Race, History, and Brexit: Black Scottish Identity

A brief foreword: the following was delivered at Glasgow Caledonian University on the 25th October, 2016, as part of Black History Month. The subject was Race, History and Brexit: Exploring the politics of erasure and documenting the experiences of Black and minority ethnic communities in Scotland post Brexit.

I was proud to speak alongside Dr Ima Jackson and Dr Akwugo Emejulu – both due to their scholarship, and because it was the first time in my career I had sat on a panel composed entirely of Black women.


 

brexit

I am Black. I am Scottish. To some, it’s obvious that the two are not mutually exclusive. To others, Black Scottish identity is a contradiction in terms: either you’re of this place, Scottish and therefore white, or Other, Black. Rest assured, the two fit together – admittedly there are tensions, but those mostly arise from the expectations of other people (read: white people) rather than any aspect of what it actually is to be Black and Scottish. The plurality of Black identity often gets lost in how this discussion is approached, because constructions of national identity are so often treated as binary and static.

“Where are you from, originally?” Five words that plague people of colour across Britain. It’s essentially code for “if you’re here, then why aren’t you white?” When I was a child that question left me feeling sick, scared. I dreaded it, and have developed something of a sixth sense for when it’s coming. What caused me discomfort was that it positioned me as Other, and was often asked because white people couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea of a Black child belonging in an otherwise white family. Now, having grown up and inhabited this world as a Black woman for 24 years, I have a much thicker skin when it comes to micro-aggressions. But people still ask it. Random strangers still feel entitled to ask that, completely out of the blue, their curiosity outweighing basic courtesy.

That question can’t be separated from what it is to be Black and Scottish. It’s an indicator of how white people consider Scottishness, what can and cannot be Scottish. The underlying assumption around which the question is framed is that Scottish identity is inherently white. So please spare me the justifications that it was “small talk” or “friendly interest”. It’s the politics of us and them playing out on a local scale. The greater the incredulity directed towards my Scottishness, the harder it is for the person asking where I’m from to imagine that the categories of us and them aren’t necessarily poles apart.

Always, people are perplexed when I answer with my hometown, on the west coast of Scotland. This doesn’t compute. And that puzzlement grows when they ask, searching carefully for a combination of words that doesn’t sound racist, where I came from “before that”. The amount of truth I share depends on how salty I’m feeling that day – the maternity unit of the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow or, if they try their luck yet again, my mother’s uterus. Talking explicitly about female biology and birth is a great way to return the discomfort – that horror of women’s bodies so often coincides with casual racism.

My Scottish identity is incompatible with their vision of Scottishness. The idea of me having been born “here”, grown up “here”, is fundamentally at odds with their idea of what it is to be Scottish, a vision of Scotland in which the whiteness of natives is ubiquitous. And yet I did grow up “here”, which is why the cognitive dissonance surrounding Scotland’s approach to the politics of Brexit and national identity is so clear to me.

There is a colossal rift between this image of a progressive Scotland committed to social justice and the reality of a Scotland in denial over its colonial legacy. The People Make Glasgow – that’s been our city’s slogan since the Commonwealth Games. Which people, though? Who did make Glasgow? Glasgow merchants of the 18th century amassed fortunes on the back of the slave trade, and slave labour in colonies used to produce tobacco, sugar, and rum. The GOMA, St. Andrew’s in the Square, whole sections of Merchant City – so many of those beautiful buildings were built from that wealth. Wealth created through the exploitation and abuse of Black people. Glasgow wouldn’t exist as we know it without the wealth amassed through slavery, colonialism. That stunning architecture is treated as a source of national pride, but what made it possible is to the shame of Scotland as a nation.

But we don’t like to talk about that. I remember learning about the Empire in school. It was romanticised to the point that the ethics of white people profiting from the slave labour provided by Black people were never unpacked in the classroom. The horror of Imperialism was completely glossed over, the implication being that “civilisation” and a railway system in India made it fair exchange. Of course, making these atrocities palatable for children involves a tacit denial of Black and brown humanity – if British paternalism (and I do include Scotland in that) was overall beneficial, a benign presence across the Empire, then colonial subjects were primitives in need of guidance from white rationality. This construction relies on depicting us as Other, less human than the civilising force of whiteness.

My mum took me to the David Livingstone Centre in Blantyre when I was a kid. At the time, it was just another day out. We saw where he lived, learned that he was a missionary and explorer. Livingstone is even framed as something of a hero for his opposition to the slave trade. That he sought to challenge slavery through “Christianity, Commerce and Civilization” – ridding the continent of barbarism and working towards more efficient ways for Britain to exploit African resources – was largely overlooked. I had intended to revisit the centre before this event, but it is closed for refurbishment.

