But Some of Us are Brave – Questions on Race and Feminism
Since starting Sister Outrider, I have received questions about race and feminism on a regular basis. Now I’m going to take those questions and answer them publicly – all queries will be dealt with anonymously, so you have nothing to lose by asking. Anything asked in good faith will be answered in kind, so email your questions to me at SisterOutrider@outlook.com. This first Q&A was a delight to conduct – with the thought and the honesty women put into their questions, how could it be anything else? So please don’t be shy.
Question: What are the main differences in UK and US feminism based on race?
First off, it’s important to state that my life, and subsequently my activism, has all been lived and carried out in the context of the UK – I’m Scottish. I’m also Black and, as a result, will restrict my observations to that because it is both my lane and my area of expertise. Although the majority of Black feminist theory and activism influencing my own work was and continues to be North American, that’s not the same as having the experience of activism in an American setting. In fact, I’d be fascinated to hear what Black women across the pond would make of this same question… But here is my answer:
Although discussion about race in the feminist movement is far from perfect in the USA, in many ways it strikes me as being more open. Maybe that has something to do with British repressiveness. Irrespective of whether white women engage with what their Black sisters have to say in the States, historical racism is more difficult to sweep under the carpet because slavery took place on American soil. It’s much harder to deny. On numerous occasions, white feminist women have informed me – without a trace of irony – that racism is “all over there”, in the American feminist movement. They speak as though women of all races are listened to and prioritised equally within our branch of the movement, and feign a sort of colour-blindness on the understanding that we’re all sisters together. This approach is in keeping with how Britain as a whole treats racism, completely overlooking Britain’s own colonial legacy; how much wealth was generated from slavery; the racial hierarchy used to justify imperialist expansionism; how that wealth and that world view shape today’s political landscape, even within the feminist movement. As a result, white women can be quite disingenuous when talking about race.
In other ways, I think it’s very similar. The problems that African-American feminists talk about relating to race and feminism are almost entirely the problems that Black feminists face in Britain, too. On a daily basis, I see Black women from the UK and the US dealing with the same racism from white women. That shared experience is, in part, why Black feminist texts originating in the States are influential to Black feminist praxis in the UK.
Question: How can non-Black feminists begin to understand the experiences of Black women?
For white women: By listening to us, engaging with what we are telling you, and reflecting on it. By looking at the dynamic of race with the same critical eyes you turn towards examining the dynamic of gender. By accepting that Black womanhood is an entirely plural thing, meaning that our experiences vary due to factors such as class, sexuality, disability, and where we are situated by geopolitics. By ceasing to conceptualise Blackness as something distinct to, separate from, womanhood. By understanding that – no matter how well intentioned – claiming our experiences mirror those of white women is ultimately deeply unhelpful, as it erases a significant part of our reality.
For non-Black women of colour: Though our experiences are not the same, the road to solidarity between us is a smoother. Acknowledging those differences and amplifying one another’s voices is the way to continue paving it, to develop mutual understanding.
Question: Beyond listening to our sisters of colour, are there any practical and direct actions that white women can take with race and feminism? Or any recommendations on books/articles/movies etc. that you feel have covered this subject in an honest and useful way?
Listening is only the first part of a process. Be open to learning, honestly exploring what we say, and even changing your perspective. Think critically about which voices you listen to and value within the feminist movement, which feminist writers you read, which feminist thinkers influence your praxis – what is prioritised and what is not. Since whiteness is treated like a neutral standard, even within the feminist movement, it can be very easy to fall into a pattern of engaging with only white women’s words and ideas. I know I was once guilty of this. You can break that cycle by actively seek out writing by women of colour. After a time, it will become second nature. In addition to challenging racist assumptions, reading our work also makes it more difficult for white women to dismiss us as a subgroup of womanhood, to categorise us as Other and, subsequently, less relevant to the feminist movement.
When interacting with women of colour, remain mindful of the dynamic of race – the difference in structural power, how that manifests. A key problem is that when women of colour voice our experiences, articulate how race intersects with sex, white women speak over us. For example: “That doesn’t happen/I’ve never noticed that.” White women position their own experiences as objective, accepted as standard within feminist dialogue, yet treat what women of colour have to say about race as subjective – based more in our skewed perception than in the material reality of structural inequalities. So often, white women would rather contradict us rather than confront the possibility of their own racism. By applying the same critical thinking to racism as misogyny, actively exploring the resultant ideas even when it becomes uncomfortable, white women can support women of colour.
The first piece of writing I recommend is the conversation between Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich. It can be found in Sister Outsider, a collection of Lorde’s essays, reflections, and speeches. This is described as an interview but, in truth, it’s more of a dialogue – a mutual process. Lorde and Rich were both radically lesbian women, sharing not only a great deal of common ground, but a mutual affinity: they explored each other’s ideas fully, shared an honesty that made their negotiation of race authentic. To put it plainly, they got each other. That relationship demonstrates the best of possibilities for relationships between Black and white feminist women. That Lorde spoke so openly on the subject of race, about how her Blackness shaped her experiences, to Rich – a white woman – indicates a rare ease between them. Throughout that exchange, it is also clear that Rich is conscious of where her whiteness positions her in relation to Lorde.
To a large extent I think it was enabled by their adherence to lesbian ethics. Although lesbian feminism is frequently treated with derision, lesbophobic stereotyping used as a foil to reassure young women that fighting for equality will not, in fact, result in them becoming ugly, angry man-haters, I think it has a lot to offer the contemporary feminist movement. Particularly with regard to race and interracial solidarity between women, a lesbian approach is so far ahead of most other forms of feminist praxis – queer feminism included. With this answer, it would be impossible (and somewhat dishonest) to ignore that my meaningful connections with white women are predominantly between me and white lesbians. That’s out of step with fashionable thinking, of course, but it is the deepest truth I have to offer.
