When White Women Close Ranks

A brief foreword: It’s been a while since I’ve updated this series of essays on racism in the feminist movement. The racism has kept on happening, as predictable as it is painful, but I haven’t always had the energy or inclination to write about it. However, in moments of optimism that could possibly be described as insanity, I decided to try again.

Dedicated to Amanda Fucking Palmer and Victoria Brownworth

Olive Morris Print Credit: Twitter user @Extreme_Crochet


 

In many ways, although the movement is in a state of flux, this is an exciting time in Scottish feminism. Women are coming together to form grassroots organisations and independent research groups. I’ve been engaging, going to meetings, and coming into contact with lots of new women in the process. During the last few months, I’ve made some friendships that I hope will last a lifetime. Those relationships with women are an abundant source of joy. However, the flip side of meeting so many new women is that I have been exposed to their racism.

ReceiptsLike the majority of Black feminists, I can never afford to take the solidarity of white women for granted. I think some white women get offended that our shared womanhood doesn’t automatically win them my trust – but those are usually the women best avoided. With every white woman I meet, whether or not she realises it, there is a careful vetting process that takes place inside my head. I watch and listen carefully before opening myself to a connection with her.

I’m wary of white women, but open to the possibility of kinship and solidarity with them. It’s exactly the same way I feel about Black men. In a white supremacist patriarchy, there’s potential for good and harm in both of those relationships. Racism within the feminist movement has hurt me in profound and painful ways; so much so that I can’t afford to let my guard down with white women – at least, not to begin with. There will probably be some white feminists reading these words thinking that I sound paranoid or unsisterly. To them, I say: how much do you trust men?

A man you have never met before approaches you on the street, calling after you. He could be about to hand you back the umbrella you dropped without realising and continue on his way. Or he could be catcalling and following you in the hope of forcing contact you do not want. You are poised to run or scream. The metal of your house keys is hot between your knuckles. At the back of your brain flickers an animal sort of fear, the fight or flight instinct hardwired to keep us alive. It could be nothing. But, you can’t help thinking, it might be something. That’s how it works with gender.

It also works that way with race. Just as I fear sexual assault on the last train home, I fear being pelted with racial slurs. Over time, like countless other people of colour, I’ve developed a kind of spidey-sense that tingles when it’s coming: those questions designed to police and undermine the belonging of my Black body in this white, white country. Whether it’s the hands of men trying to cop a feel or the hands of white women curious about the texture of my hair, both forms of touching happen without my consent and are a part of the racialised misogyny that hugely complicates my relationship with public space.

img_1676The Scottish feminist movement is very white. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, given that the majority whiteness is a consequence of Scotland’s population. Still, it can leave women of colour vulnerable within feminist spaces. I cannot take it for granted that there will be another Black woman in the room. When racism happens – which is a case of when rather than if – there is no guarantee that other women will recognise it. And even if white women do understand that what’s happening is racism, they will not necessarily be willing to acknowledge it as such. The final hurdle: those white women who recognise and acknowledge racism aren’t always willing to challenge it.

As a consequence of being in multiple minority groups, I can’t rely on members of the majority choosing to align themselves with me. Challenging racism requires white women to voluntarily step outside of the fold. Speaking out can carry a social penalty, if most white women in a space wish to repress conversations about the politics of race. They watch as my perspective is delegitimised and I am Othered, afraid of being cast out as I have been. It’s a very well documented phenomenon, which Sara Ahmed summarised perfectly:

“When you expose a problem you pose a problem. It might then be assumed that the problem would go away if you would just stop talking about or if you went away.”

Anger is weaponised against Black women in much the same way the concept of hysteria is used to undermine women of all races. Our rage is pathologised. This image of the Angry Black Woman, dark and threatening, renders us monstrous in the white imagination. We are positioned as innately hostile, impossible to reason with – in short, beast like. And if a Black feminist challenges a white woman’s racism, this regressive stereotype is wheeled out like clockwork to shut her down. If anybody plays a race card, it’s the white women trying to avoid being held accountable for their anti-Blackness.

I rarely show anger in front of white women; not in person, not knowing how it will be used against me. Not even when the world gives me good cause to be angry – whether through an accidental stubbed toe or the deliberate workings of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. The full range of human emotions is not a luxury permitted to Black women in the feminist movement.

The only white woman I expressed any anger in front of after being subjected to racism was Cath Planet. As a working class woman she knows exactly what it’s like to have her anger pathologised, to be punished for speaking truth to power. Cath never presumed my trust, and I never presumed hers, which is perhaps why we’ve been able to build a meaningful friendship over time. It’s a relationship in where neither of us has to be afraid of showing the other negative emotion.

Whether or not they realise it, all the white women who said that I was being overly sensitive about race sounded like nothing so much as a man in a position of power trying to delegitimise the complaint of sexual harassment filed against him by a junior female employee. They closed ranks, in exactly the same way Boris Johnson did when he shut down the inquiry into the conduct of Mark Field MP that began after he slammed a female protestor into the wall and dragged her from the room by her throat. White women choose to leverage their power in exactly the same way that men do, importing the patriarchy’s oppressiveness and cruelty into a movement that’s supposed to fight for the liberation of all women.

I have yet to meet a radical feminist who meets misogyny with a smile, accommodating the comfort of sexist men over the safety and wellbeing of women. And I hope that I never do. The power of radical feminism lies in its rigorous structural analysis, however uncomfortable it can be. Still, white women continue to expect me to accommodate their racism, to be polite in addressing it – or, better yet, say nothing at all.

img_3363Black women’s access to the ‘sisterhood’ is so often dependent on our willingness to stay silent about racism and ignore the hierarchy of race. One white woman recently had the gall to say she was “disappointed” I had called her racist. It was the same old story: a white woman’s comfort prioritised above a Black woman’s wellbeing. We are accused of dividing the movement when we challenge racism. But white women’s racism is what divides feminists. Many of them prefer clinging on to the power they hold through racial inequalities over finding out what the world looks like when we are all free.

Every so often a white woman will say to me “but we’re not men”, as though their violence is excusable because it’s less likely to be physical. Black women deserve so much better than choosing between the false binary of men’s misogyny and white women’s racism. We deserve to be treated with respect and kindness everywhere – especially in social movements of which we are so often the backbone. Race is a hierarchy in exactly the same way that gender is a hierarchy. White feminists can either work to disband both by actively building interracial solidarity, or cling to power in one by reinforcing the other. They must choose.

God knows it’s not comfortable scrutinising yourself as a member of the oppressor class. But that critical self-reflection is so freeing. And it opens up the most exciting possibilities for connecting with women whose lives are completely unlike your own.

When I first became active in the feminist movement, other middle class women actively warned me off trying to connect with working class women. I disregarded that advice. For those relationships to be possible, I continue to work at unlearning my own classism. Looking back, it’s obvious these middle class women feared working class feminists because of the fundamental challenge they made to women invested in structural power imbalances. Working class women connected middle class women performing politeness to harmful respectability politics, which are used to cover up all manner of injustices.

Working class feminists bring more integrity and compassion to the feminist movement than the middle class women who become the face of this movement. Having relationships with them is rewarding because of, not in spite of, how they challenge me as a middle class woman. I know what it is to realise I’m the asshole. I know it can be painful, awkward, hard work. But it’s worth it, because if you have the courage to go beyond what’s comfortable then you can access a sisterhood that’s so much more than you can imagine until you dare to be part of it. What’s easy isn’t always what’s right or good.

Compassion shouldn’t be limited to the women who look and live like you do. And marginalised women shouldn’t be made to carry the burden of their own difference within the feminist movement. Instead of the women who hold power closing ranks on the women without it, we should each be finding ways to leverage our power to the benefit of women who are vulnerable in ways that we are not.

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Ending Demand: The Sisterhood vs The Sex Industry

A brief foreword: this essay is an account of Julie Bindel’s talk at an event hosted by Holyrood’s Cross Party Group on Commercial Sexual Exploitation on Tuesday the 4th of June, 2019. I hadn’t initially planned to write about it, but this series of essays is specifically focussed on women’s rights – and the sex industry systematically violates those rights on a scale that cannot be ignored. You can read part one here, and part two here.

Dedicated to Julie, who inspired me to be a proud lesbian feminist.


Decriminalising the sex trade means decriminalising violence against women and children. This is the title of the talk Julie Bindel is giving at an event hosted by the Cross Party Group on Commercial Sexual Exploitation. When my invitation arrives, I don’t hesitate before accepting. That it will take me five hours to get to the venue in Edinburgh and back again is a small concern. Julie has devoted much of her adult life to challenging and campaigning to end all forms of male violence against women and girls. She is a meticulous researcher, and has travelled across continents to document the harms on which the sex industry is built. The opportunity to learn from her is a gift.

I arrive half an hour early and whip out my knitting. Anxiety makes earliness feel like being on time, and being on time feel like lateness. The venue is part of a chain of hotels and resorts that run my grandmother’s timeshare in the highlands of Scotland. Although I have never been to this particular hotel, there is a welcome familiarity to it. And even though we haven’t met before, some of the women filtering in recognise me as the author of this blog or @ClaireShrugged from Twitter. In this context – a room full of women – I have the sensation of being seen and fitting into a community.

When Julie joins us, she envelopes me in a hug. I am delighted to see her again – this time, up north. We’ve had our share of disagreements, yet I am properly fond of her. Julie is a woman who says what she means, and means what she says. Although Julie’s irreverent way of talking about feminist politics has been the subject of more than one controversy, it’s also her greatest strength. Julie is straightforward and wickedly funny in a way that wins people over to feminist causes far more than any stilted performance of wokeness. I sometimes wonder if my generation has lost an element of feminist joy that comes so naturally to Julie. While every feminist has a responsibility to herself and her sisters, the women’s liberation movement won’t travel very far if every step is tentatively made.

We go into the conference room, and it’s encouraging to see politicians from different parties and branches of government gathered to listen to this talk on the sex industry. While we’re waiting, I strike up a conversation with an academic who has been pushed out of her staff LGBT Pride Network – which has never been a particularly welcoming place for lesbians – because she resists the idea that gender is an innate, biologically fixed quality. We have both lost friendships with straight women for differentiating between sex and gender in our feminist analysis. For all the social and legal gains made in recent years, this is an isolating time to be a lesbian.

Ruth Maguire MSP, who is Co-Chair of the Scottish Parliament’s Cross Party Group on Commercial Sexual Exploitation, welcomes us to the event and introduces Julie with great enthusiasm. She talks about Julie’s work as a journalist, researching and reporting on various forms of male violence against women and girls. As Ruth highlights the importance of her work as co-founder of Justice for Women, I feel frustrated that purity politics prevents more feminists from recognising the tangible good that Julie’s work has brought to countless women’s lives.
img_1482Julie is here to tell us about the research conducted for her book, The Pimping of Prostitution: Abolishing the Sex Work Myth. She advocates the decriminalisation of selling sex and the criminalisation of buying it – what’s known as the Nordic Model. To Julie, it is abhorrent that any prostituted person should be punished by the legal system. In this we are agreed. According to the End Violence Against Women Coalition, 85% women in prostitution report physical abuse in the family, with 45% reporting familial sexual abuse. Research by CARE describes prostitution as “one of the most dangerous occupations in the world”; it is a minority of women who do not experience violence within the sex trade.

As Julie points out, the vast majority of people selling sex are women. Sex buyers are, overwhelmingly, male – and Julie has more than a few choice words to describe them. In prostitution, we see the sexual politics of patriarchy writ large. Feminists cannot work towards ending male violence against women and girls without engaging fully with the misogyny underpinning the sex trade. The women who survive the sex trade, and the many who do not, are our sisters in feminist struggle.

In my view, those survivors spearheading the abolition movement represent the very best of the feminist movement. I have had the honour of hearing testimonies given by women who have survived prostitution and are now campaigning to end demand. The courage of women like Fiona Broadfoot, Ali-Marie Diamond, Mickey Meji, Ne’cole Daniels, and Bridget Perrier is an inspiration. For all that they have suffered, each of these women works to make the world a safer place for women and girls. I don’t have the words to capture the sheer generosity of spirit this requires. The most powerful voices in the abolition movement are those belonging to the women who have survived the sex industry – and these are the voices Julie amplifies.
img_1502To radical feminists like Julie, it is evident that prostitution hinges on inequality. Hierarchies of race and class as well as gender dictate which women are most vulnerable to the sex industry. Across Europe, “there are so many women in prostitution, many of these women having been imported – by pimps – from African countries.” Julie rejects the professional language used to cover up the reality of this situation, such as the phrase “migrant sex worker.” In her words, the sex industry would have us believe that large groups of African women are “hopping on planes to Sweden to do a bit of sex work.” Trafficking is not spontaneous or casual, but a systematic exploitation of impoverished women living in the global south.

In Julie’s eyes, people who are fine with prostitution but opposed to trafficking are following a twisted logic. Trafficking and prostitution are fundamentally connected. The two cannot be neatly separated, each made into a distinct phenomenon. The sex industry is reliant on trafficking to fulfil demand. Government research shows that only 19% of women working as prostitutes in British flats, parlours and saunas were born in the UK.
The trafficking of women is not an anomaly, but part and parcel of the global sex trade. The EVAW Coalition describes Britain as “a significant site of international and internal child trafficking”; the majority of children trafficked in Britain are aged 14-17, and have been trafficked for sexual abuse and exploitation.

Julie identifies a pattern. Arguments that the buying of sex should be legalised tend to frame it as a rights issue. Decriminalisation is positioned as progressive, likened to legalising gay sex. Words like ‘choice’ and ‘agency’ are used by lobby groups to tell us that women want to sell sex. They assert that “it’s a woman’s right to be a sex worker.” But in this process, the men buying the sex are made invisible. We should be asking why men believe they have the right to buy sexual access to women’s bodies. Julie directs a question towards the audience, and it will stay with me for hours afterwards: “What else do we call a sexual act between two people where only one of them is consenting and finding pleasure?”

If indeed these acts of physical and psychological violence occurred in another context, they would be considered as sexual attacks, cruelty, abuse and rape. Why is it that when they occur within prostitution, they are not considered as such? Is it the money that makes them different?European Women’s Lobby

img_1489During her research, Julie has travelled everywhere from New Zealand to Nevada. There are European countries in which a man can pay €60 for a beer, a burger, and the opportunity to abuse as many women as he pleases. Perhaps naively, I am shocked that women’s bodies are served to men alongside food and drink. As Julie talks about everything that she has witnessed, I am filled with admiration at her courage. Documenting the systematic abuse of women, recording and analysing the details of this degradation, is essential feminist work. But it must be difficult to absorb so much human suffering on this scale.

There is one encounter that weighs on her particularly. At a café in Cambodia, a white British man was buying a 16 year old boy to go home and live with him. The parents had agreed, accepting a sum of money from him, and he phoned the British embassy to make the necessary arrangements. 16 is the age of consent. To classic liberals, there is no ethical issue. To those of us campaigning against the sex industry, there is everything wrong with this situation. It is the result of an unholy union between colonialism and capitalism.

In Ukraine, Julie came across a white man from Delaware, Texas who was looking to buy a bride. Bob was approximately 60 years old and recently widowed. He was looking for a young replacement for his wife and opted for a Ukranian woman in the hope that “she would be submissive and compliant”, unlike the women back home who were “too modern” for Bob’s taste. The word “modern”, according to Julie, is easily substituted with “feminist.” Bob wanted a woman easily controlled; someone pliable and impressionable enough to accept his (mis)treatment.

A minority of men currently demand prostitution, but prostitution demands something of them too. They have to be proficient in viewing women as dehumanised sexual objects. It is a prerequisite for a man actually being able to stand having sex with a woman who doesn’t freely want to have it with him, let alone desiring this and forking out for the privilege. In paying for sex, not only do punters deem consideration of the genuine feelings and wants of women they are paying a trifling irrelevance to the act, many require the performance of the brutal charade that [prostituted women] don’t even possess these basic human faculties. – Kat Banyard, Pimp State

Policy makers are told by the sex trade lobby that New Zealand Model is ideal. This means that prostitution, brothel-keeping, living off the proceeds of someone else’s prostitution, and street solicitation are all legal. Juno Mac and Molly Smith argue that legalising commercial brothels is preferable, because it means that women in prostitution don’t have to work on the street – where they are more vulnerable to men’s violence. But since New Zealand fully decriminalised the buying and selling of sex fifteen years ago, street prostitution has quadrupled.