I don’t recall any specific attention being given to the African men and women on whose lives David Livingstone impacted. His reliance on the slave labour he allegedly stood against, that hypocrisy, wasn’t really considered. The stories of Black men and women were so invisible that I was puzzled by the sticker book I got from the gift shop. It was about a little Black girl who lived in a village, and what did little Black girls have to do with David Livingstone? Still, it was the only sticker book I’d ever got with a Black character, which was so exciting that this line of enquiry receded in my ten year old mind.

None of this history receives due critical exploration. It’s left to fester, and the ways in which Scotland’s history of profiting from slave labour, being a part of Imperial expansion, is largely unaddressed. Existing attitudes cannot be divorced from the historical context that brought them into being.

The narrative of Scottish exceptionalism erases the atrocities of slavery, absolves the Scottish conscience, and allows us to imagine this country as being a fundamentally fairer place than England. The politics of Brexit are not new, and Scotland – in spite of having voted to remain – is not exempt. Scotland has been a part of a context in which that xenophobia and racism has flourished, unchallenged.

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BBC Woman’s Hour – Misogynoir

womanshour

I appeared on BBC Woman’s Hour to discuss misogynoir, Black feminism, and Black women’s experiences of online abuse. Their producer contacted me following the publication of Self-Care or Speaking Out? A Black Feminist Dilemma. It was an honour to be invited, to receive an opportunity to speak about a subject that is ignored altogether too often. The other interviewee was Natalie Jeffers, a truly phenomenal woman, Co-Founder of Black Lives Matter UK.

Ghostbusters actor Leslie Jones, Olympian Gabby Douglas, and Michelle Marie, a black woman who took over the official Ireland community twitter account last week have all been inundated with racist abuse. Jane talks to Claire Heuchan a Black radical feminist from Scotland and Natalie Jeffers, co-creator of Black Lives Matter UK.

The segment starts at around the 21.40 mark. It was recorded on August 22nd and aired on August 31st, 2016.

Listen here.

Black Feminism in Triptych

What you are about to read is the first proper thing I ever wrote about Black feminism. It was originally submitted as coursework for my Gender Studies programme in February 2015. The tutor asked that we write a 1,500 word personal reflective essay on any three feminist texts – not necessarily academic, or even in the medium of print – that had strongly influenced our feminist praxis. It was at this point that I ceased actively distancing myself from Blackness in order to pursue the politics of respectability. It was at this point that I embraced Blackness, including the scholarship and creativity of Black women.

If I had to write it again, there are certain parts that I’d change – tightening up my articulation of geopolitics, for example – and yet I remain genuinely fond of this essay. I have chosen to share it to demonstrate that in feminism, as with all things, the perfect is the enemy of the good. Full disclosure: my feminism was once abysmal. We all start somewhere, and this was it for me.


 

Just as there are many schools of thought within the feminist movement, there are a great many paths to the feminist movement – to becoming a feminist. Furthermore, identifying as a feminist is not the end of a process, but rather the beginning of one:

“Feminists are made, not born. One does not become an advocate of feminist politics simply by having the privilege of having been born female. Like all political positions one becomes a believer in feminist politics through choice and action.” (hooks, 2000)

Although I have considered myself a feminist since early adolescence, my ideas, words, and deeds relating to the movement have – mercifully – evolved in the subsequent decade. This essay aims to explore three texts central to my development as a feminist – specifically, as a Black feminist. The first of my chosen texts is Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, by bell hooks, a book which played a significant role in my understanding of feminist theory. The second text is We Should All Be Feminists, the written adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk, which opened my eyes to the relevance of the feminist movement operating beyond a Western context. The third and final text is Nicki Minaj’s music video Anaconda, a record-breaking riposte to the objectification of Black women within the genre of rap music. All three subjects are the respective works of Black women. The texts in question are responsible for the development of my understanding of the connection between gendered and racialised identities.

In spite of its innocuous title, Feminism is for Everybody made for uncomfortable reading the first time around: until that point, I had been one of those feminists – of whom hooks is deeply critical – who denied that identities beyond gender had any bearing upon the oppression of women . This book challenged the notion of sisterhood – of universally shared female experience – the grounds on which my understanding of feminism had been based, and yet feminist theory had never resonated so well with my own lived experience. Feminism challenges a patriarchal model that is “imperialist, racist, sexist, and oppressive” (hooks, 1981), yet more privileged women often oppose nothing beyond the sexism, as they themselves are not oppressed by other symptoms of the existing hierarchy.

It was hooks that forced me to ask why, although I had read an extensive range of feminist literature produced by white women, racial inequalities faced by women of colour were never mentioned. And, to an extent, it was hooks that provided the answer:

“They [white women] entered the movement erasing and denying difference, not playing race alongside gender, but eliminating race from the picture. Foregrounding gender meant that white women could take center stage, could claim the movement as theirs, even as they called on all women to join.”