I would also recommend the work of bell hooks, starting with Feminism is for Everybody. She writes in a way that is both direct and accessible about interracial dynamics in feminism, discomfort, and how to achieve sustainable solidarity. Another important work to consider is Angela Davis’ autobiography – in her struggle against all forms of structural oppression, Davis worked alongside people of both sexes, people of all colours and creeds. That she was receptive to this is attributed to the influence of her mother, Sallye Davis, who taught a young Angela the importance of marginalised groups being able to unite. In terms of fiction, the writings of Zadie Smith, Helen Oyeyemi, and Jackie Kay all offer a great deal of insight into how race works in practical and social terms.
Question: What is your view on political Blackness?
The idea has been a part of British activism since the 1970s at least, so I’m slightly puzzled as to why this has only just become a controversy. Initially, political Blackness was used in much the same sense that people of colour is used now – an umbrella term to denote solidarity based on shared experience resulting from where we are positioned by race.
I first encountered the term with my research into Black British feminist activism that took place during the early 1980s. When I met with my supervisor to discuss my placement, she asked – as a number of Black groups I encountered were in fact women of colour – if the scope of my research included political Blackness. I explained that I wanted to focus specifically on Black women’s work. To her credit, she (a white woman) did not try to persuade me otherwise and simply reminded me to outline the parameters of my research, including a justification of how and why I shaped them. That was that. Although bemused by the term on occasion, sometimes concerned by its implications, I was mainly impressed by what women of colour achieved together. Wrongly, I assumed it had faded from the activist lexicon over time and so did not give its subsequent use a great deal of thought. I had imagined it was like when an old person says coloured instead of Black – disquieting, but not representative of how things are typically described: an unfortunate throwback.
Although I fully support interracial solidarity between people of colour, the term political Blackness glosses over nuances that need to be fully explored for that solidarity to exist. It conceals anti-Black racism. It erases the cultures and identities of non-Black people of colour. The idea of political Blackness also makes me uncomfortable, because Blackness isn’t something I can opt in and out of – it’s an inherent part of me that shapes every aspect of my life, overtly political or not. If we flipped it and had Black people describing ourselves as politically Asian, that would be both ludicrous and deeply inappropriate. Black people have no right to claim the experiences or identities of Asian people as our own, for any purpose. The end doesn’t justify the means, especially not when we can use unifying terms like people of colour to describe ourselves collectively.
As is the case with colourism, this is one of those subjects that white journalists are going to write poorly informed think-pieces about that only serve to muddy the water. This is a discussion that needs to take place between people of colour – a conversation that is vital, but cannot be used by whites to undermine our solidarity or collective political action.
Question: Should we [women of colour] take a global approach? Join forces? How do you see feminism creating that bridge?
Absolutely! A global feminist movement is essential to driving any meaningful cultural shift away from white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Feminism is capable of creating that bridge, of connecting all women, but to do so it must cease prioritising white, middle-class, and corporate women above their less privileged sisters – actively challenge all forms of oppression beyond gender. Quite a lot of Black feminist theory provides a blueprint for this. I would recommend starting with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk, We Should All be Feminists, which has also been adapted into a short book. It’s very accessible, but deals with complex themes – structural inequality, feminism in a global context, how different prejudices can overlap. The work of Chandra Talpade Mohanty is also essential when considering visions of global feminism.
Question: How do I talk to white people about intersectionality? How do I make them understand that teaching on women’s leadership entirely through the white lens doesn’t deal with people of colour’s experiences? That there are people coming from a different social environment?
That’s an excellent question, and one that I’m still grappling with. If a white person has never before been expected to consider their own privilege in relation to a person of colour, to explore the idea that their reality is cushioned by a layer or privilege that comes at the expense of another, it can be a very difficult conversation. Rather than engage with what you are saying, quite a lot of white people will reframe the discussion as personal attack, making their hurt feelings the centre of that conversation. Initiating this dialogue has the unfortunate side-effect of providing you with a masterclass on white fragility – by the time it’s through, you’ll be an expert in how that works. Yet, despite how tiring gets explaining that those hurt feelings are a luxury compared to life under structural, systematic racism, it is vital that we speak out. I respect you for taking a stand, sister.
If there is a perfect method, I am yet to find it, but this is how I talk to white people about intersectionality. Initially, I avoid using words like ‘privilege’ or ‘oppression’ in order to keep them from going on the defensive – that all comes into play once you establish a dialogue with them. Find some mutual ground and work with them from there. With white women, I talk with them about our experiences of misogyny until we have an understanding of sorts and then link in how racism overlaps with that in relation to sexual harassment (white men’s assumption that Black women are hypersexual savages), gendered perceptions of my emotions (being written off as an Angry Black Woman), etc. Mostly that works. With men of colour, I reverse that process and transition from our shared experience of racism to my co-existing experiences of racism and sexism. With white men, it can be more difficult because there is less common understanding of oppression. In queer spaces, it varies. Some gay white men are open to that discussion, capable of applying the logic of their own situation to yours. Other white gay men are utterly convinced that nobody has ever been more oppressed than they are, and nothing you can say will change that level of irrational belief. It’s difficult.
Being personal will help with conversations on power and privilege. It demonstrates the practical application of intersectionality, and makes it seem more relevant – an approachable concept rather than abstract feminist jargon. It also makes the whole thing seem more human.