The intensity of men’s violence against women in prostitution is horrifying. I find most of Julie’s anecdotes deeply upsetting. In particular, the story she tells about meeting a young woman whose bones had been so badly broken by johns that she needed a zimmer frame to walk – something that plenty of sex-buyers liked. Her health had been ruined by men’s violence, along with drug and alcohol addiction. Research shows that 87% of women involved with street-based prostitution in Britain use heroin. When men’s violence is an everyday reality, any form of escape would be welcome.

The Nordic Model isn’t perfect, in Julie’s view, but “there is a normative shift when the buying of sex is criminalised.” Cultural values are more important than the letter of the law. In the future, Julie wants to see generations of girls and boys raised to see buying sex in the same light as smoking in a public building: unthinkable, harmful, a departure from acceptable behaviour. She doesn’t believe the law alone should be a deterrent. Rather than seeing men in jail for abusing women, Julie wants the pandemic of male violence to cease altogether – and with it, the demand for prostitution.
img_1507While a lot of what Julie describes makes for difficult listening, the alternative is looking away – which means being complicit in the violence men enact against women and children around the world. Julie’s vision of a world free from the sex industry makes me feel optimistic. As she points out, no other manifestation of inequality is treated like it’s inevitable. Child poverty has existed for as long as prostitution, and – rightly – many people work to abolish it. In the same spirit, we must band together and collectively work to dismantle the sex industry.

I leave the hotel with a copy of Julie’s book tucked under my arm. Walking back to Edinburgh Waverley, I try to envision a world in which the choices available to women aren’t defined by poverty, racism, or gender. Even my choice of route to the station – where and when I will walk through which streets – is influenced by a fear of male violence. We have a long way to go. But with women like Julie at the vanguard, a feminist revolution feels possible.

Lessons from Canada: On Women’s Libraries and Liberation

A brief foreword: this essay is the second in a series, written about events in Scotland which explore and champion women’s rights. (You can read the first, my account of Meghan Murphy’s talk at the Scottish Parliament, here.) This essay describes the phenomenal talk Bec Wonders gave at the For Women Scotland event held on Friday the 14th of May, detailing her experiences as co-founder of Vancouver Women’s Library and the value of knowledge produced by second wave feminists. Again, this is my personal account of the event. Although I have tried to be faithful to each contribution in letter and spirit, there is always the potential for human error.

Dedicated to Bec, who truly is a wonder. Never have I met a woman with a more fitting name.


Secret locations and covert meetings are typically associated with espionage, not feminist politics. And yet, in the year 2019, women are often forced to keep the venue secret if we are to meet up and discuss our rights in safety. It is essential for any oppressed group to organise collectively if we are ever to overthrow the system that makes us marginal – in this case, patriarchy. Despite the fresh waves of criticism and controversy, there is a new wave of women’s groups starting to form across the United Kingdom.

Down south there is Woman’s Place UK, who have run a series of successful panel discussions about women’s sex-based rights and recently released a manifesto. Their aims include universal free childcare, sustainable investment in the women’s sector, and increased representation of women in public life. And here up north we have two new grassroots groups campaigning around women’s rights: Women and Girls in Scotland, and For Women Scotland. I have been following their work with interest. And so, when For Women Scotland release tickets for an event in Glasgow, I book a place.

 

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Lessons from Canada is the second official meeting co-ordinated by FWS. The speakers are Meghan Murphy, editor of Feminist Current, and Bec Wonders, co-founder of Vancouver Women’s Library and doctoral researcher. The day before the event, FWS contacts ticket holders directly with the venue details. Boarding the train to Glasgow, I am filled with a sense of excitement. The sun is shining and the sky is blue, which isn’t an everyday occurrence in the west coast of Scotland. And I am going to spend an evening talking, laughing, and drinking with women from a broad range of backgrounds. What more could a feminist ask for?

When I arrive at the venue, there are two security guards keeping watch. Their presence is a comfort. We have all been told to bring ID as part of the security protocol, so I show my driver’s license and sign in. The FWS team are all generous in their praise of the blog post I published about Meghan’s talk at Holyrood. One woman tells me I took the heat right out of the subject – and considering conversations about gender have reached boiling in Britain, this is the best possible feedback I could have hoped for. Nobody wins when the discussion surrounding sex, gender, and sexuality becomes antagonistic – or rather, nobody wins except straight white men. The sooner this conflict is resolved, the more energy women and gender non-conforming people can direct towards dismantling white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy.

 
img_1175While waiting to go in to the lecture theatre, I bump into women I know from the digital and analogue spheres of my life. This is one of the great joys that come with occupying feminist space. I am always glad to see Magi Gibson, whose poetry and boldness are both an inspiration. During her time as Reader in Residence at Glasgow Women’s Library, I was too shy to talk to Magi much. But the stories she read us each week, all excerpts of women’s writing, began to nourish a confidence in me.

The books Magi read from, the way they grabbed my imagination and tugged at my heart, unpicked the threads of misogyny I had internalised. After hearing them, it became impossible to think of women’s writing as lesser or insignificant – the way formal education often positions women’s writing in relation to men’s. And seeing the way Magi carries herself, poised with an element of playfulness, was part of what allowed me to stop making myself smaller in public space. Positive female role models make a powerful difference.

When I go through to the lecture theatre, the room is buzzing with positive energy. Crowds are often a source of anxiety for me, and yet I feel at peace in this lecture theatre. The room has a good vibe. Once more, it is mostly women in attendance; women from broadly different social and economic backgrounds finding common cause together.

Susan Smith, from the FWS team, kicks off the proceedings. She tells us that this is only For Women Scotland’s second public meeting, and I am impressed that in such a short period of time they have connected with an international sisterhood. According to Susan, FWS has members from the Scottish borders right up to the highlands. They are keen to support and encourage sister groups around the country.

 

FWS
There is a moment when Susan describes the FWS team as “our ladies” before correcting herself; “women”, Susan says, to applause. Many women in the room, me included, have fought to escape the confines of ‘lady’ – it feels good to hear a term that is loaded with gendered expectations being so roundly rejected. And there’s more applause for Joan McAlpine, the first MSP, and Joanna Cherry, the first MP to bring these conversations about sex and gender into the political mainstream.

On this note Susan introduces Bec Wonders, who is our first speaker of the night. Bec is working on a PhD researching print culture within the second wave of the feminist movement, and from the moment she starts talking it’s evident that Bec has found a sound balance between feminist theory and practice.

img_1224In February 2017, Bec opened Vancouver Women’s Library with a friend. To begin with, the Library consisted of 80 books from their personal collections. It opened from the “shared belief that women’s writing is revolutionary, women’s perspectives are world-changing, and women’s histories profoundly matter.” The Library’s purpose was “sharing books by women among women.”

From her research, Bec has reached the conclusion that “women’s presses, bookstores, and libraries were not intended to exist in isolation.” She describes reading as “relational, a call to action that demands feminist accountability.” There must always be a connection between feminist ideas and feminist actions – this, I agree with completely.

A feminism that is rooted solely in academia runs the risk of valuing the production of knowledge over women’s lived realities – it is unlikely to take the action required to change those lived realities for the better. Equally, it isn’t possible to unlock the full revolutionary power of feminism without a grasp of the principles and beliefs that have driven generations of change-makers. To Bec, the unnatural split between theory and practice is why so many younger feminists are trying to reinvent the wheel instead of understanding themselves as part of a movement that has spanned continents and decades.

Publications like WIRES – the Women’s Information and Referral Enquiry Service – emerged as a “reaction to the way women found themselves trapped and isolated” by the patriarchal division between public and private spheres. Women shared information across channels that were not controlled or regulated by men, which was an incredibly powerful strategy for resistance.

In recent years, Bec believes that feminist publishing has regressed. Although we are seeing a resurgence of feminist titles, and even reprints of classics by writers such as Audre Lorde and Simone de Beauvoir, there are fewer independent feminist presses, bookshops, and community spaces now than there were back in the ‘70s and ‘80s. “Mainstream publishing houses are interested in movement as market.”

Van_Womens_Library_DXGiven the need for feminist spaces that exist independently of the market, the importance of learning resources available to all women without the barrier of cost, it would be natural to assume that Vancouver’s feminist scene would welcome the addition of a Women’s Library. Many local women did – when they opened, the VWL team were overwhelmed by women trying to sign up as members and participate in Library life. But there was also intense and malicious anti-feminist backlash.

When Vancouver Women’s Library held their launch party, an organisation known as Gays Against Gentrification crashed the celebration. A group of 24 protestors intimidated women, and physically barred them from entering the Library despite the evening’s sub-zero temperature. They poured wine on books, tore down a poster of Valerie Solanis’ SCUM Manifesto, spray painted the outside of the venue, stole wine from the Library’s makeshift bar, and pulled the fire alarm in an effort to prevent women from gathering there. Protestors chanted “No SWERFs! No TERFs!”, disrupting multiple women’s attempts at mediation.

Listening to Bec recount these horrors, I am filled with fury that anybody would treat a women’s community space in this way. The culprits were allegedly ‘against gentrification’, but there is nothing further from gentrification than a Library set up by grassroots feminist organising. From this angle, their motivation looks much more like woman-hating than anti-capitalist protest.

In addition, GAG demanded that the Library remove 20 out of their 80 books from circulation. The books GAG found objectionable were mostly written by second wave feminists, many of whom are lesbians. GAG claimed that VWL “enact[s] violence on sex workers by working to deny their access to resources and support. They work alongside the colonial government to pass bills that do direct violence to sex workers, such as Bill C-36.” However, Bill C-36 was introduced in 2013 – four years before the inception of Vancouver Women’s Library. More to the point, the Library contained the accounts and political writings of multiple Indigenous women who survived the sex industry. Living at the intersection of race, class, and gender, Indigenous women are grossly over-represented in Canada’s sex trade.

To say that women who take a global view of prostitution and see it in a context of racism, colonialism, capitalism, and misogyny — [feminists] who aren’t just focused on white Western middle class camgirls — are ‘exclusionary’ makes no sense. It doesn’t hold up to any cognitive scrutiny.Jindi Mehat

GAG also objected to the Library’s statement of values, which said “we welcome all women regardless of creed/class/gender/race/sexuality.” GAG’s statement denounced this advocacy of intersectional sisterhood, saying “…this language is used by cis women as a move to innocence from their complicity in violence against transwomen. It is used to mark transwomen as ‘Other’ and centre themselves as victims of patriarchy.”

GAG, like any other members of the public, were free to use the Library’s suggestion function to influence which books would become part of the collection, and whose voices could be found within the Library’s shelves. Bec tells us that not a single protestor used the suggestion before or after GAG’s attempts to shut down the Library launch. I believe that it is important for the voices of all people made marginal in a society to be heard and recognised. That being said, women have been made marginal for centuries – so it is a radical and subversive act to confer value on women’s writing.

According to Bec, it is right and good for women to centre ourselves as victims of patriarchy. In this we are agreed. From birth, girls are encouraged to prioritise the interests of other people over their own needs. It is part of feminine socialisation, designed to make us into compliant women who do not resist men’s attempts to subordinate us.

From her work with the Vancouver Women’s Library, Bec has learned “not to let men take up my time with arguments meant to distract us.” This is a worthwhile lesson, as efforts to derail feminist action and conversation are designed to direct us back towards the status quo: patriarchy. Bec describes sisterhood as “powerful”, but “necessarily difficult if we are to take it seriously.”

Bec points out the sexist double standard of venerating male philosophers like Freud, Foucault, Plato, and Nietzsche while dismissing great feminist thinkers such as Adrienne Rich, Mary Daly, and Andrea Dworkin as outdated. There is love in her voice as Bec describes the “rich treasure trove” of resources on women’s resistance and organising written by earlier generations of feminists. She is passionate about the importance of learning from the women who have gone before us, the necessity of modern day feminists understanding ourselves as a continuation of a powerful social movement.

After Bec and Meghan finish talking, there is an interesting Q&A. Women talk openly about everything from sexual violence to traumatic experiences of childbirth. I think that it’s a mark of successful feminist space when women feel comfortable disclosing such deeply personal harms. One woman speaks about the way queer community fails lesbian women, and how isolated her daughter feels as a consequence. What she says resonates deeply with me. Gill Smith talks about the way she was pathologised by doctors as a lesbian teenager, and rejected by the LGBT community when she de-transitioned and resumed life as a lesbian. Julie Bindel, Gill says, is one of the few people who stood up for women like her.

A young academic tells us that she’s part of the generation who were taught that all women’s major battles were won, but now she’s feeling the same struggle that our foremothers did – and it’s “fucking awful.” She’s not wrong. Still, there is one great consolation: we are heading to the pub. When Susan announces the name of the bar, where FWS have booked a room for us, there is a mass exodus.
img_1247I have been on many a night out in Glasgow. But this is the first night out when I have managed to let go of anxiety to the point that I stop worrying about the time and simply enjoy life. It is an amazing opportunity to speak in person with women I have, until this point, only ever communicated with online. It is a delight to meet Shona Craven, a journalist who has made valuable contributions to the Scottish conversation about sex and gender. A young lesbian feminist speaks with me about the possibility of organising together. I accept with enthusiasm. Gill and I talk about Sheila Jeffreys’ Unpacking Queer Politics. I also meet Councillor Caroline McAllister, and quickly come to admire her – she’s a welcome change from the posh white men who gravitate towards life as career politicians.

I also speak to Meghan, which is a real treat. While the internet is amazing at connecting women across continents, you can’t take meeting a sister in person for granted when there are ordinarily thousands of kilometres and an ocean between you. Though she hasn’t been here for long, the steady calm and rationality Meghan has brought to the gender debate has inspired several Scottish feminists – me included. Meghan has enjoyed her tour of the UK, though she has spent more time in lecture halls and pubs than seeing the sights. Her next visit, Meghan vows, will involve more time exploring. I am glad that there will be a next time.

img_1235The night flies by. I connect with women and drink gin – the best way to spend a Friday night. After a round of photographs to document the celebration, I glance at my phone and see that it’s almost time for the last train home. I make a hasty exit; if I’m quick, there’s enough time to get some chips to eat during the journey.

As the train glides out of Central Station, I am perfectly content. Bec’s perspective on the feminist movement, Meghan’s ideas about sex and gender, and my conversations with women all flit through my mind. Bec is right that sisterhood is complicated; as a Black lesbian, it’s not something I can safely assume extends to women like me in every feminist space. Still, sisterhood is the driving force behind my life and politics. I believe in a sisterhood that bridges differences of race, class, sexuality, nationality, ability, and age to encompass all women – and that is what I found in these Lessons from Canada.

Sisterhood and Shortbread: Meghan Murphy at the Scottish Parliament

A brief foreword: this essay is the first in a series, written about events in Scotland which explore and champion women’s rights. Each of these events is taking place within the space of a fortnight, and it feels like a turning point in mainstream conversations about sex and gender – worth a spot of feminist documentation. This one describes Meghan Murphy’s talk at Holyrood on Wednesday the 22nd of May, 2019. It is my personal account of the event, and – although I have tried to be faithful to every contribution in letter and spirit – prone to human error. In the next instalment I will write fully about the perspective of Bec Wonders, another Canadian feminist and badass who deserves an essay of her own.

Dedicated to Joan McAlpine, MSP, for her courage.


When Joan McAlpine invites me to the Scottish Parliament, I am pleasantly surprised. It’s a real privilege to receive an invite to Holyrood, and a delight to have the opportunity to hear Meghan Murphy speak. Meghan is the founder of Feminist Current, a radical feminist blog and podcast. I have followed her work for a number of years, and contributed to Feminist Current at the beginning of my life as a feminist blogger. Meghan writes about abortion rights, male violence against women and girls, the harms of the sex industry, misogyny in popular culture, and – increasingly – the competing political interests of women and people identifying as transgender.

Though based in Canada, Meghan uses the platform she has built to highlight feminist issues around the world and amplify the voices of women across different backgrounds. I particularly enjoy the work of Raquel Rosario Sanchez, a bold and brilliant feminist writer from the Dominican Republic who contributes regularly to Feminist Current. Meghan is someone who never flinches from speaking truth to power. She is also a fellow Mean Girls enthusiast. And so I am looking forward to learning from her directly.

Just as I’m about to begin the journey to Edinburgh, my phone pings with an email alert. It’s an invitation to appear on BBC Scotland’s The Nine, subject to change with any major announcements from the Prime Minister. They want me to discuss Meghan Murphy’s visit to Holyrood, and the protests that have been planned as a result.