However, hooks’ solution raised more questions for me than it resolved, particularly surrounding the notion of self-hood. As Patricia Hill Collins observes, “black women’s lives are a series of negotiations that aim to reconcile the contradictions separating our own internally defined images of ourselves as African-American women with our objectification as the Other.” The self-perception of Black women is, to an extent, warped by internalised misogynoir. Stereotypes inspired by “historically constructed conditions… shaped by structural inequalities, such as racism and sexism” (West, 2003) continue to be shape how Black women view themselves and are viewed by others. Hooks was the first feminist writer I had encountered whose theory encapsulated that reality:

“By repudiating the popular notion that the focus of feminist movement should be social equality of the sexes and by emphasizing eradication of the cultural basis of group oppression, our own analysis would require an exploration of all aspects of women’s political reality. This would mean that race and class oppression would be recognised as feminist issues with as much relevance as sexism.” (hooks, 1984)

The lived experiences of Black women are strongly influenced by racial and gendered oppression. Without the writings of bell hooks, in particular Feminism is for Everybody, I would have remained wilfully blind to that reality. Therefore, this text was essential to me claiming the label of Black feminist.

After having abandoned the belief that feminism was solely concerned with gendered oppression – and that it was the movement ‘led’ by white women – I was no longer able to consider the movement first and foremost in western context without challenging the imperialistic perspective on which that prioritisation was made. My first foray into African feminism was the TED talk delivered by the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a speech which showed me that Black feminism was not some abstract concept, irrelevant to feminism as I had previously understood it, but rather the most relatable branch of the movement that I have yet encountered. Adichie faced claims that “feminism was not our [African] culture” , yet – if we are to accept Adichie’s definition of feminist: “a person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes…” – feminism is fundamentally oppositional to every culture that is built upon a patriarchal structure. Therefore, feminism is no more or less compatible with African culture than European or American.

What surprised me most about Adichie’s words were the similarities between her experiences of feminism and my own. In Nigeria, Adichie experienced the same negative stereotypes surrounding feminism, from man hating to bra burning ; she faced the same erroneous assumptions that gendered inequalities were a thing of the past ; she was irritated by other people’s tacit assumption that the man in her company was in the position of authority, of being rendered “invisible” by it . Adichie is firm in her opposition to traditional roles, exploring the ways in which the potential of girls is limited by the cultural expectations rested upon femininity:

“We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, ‘You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful but not too successful, otherwise you will threaten the man… But what if we question the premise itself? Why should a woman’s success be a threat to a man?” (Adichie, 2014)

Furthermore, Adichie outlines the ways in which patriarchal roles restrict boys as well as girls. She is not the first feminist to consider the ways in which masculinity is damaging to men – in fact, although Adichie and hooks define feminism by different criteria, they are both critical of the cultural expectations surrounding masculinity – yet Adichie’s comments struck me as particularly insightful. By proposing that society consciously shifts collective behavioural patterns regarding gender, Adichie highlights how simple it would be to dismantle patriarchal values in a matter of generations. Adichie’s input allowed me to understand the power of feminism when applied on a global scale, to see that considering feminism in a purely Western light was deeply restrictive.

Finally, although it has not shaped my understanding of feminist theory, my awareness of feminist practice deepened considerably with Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda. To appreciate the cultural significance of Anaconda, the content of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s Baby Got Back (sampled heavily by Minaj) must first be considered: the video begins with two white women scrutinising and stereotyping the figure of a Black woman, who remains silent throughout the exchange, until Sir Mix-a-Lot interrupts. Yet the defence is hardly gallant, being based entirely on the sexual worth Sir Mix-a-Lot places upon Black women, culminating with the iconic line: “My anaconda don’t want none unless you got buns, hon.” Anaconda serves as an obviously phallic metaphor, a powerful and predatory representation of male sexuality. In Sir Mix-a-Lot’s video, Back women dance for his pleasure whilst he passes comment on their physical merits, a common premise within the genre:

“African American men who star in music videos construct a certain version of manhood against the backdrop of objectified nameless, quasi naked Black women who populate their stage. At the same time, African American women in these same videos objectify their own bodies in order to be accepted within this Black male-controlled universe.” (Hill Collins, 2005)

With her own video, Minaj dismantles the tropes exemplified in Baby Got Back. Unlike Sir Mix-a-Lot, Minaj performs alongside the dancers – there is no hierarchy in place. They are free from the critical eyes of white women or the proprietary observation of black masculinity: Minaj and company dance for their own entertainment. That the women, Minaj included, are scantily clad, twerking, and gyrating – doing so without the intent of providing men gratification – is an assertation of independent sexuality. Indeed, Minaj’s inversion of clichés caused me to consider the source of my perceptions of Black womanhood and move beyond them. Though a music video carries less academic weight than a textbook or journal, the feminist message behind Anaconda developed my awareness of the intersection between race and gender.

