A brief foreword: this post is, as ever, written in the hope that it will enable women to come to a greater place of understanding. After a period of contemplation, I have decided to address the issue of racism at FiLiA 2017 because if it requires women of colour to keep quiet about racism, it’s not sisterhood and never can be. There is potential for better. It is the first in a series of personal reflective essays about feminist movement building. The second and third are available here.
I am tired. So very tired. There are days when I want to withdraw from the feminist movement. There are days when I want to withdraw from life. So far, I have done neither because I’m conscious that it’s a sickness that plants the seeds of suicidality in my mind. And if I have to live in this world, you can be damned certain that I’m going to try and make it a better place for women and girls to inhabit – to firmly grasp the roots of injustice with both hands and pull. While my mental health and participation in the feminist movement may not at first glance appear connected, both are consistently and adversely affected by one common factor: racism.
It is widely acknowledged by feminists that sisterhood is the most sustaining force, what keeps our movement in motion despite the weight of constant struggle. And as women who live our politics, aiming to unite theory and practice in the everyday, that solidarity between women is vital to a feminist’s being in all spheres of her life.
As I have previously written, I believe that racism is one of the greatest barriers to sisterhood between women. Since 2014 I have devoted significant energy and time to removing that barrier by challenging racism within the feminist movement. This has involved using my back as a bridge to bring white women to a place of understanding, guiding white women through the process of unlearning racism, letting my experiences of racism become teachable moments, and – frankly – showing more patience with white women’s casual racism than anyone could reasonably be expected to give. I have tried to make myself and my words a conduit for movement away from racism, movement towards true solidarity between women and girls.
In some ways, this project has been a success. It shows when a white woman has taken the time to critically examine her own racism and altered her behaviour towards women of colour. I’ve run many gentle interventions, large and small, and actually feel really proud of that work when I see a white woman is consciously unlearning racism after our conversations, when I see a change in how she practices her feminism. I don’t do it because white women deserve the Morgan Freeman treatment – members of the dominant class (in this case, white people) aren’t entitled to a unique level of understanding from people of colour. No, I do it for the women of colour whose paths will cross with those white women in feminist organising and other settings. Women of colour deserve so much better from the feminist movement than to be pushed to its margins, just as we are within a mainstream context. And so I tried to build pockets of space where white women could get to grips with basic anti-racist politics without fear of being castigated for asking questions which belied racism (again, it took an extreme degree of patience) or spiralling into defensiveness when that racism was addressed.
I think that racism flourishes because of all the silences that are allowed to grow around it. Race exists as a hierarchy, and white people are invested in upholding that hierarchy in order to retain the socioeconomic power that comes with it – and maintaining the hierarchy of race is partly achieved by making its acknowledgement taboo. Through an extraordinary feat of mental gymnastics, talking about race – in particular the realities of that hierarchy as experienced when your skin happens to be Black or brown – becomes a far greater offence than being complicit in systematic injustice.
Talking about race becomes a transgression, which is politically significant. Both within feminist spaces and in mainstream society we are all, to varying degrees, rewarded for not speaking about race and – by extension – posing no threat to whiteness as an ideology. The shame attached to talking about the dynamic of race acts as a buffer of sorts, a layer cushioning racism from in-depth scrutiny or challenge. If we cannot name or identify racism, how can we oppose it? This layer of silence creates distance between the act of racism and accountability for being racism. It is what protects the ideology behind racism from being unpicked. And so I have crafted contexts in which race may be discussed.
Recently I delivered a keynote address at FiLiA 2017, sharing my vision of interracial solidarity in the feminist movement with the conference. FiLiA was a complicated experience. For months in advance I had planned to use my time to talk about the radical and often untapped possibilities within sisterhood – but it was only the day before conference that the reality hit: I would be stepping into a predominantly white space to speak about racism, putting myself in a more exposed position than is comfortably occupied as a Black woman. And it was a very white space: I saw more Black women in the student cafeteria upstairs than in the entire conference setting. Vulnerability is a necessary part of the radical honesty that movement building demands, yet there is a fine balance between what it is to be vulnerable in talking about race and exposed to racism. Still, I gave the talk and sent those ideas out to permeate the conference.
Responses to my FiLiA address have been rather overwhelming – mostly in a good way. White women have thanked me for opening their eyes to something they hadn’t previously considered with a bit of Racism 101, shared the ways in which they plan on organising differently, and a few even said that my words changed their lives. Women of colour’s responses have been more layered, coming at the issue from a standpoint so much closer to my own, and profoundly moving. But, in the immediate aftermath, one particular response devastated me.
