Why the Black Lesbians United 7th Annual Retreat is not the same as Azeem’s Flute Recital

Stephanie Stapleton

You may or may not have seen the new wannabe ‘Azeem Wardesque’ take-down that happened on Facebook last week. This time, however, it was on the event page for the Black Lesbians United 7th Annual Retreat. In short, mostly boys (but also some girls), decided to hijack the public group set up by the Black Lesbians United (BLU) organisation.

What initially began as an event page, made public to reach out to its niche target audience of black lesbians, quickly then escalated into a space for predominantly white males to write abusive and offensive remarks intended to make the event into a joke. The page was taken down overnight – undoubtedly because it so rapidly evolved into a minefield of outrageously racist, sexist, homophobic, and generally offensive comments. In case you were fortunate enough to miss out, I’ve included screenshots of some of the damage (and by no means the worst…).

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In case you can’t see, it says ‘who’s ready to get black and BLU?’

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I’m not going to lie, a few days ago I was cracking up at the Azeem Ward hijack, like many other British students. This time, however, I was left feeling shocked and appalled. Yes, Azeem Ward’s flute recital’s public event page was also totally random, somewhere in the middle of America, almost fictional… but we weren’t bullying Azeem for playing the flute, or laughing at his expense, sexuality, or skin colour for that matter (and we definitely weren’t making light of the violent abuse of women). The BLU event page was seeking to provide a safe space and reach out to a group of women that already feel marginalised in society. While, Azeem was able to join in with the joke, girls on the BLU event page explicitly commented that the jokes were unwelcome.

The event page was intentionally created to be a safe space away from our heteronormative society that favours white, straight males, and the often derogatory ‘lad banter’ in which fraternities of males so often seem to indulge. Although members of the BLU group made it known that the comments were offensive and unwelcome, this only seemed to give the ‘jokers’ more fuel.

Most frightening of all, was the sheer lack of compassion that an extraordinary amount of the perpetrators showed, even after being asked not to ridicule the event page. Comments that explained the function of the group to provide a safe space for women that already feel marginalised did not appear to be enough. Instead, many boys started complaining that it was just ‘banter’. In the comment below, you can see one lovely lad goes as far as to call a girl a ‘cunt’ for speaking out against the behaviour on the group.

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Why, may I ask, did so many of these people feel their entitlement to ‘banter’ was more important than the need to respect other people?

Among more outwardly offensive posts, some people (again mainly white males) were tagging their friends on the page as a cheap gag. Several girls poignantly asked on the group: what is so funny about an event for black lesbians?

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Apparently the label of a ‘black lesbian’ alone is floor-beatingly hilarious to some people. Unfortunately, this only highlights the prevalence of racist and homophobic attitudes in our supposedly ‘progressive’ societies. The girls on the group pointed out that many of these boys were students at prestigious British universities, some of whom are mutual friends with me and my friends. This in itself is extremely depressing, that such privileged and educated people can be so cruel and ignorant. Surely people in such fortunate positions should be using their intelligence and fortune in more positive ways.

This brings me on to another more frightening point. We live in a society in which often the dominant group of straight, white males don’t realise how privileged they are. Furthermore, they sometimes abuse their dominant position to undermine and subordinate minorities in society, passing it off as ‘banter’. Scott Domis’ tasteless comment that told his friend ‘get your dick out here’ (see below) was not particularly witty or funny. But even more revoltingly: is a joke about forcing a dick onto a group of women normal ‘banter’? Although Scott’s comment was intended as a ‘joke’, it was extremely telling of the often violent and sexual content of ‘lad banter’. In a world where mobs of men still often get away with gang raping women, as has been highlighted in recent years in India, for example, jokes that normalise aggressive sexual behaviour within groups of men or ‘lads’ are treading a fine line.

