work in this regard). It is not about labels — “allies”; “comrades”; “progressive”; or “revolutionary.” Like talk, labels–especially those that are self-referential–are cheap. It has to be about doing the work, being accountable, and “being there,” about being active and being a partner, a friend, and a person willing to walk alongside of others. As @PrisonCulture tweeted, “JUST DO THE WORK. Don’t talk about, “reflect” on it, pontificate, Just ACT. That’s it.”
People at this event failed to act, failed to disrupt, and failed to work toward creating a community of love, decency, respect, and justice. Each of us knows what it feels like not to be supported when we speak out, and also the complicated feelings that can lead to silence. And while Kazembe Balagun and the Brecht Forum deserve to be called out here, the incident raises important questions: Where would we have figured in the traumatic and disturbing scene Dr. Cooper describes? What would our allying have looked like? Would it have looked like anything at all?
Perhaps all of us can use this moment to interrogate our silences and to confront the work those silences do in the world.