Contrasting with the images of peaches and pears used by Sir Mix-a-Lot to represent Black women’s buttocks, Minaj snaps a cucumber in half and cuts a banana to slices. What this phallic imagery lacks in subtlety, it makes up for in effectiveness. Minaj clearly rejects a male sexuality in which she is expected to play a passive role, preferring instead to be an active participant. Drake – the only male featured in the video – appears close to the end (demonstrating his irrelevance to the process), and it is notable that Minaj leaves the frame when he attempts to touch her without her consent. Seeing Minaj not only reject a man, but the male sexualisation of the Black female body, was powerful. Until Anaconda, it hadn’t occurred to me that a music video, or any similar medium within popular culture, could spread a feminist message.

Anaconda caused me to re-evaluate the representation of Black women within popular culture, and also the way in which feminism can occur outside of the academic sphere. Like bell hooks and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nicki Minaj challenged my preconceptions surrounding race and gender, catalysing real development in my perspective as a feminist.

Ain’t I a Woman? Racism in the Feminist Movement

A brief foreword: this essay is the third in a series on race and racism in the feminist movement, in which I explore the pitfalls of feminist theory treating white womanhood as the normative standard. Part 1 can be accessed here, part 2 here.


 

Throughout the rich and varied body of feminist theory, within every facet of feminist activism, the rights of women are a central concern – and that is all to the good.  Whether the issue relates to women’s bodily autonomy, socio-economic standing, or political representation, challenging the secondary position women occupy in society is fundamental to feminist theory and practice alike. Yet the question of which women are prioritised within feminism and why cannot be easily dismissed – hierarchies are established and maintained, even under the politics of liberation. Given the feminist movement’s flawed relationship with race, it is a question that requires thorough consideration before it can be answered honestly.

In 1851, an emancipated slave by the name of Sojourner Truth addressed the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention and posed the following question: ain’t I a woman?  That Truth’s speech was distorted by the white gaze in the process of transcription, her dialect roughened and reshaped to fit the popular image of Negro then held by the public imagination – a Southern slave – does not detract from the power of her words. Truth provided one of the earliest and most meaningful deconstructions of womanhood found within feminist theory, unpicking the racism and misogyny defining the cult of true womanhood. Truth was a staunch advocate for the human rights of all women, irrespective of race, and Black men. Her critique of the normative standard of woman remains relevant to this very day.

Feminism has an ongoing problem with race. The movement did not form inside a social vacuum, separate and distinct from white supremacy – indeed, many among its earliest American campaigners became staunch supporters of white superiority when it appeared that Black men would receive the right to vote before white women.

“White supremacy will be strengthened, not weakened, by women’s suffrage.” – Carrie Chapman Catt, 1859-1947 (Founder of the League of Women Voters)

White women made use of racism, exploited racist assumptions, for their own benefit (Davis, 1981). That is an unavoidable truth. White racism is an undeniable part of feminist history, has continually influenced the development of feminist theory, and can be traced directly from early to contemporary feminist discourse.

Mary Wollstonecraft drew numerous unfortunate comparisons between the plight of white women, often with a degree of material and class privilege, and that of their enslaved Black sisters. Wollstonecraft was an abolitionist, a pioneering feminist thinker, yet her otherwise rigorous challenge to the dominant social order was undermined by the polemic slavery analogy (Ferguson, 1992). The argument is of course made that Wollstonecraft was a product of her time, that within her context she was a revolutionary. Except that with A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft unwittingly set a pattern of behaviour that continues to manifest in feminist praxis: a failure to acknowledge how women are positioned by race.

The Feminine Mystique, a book frequently credited with catalysing the second wave of feminism, relied on both racist and classist assumptions. In her study of “the problem that has no name”, Betty Friedan completely overlooked that women of colour and working class women worked outside of the home out of sheer necessity, treating the white, middle-class and college educated woman’s experience as standard (hooks, 1982). In Against Our Will, a book that revolutionised the understanding of rape, Susan Brownmiller exploited racist assumptions of a bestial Black masculinity, the flip-side of which is a hypersexual Black femininity (Davis, 1981) – small wonder that women of colour were alienated by popular feminist thought. Although a great deal of radical feminist thought operated on what would now be considered an intersectional basis, writing from the second wave often treated white womanhood as normative, and women of colour were routinely marginalised within feminist activism (Moraga & Anzaldúa, 1981. Hull, Scott, & Smith, 1982).