After the session where I spoke, I attended a panel about body positivity: Flaunting Fearlessness. Fat, disabled, and Black women are the pioneers of the body positivity movement – so their absence on the panel was immediately noticeable. The speakers consisted of four white women in the room and one Asian woman Skyping from Los Angeles: I do not name these women because a public shaming is not my objective. Instead I want to address the impact of the classism, anti-Blackness, and ableism that were woven into the conversation and uncontested by the chair. It was deeply uncomfortable and, more than that, pushed women with little social power to the margins of the movement. Listening to that panel I grew acutely conscious that they did not view our concerns as women’s concerns, did not perceive our struggles to be women’s struggles. Having spent the morning inviting women to build interracial solidarity at the conference, it was devastating.
Sitting in the audience was acutely painful. I deliberated over whether to say anything, but a friend pointed out that the burden of challenging racism shouldn’t fall to a Black woman. So Siân raised her hand and, with real empathy, invited the panel to consider how the racism projected onto Black children has resulted in them being penalised by their school or having their hair cut off by teachers. She spoke about how money acted as a barrier to so many spaces and experiences that were being described as crucial to body positivity. She addressed the harm done by recreating hierarchies within feminist spaces. She brought up the issue of representation, or lack thereof, on the panel. And Siân, bold and brilliant, was applauded by women across the room. It was the best example of a calling in that I have ever witnessed – a genuine, compassion-filled invitation to connect.
But Siân’s invitation, like mine, was rejected. The panellist who claimed to be part of a movement so inclusive that even her dog belonged in it said “I could talk about race all day, but we can’t make everything about race.” In a society founded upon white supremacist principles, everything is already inherently racialised. To claim that those of us who address the hierarchy of race are responsible for making an issue about race is to miss the point spectacularly. Explaining that to the panel was impossible. Building a bridge was impossible. So I left the session. And I wasn’t the only one.
I left that session in tears, empty and exhausted. I found a quiet place to sit and breathe. I brought the issue to the attention of the FiLiA team, who admitted to having concerns about the Flaunting Fearlessness panel beforehand. And I agreed to help the collective as they take the necessary steps to ensure such a thing never happened at any future FiLiA conference – a point to which I will return. My reason for doing so was the same as my reason for attempting to build interracial solidarity between women in the first place: to improve a feminist space for women of colour. All the while Siân was checking up on me, making sure I didn’t feel alone.
I did not ultimately decide to leave the conference, but neither did I attend any other sessions that day. Instead I ended up sitting on the steps with Liz and letting myself be drawn into a series of comfortable conversations with women – conversations about the gendered expectations of caring, women’s spaces, and the politics of lesbian weddings. Liz Kelly is something of a litmus test for how I will engage (or not engage) with white women in a feminist setting. There are very few white feminists holding my absolute trust, but Liz is one – and so the white women she vouches for are generally among the white women I’m open to connecting with. I will not universalise this experience and say that this is an option for every Black woman: it’s not. But letting Liz’s judgements inform my own is a mechanism that saves me a lot of energy that would otherwise be spent guarding against racism in one form or another.
Liz has enabled me to occupy a range of predominantly white feminist environments that would otherwise not have been bearable. Siân’s courage in holding space for Black women saved me emotional labour and alienation. As I have previously written, I dislike the concept of allyship because it invariably sinks into something hollow and performative. Instead of allyship, I consider such actions as a manifestation of solidarity between women. Sisterhood is powerful – or it can be, when women are prepared to work to build it.
I value sisterhood with white women, complicated as it is. And I value solidarity with men of colour, though they are similarly complicated by context. The two are not mutually exclusive – actually, in my experience, they fit together because they are both born from living a politics of connection. The Black security guard kept catching my eye as I danced with a group of otherwise white women at the FiLiA party on Saturday night, and every time I’d laugh. Those little moments of shared understanding made me feel seen as surely as Liz or Siân did.
Within my interactions with other women of colour lies the greatest significance. But, for various reasons – all of which relate directly to power – those are the interactions about which I can say least. Most women I will not name, because they have enough to manage without being scrutinised by white women as a result of these words. Some (me included) recede into ourselves in predominantly white feminist environments, too focussed on how best to negotiate the space, too guarded against the very real risk of racism, to be fully connected with what’s going on. This is white women’s loss far more than it is a loss for women of colour. Since becoming part of the feminist movement I have watched many of the brightest and most insightful women I know clam up in spaces that are hostile to them, spaces in which their perspectives would have been of greater relevance and use than anything said by the voices centred. Such is the risk of treating white women’s voices as default.
