UCSD professor speaks on campus about race, intersectionality

Fatima El-Tayeb speaks in the Interfaith Center on Nov. 17 about racialization in the United States and Europe. Jeremy Caldwell / The Tufts Daily

Professor Fatima El-Tayeb of University of California at San Diego gave a lecture on the intersectionality of race, religion and sexuality, as well as the persistence of racism in Europe, at the Interfaith Center Tuesday evening.

The Nov. 17 lecture, titled “Queer Life of Diaspora,” was hosted by the Consortium of Studies for Race, Colonialism and Diaspora (CSRD) and the Tufts LGBT Center.

The event was organized by Lisa Lowe, a professor of English and the director of the Colonialism Studies program, and Nino Testa, director of the LGBT Center. Testa said that the talk was particularly relevant to the way recent ISIS bombings have been covered in the media. 

“We planned the event a few months ago, but increasingly it feels like an especially timely event, particularly watching the coverage of the attacks in Paris this week and the lack of coverage of the attacks in Beirut,” Testa said. “To have this space where we could think in a more complicated way about the dynamics at play was really important.”

Lowe began the event by introducing El-Tayeb, who is her former colleague.

“It’s no exaggeration to say that there really is no other cultural critic who combines with such range and originality studies of race, gender, sexuality, nationalism and contemporary politics,” Lowe said of El-Tayeb. “Her work brings together studies of immigration, colonial difference and racialization in both Europe and North America, a connection that’s become all the more urgent in the last decade and in light of the refugee crisis in Europe and recent bombings in Beirut and Paris.”

El-Tayeb began her talk by explaining that the title of the lecture represents an adoption of terms that were once used to separate minorities from the rest of the population.

“Both ‘queer’ and ‘diaspora’ are in some ways terms of displacement, of being out-of-sync with what is considered the norm,” she said. “So the queer life of diaspora, for me, speaks to the potential of mobilizing this out-of-syncness in order to challenge a global system of racial capitalism, of interlocking binaries.”

She went on to speak out about Europeans who believe that they are above racism, while ignoring Europe’s own racist history.

“In short, contemporary Europeans believe themselves to be, generally, ‘colorblind,’” El-Tayeb said. “They claim not to ‘get’ race, especially after referring to the supposed American obsession with it … This ongoing racial amnesia is made possible through the erasure of the history of European racism and the history of Europeans of color.”

According to El-Tayeb, although the history of racism in Europe is different than the history of racism in the United States, it is no less fraught.

“Despite the…explicitly race-based policies of both Europe’s fascist regimes and its colonial empires, the continent is often marginal in discourses on race, in particular in discourses focused on the present,” she said. “Rather than a lack of history of racialization, what we find is a racial amnesia, an ongoing dialectic of outbreaks of racist moral panics and denials of historic presence of racialized populations.”

El-Tayeb also talked about the current European refugee crisis in relation to the history of colonialism, pointing out what she sees as the hypocritical comparison of refugees to barbarians.

“In discussions around the refugee crisis, the most used comparisons are the barbarian invasions, but something that surprisingly is never mentioned is the fact that 85 million Europeans left the continent in a relatively short period to invade other parts of the world that had no say in whether they wanted to accept those people,” she said.

El-Tayeb went on to speak about the racialization of Muslims in Europe, discussing the anti-hijab laws in several European nations and what this means for European Muslims.

“In Europe, [the hijab] becomes a symbol of European inability to tolerate visual markers of otherness,” she said. “There are anti-hijab, anti-headscarf laws in France, Germany, Denmark, Switzerland and the Netherlands — that is, some of the most wealthy, most secular and progressive European nations.”

El-Tayeb explained that the level of outcry against the hijab seems disproportionate given the relatively small population of Muslims in these countries, until they are viewed from an anti-Islamic standpoint.

“It makes a lot more sense if we see it as a resistance to accepting Islam as a European religion, one that requires the acceptance of public expression through hijab, through mosques,” she said. “That is, the recognition that Islam and Europe are indeed compatible.”

El-Tayeb concluded her speech with a discussion of the current lack of intersectionality between racial and sexual identities, saying that racial and sexual minorities are often seen as mutually exclusive.

“To become properly gay, queer people of color have to perform a version of coming out that means coming into an already liberated white queer community, while permanently leaving behind communities of color or Islam,” she said. “This is a process that has been criticized repeatedly by Muslim and other queer of color activists in Europe.”

El-Tayeb, who was born in Germany, explained that she became involved in the discussion around queer diaspora and intersectionality because of her desire to find a place for herself and her identity.

“I’m a black German, so people always treated me as though I couldn’t exist,” she said. “It was not an intellectual interest. It was me figuring out where I fit in and what was going on.”