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.

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Dear Roxane – An Open Letter on Queer Feminism & Lesbophobia

A brief foreword: this letter was written as an invitation for queer, bisexual, and straight women who call themselves feminist to reflect upon their lesbophobia.


 

Dear Roxane,

As every woman active in the modern day feminist movement knows, there is a growing schism between queer ideology and sexual politics. The conversation has grown fraught, with those on either position growing heartsick from the conflict. It’s difficult, because points of connection are missed, especially on social media – where everything becomes somehow more polar, more about point-scoring than moments of political connection. And it was my aim to connect with you in raising the issue of lesbophobia, to share a meaningful engagement from which we could both develop, because otherwise nothing ever changes and the same mistakes are repeated ad infinitum – and a feminist movement that replicates the hierarchies of mainstream society is in no way equipped to dismantle them.

I am not writing with the intention of ridiculing you, nor do I claim to be some paragon of feminist virtue. The reality of the situation is that I’m just about as bougie as a Black girl can be, and held onto some shitty class politics until turning twenty two, politics which I will spend the rest of my life unlearning and resisting. While it is embarrassing to get things wrong, devastating to realise you have been complicit in the oppression of others, the real shame would be in turning your back on the women who try to address behaviour born of politics that are damaging to them. With this in mind, I hold compassion for you as I address the lesbophobia you displayed on Twitter.

In response to Kat Blaque’s Tweets about a confrontation with Arielle Scarcella, you said the following: “Oh my god. I am on the edge of my seat. Slap her.”

Roxane 1 beta

From the context I gather this remark was intended with humour, a pass-the-popcorn type jibe about the drama, but the joke falls flat when we consider just how vulnerable lesbian women are in heteropatriarchy. Just this week it was announced that Aderonke Apata, a Nigerian lesbian rights activist, won her claim for asylum in Britain after a 13-year struggle to have the state recognise that as a lesbian she was at extreme risk of violence if forcibly repatriated. Lesbian women are treated with revulsion simply for loving women. We are disparaged and degraded for experiencing same-sex attraction, and abused – often brutally – for living woman-centric lives. By all means, criqitue Arielle Scarcella’s videos – I’m not stopping you. But please do not suggest that violence against a lesbian woman becomes legitimate simply because she subscribes to a set of politics that are not aligned with your own. Not even in jest.

Blaque is a well-known trans blogger. Scarcella is a well-known lesbian blogger. Blaque has made numerous videos denouncing Scarcella, and the beef between them is well known in the sphere of LGBT+ online community.  In many ways, this issue goes beyond the drama that happens between them, stretching to encompass all the tensions of gender discourse.

Gender discourse isn’t abstract. How the politics of gender manifest in our lives has very real consequences for everyone involved. You know this, and have written about it with great eloquence. The tensions within gender discourse have grown particularly explosive where lesbian sexuality is involved. What is sometimes referred to as the cotton ceiling issue – whether lesbian women ought to consider those identifying as transwomen as potential sexual partners – has become hugely controversial in the last few years.

For me, it is obvious: lesbians are women who exclusively experience same-sex attraction. As transwomen are biologically male, lesbian sexuality does not extend to include them. That is not to say lesbian women would not consider taking trans-identified lovers – as I have previously written, the boundary between a butch lesbian and a transman is often blurred, and many non-binary identified people are biologically female too – but rather that our interest is reserved for those who are physically, biologically female. It is also worth pointing out that approximately two thirds of transgender people have reported undergoing some form of gender-confirming surgery, meaning that the majority of transwomen are in possession of a penis – a definite no insofar as lesbian sexuality is concerned.

From what I have seen of her videos, Arielle Scarcella is of a similar view – she defends lesbian women’s right to assert sexual boundaries and the validity of same-sex attraction. No matter your opinion on Scarcella’s work, one question arises when considering the accusations of transphobia levelled against her: why, in 2017, is it contentious for a lesbian to categorically reject sex involving a penis? The short answer is homophobia and misogyny, both of which can be found in abundance in queer attitudes towards lesbian women.