Little changed with the third wave of feminism – if anything, emphasis on the individual circumvented any meaningful analysis of structural racism. Even as intersectionality has come to shape recent developments in the feminist movement, white women routinely use it as a means of virtue signalling. Intersectionality is often treated as a way of paying lip service to women of colour without meaningfully exploring any factor shaping our realities beyond the hierarchy of gender. Numerous feminist books published within the last five years have a token chapter (if we’re lucky…) devoted to the intersection of race and sex. To give an example, in a chapter of Everyday Sexism (2014) Laura Bates explored “double discrimination”, her phrase for co-existence of multiple forms of oppression. Though she acknowledged the ways in which women of colour are fetishised as a sexual Other, our experiences were framed as niche, irregular.

White feminists also have an unfortunate habit of discussing racism and sexism as two entirely separate forms of discrimination, which do not meet in a common site and are therefore not worthy of joint consideration. Emer O’Toole’s otherwise stellar analysis of gender roles in Girls Will Be Girls (2013) is undermined by the casual erasure of women of colour resulting from the following phrase: “people of colour or women.” This is, of course, a false dichotomy that positions white womanhood as standard.

Treating white womanhood as normative not only serves to marginalise women of colour within the feminist movement, but positions our needs as secondary to those of white women, propagating the hierarchy of race within feminism. Considering white womanhood as normative defines who is valued as a source of knowledge relating to women’s experiences, and who is not. It shapes the criteria for who is heard within the feminist movement, and who is overlooked by default. If the concerns of white women become simply the concerns of women, then race – conveniently – ceases to be a feminist issue. Women of colour critiquing racism can therefore be dismissed as threats to feminist unity, accused of “trashing” white women when we critique their racism. The racialised depiction of passion, particularly common in the Angry Black Woman trope (Harris-Perry, 2011), automatically invalidates any attempt women of colour to address racism. This is why women of colour are so frequently subject to tone policing in feminist discourse. Silencing criticisms of their own racism enables white feminists to avoid the challenge of uncomfortable self-reflection – they justify doing so by claiming that they act in the name of sisterhood.

However, as Mohanty says, “…sisterhood cannot be assumed on the basis of gender; it must be forged in concrete, historical and political practice and analysis.” White women disregarding and speaking over women of colour are not enacting sisterhood, but rather undermining it through exploiting the hierarchy of race. Contrary to the derailments used to silence women of colour in feminism, it is white racism that stands between the feminist movement and interracial solidarity. In addressing that racism, women of colour seek to overcome the ultimate barrier between women.

I will conclude by encouraging white feminists to apply the same tools of analysis they use in critiquing misogyny to their own racism, to the racism of other white women – to speak out when they see it. When discussing race with women of colour, I advise white women to consider their expectations of men when discussing misogyny – to draw the parallel of oppressor class and oppressed class, and apply those principles to their own conduct. Whether or not white women are aware of it, they are positioned at an advantage over women of colour – the only way they will learn more about it is by listening to our voices, acknowledging our perspectives, and reflecting on what we have to say.

I would also add that there is no shame in making a genuine attempt to improve and getting it wrong. Responding with white defensiveness and attempting to silence a woman of colour is, however, reprehensible. In my relationships with white feminist women, there is a clear distinction: those who are prepared to learn when it comes to race, and those who are not. The former group I trust and value as my sisters. The latter group I’m too wary of for true solidarity to be a possibility. I do not ask for perfection – who does? – but simply that you try.


Bibliography

Davis, Angela. (1981). Women, Race & Class.

Ferguson, Moira. (1992). Mary Wollstonecraft and the Problematic of Slavery. IN: Feminist Review, No. 42.

Harris-Perry, Melissa. (2011). Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America.

hooks, bell. (1982). Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center.

hooks, bell. (2000). Feminism is for Everybody.

eds. Hull, Gloria, Scott, Patricia Bell, & Smith, Barbara. (1982). But Some of Us are Brave.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. (2003). Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity.

eds. Moraga, Cherríe & Anzaldúa, Gloria. (1981). This Bridge Called My Back.

Smith, Barbara. (1998). The Truth that Never Hurts.

The Outsider Within: Racism in the Feminist Movement

A brief foreword: this essay is the second in a series on race and racism in the feminist movement. It is a work of personal reflection. No individuals, organisations, or events are/will be named or directly identified. My objective is neither to call out nor to heap praise on any woman, but rather to highlight some realities of interracial dynamics between women in feminism.


 

The personal is political. So goes the rallying cry of second wave feminism, a perspective which has characterised a significant body of feminist theory. It is for this reason that I have decided to share a reflection upon my experience as a Black woman within the movement. There is a theory within Black feminism that being an outsider on the grounds of both race and sex positions Black women as watchers, gives us particular insight into dominant power structures and the means by which they manifest (Hill Collins, 2000). With this in mind, I aim to live up to the standards set by my foremothers and improve this movement for the women of colour who will follow after me.