Until this point I have refused any and all TV requests for two reasons. The first is a deep-rooted fear of the racist, sexist abuse that is directed towards Black women who are visible to the public eye – just look at how Fiona Bruce mistreated Diane Abbott, during her most recent appearance on BBC Question Time. Bruce implied that the first Black woman to be elected as an MP gained a position in the Shadow Cabinet due to a past relationship with Jeremy Corbyn. She interrupted Abbott more than any other panellist, and wrongly contradicted Abbott’s statistics. Bruce’s behaviour normalised the constant stream of misogynoir directed towards Diane Abbott and any other Black woman who claims a place in public life.

The second reason I have declined previous TV requests is a strong distaste for confrontational formats that are designed to bring about arguments instead of creating the space for consensus building – again, see BBC Question Time. But The Nine is a new programme on a new channel. BBC Scotland’s representative speaks to me about wanting to host a respectful discussion instead of a rammy, taking a sensitive approach to the subject at hand and those talking about it. The Nine could be an opportunity for a different, less aggressively macho way of hosting public conversations to take root in television. And so I say yes.

By the time I’ve transferred over to the Edinburgh train, the BBC Scotland representative has called to say the segment has been cancelled owing to Theresa May’s latest announcement. They are keen to cover this subject and have me on to discuss it in the future, but think that it’s irresponsible to squeeze something so important into a couple of sound-bites. I agree wholeheartedly, and appreciate the principles that go into making The Nine. When the time comes, I will gladly accept another invitation from them.

This leaves only anxiety about the planned protest, and the bout of Imposter Syndrome that tells me a mistake has been made, my name won’t be on the guest list, and I’ll have to leave the Parliament under a cloud of embarrassment. Neither worry, it turns out, was worth stressing over. I arrive early enough to avoid the protestors, and am ushered upstairs to a conference room without incident.

Before the talk begins, there is a palpable sense of excitement. There is a community vibe that is characteristic of the most enjoyable feminist spaces – although we are in parliament, many of the women here are from grassroots feminist organisations that receive no government funding, or women’s services that receive altogether too little of it. A woman behind me shares out a packet of sweeties. Another woman, when she finds out that there isn’t any catering on offer, goes out to buy biscuits for everybody and offers them round on a tray. In this moment, I am quite literally sustained by shortbread and sisterhood. Looking at the women around me – for it is primarily women here – I wonder how protestors would reconcile their idea of hate-filled “TERFs” with the clear-eyed and generous feminists in this room.

img_1085When our speakers arrive, there is a heartfelt round of applause. Joan McAlpine, the MSP who organised this event, opens the meeting by reminding everyone to keep the discussion respectful. She points out that not everybody in this room shares the same views, which is a positive sign about the openness of this conversation. Joan goes on to point out the pattern of women on the progressive left who have devoted so much of their lives to women’s rights being demonised – Linda Bellos, the gay & lesbian rights activist who brought Black History Month to Britain, Julie Bindel, co-founder of Justice for Women, and Helen Steel, a woman who has shown immense courage speaking out against undercover police officers spying on so-called “left-wing extremism.”

For Joan, the “privacy, safety, and dignity of women” are crucial. She condemns the violent threats and abusive language that have come to define gender discourse online – in particular the misogyny and anti-Semitism directed towards Professor Rosa Freedman, a legal scholar, for her opposition to sex and gender being conflated in the Scottish Census.

Joan herself is resistant to attempts to reframe sex as gender, reminding us that sex is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. She opposes self-identification policies, highlighting the infamous case of Alex Drummond – a member of Stonewall’s advisory board. Drummond is a self-described ‘lesbian’, despite being bearded and male-bodied. Some would argue it is offensive to deny that Alex Drummond is a woman or a lesbian. To Joan, the risks self-ID policies create around women’s safety are what should be considered truly objectionable:

I find it offensive that any man who has a history of abusing women may declare himself a woman and access women’s spaces without any experience of what it is to be a woman.

When Meghan begins speaking, she is like a breath of fresh air. Despite the abuse and threats that have been hurled her way since she became vocal about the differences between sex and gender, she betrays not a flicker of fear. Her voice is steady, her words rational. Meghan starts by defining each of the terms she uses. By ‘sex’ she means biology; whether an individual is male or female. “When I say gender, what I mean is the stereotypes and social roles that are imposed on men and women because of their sex.” By woman, Meghan means “adult human female.” By man, “adult human male.”

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More controversial is the phrase “gender ideology.” It’s not an expression I have ever used, because I expect the average person who identifies as trans is more worried about the challenges of rejecting the gender role they have been socialised into since birth than imposing an ideology on anybody. But what Meghan says makes sense. She defines ‘gender ideology’ as the belief that it is possible for someone to be born in the wrong body or change sex. And like a great many feminists , she completely rejects the label of ‘cisgender’. By saying there are women naturally suited to the feminine gender role, a person argues that there are women who are naturally suited to the oppression enacted within patriarchal society.

I do not use the term ‘cis.’ I do not have a gender identity. No-one does. I refuse to define myself by a set of stereotypes used to oppress women.

As a feminist, Meghan believes that we should encourage all people to step outside of traditional gender roles. She wants to live in a world where how we define ‘girl’ and ‘boy’ isn’t limited to a restrictive set of sex stereotypes. A girl is still a girl when she plays with what are labelled boys’ toys. A boy is still a boy is he wears clothes that are classed as girl’s clothes. And vice versa. With this, I am in complete agreement. “Gender under patriarchy is not our friend, is not liberatory, and not to be embraced.”

As the literature handed out says, male free spaces exist for a reason. Meghan points out that single-sex spaces were created in the understanding that women fear men because men are a threat to our safety.

Feminists fought to build transition houses [shelters] for women fleeing domestic violence, and are now being told single-sex spaces are discriminatory. Funding to Vancouver Rape Relief, Canada’s longest running service, was cut after an orchestrated complaint challenging the fact they don’t allow males to train as counsellors or access the shelter. The city pulled their grant for public education about relationships and health, which VRR provided to everyone – male or female – for free.

Meghan says that “there’s no reason why we can’t protect the rights and provide services specific to people who step outside of the gender boundaries attached to their sex while acknowledging sexual dimorphism.” This is a good point. In Britain, women of marginalised ethnic and religious backgrounds have made it their life’s work to build specific services. Southall Black Sisters, Jewish Women’s Aid, Imkaan, Hemat Gryffe, and Shakti are all examples of this vital work. Why not also build services specific to trans and non-binary identified people?

Often, conversations surrounding gender a directed towards feelings. This is not necessarily a bad thing – holding compassion across difference is something I consider key to feminist praxis. However, as Meghan points out, not all feelings are ascribed equal value in this discussion:

If we’re going to talk about feelings, I want to know why the feelings of women don’t matter. What about the feelings of girls who don’t want to see a man’s penis as they change? Survivors of male violence who are afraid to share shelters with male-bodied people? Women competing against male-bodied athletes in sport? We’re putting women and girls in danger to accommodate the feelings of a tiny minority of people. We can treat people with dignity and provide them with the services they need without throwing women under the bus.

Meghan finishes to great applause. Joan opens the floor for questions. I ask how Meghan manages to keep going the face of intense misogynistic abuse, violent threats, and being treated like a pariah. I have a lot of time for Meghan’s politics, but her resilience is what has truly inspired me tonight. Her response: get offline and go to the bar. On a more serious note, Meghan recommends having a solid community of women.

Johann Lamont MSP observes that feminists have spent years fighting for the right to recognise and identify predatory males. She makes a neat analogy: just as criticisms of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church aren’t about saying all priests are predatory, talking about the risks of self-ID isn’t about framing transgender people as a threat. “Predatory men understand how to create a space for themselves with vulnerable people. All of history shows us how devious violent men can be.” And self-ID policies are ultimately exploitable.

Inevitably, the subject of Scotland’s women’s sector is raised. To avoid putting anyone on the spot, I will not name any individual women or the organisations for which they work. A representative from one women’s org is struggling to find ways to voice concern over self-ID. The women’s sector is massively underfunded, and no organisation wants to be put in the same predicament as Vancouver Rape Relief.

A woman who works within this organisation – let’s call her V – told us that women accessing this service want single-sex spaces. When the organisation asked for their views, women accessing the service expressed anxiety over sharing communal spaces with anyone male-bodied. V talked about the potential for further traumatisation, as the overwhelming majority of women are accessing the service as a consequence of experiencing male violence.

According to communications Joan has received from women spread across various organisations, single-sex services are effectively provided in the everyday – but messages coming from the top of certain organisations are causing some women to self-exclude over reservations about accessing a space operating with the policy of self-ID. This is hugely worrying.
img_1139Still, there is cause for optimism. Women holding a broad range of political perspectives have found consensus in this area. Politicians representing different left-wing political parties are a part of the audience, receptive to what Meghan has said. While women are at risk of public shaming, abusive messages, and threats of violence for echoing Meghan’s views, it is clear that many are unwilling to cave in and fall silent.

Joan McAlpine opened by talking about some of the abuse she had received for differentiating between sex and gender in her feminist analysis. But as she closed, Joan talked about the cards and messages of thanks women from across the length of the country and breadth of the political spectrum had sent her. I’ve decided to send Joan a thank you card of my own.

Black Studies: Bending the Revolution & Claiming Lesbian Feminist Politics

A brief foreword: this is a personal reflective essay about the second day of Black Studies lectures taking place in Edinburgh. You can read the first here. Since there is no formal coursework, I decided to direct the thought and energy leftover into writing about each session.


 

There are few things in this world capable of enticing me out of my bed at 6am on a Saturday morning, but the Black Studies course running in Edinburgh is one of them. I spend the train journeys reading Kwame Nkrumah’s paper on African socialism and crocheting a headwrap, feeling only the faintest hint of longing for my electric blanket. The morning session consists of a lecture from Kehinde Andrews, Professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University, and I am very much looking forward to hearing him speak about Black radical politics. Last year FiLiA’s Lisa-Marie attended one of Kehinde’s lectures as part of the effort to make Britain’s leading feminist conference an actively anti-racist space, and her enthusiasm has made me especially keen to learn from him first-hand.

We are late to begin – Kehinde jokes that this is only to be expected when most of the group is operating on Black People Time. Though we arrive in a steady trickle, every person in the room is keen to be here. One woman has travelled from Birmingham. A young man has come all the way from Cornwall. The length of these journeys speaks of how significant this Black Studies course really is. And yet it is not immune to BPT. So we get to talking about his book. Kehinde is surprised by the lack of backlash directed towards Back to Black. While he is glad that Black audiences have been supportive, Kehinde had hoped for more critical engagement. True to form, I am happy to oblige.

Back to Black

Back to BlackBack to Black offers a comprehensive guide to movements such as Black Nationalism, Pan-Africanism, and Black Marxism – it’s an incredible learning resource for anyone curious about the histories of Black liberation politics. Yet it is very much history, and rarely a herstory: of the 523 references made in Back to Black, by my count fewer than 10% are the work of Black women. Our contributions as organisers, activists, scholars, and writers are consistently missing from this narrative of Black radical politics. There is a wealth of information on Malcolm and Martin, which is fitting given the extent to which they shaped Black politics in the 20th century, but revolutionary women like Audre and Assata – who have influenced Black radical theory and practice over multiple generations – get only a passing mention. Erasing the contributions Black women creates the impression that we are not an essential part of Black liberation politics.

Similarly, Back to Black falls down around LGBT politics. Kehinde writes that “It would be wrong to assume that because Black radicalism has not explicitly centred on LGBTQ issues it excludes those who are not heterosexual.” He does not engage with the lived reality of Black LGBT people, which is this: the intersection of racism and homophobia is swept under the carpet unless it’s made explicit and challenged. When our political needs are not actively centred by this movement, they are quickly forgotten. We are pushed to the margins in Black liberation movement, just as we are pushed to the margins of society. Kehinde writes that “as police killing in America demonstrate, being gay or transgender is no protection from police bullets.” If anything, being Black and falling under the LGBT umbrella is the opposite of a protection; we face further structural disadvantage, and increased vulnerability.

Accounts from She Called Me Woman: Nigeria’s Queer Women Speak outline the combined risk of being Black and gay, including: corrective rape, employment and housing discrimination, arrest, violence, and isolation. Isabella Katjiparatijivi, a lesbian seeking asylum in Scotland, is currently facing the threat of deportation. If the British government sends her back to Namibia, Isabella’s at risk of forced marriage and corrective rape. Having exported homophobia through imperial expansion, the UK continually fails the people of colour who suffer as a result. Sista!, an anthology of writing by les/bi women of African/Caribbean descent, highlights how the triple threat of racism, misogyny, and homophobia mean that we are often in a precarious political position; the very movements claiming to liberate us often end up complicit in our oppression.

But Some of UsSocial movements are forever asking us to privilege one aspect of our identity over all others – whether it’s race or class, sex or sexuality. I agree with Kehinde that Blackness is a vital point of connection, and consider anti-racist struggle essential to my survival. Yet I resent being asked to prioritise it over challenging the negative consequences attached to being female and lesbian in this society – white supremacy cannot be neatly separated from heteropatriarchy. Black men and white women both have a habit of expecting Black women to choose either our commitment to anti-racism or our feminism, often failing to grasp that those politics are interlocking and interdependent. This framing makes me think of that classic Black feminist text All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave, still sadly relevant some forty years after publication.

The further a person deviates from the white, straight, wealthy, able-bodied man, the less their humanity is recognised. A politics treating straight and male as the default way to be Black – as Kehinde veers close to doing – is fundamentally incapable of liberating all Black people.

When I voice some of these thoughts, Kehinde is open to hearing them. To his credit, he doesn’t double down or get defensive. I’m interested to see what Kehinde will write about Black liberation politics in the future, and glad to be present for what he says next.

Kehinde works specifically around the politics of Black radicalism. He avoids saying ‘the Black radical tradition’, because there are many radical traditions within Black politics – plural histories and perspectives. Kehinde is conscious that there’s a lot of confusion over what Black radicalism actually is. Radicalism is often conflated with extremism when, to Kehinde’s thinking, the two are in opposition. The pursuit of freedom is a natural response to being oppressed, not an extreme one. As the word is analysed, I think of the times my mother has called my writing and politics extreme – when she says this, I can’t help but feel that she’s looking at her idea of me rather than the person in front of her. It is deeply frustrating when radical politics are collapsed into the word extreme, which does not allow for their complexity or consider the socio-economic reality necessitating them in the first place. And yet the media works hard to prop up this narrative.

Black Panther offered so many firsts in terms of Black representation on-screen, and yet – according to Kehinde – it too fell into the trap of positioning radicalism as ‘too far’, the ultimate evil to be overcome. Erik Killmonger argued that Black should unite across the African diaspora, pooling resources to rise up and overthrow the order of white supremacist imperialism. He advocated this as a solution to issues from police brutality to crushing poverty. Yet Killmonger was depicted as being bloodthirsty, war-hungry, and violent towards women – echoing the media messaging used to discredit and demonise the real life Black Panthers.

While Kehinde acknowledges the manifestations of misogyny and chauvinism within the Panthers, most notably enabled by figures like Eldridge Cleaver, he rejects the idea that Black radicalism is inherently misogynistic. I am of the view that in a patriarchal society, misogyny is the default setting unless it’s actively challenged. Given that male violence against women and girls is a pandemic phenomenon, I do not think it’s enough to simply disown men like Cleaver – those of us engaging in Black radical politics have a responsibility to consider the context that enabled gendered violence to find a place within our movement. Unless we are actively challenging men’s violence, Black women and girls will continue to be victims of it.

Although we have diverging views about Black radicalism, Kehinde’s analysis is interesting. That he weaves X-Men analogies into his lecture has great appeal to my nerd sensibilities and his critique of Marvel is on point. Like Erik Killmonger, Erik Lehnsherr – better known as Magneto – is portrayed as the threatening extreme within the world of the X-Men. In the comics, cartoons, and films, Magneto’s vision of mutant liberation is always contrasted with Professor Charles Xavier’s moderate, reasonable advocacy of mutant-human co-operation.

On numerous occasions, the X-Men fight against Magneto’s Brotherhood – their fellow mutants – to protect the very people who ostracise and threaten them. There is a striking parallel between how Malcolm and Martin are understood, and how Magneto and Professor X are depicted.  The X-Men, like the Civil Rights movement, push for equality within the current system. The Brotherhood, like the Panthers, wanted to dismantle it and build a new world free from racial hierarchies.

