Friday, July 14, 2017

Not Knowing "Zio" is a Slur is an Indictment, Not a Defense

The Chicago Dyke March, an alternative to Chicago Pride that is meant to have a more "social justice" orientation, caught a heap of bad press when it expelled several Jewish marchers for carrying rainbow Jewish pride flags featuring a Star of David on them. The march has defiantly resisted any and all calls to apologize, and insisted that it was only being "critical of Israel" (isn't everything?).

Yesterday, it popped back into the antisemitism news beat by posting a tweet: "Zio tears replenish my electrolytes!" "Zio" is an antisemitic slur popularized by David Duke; even the milquetoast Chakrabarti Inquiry into antisemitism in Labour agreed it was a racist term (and St. Jeremy Corbyn himself agreed: "'Zio' is a vile epithet that follows in a long line of earlier such terms that have no place whatsoever in our party.").

The March is defending itself from renewed antisemitism allegations by saying it "Definitely didn't know the violent history of the term."

They mean this as a defense. It's actually an indictment. Let me explain why.

I'll accept, for sake of argument, that the Chicago Dyke March did not "know" the term "Zio" was antisemitic. Nonetheless, the March almost certainly did not stumble across the term "Zio" by accident. It got it from somewhere, from sources it felt confident enough in that it felt comfortable emulating. In other words, one of the ways the Chicago Dyke March learned to speak about matters of Jewish concern was from people who think it is okay to toss around terms like "Zio." The odds that everything else it learned about those matters from this same social network was magically uninfected by this obvious antisemitism is incredibly scant. It's the thirteenth (or in this case fourteenth, or fifteenth, or seventieth) chime that calls into question the other twelve.

There are many places in this country where people grow up hearing racial slurs that they don't "know" are derogatory -- they're "just what people say." When they move into the wider world and use such terms, they sometimes claim ignorance -- and in some sense, they might be right. But the implication of their apologia is that not that they are free from racism -- far from it. It's that they grew up in an environment where racism was so normalized that they didn't even know how to recognize it. Such a situation demands some very hard work of unlearning, of radically questioning one's own presuppositions and acknowledging that one needs to acquire substantial new information before one can feel confident in one's ability to relate to the other group in an ethical manner.

But let's give the Dyke March even further benefit of the doubt. Suppose they somehow magically stumbled upon "Zio" through entirely innocent means -- nobody in their social network was using it, they came up with it all by their creative selves. Even still, all that would demonstrate is that they don't know crucial information about a subject they nonetheless feel fully confident to opine on. Put another way, if they didn't "know" that "Zio" was antisemitic, shouldn't the next question be "what else don't we know?"

I've long thought that the heart of oppression as a discursive practice is a perceived entitlement to talk about a group without knowing about the group. The Chicago Dyke March pleads ignorance about Jews and antisemitism, but that ignorance in no way dissipates their belief that they are absolutely entitled to talk about Jews and Jewish institutions however they want and be treated as credible and legitimate entrants to the discussion. It's not a valid move. If you don't know enough about Jews or antisemitism to know that "Zio" is an antisemitic term, then you don't know enough to be confident that any of your other opinions about Jews or antisemitism are worthwhile.

The Dyke March, in short, wants the innocence of ignorance without the responsibility. It wants to be able to say, on the one hand, "we didn't know that this term we used was a prominent antisemitic slur", while on the other hand it equally wants to say "we do know that in all other cases everything else we've said or done vis-a-vis Jews is entirely above-board and not antisemitic." They can only have the first if they're willing to disturb the second.

5 comments:

Dani Behan said...

It is inevitable that a movement built on a foundation of antisemitism will manifest "the real thing" every now and then.

Melissa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Melissa said...

By far the best analysis I've read to date on the most recent CDM displays of gross antisemitism. THANK YOU!

Ali Green said...

I was going to point out that d**e march is specifically for lesbians and bisexual women (but especially lesbians given who the slur is aimed at) but there seems to be nothing on their page that indicates it's specifically for or even focused on gay women. The fuck? Why call it that then?

David Schraub said...

My understanding is that it initially arose because Chicago Pride was viewed as too focused on gay men (so it was meant for "dykes"), but now it is more generally situated as a more radical alternative to Pride (which is deemed too corporate-friendly or mainstream).