Feminism is for everybody – so says bell hooks. (Note: hooks is not arguing that the movement should prioritise men, or any other dominant class, but rather be fully inclusive on grounds of race, class, and sexuality.) This text was critical in my development of a Black radical feminism, the moment when black became Black. Feminism is for Everybody outlined the importance of acknowledging race and class alongside sex if white supremacist capitalist patriarchy is to be dismantled, and provided a blueprint for true interracial solidarity between women. Here, hooks posited that sisterhood can exist between women of colour and white women provided that race is acknowledged as a hierarchy, racism as a system of power, from which white women benefit. If white women continue to deny the privilege of whiteness, disregarding countless testimonies delivered by women of colour, we have no reason to trust them as political allies – this is hooks’ perspective, and one with which I agree wholeheartedly.

Interracial solidarity between women is possible. I know. I have experienced it. But I have also learned that it is so rare, the alternative so uncomfortable, that I will never condemn another woman of colour for claiming otherwise. This solidarity is by no means guaranteed – in my opinion, it is safer never to expect it – but it is powerful when it goes right.

The first place I experienced true interracial solidarity within the movement is the women’s organisation where I volunteer. The values and praxis of this organisation are intersectional in the purest sense – it is a place for women of colour, working class women, lesbian and bi women, women with disabilities. Women negotiating marginalised identities are not treated like tokens, or a box to be ticked off for funding purposes: we are at the heart of the organisation. The longer I am there, the more I appreciate this. The longer I am there, the more uncommon I realise this situation actually is. It is a place where I can sit around a table working with white women and know that they do not view my Blackness as an easy method of virtue-signalling, something to be displayed when convenient and disregarded when it is not. Difference isn’t fetishised or ignored, but acknowledged and treated accordingly – exactly the criteria outlined by hooks. These are women who live their feminist principles, and I am proud to work alongside them.

It is worth observing that the majority of white women with whom I share solidarity are significantly older than me, and/or lesbian, and/or working class. As to why these women tend to be older, feminism was significantly more radical when they started down the path of activism, which undoubtedly shaped their perspective on structural oppression. Radically feminist politics added depth to their structural analysis, to the extent that bypassing race became both extremely difficult to justify and intellectually dishonest.

It is easy to answer the lesbian part of this dynamic – in her novel The Night Watch, Sarah Waters postulated that lesbians tend to show one another “gallantry” on the grounds that nobody else will and, broadly speaking, I think that she is right. In some cases these are women who fought Section 28 – it’s reasonable to imagine they now watch the babydykes flourish and consider it an achievement. Having experienced considerable marginalisation themselves, these women are more likely to be conscious of the marginalisation experienced by others – how intersectionality is supposed to, but does not always, work.

Why I find easier kinship with white working class women is also clear. They are consciously unlearning racism as I (a Black middle class woman) am consciously unlearning classism. As multiple works of feminist scholarship have argued, race and class are inextricably linked by dominant structures of power. Neither Black nor working class features in the rosy picture of life in the UK as painted by the Little Britain mentality. We both belong to the parts of society rendered other, over there, not quite People Like the hegemonic ‘Us’. White working class women have engaged with my activism and shown me extraordinary kindness in a way that, to my thinking, exemplifies sisterhood.

These women have shown me every personal and professional consideration. They have encouraged my work, amplified my voice, and listened closely to what I have to say. They are my sisters. They have my trust. And they are the exception to the rule of white racism.

Participating in feminist movement as a Black woman is, frankly, difficult. That’s not because of the MRAs and right-wing racists who are routinely overwhelmed by the urge to call me nigger, suggest that I “go back to Africa” (FYI: impossible – to my regret, I’ve never actually visited that continent, and they are never willing to follow through by funding my plane tickets…), make some allusion to slavery or the Ku Klux Klan in the hope of causing me discomfort, etc. These people are irrelevant. Over time, I have grown desensitised to such attacks. No, what makes my participation in feminism difficult is witnessing and experiencing the racism of white women I had previously considered allies – women who understand misogyny on a structural level, yet turn a blind eye to racism. They have been responsible for every one of the numerous points at which I have wanted to leave the movement, to distance myself from what I know to be a vital cause.

Whenever I discuss race, the result is the same. White, self-proclaimed feminist women have sworn at me, spoken over me, questioned my feminist credentials, mocked me, made thinly-veiled racist jokes, and – most bizarrely – policed my race. So quickly, white defensiveness evolves into white cruelty. I will not give examples. I will not include screencaps, or name and shame the culprits. What I will say is that it happens regularly enough that I am automatically on guard with white feminist women, just waiting for the microaggressions to begin. And they do.

Some white feminists even feel compelled to set little tests, which I can pass only by demonising Black men and prioritising sex over race in my analysis. I can’t even indulge in that petty internet pastime of commenting on Kanye West’s antics without some white woman showing up in my mentions, expecting me to a) monster Black masculinity b) stop listening to his music c) distance myself from Black culture in the name of sisterhood. If I critique the misogynoir directed towards Black women in the music industry, such as Nicki Minaj, the response is similarly predictable. White women gloss over the way Nicki repeatedly encourages her female fans to focus on their education and never depend upon a man, they ignore the message behind her music and the way it uplifts Black womanhood – they only want to critique the sexuality of her image. Bonus points if Taylor Swift is held up in contrast as a good role model for girls.