Kehinde talks about the importance of a global solidarity between Black people, and his words resonate deeply. Black radical politics can’t afford to stop at borders. If we frame any of the issues facing Black British people as problems that can be solved independently of other Black people – separate from their socio-political realities – then we have lost our way from liberation politics. Our struggles across the African Diaspora are a collective experience to which there are no individual solutions.

As Kehinde points out, all politics are identity politics. But white identity politics are so normalised as to be invisible. The West is united by a shared whiteness, separate nation states all invested in the same politics of white supremacy. The white curricula of modern day universities are a hangover from the Enlightenment, echoing the belief that the world was in darkness before the white, European man’s genius. “None of those great thinkers,” Kehinde reminds us, “thought that we were human.” Dead white European men are credited with inventing science, philosophy, art, and culture. But Arab, African, and Indian scholars knew the earth was round long before Galileo looked up at the stars.

Whiteness as we know it exists to justify Europe’s colonisation and exploitation of the world. And we cannot end Whiteness without ending the political economy of whiteness. Kehinde is concerned that contemporary activism focuses more on changing ourselves than changing the socioeconomic context we find ourselves in. While spiritual transformation is not without value, Kehinde worries that personal journeys are given disproportionately the focus. Radical politics are, after all, collective in focus.

Don’t Straighten the Revolution

The afternoon session answers my questions about how to avoid the trap of a male-centric Black politics, and then some. Titled Don’t Straighten the Revolution: Re-centring Black Queers in Liberation Movements, it is Jessica Brough’s first solo workshop that’s not about psychology. Yet it quickly becomes clear that she has a knack for creating radical learning spaces. When I get back from lunch, the seats are clustered around tables, Solange is playing in the background, and people are eating snacks. Jessica is running this session with the same safe space policy as Resisting Whiteness. In short:

  • Don’t assume people’s identities
  • No tone policing
  • Respect people’s boundaries
  • Be mindful of your own privilege
  • No violence will be tolerated

Not everyone has stuck around for this explicitly LGBT session, which is a pity but also predictable. Still, Jessica thanks those of us in the room and confirms my immediate impression: we’re going in a “slightly different direction” from Kehinde’s lecture. To Jessica, Black feminism gives us a sound idea of where to go after achieving the Black unity he described.

It [The Black Imagination] lives in our ability to create alternatives, whether these are alternative economies, alternative family structures, or something else entirely. – Charlene Carruthers

Historically, Black feminists have challenged multiple axes of oppression. Yet, in spite of having politics capable of bringing about meaningful change, Black feminists have traditionally been accused of distracting from the ‘real’ issues. When people aren’t ready to let go of their stake in structural inequalities, they accuse Black feminists of dividing the movement – be it anti-racist, feminist, or LGBT. To Jessica, Black feminism is about crafting liberatory strategies for all. It’s about learning from the people who came before us, not cherry-picking solutions that only work for some.

With her session, Jessica aims not to add women and LGBT people into a male-centric narrative of Black radicalism, but to centre the voices of those Black people who are most marginalised – and in greatest need of liberation.

Jessica uses the example of activism during Apartheid to highlight the difference between what is achieved with a single-issue approach to politics and what is achieved through collective struggle. She tells us about the Law Reform Group, which was led by white and middle-class gay men from 1968. They sought to have their rights recognised the government, actively distancing themselves from the Black-led movement against racialised homophobia. Only when gay rights activism moved away from white, professional, male control did lasting change begin to happen. In 1983 Beverley Palesa Ditsie and Simon Nkoli founded the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand (GLOW). Theyo rganised the first pride parade in South Africa, held in 1990, and lobbied governing bodies., always in solidarity with the anti-Apartheid movement. South Africa legalised same-sex marriage on the 1st of December, 2006, becoming the first African nation to do so.

Having caught our imaginations, Jessica sets each group the task of discussing a movement that started advocating for the liberation of only one group – with the hint of 1918. We talk about the classism and imperialist leanings of the British suffrage movement; how white women were prepared to weaponise racism by presenting themselves as a civilising influence so that white men would approve them having the vote. And we get onto the racism of the modern day feminist movement, expressing our frustrations over how the gender pay gap and the BAME pay gap are rarely treated as overlapping issues. In mainstream discussions of the gender pay gap, there is often no distinction drawn between the income of white women and women of colour. There is too little focus, we think, on how class politics determine which types of work are valued or adequately waged.

Love Your EnemyNext, Jessica talks to us about British LGBT movements. She highlights the work of the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group, which called for feminists to “get rid of men from your heads and beds.” Their pamphlet Love Your Enemy? The Debate Between Heterosexual Feminism and Political Lesbianism sparked vital discussions about sexual politics, desire, and power. Julie Bindel, co-founder of Justice for Women, re-opened this subject in a 2009 op-ed:

We live in a culture in which rape is still an everyday reality, and yet women are blamed for it, as it is viewed as an inevitable feature of heterosexual sex. Domestic violence is still a chronic problem for countless women in relationships with men. Women are told we must love our oppressors, while, as feminists, we fight to end the power afforded them as a birthright. Come on sisters, you know it makes sense. Stop pretending you think lesbianism is an exclusive members’ club, and join the ranks. I promise that you will not regret it.

Straight ExpectationsIt was reading Julie’s book Straight Expectations that opened my mind to lesbian feminism – beforehand, I had insisted that I was a feminist who happened to be lesbian. While I do not advocate political lesbianism, I learned a lot from Julie’s take on the subject. Her writing about feminism and sexuality forced me to question why I had been thinking of being lesbian as something with no power to enrich my politics and perspective. The answer was linked to internalised misogyny and homophobia.

Political lesbian recently attracted a surprising supporter – Chidera Eggerue, aka the Slumflower:

So if you want to dismantle patriarchy, wouldn’t it be effective to direct your energy to the reasons WHY women have to negotiate so highly when sharing ourselves with people who murder us?

I’d never feel the need to create all these insurance barriers if I was dating a woman.

It is striking that two women from different backgrounds, with often contrasting politics, reached a very similar point of conclusion.

Jessica guides a thoughtful discussion about racism in LGBT spaces, citing the memoir of “our Lorde and saviour, Audre.” In Zami, she recounts her experiences of gay bars’ racist door policies of and the pitfalls of conditional solidarity. We talk about how Lorde was instructed that she and her siblings were encouraged to “be sisters in the presence of strangers”, unpacking the complicated politics of belonging. Jessica invites us to think about who our sisters and our strangers are; for whom we show up in solidarity, and which people hold us accountable.

Audre Lorde

Sameness is not easily found when you’re a Black lesbian living in the west coast of Scotland. Learning to successfully negotiate difference has been nothing short of a survival skill, and learning when to let go even more so. I think about how belonging is often contextual – there are times when it feels like I fit with white lesbians, and there are times when it feels like I fit with straight women of colour, but there is always a precarious element to those relationships. Increasingly it seems as though the straight feminists in my life – with boyfriends, husbands, and heteronuclear families – are unwilling to engage with the texture of my lesbian feminist politics. And while white lesbians will always be a dear part of my tribe, I can’t let go of my kinship with straight women or even men of colour – as separatists tend to expect. The Combahee River Collective hit upon this problem decades ago:

Although we are feminists and Lesbians, we feel solidarity with progressive Black men and do not advocate the fractionalization that white women who are separatists demand. Our situation as Black people necessitates that we have solidarity around the fact of race, which white women of course do not need to have with white men, unless it is their negative solidarity as racial oppressors. We struggle together with Black men against racism, while we also struggle with Black men about sexism.

In many ways, as Jessica points out, the CRC were the beginning of what we now call intersectional feminism. We talk about the problems the Collective faced as Black lesbians – with many different groups invested in their oppression. Traditional structures of family and community can often leave vocal feminists – especially lesbian feminists – isolated.

Paradoxically, the feminist movement isn’t always there for those of us who are actively trying to live outside of heteropatriarchal structures. With this in mind, we re-write a selection of quotes from Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions. It almost feels sacrilegious to tamper with Chimamanda’s writing – but, as Jessica says, it is “a useful tool for critiquing.” It’s also a very engaging exercise. Jessica does this with her books “when it feels like they’re missing something”, and in future I will join her.

We finish with group discussions about the transformative power of Black feminism. My table talks about how Black feminism challenges Black capitalism, particularly through influencer culture. We talk about the phenomenon of Blackfishing – white women doing their hair and make-up to look as Black as possible, profiting from the very same aesthetics Black women and girls are punished for. At the heart of the Blackfishing phenomenon is the Kardashian-Jenner family. Kris Jenner’s daughters seem to acquire Black partners and children like they are the latest fashion accessory.

As Yomi Adegoke writes, “the Kardashians’ babies, besties and boyfriends continue to be human shields against accusations of racism laid at the door of this ever-ignorant family. They devour Black culture and spit out the bits that don’t sit well with them.” Earlier in the week, I read a Tweet claiming “Kris Jenner has more black grandkids than Diana Ross.” Although it was funny, it had some sad implications too – proximity to Blackness offers white people social capital, but only through distancing ourselves from Blackness can Black people find a prestige that’s even close to being equivalent.

The second day of Black Studies was packed full of revelations, big and small. Though a lot of the themes we covered were painful, it was perhaps the most enjoyable learning environment I have every participated in. Safe spaces are often criticised as getting in the way of critical thought, but having that respectful atmosphere and sense of kinship that comes with being in a room filled by people of colour enabled me to think in directions I wouldn’t have otherwise have dared to. In the Black Studies classroom, I asked difficult questions of myself and the world around me – and felt enriched by pursuing those lines of critical thought.

#SpaceWoC: Women of Colour Against the Sex Trade

A brief foreword: I believe wholeheartedly in feminist documentation. And so I have decided to write about Space International’s herstoric event, Women of Colour Against the Sex Trade. The following essay is a personal account –subjective and subject to human error. But it’s written with love, in sisterhood, and complete as I am able to make it. At points during women’s testimonies, I became too emotional to write down everything said. I have done my best to convey the essential facts, and pay tribute to each of the phenomenal women who spoke her truth.

This one is for Jenny, dedicated in the spirit of international Black feminist sisterhood.


 

On the 21st of February, Space International hosted Women of Colour Against the Sex Trade at Conway Hall. This event was the first of its kind to take place in Britain: Black, Asian, and Indigenous women – a mixture of survivors, campaigners, and service providers – sharing their perspectives on the sex industry. In mainstream feminist conversations about prostitution and pornography, women of colour tend to be spoken of rather than listened to. It was encouraging to find a feminist event where women of colour were centred without apology, something that opened up the space for a discussion about the symbiotic relationship between racism and sexism within the sex industry. So I booked a ticket and arranged a trip to London.

The journey south is blessedly uneventful. I crochet a hat and listen to The Color Purple on my headphones, a sense of calm nurtured by the magic of Alice Walker’s voice. This is the first time I have left the quiet, controlled environment of home for any significant length of time since experiencing a mental health crisis last September. But it feels important to learn from these women, and to show them support. Lots of other women feel the same way: the event is completely sold out. The hall fills up quickly. Many women attending are local to London, but there are sisters who have travelled across continents to be here – which puts my paltry six hours on a train into perspective. It’s a powerful feeling, to be in a room filled with women from all different backgrounds who are united in feminist struggle.

img_8151Taina Bien-Aimé, Executive Director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, is our moderator for the evening. She begins by pointing out that this event is historic, the “first time in the UK that women of colour have got together to talk about the legacy of colonialism found in the sex industry.” To Taina’s thinking, there is no strict binary between survivors and non-survivors – as women of colour we are all survivors in one way or another, living through the racism of white supremacy and the misogyny of patriarchy. I like her way of breaking down barriers between women. When feminists talk about the sex industry, there can sometimes be too much focus on making ‘expert’ and ‘survivor’ into two different categories – which ends up othering survivors in a way that is not only cruel but illogical, given that one in three women experiences violence in her lifetime.

Session One

Session 1.png

In her opening remarks, Taina highlights that racism is a fundamental aspect of the sex industry. She shares a story of a brothel in Nevada, about an African-American woman whose pimp grew dissatisfied because she had fewer johns the white women in the group – and therefore made him less money. The politics of desirability favour white women with European features over women with distinctly African heritage. And so the brothel manager came up with a solution: he advertised KKK themed role play with the woman in question to boost her commercial attraction. This combination of racist and sexist domination appealed greatly to white, male sex-buyers.

img_8153The first member of the panel to speak is Rosemarie Cameron, a Black feminist activist with fifteen years of experience working in the women’s sector – five of which were spent working directly with Black women in prostitution. For Rose, it is very much a political choice to work within a feminist organisation. She makes a passionate case for the importance of BME-specific services, sharing the ways racist bias among mainstream services has put Black women in particular off accessing them. One woman Rose worked with had previously been told: “You don’t look as if you are a victim.” Because she was Black, a white woman was incapable of seeing her as vulnerable to or in need of protection from male violence. When a Black woman don’t fit the mould of a mainstream service , Rose says that it’s more likely that the organisation will be label her as ‘chaotic’ or ‘challenging’ rather than questioning why they are failing to meet her needs.

Workers who understand the challenges faced by Black women, the layers of stereotype attached to Black women, are essential. Yet BME services are experiencing a funding crisis. Research shows that the combined income of London’s 15 BME-specific organisations devoted to ending violence against women and girls is lower than the income of the main service provider in the city. London has the highest concentration of BME-specific services in Britain, fitting for a city where 40% of the population are people of colour. But, as Rose asserts, services geared towards women of colour are made to fight for scraps thrown down from the top table.

I’m hurt that this country doesn’t feel that BME women are important enough to deserve a safe place for us to live, breathe and work in – whether we’re seeking refuge from an individual violent partner within the same town, or whether we’re seeking refuge because another country has become unsafe for us.Marai Larasai, Executive Director of Imkaan

During Rose’s talk, she gets emotional and pauses. The women on the panel and in the audience hold space for her. I love that Rose doesn’t pretend to be separate from the issues she’s discussing, that she has the integrity to acknowledge that racism and sexism are deeply painful rather than repressing her feelings to try and meet a white, male standard of supposed objectivity. I admire that even while she’s being watched by a room full of people, Rose takes the time to find her sense of calm before continuing.

img_8152Next up is Suzanne Jay of The Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution, a volunteer service group based in Canada. Suzanne reminds us that women are in prostitution because of the structural inequalities caused by racism, sexism, and enforced poverty. She observes that the prostitution of Asian women is a global phenomenon, including Canada and London. Finding my way to the venue, I noticed three different massage parlours nearby on Google Maps. Suzanne says that massage parlours, health and wellness centres, and nail and beauty salons are standard fronts for the brothels to which Asian women are trafficked. They’re beside shops, restaurants, and playgrounds, hiding in plain sight.

Many Asian women are caught in the double bind of racist stereotyping and poverty. Asian women are marketed as being small and delicate, with child-like features, to fulfil the racist fantasies of sex-buyers. The racist trope of Asian women as submissive and eager to please is used to justify their exploitation within the sex industry. Historically, Asian women have been targeted for the sex industry. Women and girls were forced into a life of sexual slavery by the Japanese Army before and during WWII – having ‘comfort women’ was, in Suzanne’s words, “a government sponsored war project.” When the US Army took over these ‘comfort stations’, it is estimated that at least 70,000 women were raped by American soldiers. This influenced the western practice of sex tourism.

Suzanne is consistently opposed to male violence against women, and objects to the revisionism behind re-framing trafficked women as migrant sex workers. Her organisation has identified a pattern of men recruiting women by going to Chinese villages, promising jobs or claiming to have arranged good marriages, securing documents for the women in question, and using their family ties as a form of coercion. When the women arrived in Canada, their documents would be confiscated by pimps. If they resisted being prostituted, the pimps would point out that their families were in desperate need of the money that was to be sent home. In this context, the concepts of ‘choice’ and ‘agency’ are meaningless.

img_8157The third speaker is Dr Vednita Carter, Executive Director of Breaking Free – an organisation devoted to helping women and girls exit prostitution. She is clear that the sex industry is “where racism and sexism intersect”, highlighting that the majority of women trafficked to be prostituted are of colour. Vednita shares a little of her own story, how she entered the sex trade by becoming a dancer – which really meant becoming a stripper. Although she joined along with a white friend, they were immediately separated – the white girl was assigned a venue with more security, while Vednita danced in more precarious places. Her experiences led Vednita to found the Breaking Free programme in her home state of Minnesota.