During both days at conference I took the opportunity to connect with women from various feminist networks and communities – some of them posted about catching up with me on Twitter and Facebook, which is pretty standard of how these things go. And on more than one occasion another woman of colour messaged me privately to indicate which white women I ought to be careful around any why. (When it comes to racism, the receipts will always catch up with you.) The reach of racism in any mixed feminist space is disconcerting. And while it is grim that women of colour are in a position where protecting one another is necessary, it is a wonderful thing to be held by that sisterhood.
On the second day of FiLiA I carried a bag of knitting around with me – having a repetitive, constructive action from which something beautiful grows is soothing. I joked to friends that returning for the next day of conference after addressing the issue of racism felt a bit like being Maleficent at Aurora’s christening. Knitting was a way to retreat from those worries and find a sense of calm. Over the lunch break I sat on the steps with a group of friends and knitted, having reached the level of anxiety at which eating food ceases to be a viable option. One of those friends was a woman I first met at the previous conference, when it was still known as Feminism in London – we had both been quiet with one another, feeling out of place (read: conspicuously brown) in that context. Although that same discomfort persisted, we had a frank and gentle conversation about anxiety – I felt seen by her, and hope she felt seen by me too, which can be the greatest gift when you are conscious of being made Other.
Later on, after knitting my way through a panel on specialised women’s services, I felt like food was possible. In the queue I bumped into Rahila Gupta and another woman. We talked about the politics of voice – who is heard, who is ignored. We talked about public speaking, when we preferred to read from notes or speak off the cuff. And Rahila asked for my perspective. It was nothing short of astonishing to me that a woman as brilliant as Rahila Gupta would treat me as a peer. Long before meeting her, I read of Rahila’s work with Southall Black Sisters in archive materials at Glasgow Women’s Library.
That interaction stayed with me all through the day and long after the closing session of FiLiA. Maya Angelou, who was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom for her outstanding contributions to literature, once lamented that “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’” As was often the case, her words lit upon a truth – one which I find highly relatable. Part of me suspects that sooner or later it will emerge that my ideas are worthless – all writing opportunities withdrawn, prizes and nominations revoked, and so on. Even being invited to give a keynote by the FiLiA organising team, I did not have a sense that it was legitimate for me to occupy that space and worried that my thoughts on feminist movement building would immediately be discredited. The things I wonder ‘is it legitimate for me to say this?’ are often the things that most desperately need saying. And yet…
Imposter syndrome isn’t uncommon among women of colour. In fact, imposter syndrome is rife within the networks of Black & brown women who make up my peer group. They achieve extraordinary things, build extraordinary spaces, create extraordinary works – and continue to be plagued by self-doubt. That self-doubt is informed by context: it is what happens when we absorb the racism and misogyny thrown our way in this society. Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff is one of the finest journalists of this generation, yet she too is familiar with imposter syndrome:
“This is the key difference between the imposter syndrome suffered by women of colour and others: the strong forces telling our subconscious that we are undeserving of success and that we don’t belong in the environments we inhabit. We don’t see people who look like us, hear accents like ours, or, necessarily, have role models. Our insecurities over our achievements are the effect of people reacting with shock when they realise how well [we are] doing…”
If the feminist movement is truly concerned with the liberation of all women and girls then we as feminists must ensure that our spaces do not replicate the same old hierarchies, but instead create a viable challenge to those hierarchies. If those spaces happen to be racially mixed, white women have a responsibility to uplift women of colour – to centre our voices instead of pushing us to the margins. White women have a responsibility to actively unlearn their racism. It is the white women who cling to racism that should doubt the legitimacy speaking on feminist politics, not the women of colour whose words are a fundamental challenge to white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.
In the weeks after FiLiA I was hugely conflicted, but ultimately I stand by my radical vision of sisterhood – one in which true interracial solidarity between women is possible. Whether or not I have the energy to help bring that vision into being is another question altogether. I am not a well woman. Neither am I a resource for white women to mine. And, in the spirit of honesty, it is far more tempting to devote all that energy to becoming a crochet master – something sustaining, not draining.
Still, I have spoken with Lisa-Marie – the founder of FiLiA – about the conference. To me, the most significant factor is how a white woman responds to racism – will she deny the issue is there, or will she grasp it at the root? Lisa-Marie was adamant that FiLiA is to be a space where women can engage with feminist politics free from racism, classism, ableism, or any other form of prejudice. She fully acknowledges that FiLiA is imperfect in its present form and is determined that the space engages with issues of structural power – which is why I offered Lisa-Marie my perspective on how FiLiA can evolve and gave her permission to check in with me on developments. FiLiA is flawed, but something good can grow there. Perhaps, with enough work, FiLiA will become a place where interracial sisterhood flourishes. Like I said on the stage: “to be a feminist is to be an optimist.”