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While the ‘jokers’ behind these kinds of comments will have their laughs and probably quickly forget about it, the organisers and members of BLU or any black lesbian women that see the comments are left feeling even more isolated and ridiculed. Sadly, within the very space they intended to build outside of a predominantly white, heteronormative patriarchy. These kinds of jokes are stigmatising and punish minority groups in society; by making them feel like they are not only separate, but also a source of jokes. Furthermore, are some people really so uncreative that they can’t conceive of any other kind of jokes or ways to amuse themselves that don’t have to target minorities? If that is the case, perhaps the entertainment industry is not for them.

Sooner or later isolation can affect all of us, be it our families or ourselves. It might be a disability, a mental health problem, a serious illness, racism, sexism, addiction, homophobia. And while I sincerely hope this is not the case, I can guarantee that making jokes at the expense of minorities or the vulnerable, and perpetuating such a bullying kind of comedy culture, is not going to do you any favours if and when you or your loved ones feel vulnerable, marginalised, or isolated in the future.

Strangely, some boys even tried to claim that the group itself was sexist and racist because it was aimed exclusively at black lesbians. Statistics from the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) suggest that 1.6% of the US population are lesbian OR gay, and while these are most likely not to be completely accurate, it’s safe to say that the LGBT demographic is pretty low. The African-American community is currently measured as less than 15% of the US population. As part of the black lesbian community you’re part of a puddle-sized pool of people. Is it so unfair then that black lesbians need to create an exclusive group that attempts to reach out to other black lesbians that might be feeling alone and isolated within society? In most places within the US or UK, straight white males only need to walk down a busy street if they want to meet other straight white males.

Without this group and its support, the BLU members on that page would have been alone, trying to negotiate with a predominantly male group of bullies who for no apparent reason decided to direct unwarranted abuse towards them. And while there were a handful of supportive comments from males on the group (exemplified below, unsurprisingly with yet another homophobic comment underneath) the overall picture was bleak. To make matters worse, the page reflected instances where sometimes other women were also trying to jump on the bandwagon. Don’t they realise that by partaking in misogyny they are only helping oppress themselves and other women in the long term?

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The Facebook page was a microcosm of our world in which women are oppressed and often abused within patriarchal structures, particularly when not white and straight. This event therefore serves as an important example of why a solidarity, or movement of strong, vocal voices that are willing to defend their rights and those of other minorities are so important. Especially if we are going to move forward towards a more equal society in which we protect and respect each other regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexuality or disability.

I got in contact with the Co-Founder of BLU, Jeanette, and she emailed me this statement earlier. Even though Facebook have removed the event page from the Internet, it’s important that we don’t silence voices that need to be heard or brush what happened under the rug:

Once we realised what was happening it was quite traumatic. Within that vortex of hate, and utter immaturity, it was difficult not to feel violated organisationally and personally. We felt protective of our members, friends and supporters who were standing up to the cyber bullying, but soon became aware that of all the support we were receiving. We began receiving dozens of Facebook messages from people apologising for the behaviour of their classmates and citizens (mostly UK). These individuals expressed that they hoped that we would continue our work, and that we wouldn’t judge an entire class of people (white people, men, university students, UK citizens, etc.) based on what we experienced in those few rough hours.

Within a few hours we had over 6,000 RSVPs for our event (normally we have about 300 RSVPs total) and there were over 12,000 outstanding invitations so we knew that this problem would not subside on its own and we chose to put an end to it. Our mission statement is “To make the world safe for Black Lesbians” and by middle Sunday, this event page no longer felt safe. That does not mean that the actual retreat will not happen…on the contrary, we expect it to be stronger and better than ever for the experience. We will not be silenced.

It is a shame that these individuals succumbed to the pack mentality and went after our organisation with such disregard, mocking our purpose, calling us names, and being as disrespectful and childish as possible, however, we have learned that many attempted to remove their posts after submitting them, possibly due to peer pressure, or fear of punishment from their parents, or their educational institution. We have received several requests from institutions including Oxford and Leeds for screenshots in order to track down some of the perpetrators. Hopefully Facebook can help with these requests.

We give a heartfelt thanks to everyone who has sent messages of support, and for those who stood up for us in the midst of the firestorm.

* The screenshots were also sent through to me by BLU

Stephanie Stapleton