While Black people make around 10% of the Minnesotan population, Vednita is conscious that we are hugely over-represented in the sex industry there. This is a consequence of institutional racism. One woman to access the Breaking Free programme was picked up by a police officer, along with a white friend who was also in prostitution.  The officer told her to “go back to what she was doing” – prostitution – but took the white woman back to the station with a view to helping her find an exit programme because “she had potential.” Black women are seen as natural candidates for prostitution by law enforcement, but made to pay a bigger penalty for it.   “Racism in the courts results in Black women paying higher fines and facing more fail time than white women.”

When it comes to racist stereotyping, Vednita cites pornography as responsible for perpetuating the idea that Black women are hypersexual animals, which has a knock-on effect in shaping how we are understood and treated by others.

A variety of the worst, most harmful tropes are used and amplified within porn: tropes that we are steadily attempting to get rid of from the big screen for good. The submissive Asian woman, the spicy Latina, and sassy Black woman that we’re gradually pushing out of the mainstream continue to have a home on porn sites. And just like mainstream films, the majority of those at the production end of mainstream porn are white men – though that doesn’t seem to bother many within this context.Yomi Adegoke

Vednita concludes by asking how the feminist movement can claim to care about Black women when so many self-proclaimed feminists are prepared to ignore the racist violence taking place within the sex industry.

img_8154We are then fortunate enough to have Roella Lieveld talk to us by video link. She thinks that people outside of Amsterdam have a romanticised view of what legalising the purchase of sex looks like. Roella shares research which found that 96% of women in prostitution experience violence in Amsterdam – since buying sex was legalised with the goal of reducing violence against women, she considers this policy to have failed. Femke Halsema, Amsterdam’s first female mayor, is beginning to challenge the sexism of the Red Light District – but Roella fears she is more concerned with what image it presents to locals than listening to the voices of trafficked Black women. While the Netherlands has a progressive reputation, in Roella’s eyes the country “consistently fails women forced into the sex industry.”

Before the interval, we have a brief Q&A. The most pressing question, one which I nearly asked the panel, is this: what one thing could we do that would make the biggest difference to the lives of women in prostitution? Rose advocates the provision of secure, ample funding for women’s organisations becoming standard procedure. Suzanne argues that a basic income would improve women’s quality of life, meaning women are less in men’s control and therefore less vulnerable to abuse. Vednita encourages us to end the buying and selling of women and girls by lobbying politicians, campaigning, and throwing our weight behind existing abolitionist organisations.

Another woman asks the panel their thoughts on the terminology of ‘sex work’. Rose doesn’t mess about. She says that “If I hear the term ‘sex work’ one more time I’m going to lose my will to live. She’s a woman, not an object to be bought or sold.” Suzanne sees ‘sex work’ as “a liberal guilt phrase”. She believes people say ‘sex work’ in an attempt to “show respect for women”, but is not convinced: “if you want to respect women, you stop men from buying them.” Vendita sees the term ‘sex work’ as a way of covering up the reality of coercion, abuse, violence, illness, and exploitation.

When asked about the profile of sex-buyers, the panel were unanimous: mostly white men, many of whom are middle-class with a high income and respected profession.

Session Two: Survivor Leadership

Session 2

When she introduces the second panel, Taina tells us about a recent news story of 20,000 Nigerian women and girls being trafficked through Mali as one group. She connects it with the legacy of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, describing this as the middle passage of a journey, and points out that inter-governmental corruption is required to enable systematic mass-trafficking. In the face of all this harm, Taina reminds us of the importance of feminist organising: “What gives me hope is this survivor-led movement. They are called survivors because of what they survived, and because of all the sisters they left behind.”

img_8156Ally-Marie Diamond is the first to share her testimony. Ally was first abused by her uncle when she was five years old. He spoke words that are familiar to countless women around the world: “Nobody will believe you.” And because of her status as biracial in an otherwise white family, nobody did believe Ally. Racism and sexism built a wall of disbelief. Children at school would ask if her family could afford soap, because Ally was “brown and dirty” in their eyes. This racist bullying escalated to sexual abuse. Nobody listened to Ally or intervened on her behalf, with words like “easy” obscuring frequent sexual abuses and justifying the failure of adults in authority. “I quickly learned that the only thing men wanted from me was sex.”

A pimp recruited Ally by promising her safety, love, and security. Of her time in prostitution, Ally says that “men paid for the right to beat, sodomise, rape, and abuse me.” A white john who was well respected in the community told Ally “that’s all you’re worth.” Since men have been raping women throughout history, Ally rationalised what was happening to her by telling herself it was better to be raped and paid for it than raped and not paid. Ally’s conclusion is met with a storm of applause: “Sex work is a glorified term for paid rape. The sex industry is a sustained, international attack on women and girls.”

img_8149Bridget Perrier, co-founder of  Sex Trade 101, is next to give testimony. At 12 she was lured into prostitution from a group home, which is the average age of entry for Indigenous girls. The johns were overwhelmingly white, male, and wealthy. Bridget cites Pocahontas as the first documented example of a woman from her community being trafficked. In Canada, First Nations women are massively over-represented in the sex industry. 52% of women in prostitution are Indigenous. Intergenerational trauma, poverty, and displacement are all factors behind this systematic abuse. Bridget describes generations of women falling victim to the sex industry – grandmother, mother, and daughter. Despite all that she has faced, Bridget ends on a note of resistance, reading a poem by her daughter which challenges genocide. Bridget has raised a fierce young feminist.

img_8150Ne’cole Daniels echoes Bridget’s point about intergenerational trauma, describing herself as “a third generation prostitution survivor.” She is clear that intergenerational trauma is passed on as a consequence of men’s sexual violence. Ne’cole’s mother was raped by an uncle, sent away, her first child put up for adoption. She ran away at 14, and was picked up by an “infamous pimp.” Ne’cole herself was raped by a family friend who was “around all the time.” He told Ne’cole that she needed to get better at pleasing men. So in the third grade, Ne’cole performed sexual acts with boys from school. The school didn’t question that a child of her age, eight or nine, understood sex acts. They suspended Ne’cole, and her mother beat her.

Within African-American families, Ne’cole says, there can be a mentality that you “don’t air your family’s dirty laundry.” In Britain, we have a similar thing – from a young age, lots of Black kids are told that we need to behave in front of the white people otherwise they’re going to think we’re all [insert racist stereotype]. Ne’cole thinks this approach leaves girls vulnerable to sexual abuse, because the silences that are allowed to grow end up shielding men’s violence.

Ne’cole’s mother told her that “as long as you have a vagina, you’ll never be broke.” But it was the urge to protect her own young daughter that gave Ne’cole the strength she needed to exit. She found “no services for a person like me, no services run by a person who looked like me”, but ultimately moved into a shelter because there at least they would both be safe from men.

img_8155Mickey Meji, the advocacy manager at Embrace Dignity, is our final speaker. She grew up in Sea Point, South Africa, where her mother worked as a maid. The men who owned the houses would strip in front of Mickey’s mother while she cleaned – at least one forced her to watch as he masturbated. Mickey says that South African feminists describe prostitution as a gendered, racialised apartheid. It is overwhelmingly poor Black women who sell sex, and almost entirely wealthy white men who buy it. The women who go into prostitution are in desperate need of money, but according to Mickey they come out even poorer. Instead of accumulating money, they acquire physical, mental, and emotional scars. Mickey spent nine years in prostitution.

The earliest South African brothels coincided with the arrival of white imperialist settlers. Black women’s bodies were objectified and commodified. Like some hellish inversion of the Nordic Model, South Africa criminalises the selling of sex – but not the buying. Mickey informs us that white madams escape legal repercussions even as the Black women prostituted in their brothels are arrested, as the police “had no reason” to consider a white woman “involved in prostitution.”

Mickey resists attempts to separate prostitution from trafficking: “Women wouldn’t end up in all sorts of locations if men didn’t want to buy them.” Poor Black women are not seen as valuable enough to be worth protecting in South African society, or anywhere else. Black women are not seen as important enough to merit meaningful intervention where the sex industry is concerned. She finishes by challenging the racialised power dynamic at the heart of the sex industry: “When you look at who is spearheading the drive to legalise prostitution, it is always privileged white men and white women – never poor Black women.”

In Conclusion

Above the stage in Conway Hall is painted a popular quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “To thine own self be true.” Every woman who spoke was true to herself, and generous enough to share her truths with others. Only by breaking the silences maintained around sexual violence can we hope to change the culture that enables it.

Our chair, Taina, drew the evening to a close by asking every man in the audience to raise his hand. There were six in total. She requested that those six talk to the men in their lives and communities about the harm done by purchasing women for sex. This is, I think, how change will happen – by taking action and using our voices wherever possible.

Session 1.png

Black Studies: On Race, Place, and Headspace

A brief foreword: A short course in Black Studies is running in Edinburgh. It is, as far as I am aware, the first of its kind in Scotland. I decided to write a series of personal reflective essays about the experience as a way of processing and sharing information.


 

Half a year has passed since I last put pen to paper with the intention of blogging the results. I do not, as I have previously written, believe that I owe anybody an explanation for how much or little I publish as Sister Outrider. And yet I believe that breaking the silences surrounding mental illness goes some way towards removing the stigma attached to it. Since experiencing a mental health crisis last September, I haven’t felt much inclination to write or share any significant aspect of myself publicly. What writing I have done is for the chapters of a book, which will make its way out into the world sooner or later. But now, with my medication in balance, my mind is starting to feel alive and curious again. It’s funny – I had always feared anti-depressants would dull my creativity and blunt the edge of my critical enquiries of the world. Instead, anti-depressants have brought me a steady stream of good days. And within those good days are good writing days.

With this newfound curiosity, I booked a place on the Black Studies course hosted at Edinburgh University. It’s an experimental series of lectures exploring themes of Black liberation politics, decolonisation, and the Africana radical tradition. The 6am start on a Saturday morning feels a small price to pay for entry to a space that is specifically for people of colour to come together and learn.

During the journey to Edinburgh, my stomach ties itself in knots. I put down Black Skin, White Masks and do a breathing exercise, letting myself be lulled by the gentle rocking of the train, and try to locate the source of my panic. In spite of knowing how much I’m likely to learn from the Black Studies sessions, I find myself anxious about going. Or rather, as I realise somewhere around Polmont, I’m anxious about going because I know how much I’ll learn.

Certain types of knowledge aren’t always easy to hold. I don’t mean the things we consider trivial or irrelevant to our lives, although that’s almost certainly why I can’t remember a single thing from the Higher Maths syllabus. There are deep and fundamental truths about the world that we cannot extract from our minds, no matter how much we might long to set down the burden of knowing. Whether or not we want to know it, whether or not we have the power to act upon it, the information stays with us. On a fundamental level, it shapes how we understand ourselves and the world around us. Deep truths, no matter how painful or challenging they may be, cannot be set aside – not even temporarily. What I settled on, in trying to pinpoint the source of my anxiety, was this:

Baby Beans

Baby Beans

The other day my mum sent a text about a dream she’d had. Her dream was about Baby Beans, a doll I’d kept with me as a child. Baby Beans was part of my daytime adventures, and she was also a core member of the Bedtime Gang; the set of dolls and plushies that had to be arranged beside me, just so, if I was to fall asleep. It would be fair to say that I loved Baby Beans – she is currently wrapped up snugly in a blanket, nestled deep in the nostalgia box under my bed. But it would also be fair to say that, as a young child, I hated Baby Beans with a fury I couldn’t make sense of. Baby Beans was the first Black doll my mother gave me.

Without anybody ever telling me so, I knew that Baby Beans was uglier than my white dolls, that she didn’t deserve cuddles and gentle treatment the way my little stuffed clown did. I knew that she was not good the way my white dolls were. Years before I ever heard about the Doll Test, my childhood played out its results.

Two African American psychologists, Mamie and Kenneth Clark, conducted a ground-breaking experiment in the 1940s. The experiment presents a child with two dolls, identical except for hair and skin colour: one is blonde and white, the other dark-haired and Black. The child is then asked which doll they would play with, which doll is the nice doll, which one looks bad, which one has the nicer colour, and so on. To this very day, children of all racial groupings consistently favour the white doll over the Black doll. Among other things, the Clarks’ research highlights internalised racism in Black children.

Looking back, it seems obvious that my rejections of Baby Beans were a rejection of my own Blackness. I projected all of my early fears of what it meant to be Black onto that doll. It suppose it was easier to blame that little doll for being Black than to understand or acknowledge how deeply racism is entrenched in this society.

When my mother messaged me about Baby Beans, I remembered getting into trouble calling the doll Bastard Beans. I was around 3 or 4 years old, and had picked up the curse from my grandfather – he never learned to filter his speech around children. Less obvious is where I learned to connect the word bastard with Blackness. But somewhere along the lines I had learned that bastard meant bad, and that Black was bad. I also remember my aunt asking me not to call Baby Beans a ‘dumb tourist’, because it wasn’t very nice. I have no idea where I picked up such an oddly specific phrase at such a young age, but do remember knowing that Black wasn’t seen as British. Those memories used to be accompanied by a hot rush of shame, and so I did not think about them for years. But when my mum’s message brought them to the surface, all I felt was sadness.

My train is late drawing into Waverley Station, so I make a beeline for the taxi rank. When I name the university building and show the taxi driver the map on my phone, he suggests that I don’t know Edinburgh sufficiently well. In a way, he’s right: Glasgow is my city, and the only place I can find with confidence in Edinburgh is the Book Festival. But, as the first taxi driver refuses to put the address into his GPS and drive me there, I know it’s about more than that. He denies me service because of the tension he perceives between race and place, between my Blackness and my Scottishness. The joys of getting a taxi while Black. The second taxi driver has witnessed this exchange, and talks to me kindly as he navigates the streets of Edinburgh, locating the building without any difficulty.

Edinburgh

Edinburgh

Waiting to greet me is Fatima, the brilliant mind behind Edinburgh’s first Black Studies course. She guides me into the building, towards the elevator. Our classroom is on the top floor, so high above the city that I feel almost separate from Edinburgh and the sense of conspicuousness I get walking through the streets below.

The first lecturer is Guilaine Kinouani, of the Race Reflections blog, who does trailblazing work connecting racism and trauma. Learning that Guilaine would speak about her work is what gave me the final push to enrol. Her plane has been delayed, so I take a seat and do a few rows of crochet to stop the shaking in my hands. Only when my mind is calmer does it fully register: everyone else in this room is a person of colour.

Stand Up to RacismThis is the first time in my experience of formal education that I’ve sat in a learning space filled completely by people of colour. I taste a dizzying kind of freedom. Is this, I wonder, how white people feel in classrooms? In school I was always one of two Black children in the class. At university, though international students made up a significant portion of the student body, I was regularly the only Black person in a lecture hall or seminar group. All of my classes were taken by white academics, with one exception, and I’ve never had a Black teacher or lecturer. There are only 25 Black female professors working in British universities, with Black women making up just 0.1% of active professors in the UK. It is a strange and welcome feeling to blend in so completely in an academic setting. I am not on guard against racism, and there is no expectation that I do the work of justifying my presence in the room.

When Guilaine arrives, we start by spending a couple of minutes in silence to “ground ourselves.” I repeat the breathing exercise and by the time the two minutes have passed, I feel calm and open, receptive and ready to learn. More classes should start like this. As Guilaine delivers her introduction to Blackness and psychoanalysis, it quickly becomes clear that she’s the kind of clever that’s about bringing everyone in the room along with her rather. Certain academics can be more about cementing their own status as a genius by showing off rather than sharing their knowledge.

We read Bobby London’s Depression is Political aloud, line by line. Though London’s account of the connection between depression and anti-Black racism resonated deeply when I read it earlier in the week, I got chills when we took turns lending our voices to her words. It was powerful to read those words aloud as a shared, collective experience – different from reading silently, individually. We said:

I am depressed because I live in a white-supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist world. I am depressed because people that look like me are constantly being murdered. I am depressed because the State has purposely made it difficult for black families like mine to survive. I am depressed because I have suffered traumas from white supremacy and the police state.

EveryoneRacial trauma has been on my mind a lot recently. Being Black in Scotland is like death by a thousand cuts. I have heaps of racial trauma, and the interest rate on it is high. But the thought of speaking it aloud, outside the safety of a therapy session, has terrified me. Or, to be more accurate, white people’s inevitable denials of that trauma is terrifying. And yet in this room we speak the words: racial trauma. No shame is attached to them. Nobody sneers or laughs, as though racial trauma is some far-fetched fairy tale. I say the words racial trauma without a second thought to a woman who was, until half an hour ago, a total stranger. It feels natural and right. The tightness eases from my lungs. To paraphrase Guilaine, the pain of that trauma is cut in half when it is acknowledged.