And then there are the white women who view associating with me as a fast-track to cookies. “I can’t be racist: I have a Black friend!” On multiple occasions, white feminists have tagged me in their Twitter arguments with racists, often exposing me to graphic images and racist language in the process. They do this with less thought towards me than Ash Ketchum ever showed a Pokémon he sent into battle. They do it in the belief that I will fight on their behalf, use my voice to provide them with the moral high ground. I will not. Images of white violence against Black people are deeply unsettling. That entitlement towards my intellectual labour is an act of contempt. It is dehumanising, accompanied by a real disregard for my wellbeing.

It is impossible to feel solidarity with women who expect me to downplay and ignore my Blackness and its political implications for their comfort.I cannot feel sisterhood with women who expect me to stay silent because it’s “just race”, dismissing a system of oppression that continues to shape my life as “a distraction”. There is no room for trust on my side when I am constantly deflecting racism. When I talk about race and feminism with other women of colour, they know. They instinctively get it. There is no need to explain, and that is a wonderful thing in a world where garden variety bigots and white feminists alike are directing racism our way.

Yet, I cannot bring myself to give up on the vision of a united feminist movement. The white women with whom I share solidarity have all worked to achieve that level of consciousness. They show that racism does not have to be a barrier between women if we are all committed to challenging white supremacy. In Angela Davis’ autobiography, there is a particularly touching passage in which she reveals her mother’s commitment to interracial solidarity in the struggle against all forms of oppression. Sallye Davis’ generosity of spirit, the strength she showed in having kept such hope alive, are inspirational.

If I am willing to remain an optimist, it is because I believe in a feminist movement built upon true solidarity – one in which “all women” means “all women”, not an insistence that white women are prioritised. It’s not here today, but it can be. When white women are ready to put in the work, I will be prepared to call them sister.


Bibliography

Davis, Angela. (1974). An Autobiography.

hooks, bell. (1984). Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center.

hooks, bell. (2000). Feminism is for Everybody.

Hill Collins, (2000). Black Feminist Thought.

Smith, Barbara. (1998).  The Truth That Never Hurts: Writings on Race, Gender and Freedom.

Waters, Sarah. (2006). The Night Watch.

Your Silence Will Not Protect You: Racism in the Feminist Movement

A brief foreword: This is the first in a series of blog posts on race and racism in the feminist movement. It is not a feel-good piece. Equally, it is not a reprimand. It is a wake-up call – one which I hope will be answered.


 

Solidarity between women is vital for liberation. If the feminist movement is to succeed, feminist principles must be applied in deed as well as in word. Although intersectionality is used as a buzzword in contemporary activism, in many ways we have deviated from Crenshaw’s intended purpose: bringing marginalised voices from the periphery to the centre of the feminist movement by highlighting the coexistence of oppressions. White women with liberal politics routinely describe themselves as being intersectional feminists before proceeding to speak over and disregard those women negotiating marginalised identities of race, class, and sexuality in addition to sex. Intersectionality as virtue-signalling is diametrically opposed to intersectional praxis. The theory did not emerge in order to aid white women in their search for cookies – it was developed predominantly by Black feminists with a view to giving women of colour voice.

White feminists of all stripes are falling down at the intersection of race. Liberal feminists frequently fail to consider racism in terms of structural power. Radical feminists are often unwilling to apply the same principles of structural analysis to oppression rooted in race as in sex.

White women who are self-proclaimed feminists have a habit of expecting women of colour to choose between identities of race and sex, to prioritise challenging misogyny over opposing racism, in the name of sisterhood. Classic Black feminist texts dating from the early 1970s onwards detail this phenomenon, and precious little about interracial dynamics between women have changed since their publication. What white women often fail to consider is that, for women of colour, race and sex are inextricably linked in how we experience the world, how we are situated within structures of power. Yet discussion of race is often treated like a derailment from the Real Feminist Issues (i.e. those relating directly to white women), the implication being that women of colour are at most a sub-group within the movement.


Regardless of how their feminist politics manifest, the question of race is one that is not so easily answered, or even acknowledged, by many white women. Through both feminist theory and activism, women develop a structural understanding of the patriarchal hierarchy and where we are positioned within that system. Techniques such as consciousness raising and collective organisation have enabled women to connect the personal with the political – and it is deeply personal. Within feminism, women become fully aware of how we are marginalised by patriarchy. White women rightly consider themselves to belong to the oppressed class in terms of sex. Being aware of the implications carried by belonging to the dominant class, white women are therefore discomfited by the notion of being the oppressing party in the hierarchy of race (hooks, 2000). This brings us to our first fallacy:

‘Making it about race divides women.’