Roxane 3 betaWhen I pointed out that your words were lesbophobic, you claimed this could not be because you are “queer as the day is long.” Since you are queer as opposed to lesbian, it is not for you to decide what is lesbophobic or not. Being queer does not inoculate you against homophobia or, indeed, lesbophobia. Queer is an umbrella term, a catch-all which may encompass all but the most rigid practice of heterosexuality. It is not a stable category or coherent political ideology, as anything considered even slightly transgressive may be labelled queer. Queer is a deliberately amorphous expression, avoiding specific definitions and fixed meanings. It need not relate to the politics of resistance, and indeed cannot relate to the politics of resistance because queer lacks the vocabulary to positively identify oppressed and oppressor classes. Queer seeks to subvert the dominant values of society through performativity and playfulness as opposed to deconstructing those values by presenting a radical alternative to white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. Queer is the master’s tools trying to dismantle the master’s house, and – inevitably – failing. Predictably, queer replicates the misogyny of mainstream society. As lesbophobia is essentially misogyny squared, identifying as queer in no way indicates a politics that values lesbian women.

Being a lesbian woman is not the same as being a queer woman. That observation is not rooted in purism, but fact: lesbian and queer are two different realities. Devoid of concrete definitions, to be queer is to be sexually fluid – meaning the term queer is male-inclusive. Within the possibilities implied by queer, there remains scope for men to gain sexual access to women. As queer women’s sexualities do not explicitly – or even implicitly – reject men, queer womanhood is accepted in a way that lesbian womanhood will never be. The lesbian woman represents a threat to the status quo, to male dominion over women, in a way that the queer woman by definition (or lack of) never could. As a result, lesbians have been consistently pathologised and abused since the 1800s. I do not dispute that there are difficulties in the lives of queer women, but a degree of social acceptance may be purchased through vocally disparaging lesbian women in the way that you disparaged Arielle Scarcella.

To publicly shame and ridicule lesbians in an effort to alter our sexual boundaries is to follow the blueprint created by compulsory heterosexuality. And make no mistake – it is Arielle Scarcella’s adherence to lesbian sexual boundaries that Kat Blaque takes issue with, the outspoken self-definition of a lesbian woman, that have resulted in allegations of transphobia. The problematising of gay and lesbian sexuality is an unfortunate product of queer politics. If biological sex is unspeakable, so too is same-sex attraction; if same-sex attraction is unspeakable, so too is lesbian sexuality – the logic of queer forces us back into the closet by insisting that lesbian women and gay men abandon self-definition. And self-definition is fundamental to the liberation of any oppressed group. Sooner or later, those embracing the label of queer must reckon with that homophobia.

Arielle Scarcella sought to address the tensions between queer people and lesbian women in her videos – which, regardless of whether or not one agrees with her content, is a brave thing to have done. Few feminists want to speak publicly in a candid, heartfelt way about the relationship between gender and sexual politics because, irrespective of whether or not one speaks in good faith, a witch hunt is all too likely to ensue. Without having exhaustive knowledge of her work, I can at least say that I’m grateful Scarcella is speaking up for herself and her lesbian sisters. Even and especially within LGBT+ community, this is a particularly unpleasant time to be a lesbian.

The long answer as to why it is newly acceptable to pressure lesbians into altering our sexual boundaries reflects upon the history of anti-lesbian sentiment within feminism, from Betty Friedan branding us the “lavender menace” to Buzzfeed’s Shannon Keating dismissing us as “stale and stodgy.” Lesbians are routinely used as a foil to reassure the wider world that ‘normal’ women can engage in feminism without ending up ugly, angry, and bitter like the dykes. We are caricatured with great cruelty, presented as a malevolent extreme or reduced to a joke. The comparatively mainstream branches of feminism, be they liberal or radical, actively engage in the devaluation of lesbian womanhood.