Guilaine shares the results of her doctoral thesis with us. Her work is brilliant, though I will not go into detail as she hasn’t yet published. She speaks of the silences that are built around racism, even within a family context. Children as young as 5 hide their experiences of racism with their parents to keep from burdening them. Parents don’t talk to their children about racism in the vain hope that maintaining this silence can shelter them. She talks about how silences are maintained in a wider social context, with shame used as a deterrent to keep people of colour from talking about racism. If you raise the subject, you have a chip on your shoulder or you’re too sensitive. Guilaine describes silence as a transmission agent of racial trauma. And I’m certain that the work she does as a psychotherapist is crucial to breaking those silences.

Although therapy is necessary for my ongoing survival, I am conscious that it has harmful roots. I have heard lesbian feminists dismiss therapy as reducing political struggles to purely personal problems. Some reject psychoanalysis as a form of social control designed to keep women from becoming conscious of and rising up against the injustices of heteropatriarchy. And, as Guilaine points out, racism and homophobia have historically shaped the field. Psychoanalysis – especially when it is centred around a white, western, masculine perspective – has the potential to be harmful. But it also has the potential to do real, solid good.

In my last round of therapy sessions, I unpacked the relentless isolation of being Black in an overwhelmingly white country, community, and family. My therapist recognised the political dimension to the sheer loneliness I feel in this context. He listened without judgement as I talked about what it meant to watch white relatives all take white partners, having white children who go on to take white partners of their own – the result being that my Blackness will always be an anomaly in that family setting. By keeping the personal tied firmly to the political, my therapist enabled me to imagine a future living somewhere my Blackness not only blends in but is reflected in the community around me – a future when I might build a Black family of my own. Mental healthcare is inherently political. De-politicised treatments lack the capacity to deal with harms that are structural and systematic in nature.

We cannot separate what happens psychologically with what happens socially and politically. You cannot separate the social from the psychological. – Guilaine Kinouani

Towards the end of her lecture, Guilaine talks about white people’s tendency to situate their discomfort with racial politics with people of colour in the environment. By making people of colour into the location of disturbance, they’re able to maintain a sense of equilibrium and avoid being conscious of their own role in a racialised dynamic. This stays with me.

During lunch, I mull over all that Guilaine has said. Her words on the location of disturbance call to mind a quote from Sara Ahmed:

Feminists who give the problem a name can then become a problem for those who do not want to register that there is a problem (but who, at another level, know that there is a problem). You can cause a problem by not letting a problem recede.

still-we-rise.pngIn the feminist movement, there is space for women to acknowledge the toll men’s hatred and violence takes on us. But a lot of (white) women don’t make room for feminists of colour to talk about the sheer burnout caused by repeated acts of racism. This is because white feminists regularly inflict racial traumas on the Black and Brown women, inside the movement and out. To acknowledge the harm their racism causes would be to take a step towards accountability – something that white women, racially coded as innocent in all things, are notoriously bad at doing. Through dismissing feminists of colour who name the problem of racism as ‘uppity’ or ‘angry’ – making us into the location of disturbance – they can avoid the problem of racism and their own role in maintaining it.

The second lecture is by Georgia Mae Webster, inspired by her pioneering thesis: The Effects of Racism on Psychosis – Decolonising Mental Health Care. Georgia’s talk is brilliant. It is also full of devastating revelations. In Britain, Black people are almost six times as likely as white people to be diagnosed with schizophrenia. For every one white person detained under the Mental Health Act, four Black people are held. I wonder if there’s a connection between Black people being over-represented in British diagnoses of schizophrenia and Black people being over-represented in British prisons.

Historically, the medical industry justified the enslavement of Black people through pseudo-scientific claims of inferiority (to white people). Georgia points out that this rhetoric is still deeply ingrained in society, normalised by celebrated scientists. James Watson, heralded as the father of DNA, claimed that he was “gloomy over the prospect of Africa” because “…all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – where all the testing says not really.” For all its claims of objectivity, science is as subject to racist bias as any other field.

At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, psychiatrists Walter Bromburg and Frank Simon outlined a new category of schizophrenia: protest psychosis. The two main symptoms were given as ‘hostility’ and ‘anger’. Black men were overwhelmingly among those diagnosed with protest psychosis. Treatment was described as necessary to maintaining the social order of white America. Over time, Georgia explains, the diagnostic criteria of schizophrenia shifted and were used as a political tool.

In the Chicago Defender, Langston Hughes once compared the trauma caused by witnessing and being subject to segregation-era racism to the shell-shock of soldiers. Georgia draws a parallel between Jim Crow shock and the trauma caused by consuming images of Black people being hung, beaten, and killed that circulate freely on the internet. Being exposed to anti-Black violence and Black pain, often without warning, is deeply damaging. While these images are vital to documenting anti-Black violence, evidence that can be used to hold perpetrators to account, they are soul-destroying to look at. There are days when I can’t bear to check Twitter for fear of seeing yet another video of a Black child being dragged or thrown by a white authority figure.

CybermanAfter the lecture draws to a close, I stop to chat with faces familiar and new. Before leaving, I make a point of telling Georgia how brilliant her lecture was and how brave she is to take on this work. The academy can be a very hostile environment for women of colour to inhabit, and it doesn’t tend to build the same confidence in us as it does our white male peers.

There is a spring in my step as I venture out onto Edinburgh’s cobbled streets. I have plans to meet up with a friend at a little gay café. And for all the challenging material covered, the first day of Black Studies has left me feeling optimistic about this life and the connections we can make in it. From beginning to end, there was a sense of community in the classroom. Free from the work of making ourselves understood, we could direct our energies to making this world a better place to live in.

 

Dispatches from the Margins: Disposable Women

A brief foreword: I ask that every woman who reads this essay reflects on how she can better extend sisterhood to women who have less power than she does – and know that I will be thinking on the same thing.


 

Several white women have recently told me that, for the sake of unity within the movement, issues of racism and lesbophobia should only be discussed in private – if at all. And so I have made a point of writing about both issues publicly, raising what voice I have to full volume, in order to object: both to racism and lesbophobia within the feminist movement, and the idea that either should be hushed up for the sake of appearances. No unity can exist within the feminist movement while women are actively upholding and complicit in the oppression that other women experience.

The whole notion of a private sphere was created to cover up men’s violent & exploitative behaviour, enabling them to avoid accountability and maintain appearances. We can’t now use it in the feminist movement to cover up white women’s racism & lesbophobia. To suppress talk about these issues is to build on weak, unstable foundations: collapse is inevitable. For the sake of future feminist struggle, and women currently pushed to the margins of the movement, we must have open conversation about the structural divisions between women.

I am not particularly open, I just refuse to participate in a notion of privacy that is a curtain behind which I and other women suffer abuse and injustices. – P. J. Samuels

The feminist movement can be a hostile place for the women most in need of its shelter from the forces of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Time and time again, we are shown that our political needs, our safety, and our wellbeing are all of little concern to women holding more power than us. They are often white, middle class, and securely heterosexual women who aspire towards the same grasp on power as white, middle class, heterosexual men. The scope of such women’s ambition for the feminist movement is severely lacking in imagination: when so many women have outlined visions of liberation, parity with men seems totally lacklustre as an aspiration. Even more than imagination, the feminist politics of such white, middle class, straight women is utterly devoid of compassion towards women whose lives do not exactly mirror their own. Feminist principles and empathy both seem to go missing in the Bermuda triangle of whiteness, class privilege, and heterosexuality – that standpoint, it often seems, is where solidarity between women goes to die.

WPUKIn this context it is a rare but wonderful thing for a white-led feminist organisation to condemn racism, so I wholly support A Woman’s Place UK in their decision to remove a certain woman from their line-up of speakers for the Cornwall meeting. The woman in question has voiced Islamophobic views on multiple occasions and called for the sterilisation of any females who have ever identified as male (many of whom happen to be lesbian). There is cruelty in the contempt straight feminists direct towards lesbian women and, more than that, a deep-rooted fear of what it means to live outside the feminine gender role. And I respect WPUK for taking swift, decisive action when this woman’s behaviour was brought to their attention.

A number of white women have tried to evade the issue of racism by arguing that Islamophobia isn’t racist because Muslims aren’t a race. Let us be clear: Islamophobia is rooted in racism. The world’s second most popular religion, Islam is the foremost faith in the Middle East, North Africa, and a substantial portion of Asia too. Islam is predominantly practiced by people of colour. The Othering and stereotyping of Muslims is fundamentally racialised. And as a Black feminist I stand beside my Muslim sisters in solidarity.

Racists… are excusing their own bigotry by gleefully pointing out Islam is not a race. Whilst it’s true that Islam is a world religion, with Muslims found from Chile to China that in itself does not mean Islamophobia and racism are separated. The West perpetuates a certain type of Muslim when considering Islam, terrorism and the Middle East.

 

The man will almost always be brown, hooked noise, bushy eyebrows with a beard of some length. A manic look and an open snarling mouth no doubt illustrated to portray a person of hate, spouting bigotry against the ideals of the West.

 

The woman will almost always be in some form of a headscarf, a niqab or burkha. She will be with 2-3 other women dressed similarly, perhaps looking meek or obedient to suit the western perception that women of Islam are oppressed.Yasin Bangee

Christianity is inherently oppressive to women, and yet – unlike Islam – white western feminists manage to critique its sexual politics without resorting to racism. White feminists treat hijabi women in particular as an opportunity to play the white saviour, replicating a colonialism that is in no way compatible with feminist principles.

An Exercise in Empathy and Imagination

When women who are white and middle class and straight do harmful things, we in the feminist movement are often encouraged to look the other way. A layer of silence coats their actions, maintained at the expense of every woman who suffers as a consequence of them. Women of colour, working class women, lesbian women – feminists will frequently gaslight us when we talk about the harms we have been subjected to within the movement. This is because engaging with what we have to say would raise all sorts of difficult questions about power, and certain women would be forced to reckon with what it means to be the oppressor, not simply the oppressed – which, when unpacked, has huge implications for their sense of self as well as their way of practicing feminism. For them, it is both comfortable and convenient to look the other way. And when WPUK spoke up, a lot of women did choose to look the other way. As that evergreen meme goes, disappointed but not surprised. But expecting it doesn’t make it any easier to bear.

For years, feminists like bell hooks have warned us of the danger in making stars of women in the feminist movement, the risks that go with raising any woman onto a pedestal until she is above criticism. This incident, where a woman’s racism becomes unmentionable, proves the necessity of those warnings.

So now I write directly to those women – the ones who are white and middle class and straight and have nothing to lose (except for the trust of women who lack the power or the profile to be useful to them in some way) by defending the racism and lesbophobia of a woman whose life is very similar to their own. Let us try this exercise in imagination.

Say there is to be an event about an issue of vital importance to you. Say it’s a panel about that issue, and one of the speakers is a man named *Peter. You have known for a while that Peter says some fairly sexist things on the internet. Peter is not a fan of women having political representation. Peter thinks that women’s distinct social and cultural spaces are a threat to the natural order of things. Peter falls back on misogynistic stereotypes, like women being inherently suited to domestic work, to justify his comments. You have been wary of Peter for some time now, as you are wary of coming across any misogynist, because the community of people who organise around this issue is fairly small and tight-knit. But a lot of men who are involved in the cause think he is fantastic. Peter has quite a following.

And then something unexpected happens: the organisers of the event cut Peter from the line-up in opposition to his sexism. This is a huge relief. You let yourself hope that this is the time, that people are finally ready to talk about the culture of misogyny that has been allowed to thrive in lots of spaces built around this issue that is your passion. You are sick and tired of how women are treated here – pushed to the side-lines of discussion, treated as lesser, viewed mostly as a secondary concern. Still, maybe things are changing for the better: now Peter’s sexism has been exposed, the sexism of other men will slowly but surely be challenged too.

But no. The women who speak against Peter’s sexism are told off for being trouble makers, you among them. It is implied that you and your sisters are being hysterical. You are told that, as your comrade, Peter deserves your loyalty and support – despite the fact that he has given nothing of the sort to women involved in the cause. You are told that even though Peter doesn’t always say things in the right way, in the politically correct way, he is a good guy who is definitely not sexist. It is suggested that you women are being too angry about this so-called sexism, and maybe you’re all a bit hormonal because it’s that time of month, eh?

You are asked not to speak about Peter’s sexism in case it damages his reputation or looks bad for the cause around which you have campaigned. You close your eyes. You wonder why you fucking bother. You exchange some comforting messages with the women hurt by Peter and his defenders. You don’t know what will happen next except that, with the inevitability of the tide coming in, this will happen all over again. There will always be another Peter clinging on to misogyny. There will always be people who should have been your comrades in struggle looking the other way.

Think of all the reasons men give you to mistrust them. That’s exactly how many reasons that white women give women of colour not to trust you. This is what it’s like navigating racism in the feminist movement, and it’s exactly how racism snakes through the feminist movement: you are Peter, you are Peter’s defenders. And we are wary of you in the same way that you are wary of men, and it puts us in an even harder position because we have to be wary of men too. I don’t know how to make it plainer. If you are not willing to do the work it takes to understand women of colour, to feel empathy for women who are not white, then we are not sisters. The division between women is of your making – I am trying to fix it, though I swore it wasn’t worthwhile.

Respectability politics have been weaponised against women of colour for hundreds of years, and I refuse to let white women capitalise on that history to silence women speaking up about the harm visited upon us by a toxic white femininity. Politeness is used by the most powerful women in the feminist movement to cover up the harm they enact against women with the least power. It happens with race, class, disability, sexuality… And it’s relentless. This idea that we can’t challenge racism because it makes the movement look flawed is bullshit. The movement is already flawed, regardless of how it looks, and the only way to fix it is by addressing the problem: in this case, racism. White, middle class, straight feminists are invested respectability politics and ‘appearances’ because both conceal the reality of how these women weaponise their power against women with less power. Feminism isn’t about politeness or appearances. It’s about the liberation of women & girls. And the path to liberation is often uncomfortable, because it demands we give up the convenient falsehoods that prop up the status quo.

The Politics of Voice

There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard. ― Arundhati Roy

The politics of voice in the feminist movement are complicated. Not every woman is allowed the space to speak in the first place. And of those women who are able to speak, some are listened to and others ignored. Vectors of race, class, sexuality, disability, nationality, and so much more go into determining which women are heard in the feminist movement. The closer you are to the normative standards of womanhood – white, middle class, straight, and so on – the greater your chance of being listened to and engaged with. The further away from those criteria, the more likely it is that you’ll end up pushed to the margins and wondering whether homing pigeon or smoke signal would be the more effective way of communicating with the women at the centre – because they’re clearly not hearing your voice.

I’m conscious of being in a fortunate position. If I were to put my pen down tomorrow and never write again, my writing would still have influenced feminist thought in a way that can’t be undone. I have voice and a sizeable audience of women who read my blog. I’m also comfortably middle class and relatively light-skinned. Every so often I stop and question whether a working class, dark-skinned Black woman with the same level of writing skill would be heard in the same way or afforded the same opportunities. This is not a comfortable reflection, and nor should it be. As my writing continues to find a home through the publishing industry, I could and would not claim that I am unheard. Rather, the issue is the women who cannot see what I’m saying for all the layers of racism they’re projecting onto me. When I send my writing out into the world, I am negotiating a space where I’m Othered, stereotyped, and subject to overt racism – being aware of that changes how I write with an audience, though there is no way to protect myself from it.

If I talk about that racism in the feminist movement, I become a lightning rod for the racism of white feminist women. Despite my efforts towards patience, empathy, and kindness, I am pathologised as the Angry Black Woman – a hostile force, and a threat to white women. And if I condemn white women’s racism it is, of course, trashing. But critiquing racism in the feminist movement is not the same as trashing. Trashing implies an equality of sorts, but the hierarchy of race tips the playing field entirely in favour of white women. The game is rigged in their favour, as every woman of colour knows and many white women deny. Reducing Black women’s critiques of racism to trashing takes a legitimate criticism and turns it into the product of rage or aggression. And if we’re just Angry Black Women, there’s no need for white women to hear what we’re saying & address their own behaviour. Racism makes its own convenient get-out clause. And so I try to be vigilant towards racism, even and especially when it’s a form I don’t experience.