Time and time again, this line is used by white women to circumnavigate any meaningful discussion of race, to avoid the discomfiting possibility of having to confront the spectre of their own racism. This argument suggests that the effort of feminist women would be best concentrated on challenging sex-based oppression at the exclusion of all other manifestations of prejudice. In adopting such a narrow approach to activism, such women preclude the possibility of tacking misogyny’s root cause: white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (hooks, 1984). Sole focus on misogyny is, ultimately, ineffective. Selective structural analysis will only take us so far. Racism and classism, like misogyny, are pillars of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, upholding and perpetuating dominant power structures. Patriarchy cannot be dismantled whilst the other vectors in the matrix of domination (Hill Collins) remain in place. Such laissez-faire politics and activism lack the depth, rigour, and ethical consistency required to drive a cultural shift towards liberation. They also beg the question: what sort of feminism looks on, indifferent, when injustice thrives?

No, talking about race does not divide women. It is racism that does that – specifically, the racism white women direct towards women of colour, the racism that white women observe and fail to challenge because, ultimately, they benefit from it. Whether intentional or casually delivered, that racism has the same result: it completely undermines the possibility of solidarity between women of colour and white women. White women’s unwillingness to explore the subject of race, to acknowledge the ways in which they benefit from white supremacy, makes mutual trust impossible.

‘But white women don’t benefit from white supremacy.’

To argue that misogyny is the primary agent in all women’s oppression is to assume that the category of ‘woman’ overlaps entirely with ‘white’ and ‘middle class’, which plainly isn’t the case. The hierarchy of race has as much bearing on the lived experiences of women of colour as the hierarchy of gender. When roughly 70% of British people in jobs paying the national minimum wage are women, it is evident that class plays a pivotal role in the lives of working class women.

Frequently white women complain about brocialism – the tendency of leftist men to remain mysteriously incapable of noticing how the hierarchy of social class is mirrored by that of gender. This is a valid critique, a necessary critique. It is also a critique that is entirely applicable to white, self-proclaimed feminist women unwilling to engage with anti-racist politics. Even as they experience classism and/or lesbophobia, white women continue to benefit from their whiteness.

According to the Fawcett Society, the gender pay gap for full-time employees sits at 13.9%. BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) people with GCSEs are paid 11% less than our white counterparts, a deficit that rises to 23% among graduates. In addition, BAME graduates are more than twice as likely to be unemployed than white graduates. Women of colour face a double jeopardy of sorts, our labour undervalued both on grounds of race and sex. Zora Neale Hurston once described Black women as the “mule uh de world”, an observation that is spot on when applied to the wage gap. BAME women are also more likely to be asked about our plans relating to marriage and pregnancy by prospective employers than white women. White women are objectified by men, the result of misogyny. Women of colour are objectified, Othered, fetishised, and treated like hypersexual savages by men, the result of misogyny and racism. BAME and migrant women also “experience a disproportionate rate of domestic homicide.”

Even if you are not prepared to listen to what women of colour have to say about racism, the facts and figures bear out.

‘Women are stronger when we all stand together.’

Yes. Sisterhood is a powerful, sustaining force. But expecting women of colour to remain silent on the subject of race for the sake of white comfort is not sisterhood – quite the opposite. Sisterhood cannot exist so long as white women continue to ignore the hierarchy of race whilst simultaneously expecting women of colour to devote our energies solely to helping them gain equality with white men.This paradigm is exploitative, a toxic manifestation of white entitlement within the feminist movement.

For sisterhood to exist between women of colour and white women, we must have an honest conversation about race within the feminist movement. White privilege must be acknowledged and opposed by white women. Whiteness must cease to be treated as the normative standard of womanhood within feminist politics. The same logic that is applied to critiquing misogyny must be applied to unlearning racism. Issues facing women of colour must be considered a priority, not a distraction to be dealt with after the revolution. Women of colour must cease to be treated like a box-ticking exercise and instead acknowledged for what we are, what we have always been: essential to the feminist movement.

All this is imperative if we are to achieve true solidarity – and that is possible. As things stand, the onus is on white women to reach out and repair any rift that occurs on the basis of race. Ultimately, it will bring us all closer to liberation.


 

Bibliography

Davis, Angela. (1981). Women, Race & Class.

Grewal, Shabnam, ed. (1988). Charting the Journey: Writings by Black and Third World Women. 

Hill Collins, Patricia. (2000). Black Feminist Thought.

hooks, bell. (1984). Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center.

hooks, bell. (2000). Feminism is for Everybody.

Lorde, Audre. (1984). Sister Outsider.

Wallace, Michele. (1978). Black Macho and the Myth of Superwoman.