The only reason your ‘joke’ about slapping Arielle happened is because she is a lesbian who categorically rejects dick. Queer politics have created a strange, painful context where lesbian women are acceptable hate figures in feminism for simply maintaining our sexual boundaries. But lesbians are not the whipping girls of other women, queer or bisexual or straight, nor do we exist as your symbol for all that is wrong within the feminist movement. Using lesbian women as such builds upon a long history of lesbophobia.

If lesbian women are suggesting to you (as many of us did) that your words contain lesbophobia, it is time to listen. Lesbians are not the oppressor class, and we certainly don’t hold the lion’s share of the power in an LGBT+ or feminist setting. Brushing us off as malicious TERFs is a whole lot easier than engaging with anything we have to say about the relationship between gender and sexual politics, a slick manoeuvre that enables queer discourse to delegitimise our words and the women with the courage to speak them. Lesbian women are lesbian precisely because we love women – not because we feel hatred towards any other demographic, although a respectable case has been made for misandry. Lesbian women do not exist to provide validation. The sole purpose of our sexuality is certainly not to provide affirmation. Lesbian sexuality is not a litmus test for transwomanhood.

When it comes to queer politics, lesbians are made into some sort of bogeyman – a spectre that haunts the progressive left. “Cis lesbian” and “TERF” are used almost interchangeably in queer discourse, used as shorthand to convey how utterly contemptible we supposedly are. If our concerns about coercion within queer culture are “TERF nonsense”, our sexual boundaries can be challenged without compunction. There is an Othering, a monstering of lesbian women, that is fundamental to this process. Demonising lesbians for being lesbian means that we are not worthy of compassion or basic human decency, that jokes about slapping, punching, raping, and otherwise abusing us are fair game in feminism.

Demonising lesbians for our sexual orientation is lesbophobia, no matter how you look at it. And I hope that you do look at it, Roxane, that you – and other women, be they queer or bisexual or straight – have some honest, critical self-reflection about why bits of your feminism come at the expense of lesbian women, about why you think that is an acceptable trade to make. This conversation is long overdue.

Yours Sincerely,

Claire

Lezbehonest (Parlons franchement) à propos de l’effacement des femmes lesbiennes par la politique queer

Lezbehonest about Queer Politics Erasing Lesbian Women is now available in French! Many thanks to TradFem for the translation.


Ce texte est le deuxième d’une série d’essais sur le sexe, le genre et la sexualité. Le premier, intitulé « Le sexe, le genre et le nouvel essentialisme », est disponible ici. J’ai écrit au sujet de l’effacement des lesbiennes parce que je refuse d’être rendue invisible. En élevant la voix en dissidence, je cherche à offrir à la fois un certain degré de reconnaissance à d’autres femmes lesbiennes et une résistance active à tout cadre d’analyse politique, hétéro ou queer, affirmant que les lesbiennes sont une espèce en voie d’extinction. Si les femmes qui aiment les autres femmes et qui leur accordent la priorité constituent une menace pour votre politique, je peux vous garantir que vous faites partie du problème et non de la solution.

Ce texte est dédié à SJ, qui me rend fière d’être lesbienne. Ta bonté illumine mon monde.


lesbian_feminist_liberation-badge

« Lesbienne » est à nouveau une catégorie contestée. La définition la plus littérale de la lesbienne – une femme homosexuelle – est sujette à une nouvelle controverse. Cette lesbophobie ne provient pas des conservateurs sociaux, mais se manifeste au sein de la communauté LGBT+, où les femmes lesbiennes sont de plus en plus diabolisées comme intolérantes ou rejetées comme une blague éculée en raison de notre sexualité.