Like many feminists, I’m enthusiastic about badges and have a pretty decent collection. Wearing some of them, like the vagina cupcakes or “lesbian, not queer” or “I’ve read IMG_20170817_131210_957.jpgabout sex in the Women’s Library”, results in a degree of backlash. But none of my feminist badges have ever attracted the same level of anger as the one depicting three women of colour posed like Rosie the Riveter. The badge is a personal favourite, as it shows women of colour side by side and united in sisterhood. One of the women wears a hijab. And every time I wear it in a mixed feminist space, without fail, a white feminist will make a big show of asking why I’m showing something that features a hijabi. “What’s with the scarf?”, “Why would you wear that image?”, “Don’t you know Muslim women are oppressed?” And so on.

It’s a strange logic, imagining that removing visual representations of hijabis in a feminist setting will bring them any closer to being liberated as women, but then whiteness is quite a drug and often gets in the way of reason.

I’m not an authority on Muslim women’s realities and cannot write or reflect on their political struggles from a place of lived experience. I’m not going to speculate about whether the hijab is a good or bad thing, which is a grossly simplistic way to think about anything. It’s not my place and there are women far more qualified to go there. But as a Black feminist I am going to stand against the racism directed towards Muslim women – that’s what I believe sisterhood is.

If any women reading this want to know more about Muslim women’s lives or feminism, they should make a point of listening to Muslim women’s voices and reading their words. The book I’m most excited about reading is Cut From the Same Cloth, an anthology of essays written by British hijabi women. If a white feminist had coordinated such a ground-breaking project with such incredible writers, it would never have taken so long to crowd-fund. The usual suspects would have got behind it and recognised this book for what it is: a vital collection of women’s writing containing valuable insights into women’s lives, a fine example of  écriture feminine. My suspicion is that if white, western feminists were to engage properly with what hijabi women say for themselves, they’d have to stop playing in the dark and give up their fantasies of the Other – therein lies the root of their reluctance.

Holding white women accountable for racism is not throwing women under the bus. Looking the other way when that racism harms women of colour, however, is. Having to face consequences for your harmful actions is not the same as being victimised, though people seem to get confused when it’s a white, middle class, straight woman inflicting the harm. Imagine for a second what would become possible in the feminist movement if white, middle class, straight women stopped speaking over women less powerful than they are, and instead amplified voices different to their own. Imagine if, instead of weaponising their power, they leveraged it to make space for all the women with less power than them. That is what sisterhood should be.

 

(*My deepest apologies to Spider-Man, who has done nothing to deserve this comparison.)


Bibliography

Sabeena Akhtar (ed.). (2018). Cut From the Same Cloth

Toni Morrison. (1992). Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination

Phyll Opoku-Gyimah (ed.). (2018). Sista!: An Anthology of Writings by Same Gender Loving Women of African/Caribbean Descent with a UK Connection

Race, Place, and Feminist Space

A brief foreword: this is a personal reflective essay about my recent trip to Liverpool for Writing on the Wall, the experience of being in this city, and the thoughts it shaped in me.

Content warning: this essay explores themes of violence against women & girls, including rape and FGM.


 

Getting There

This year I’ve said no to a lot of things. Girls aren’t typically taught to say no, and women are discouraged from setting boundaries, so getting into the habit of saying no not only felt like some much needed character development but a way of unpicking the threads of gendered socialisation that tie women to the role of pleasing others at the expense of our own needs. This year I decided to prioritise two things: my writing and my mental health, which mostly complement one another but can be in conflict as deadlines draw in. And I’ve said no to everything likely to compromise either or both of those things, including a few panels. I think a couple of people have felt slighted by my no, cushioned as it was in politeness, but ultimately that’s their issue. Leaving my home to speak before people can cost quite a lot of energy, especially if it involves long hours of travel and an overnight stay away from home. The mental and physical resources aren’t always mine to spare.

Still, there are times when saying yes is impossible to resist – when the cost -benefit IMG_-ki1vps.jpganalysis balances out. Last week I was part of Glasgow International for After Dark, a creative conversation between LGBT artists of colour. I’d never been called an artist before, and still don’t see myself as one. Writer, yes – I feel that in my bones, and have external validation from the publishing industry. But, artist? Funnily enough, another participant questioned his own right to the label of writer because of the way Black people go largely unrecognised as ‘legitimate’ cultural critics. Or not so funny. A recurring theme, whatever the medium we worked with, was that none of us had been encouraged to think of ourselves, our work, our voices as having authority. But it was satisfying to connect, to talk about our work and the lives that inform it. Opportunities to meet other creatives who are both LGBT and people of colour are a rare, exquisite thing.

As a girl I’d never have imagined a future where I’d enter the Gallery of Modern Art under the label of artist. The GoMA is a beloved part of Glasgow’s cultural landscape. But,IMG_20180515_101715.jpg like so many of the city’s architectural wonders, the building was funded by the labour of enslaved Black people. Growing up amidst the tensions created by that repressed history, it was impossible for me to develop a sense of belonging. When Blackness and Scottishness are often treated as two mutually exclusive identities (a seemingly endless number of white Scots can’t get their head around Black people being born ‘here’, raised ‘here’, from ‘here’), how could it be otherwise? It felt powerful to sit and talk and eat and drink in the Gallery, to claim a space that was never meant for us.

Another event I couldn’t resist saying yes to is Beyond #MeToo, a panel at Writing on the Wall – Liverpool’s longest running literary festival. I like the North of England: it has a higher Black population density than Scotland, and is cheaper and less affected than the South. And, like a great many feminists, I’m passionate about talk of women’s rights, bodies, and boundaries. The other panellists – Winnie Li, Hibo Wardere, and Vanessa Olorenshaw – are all women I’ve been keen to meet. Going felt instinctively right. So I did.

Usually my journeys to unfamiliar places involve a constant companion that goes by the name of anxiety, but getting to Liverpool is actually alright. I crochet a few rounds of a blanket and listen to St. Vincent (since taking up white gay Twitter’s recommendation, I’ve been hooked). Even through delay and disruption, it is possible to hold onto a sense of calm – which is uncharacteristic, but feels like a good omen. I’m getting there; getting there in the literal sense, physically approaching Liverpool on the third and final train of the journey; getting there in my head, too. When I’ve been struggling with mental health problems and am starting to reach a place of wellbeing, “getting there” is the answer I give when anybody asks how I am. It’s not a bullshit answer the way “fine” is, but the fine layer of euphemism coating the honesty makes it feel safe.

Beyond #MeToo

I get to Liverpool later than planned, but still with enough time to drop off my bag and draw on my brows before the event. In the hotel lobby I meet Vanessa, and we immediately click. Her vision of maternal feminism and no-nonsense approach to sexual politics grab my attention, and I make a mental note to track down a copy of her book. There’s something deeply enriching about engaging with feminist perspectives coming from a standpoint that’s different to your own, learning about women’s experiences and politics that don’t necessarily mirror what you have lived or known. Then Winnie joins us, and she’s even more of a badass than Twitter has led me to believe – I say badass, because speaking openly in public about your experiences of sexual violence the way she does takes serious guts. She has a self-possessed quality, a way of occupying public space, that I can’t help admiring. Much like saying no, a woman carrying herself in this way is not an intended outcome of female socialisation. We talk, during the taxi journey to the Women’s Organisation, about everything from our writing habits to the FiLiA conference. Their company is galvanising in a way that’s unique to space shared between women.

Hibo, the last remaining panellist, is waiting for us at the Women’s Organisation – or maybe that should be first, because she was at the venue before us. But Hibo is the last of the women I meet in person. She is every bit as resolute in her opposition to violence against women and girls, every bit as resplendent, as she appears on Twitter. When we compliment her, Hibo laughs and says “I am a rainbow walking. Always in colours.” During the panel Hibo reveals that for years after undergoing female genital mutilation she hid herself away, and wearing bold colours was a way of celebrating being in her body. To my thinking, it is an act of resistance for any woman whose body has been made into a site of trauma to reclaim herself; to find ways of being fully present and perhaps even taking delight in her physical self.

IMG_20180510_001036.jpgWe get to know each other over pizza (which should be mandatory in every green room), sharing bits of our lives without glossing over trauma. So much is possible when women come together and talk openly about violence. When you have the support of feminist women, and are free from the worry of whether your disclosure will be shamed or disbelieved, it is much easier to get to the root of how and why violence against women happens. There is also a lot of joy in those connections.

The panel goes well. Maggie O’Carroll, Chief Executive Officer of the Women’s Organisation, has a gift for chairing – an unaffected warmth that stops the event from feeling too formal. It’s also worth pointing out that one advantage of doing panels without men is you are much less likely to be spoken over. Women, especially those who are part of the feminist movement, tend to be good at holding space for one another to speak. And speak we do, about our writing and activism and everything in between.

Dark-Chapter-by-Winnie-M-Li-_-Legend-PressWinnie reveals that she loved writing as a child, but never anticipated that her first book – Dark Chapter – would be based on the story of her own rape. The perpetrator left her with 39 separate injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. Winnie quit her job, went about the business of putting herself back together, and rebuilt her life. Her writing perfectly captures the reality of experiencing sexual violence. In an interview with the Guardian she said that “it’s like you’ve been gutted like a fish – it was like somebody had gouged the Winnie out of me,” words which have stayed with me ever since. Winnie talks about the layer of silence that surrounds sexual violence, even between female friends, and her determination to break it. Winnie’s point about that silence resonates. Before I started spending time in feminist spaces, building friendships with feminist women, it would have been unthinkable to talk about my experiences of male violence.

Rather poignantly, Winnie says she was “‘lucky’ to be a victim of stranger rape”, believed by those around her and the criminal justice system because she met society’s standards of a perfect victim. It’s a terrible indictment of this world that any woman would feel fortunate to experience one type of violence over another. But the reality is the majority of women who are raped fall into the category of imperfect victims. At least 70% of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim. Most of us knew and perhaps even liked or trusted our rapists beforehand, meaning that – despite this being a common pattern of sexual violence – it is easier not to believe us, the imperfect victims. Believing that only strangers are rapists means you don’t have to confront the full extent of the problem, the reality that male violence against women and girls is endemic. It means you don’t have to sit with the difficult knowledge that rapists are not shady monsters, but average men: men we know socially or professionally, men who are husbands or boyfriends or fathers. This is the ugly truth of life under patriarchy: women & girls are at risk of sexual violence – overwhelmingly committed by men – and the few of us who get believed are comparatively lucky.

Hibo recounted her experience of FGM and how it has influenced the trajectory of her life. She said “I can remember every little detail of that day, the smell of my blood in the cut-one-womans-fight-against-fgm-in-britain-today-9781471153983_lgroom.” A procedure that took 45 minutes would have repercussions for the rest of her life. Hibo underwent type three FGM, which she wrote about in her memoir Cut. Of this experience, Hibo says “you don’t heal from it, you learn to cope with it.” During her work in schools, Hibo was compelled to start challenging FGM when she realised young girls were at risk. Explaining her advocacy, Hibo says “I used my trauma as a tool for education.” Her work has changed how the education system, the British government, and even the FBI approach the issue of FGM. Hibo is proud of how attitudes have begun to shift against FGM in recent years, a change to which her work has greatly contributed, but is adamant there’s still a long way to go before this particular battle is won. Every 11 seconds a girl is cut. FGM has been illegal in Britain since 1985, but nobody has yet been prosecuted for carrying the procedure out on a girl.

IMG_-c2bx6e.jpgNext it’s my turn to speak. I have boundless respect for the other women on this panel and feel honoured to sit alongside them. Yet there are no pangs of imposter syndrome, which is another recent positive step. I tell the audience about the context that shaped my work, the isolation of growing up Black in Scotland, the ways in which gas-lighting is used to cover up racism – which the country has long since struggled to acknowledge as a social, political reality. It’s easy enough: there’s no scarcity of women of colour in the room. I talk about the importance of having found feminist community in digital spaces; that it felt natural to raise a dissenting voice online in a way that it didn’t in person, offline. I share my motivation in creating a learning resource for women trying to engage with feminist politics, how it’s done with the goal of helping build a truly anti-racist feminist movement that really is committed to the liberation of all women. And then I turn to Vanessa.

In her own words, Vanessa advocates for “women’s rights, as mothers, in the public Liberating Motherhoodsphere.” Before having children she was a barrister, which shows in how she forms an argument. As a new mother, no longer practicing her profession, she was conscious that “my political power was gone, my economic power was gone, my body had changed.” She struggled against the idea mothers are not political, a misconception “which Mumsnet prove wrong.”  To Vanessa there is no doubt that women’s bodies exist as the site of oppression in patriarchal society. She calls for an embodied feminist politics that recognise the significance of sex in determining how we experience the world. Vanessa points out that boys begin assaulting girls from a young age, highlighting the patterns of violence that emerge through gendered socialisation.

In particular, Vanessa calls for greater recognition of care work and models beyond outsourcing domestic tasks – often to women who are working class and/or of colour. Despite being vital to the continuation of humanity, care work is devalued as feminised labour and made invisible through essentialist claims that nurturing is a natural part of being female. When her first child was born, Vanessa was asked relentlessly when she planned to go “back to work” – nobody who asked recognised that she was constantly working to look after a new baby, as she wasn’t getting paid to do it. Ideas of what counts as ‘real’ work are upheld by the pillars of patriarchy and capitalism. Vanessa cites Adrienne Rich as an inspiration for her work, crediting Of Woman Born as an essential read on motherhood and feminism.

The Q&A is as interesting as it is challenging. Mandy Vere, a bookseller at News From Nowhere, asked our thoughts on the relationship between shifts in language and feminist politics. Winnie felt this most keenly in the difference between ‘victim’ and ‘survivor’ in discussions of sexual violence. She thinks the shift towards ‘survivor’ is a “push to use the word less full of horror and trauma”, that ‘survivor’ offers a more positive and media-friendly spin. Most importantly, Winnie points out that surviving sexual violence is not a linear experience. Ten years on, she sees herself as a survivor, but is conscious that she could struggle again and identify more with the term ‘victim.’ “Trauma can return.” Hibo talks about vagina – specifically, the stigma attached to the word and the sexism in making it unspeakable. She is quite right in observing that without vagina none of us would have been born, so a bit more appreciation is due.

I pick up on the shift from ‘lesbian’ to ‘queer’ in recent years. While it’s a positive thing that more people are finding language that fits them, lesbian gets dismissed as “old fashioned” in a way that’s deeply harmful and ultimately lesbophobic. For hundreds of years, lesbian lives and loves have been erased or broken apart, often with violence. Lesbian is a less palatable word than queer because it is a sexual boundary that explicitly excludes men from women’s desire, whereas queer is ambiguous – and so less threatening to the status quo. Patriarchy depends on men having access to women’s sexual, reproductive, and domestic labour. Lesbian says no to all of that. Lesbian is women directing our love and energy towards women. It’s a powerful word, and an important one to use. Vanessa critiques the term “gender based violence” on the grounds that it obscures the power dynamic typically in action. She says “we don’t commit violence with our gender, but with our bodies” – often male bodies against female bodies.

People ask about everything from ethics to the implications of self-identification. But the comment that most stands out comes from a woman, let’s call her Valerie, who shares that she is a survivor of sexual violence. She speaks up because she doesn’t want Winnie alone to carry that burden of being ‘out’, and because she is conscious that many women in the room will be in the same boat. Valerie’s courage is powerful to witness. Her voice shakes, and mine does too as I clutch the microphone and tell her she’s not alone. After the event, Valerie approaches me. She says that being Black was a huge factor in why the police didn’t support her when she went to tell them about being raped. I tell her that knowing how I’d be seen as a young Black woman was a huge factor in why I never alerted the authorities. Ultimately neither of us could heal the other, but throughout our conversation we could hear and understand one another – which made a world of difference.

I do not feel obliged to disclose my experiences of sexual violence. I do not owe those details to anybody – not as a woman or a feminist or a writer. And it’s entirely possible that I won’t ever write or speak publicly about this subject in any greater detail. But it’s there: me too.

Afterwards

Afterwards, we each grab a slice of leftover pizza and head off for dinner and drinks. On our way out of the Women’s Organisation, Winnie and I notice a poster for the panel on the bathroom door: fame at last. Being something of an introvert I had initially planned to spend my evening in the bath, reading a book, looking out at the lights across Liverpool from the vantage of my hotel room. But I’m enjoying spending time with these women and want to share their company for a bit longer. We sit down in a bar and begin the lengthy process of setting the world to rights. It is in here that I make an important discovery: Liverpool has a quality gin scene. Mine comes in a glass that looks like an infinitely fancier variation of the fishbowls that were popular to drink from when I was an undergrad, complete with pomegranate seeds and blueberries. I could grow to like Liverpool very much.

I’ve known Mandy (the radical bookseller) online for what feels like forever, but this is the first time we’ve been together in person. We get to know one another better. She tells me about what it’s like to be part of a radical collective of booksellers (spoiler alert: pretty damn cool), what drew her to Liverpool, and her family. At a few points through the evening, the nature of my accent is queried. It’s exhausting to have a Scottishness that is never assumed and always in need of explanation. Even without malice, as in this context, it must be qualified in a way that invariably leaves me feeling like an outsider looking in on Scottishness. Still, there is belonging to be found in this group of women – transitory though our meeting is. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in patriarchy female friendships are always framed as being of secondary importance to relationships with men, when talking and connecting with women is what enables us to spot the traps gender has laid for us, and for every other woman too. What is gender but a series of restrictions imposed upon a girl, until she learns to restrict herself?

In the morning I have a delicious vegetarian breakfast that fuels my upcoming adventures. It even includes vegetarian black pudding. Never having tasted black pudding before, vegetarian or otherwise, it was a masterclass in creative use of beans and pulses. At the table beside mine, conversation mainly seems to consist of a man talking at his wife, pontificating about everything from Kim Jong-un to the merits of scrambled eggs. I feel sorry for her, until she finally does offer an opinion: that it’s refreshing to see a hotel staffed only by the indigenous population. Indigenous, native, Briton, from here ‘originally’ – there are so many coded ways of saying white, but the racism behind them never varies. A world away from last night, when having a panel that was majority women of colour was a cause for celebration.

I shoulder my backpack and set off to News From Nowhere. Having followed the bookshop on Twitter for years, I am desperate to see it in person. Getting there is easy. For once, I don’t struggle with the map. Above the door is a gay pride flag, and in the window display – alongside the books – is a cardboard cut-out of Theresa May in a police uniform. Yes, I have found News From Nowhere. The shop smells like homemade candles and books – heaven, in short. There’s fiction, feminist theory, biography, zines… There are books on disability rights, sexual politics, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh history, a whole shelf devoted to Liverpool’s own Black community. When I arrive, they’re in the process of changing the display table from books about anti-racist activism to mental health. This is my kind of place. I browse, dreamy and happy, and chat with the booksellers.

Winnie meets me in the bookshop. We talk, lingering by the Women’s Prize for Fiction display, and I recommend Meena Kandasamy’s book When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife. Like Winnie, her writing gives voice to deep truths about violence against women, addressing the link between gender and power. It’s a devastating read, but this book burns with resistance and is exquisitely crafted. It would have been great to talk to Winnie more, but we’ll both be at Bare Lit fest at the end of the month. The booksellers very kindly offer to watch out bags, and we each head out to explore the city.

20180518_151742.jpgI walk to the International Slavery Museum, taking in Liverpool as I go. The architecture is striking against the blue sky, and cherry blossoms line a walkway towards the dock. It’s a beautiful city in spring. There are a number of art spaces and cafés I could happily delve into but this mission, I feel, is important. So many of Scotland’s ongoing problems with racism are rooted in an unwillingness to examine the country’s history with race, a refusal to acknowledge how that past shaped the present reality. Earlier this year I visited Berlin, and there are public monuments to the victims of World War 2 placed throughout the city. Each monument included explanations of how and why these people died, giving history to provide context. It was deeply emotional, but there was something healing in giving public space over to recognising those atrocities. Repressing a history only adds to the trauma – which is why I am determined to visit the Slavery Museum.

The Slavery Museum is “the first museum in the world to deal with transatlantic slavery 20180510_124136.jpgand its legacies”, exploring not only the past but how it has informed life in modern day Britain. Beside the entrance is an invitation for people to write about the thoughts and feelings evoked, and stick their postcard on a wall. I like that people are given the space and encouragement needed to try and grapple with the painful knowledge held here. The realities of the slave trade were horrifying. Black people were beaten and raped and killed and worked to death for the profit of white people. Denying it doesn’t help the African people who were forcibly removed from their homes, and it doesn’t help anybody now either.

On display are chains once used to shackle people, brands that once glowed white and burnt into human flesh. A model plantation shows the horrifying living conditions of the enslaved people, and explains that a group of escapees committed mass suicide rather than going back when capture was imminent. The sound of waves plays on loop, clashing with the testimonies of enslaved people being read. I feel overwhelmed. It is explained in detail that enslaved people were dehumanised to legitimise the violence inflicted upon them by their white owners, to justify that ownership in the first place. And this tactic of dehumanisation continues to influence the ways Black people are racialised today.

There are interactive maps of popular routes for transporting enslaved people, explanations of where they were taken and why (always to the place that would bring white people the biggest profit), and ledgers recording the sale of human beings. Generations of enslaved people lived and died without ever tasting freedom or human dignity. The display I found hardest showed samples of cloth that were traded for African people. With a scrap of material, it was once possible to purchase a human being and have them work beyond the limits of endurance for the rest of his or her life. This horror cuts deep.

On my way out of the museum, I am caught by a stream of schoolchildren on a trip. All of the kids I spot are white. Some of them mess around, the way children do, but I hope that what they see here today plants a seed of awareness that will grow over time. I take a minute to breathe, and then head back to the bookshop. On my way I see a monument to Melusine, the river goddess, and spend a moment by her side to find a sense of peace. It works. I say goodbye to the booksellers, News From Nowhere, and finally the city itself.

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I liked Liverpool very much, and also the person I felt myself to be here – capable and calm. A return visit is definitely on the cards, next time with a bigger bag for more books and zines. Travel makes life seem full of possibilities, or rather it highlights the possibilities we are liable to forget in the course of everyday life. When Mandy asked about my life in Scotland, I had told her the truth – there are things I deeply love about my home country, but it isn’t a place I can live indefinitely. I’m tired of living in a country where my body, my hair texture, my voice, my presence in public life, must all be justified. It would be nice to walk around with some kind of disclaimer that says “Yes, I’m Black. And my accent – like the rest of me – is Scottish. Those two things can co-exist.” But, in the words of Sonya Renee Taylor, the body is not an apology. And folding my body into the confines of an apology over and over again is not a price that I’m prepared to keep on paying.


Bibliography

Meena Kandasamy. (2017). When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife

Winnie M. Li. (2017). Dark Chapter

Heather McDaid & Laura Jones (eds.). (2017). Nasty Women

Vanessa Olorenshaw. (2016). Liberating Motherhood: Birthing the Purplestockings Movement

Hibo Wardere. (2016). Cut: One Woman’s Fight Against FGM in Britain Today

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5 Books for White Women to Read About Race and Feminism

A brief foreword: I hope this list helps women, in ways big and small. And while I hope it contributes to the education of white women and assists the unlearning of racism, it’s important to point out that my main motivation in writing this list was to help create a feminist movement that is not hostile – but instead nurturing – towards women of colour. My decision to undertake this labour was driven by the politics of necessity rather than political principle. Here’s the thing: we should be beyond lists like this. It’s not a comfortable truth, but there it is. That being said, should often requires us to divorce theory from practice and has limited use in movement building.

All the same, it’s necessary to observe that I can only afford to undertake educational projects geared towards white women from a place of well-being, when I have the mental and emotional energy to spare – which isn’t always the case. Don’t read these words and feel bad: that’s not productive in either direction. Instead, think about what it costs women of colour to reach out to and try building trust with white women; do your best to minimise that cost, and work out ways to carry it yourself. Happy reading, and may these books take your mind to interesting places.


 

White women often approach me in feminist spaces or get in touch to say that my writing was the first time they considered that race politics and feminist politics were related. What this makes me feel is complicated and, at points, conflicted. On one level there is an appreciation that these women have accepted my invitation to begin practicing radical honesty about race and the feminist movement. It’s affirming to see that they’ve started doing the work of unpicking their own racism, figuring out exactly how it manifests (including within feminist contexts), and trying to improve. I also find it moving that this work stays with them, and has changed their way of being. Yet there is also an acute pinch of something between pain and frustration as I am made to look directly at the extent to which racism is the norm within feminist spaces, so unexceptional that it’s invisible. It’s a bit like being set on fire and then being told by the woman holding a can of gasoline and a smoking match that she hadn’t noticed the flames.

Still, it’s impossible – or at least I find it impossible – to be cynical in response to someone making a wholehearted effort to change and do better. From birth, we breathe in the values that define the society around us; internalising the logic of white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy is all but inevitable. And so we all fail at points. Failure is inevitable, even and especially when it comes to practicing feminist values. The only question is whether or not a woman is prepared to get back up, dust herself off, and try again.

So I curated this list of book recommendations for white women who want to learn more about race politics, how they integrate with feminist politics, and the requirements for interracial solidarity between women. It’s not an exhaustive list. It’s not a definitive list. But these are all texts which articulated certain truths that ought to be brought from the margin to the centre of the feminist movement.

I have quite deliberately chosen books by writers living in Britain, because conversations about race politics tend to become Americentric unless we consciously resist it – which enables that old excuse of racism being an American problem, not something we need to worry about in the UK. Writers of colour are doing revolutionary things in Britain, and deserve more recognition for work that deals with ongoing socio-political problems.

  1. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, by Reni Eddo-Lodge (2017)

Why I'mThis book is the place to start. It explores Black British history, connects that history with the present, and provides highly relevant insights about what it’s like to be a Black woman in contemporary British society. A substantial portion of Why I’m is devoted to the thorny issue of feminism and race politics. In a chapter called The Feminism Question, Eddo-Lodge writes candidly about her love for the feminist movement and the sense of alienation created by white women’s racism.

If you don’t understand why the hierarchy of race creates tension between women of colour and white women, this is an excellent introduction to the surrounding politics. It’s written in straightforward language, expressing difficult ideas in a way that makes them easy to engage with. If I had pots of money, I’d buy enough copies of this book to hand out to almost every white woman that I know.

If feminism can understand the patriarchy, it’s important to question why so many feminists struggle to understand whiteness as a political structure in the very same way.

Why I’m is so important because it contains a wealth of truths that are often repressed. The book holds the kind of truths that are apparent to most people of colour as a result of our lived realities, and there comes a certain relief in hearing them acknowledged when whiteness is so invested in covering them up. The truths found here are also what many white people consider to be a revelation – never having thought about how people of colour experience certain aspects of life, and not having encountered enough of our perspectives for them to seem like a standard part of human experience, white readers might encounter ideas totally new to them. And that’s ultimately a positive thing.

  1. The Good Immigrant, ed. Nikesh Shukla (2016)

The Good Immigrant is an extraordinary collection of essays written by people of colour TGIabout their experiences of British life. The combined insight of the writers will blow your mind. More than half of the contributors are women, though I would encourage you to be open to the essays that are not. Think about it this way. Within the canon of books and ideas we are taught to think of as being central to feminist thought, white women’s experiences are often treated like the normative standard of female experience. There is an underlying assumption that what holds true for white women will have universal relevance for all women. And while all women do experience oppression through the hierarchy of gender, gender is inextricably linked with race in women of colour’s lived experiences. It’s not a case of deciding which one is worse or trying to separate the two: that luxury isn’t available to us, although it’s something white women seem happy enough to speculate about when trying to convince women of colour to pick ‘a side’ in the false binary of feminism or anti-racism.

What makes The Good Immigrant such a powerful book is that is doesn’t try and separate forms of oppression into their own distinct boxes, but instead acknowledges they have a common root: white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. None of the writers try to split themselves into one camp or another for the sake of one-dimensional political analysis. It’s honest, relevant, and – at times – really funny.

There’s something white women can be quite resistant to hearing, from me or anyone else: women of colour have just as much in common with men of colour as we do white women. The similarities and differences we share with each group effectively balance out. Sometimes, one set of commonalities looks like a negative image of the other. So if you don’t immediately see the value of reading every essay in The Good Immigrant to better understand women of colour’s experiences, remember that we share an experience of race with men of colour to the same extent we share an experience of gender with white women.

  1. Sista!: An Anthology of Writings by Same Gender Loving Women of African/Caribbean Descent with a UK Connection, ed. Phyll Opoku-Gyimah (2018)

sistaOften we turn to the words of lesbian women for valuable feminist insights, which makes a lot of sense. Who better to learn about loving, centring, and prioritising women from than lesbians? But white is often treated as the default standard of womanhood – including lesbian womanhood. So I’d like to direct your attention towards Sista!, a mind-blowing collection of writing from lesbian and bi Black women.

I can already feel some women bristling at the phrase “same gender loving” in the title, and do think there is a critique to be made somewhere down the line. However, and far more pressingly, there is an unfortunate pattern of white women seeing the differences between their ways of practicing feminism and Black women’s ways of practicing feminism as proof that Black women are somehow insufficiently radical. White women can be very quick to act as feminist gatekeepers on the assumption that those differences exist because women of colour are less informed, and with a bit of educating we’ll catch up. And so I invite you to read Sista! before criticising.

This book is a kaleidoscope of amazing perspectives about women’s art, women’s community organising, women’s dating practices outside of heterosexuality, women’s bodies, women’s politics, and women’s inner-lives. It contains a wealth of truth on what it’s like to be a Black woman in Britain, and some of the writers – like Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, the Director of UK Black Pride – share a lot of valuable information about lesbian feminist organising that doesn’t centre whiteness. Sista! absolutely deserves to be recognised as a significant work of British feminist writing.

  1. Brit(ish), by Afua Hirsch

Aside from the genius title, you should read Brit(ish) because Afua Hirsh manages to Britishexpress a lot of topical truths about what it’s like to be constantly in the position of outsider because of your race. She makes deft connections between the personal and the political by unpacking Britain’s complicated and – more often than not – ugly history with race and linking it with the realities of being a person of colour in modern day Britain. It’s a striking blend of memoir and cultural criticism, which works well because of the extent to which Black people have been erased from British history. If l’ecriture féminine is your thing, if you enjoy books where women find ways to articulate their own experiences in ways that don’t fit into the masculine logic of genres, this is definitely one for you to read.

Brit(ish) shines a light on a kind of female experience that isn’t always acknowledged as relevant to British culture or the feminist movement. Hirsch addresses issues like colourism and class privilege in a really straightforward way, showing how they manifest in everyday life – that they’re not abstract, and have very real material consequences.

What else makes this book shine is the way Hirsch demonstrates that you can be privileged on one count and marginalised on another at the same time. Drawing from her own life for examples, she conveys how it’s possible for someone to benefit from the hierarchy of class while simultaneously being oppressed as Black and female. (Full disclosure: I’m also a Bougie Black girl.) If you’re uncertain about how intersectionality works, this book does a great job of illustrating how power can flow in multiple and – at points – opposite directions.

  1. Charting the Journey: Writings by Black and Third World Women, ed. Shabnam Grewal, Jackie Kay, Liliane Landor, Gail Lewis, Pratibha Parmar (1988)

Charting the JourneySome truly extraordinary feminist writing emerged in Britain during the 1980s – though overshadowed by the seventies, it was a decade when a number of pivotal feminist perspectives were first published. And while I don’t dispute the lasting importance of any woman’s writing, and the worth of continuing to cite our foremothers, there is a problem with how they are remembered. As is so often the case, white women’s contributions to the feminist movement are enshrined as part of the canon and the words spoken or written by women of colour are treated as having limited relevance or forgotten altogether.

Charting the Journey is one of the boldest and most urgent books British feminism has ever produced. And yet it’s out of print, largely unrecognised. This book challenges misogyny, imperialism, racism, classism, heterosexism – just about every ‘ism’ going – and was pioneering in its criticism of how dominant structures of power acted against women.

A mixture of essays, poems, and interviews from women of colour, reading this book now is useful not only because it uplifts the spirit, but also because it fills in some of the gaps about women of colour’s political organising that exist as a consequence of the selective feminist memory. If you think it’s at all important to know about the feminism that unfolded before the present day, the women’s work that paved the way for what we have now, Charting the Journey is an essential read. There are some dazzling moments. Maud Sulter, a trailblazing artist and Black Scottish feminist, interviews Alice Walker. Women overlooked and underappreciated shine, and they do so unapologetically.

This book also takes an international perspective on the feminism, so if you’re uncertain about how the movement functions globally or want to learn more about how the lives of women are connected around the world, Charting the Journey is a worthwhile starting point.