Dans le contexte postmoderne de la politique queer, les femmes dont l’attraction s’adresse strictement au même sexe sont présentées comme un archaïsme. Sans surprise, les désirs des hommes gais ne sont pas policés avec une fraction de la même rigueur : dans un contexte queer, les hommes sont encouragés à prioriser leur propre plaisir, alors que les femmes continuent à subir l’attente que nous accommodions les autres. Loin de subvertir les attentes patriarcales, la politique queer répète ces normes en perpétuant les rôles normatifs du genre. Ce n’est pas une coïncidence que les femmes lesbiennes essuient la plus grande part de l’hostilité queer.

En même temps que la généralisation du fascisme et la normalisation de la suprématie blanche, ces dernières années ont donné voie à une avalanche de sentiment anti-lesbien. Des interventions médiatiques hypothétiquement adressées aux lesbiennes et écrites par elles nous informent que nous sommes une espèce en voie d’extinction. Des ressources féministes se demandent si nous avons même besoin du mot lesbiennes, des textes d’opinion affirment que la culture lesbienne est éteinte, d’autres lancent à la légère que le mot lesbienne « ressemble à une maladie rare », et certains commentaires vont jusqu’à soutenir que la sexualité lesbienne est une relique du passé dans notre meilleur des mondes sexuellement fluide : tous ces écrits positionnent délibérément la sexualité lesbienne comme démodée. Ils encouragent activement le rejet de l’identité lesbienne en confirmant l’impression que la lectrice se verra comme quelqu’un de moderne et de progressiste si elle est prête à rejeter cette identification. Tout comme le patriarcat récompense la « fille cool » pour s’écarter des idéaux féministes, la politique queer récompense la lesbienne qui s’associe à n’importe quelle autre étiquette.

Décourager les lesbiennes de s’identifier comme telles, de revendiquer la culture et la politique d’opposition qui sont notre héritage, est une stratégie efficace. Heather Hogan, rédactrice en chef de la publication prétendument lesbienne Autostraddle, a récemment pris d’assaut le réseau Twitter et comparé toute résistance anti-lesbophobie à une politique néonazie. Hogan se décrit elle-même comme lesbienne, mais qualifie les perspectives féministes lesbiennes d’intrinsèquement intolérantes.

Des internautes activistes queer ont mené, en Grande-Bretagne, une campagne d’intimidation de la Working Class Movement Library, sous prétexte que celle-ci avait invité la féministe lesbienne Julie Bindel à prendre la parole durant le mois d’Histoire du mouvement LGBT. Ils et elles ont inondé la page Facebook de cet événement de messages agressifs et harcelants qui ont été jusqu’à des menaces de mort. Le fait que l’analyse féministe de Bindel considère le genre comme un rapport hiérarchique est suffisant pour qu’on la qualifie de « dangereuse ». La nouvelle Bibliothèque des Femmes de Vancouver a également été l’objet d’une campagne d’intimidation menée par des militant-e-s queer, qui ont exigé que les responsables suppriment certains textes féministes de leurs étagères au motif que ceux-ci « préconisent le préjudice » : la majorité des livres jugés répréhensibles sont l’œuvre de féministes lesbiennes telles qu’Adrienne Rich, Ti-Grace Atkinson et Sheila Jeffreys. Il n’est pas nécessaire d’être d’accord avec tous les arguments avancés par les théoriciennes féministes lesbiennes pour constater que l’effacement délibéré des perspectives féministes lesbiennes est un acte de lâcheté intellectuelle enracinée dans de la misogynie.

La sexualité, la culture et le féminisme des lesbiennes sont tous l’objet d’une opposition nourrie issue de la politique queer. Le projet de rendre les lesbiennes invisibles – une tactique classique du patriarcat – est justifié par les queer au nom du principe que la sexualité et la praxis des lesbiennes ont un caractère exclusif, et que cette exclusion équivaut à de l’intolérance (en particulier envers les hommes et les femmes transgenres).

LE LESBIANISME A-T-IL UN CARACTÈRE EXCLUSIF?

Oui. Toute sexualité a, par définition, un caractère exclusif, étant façonnée par un ensemble particulier de caractéristiques qui définissent les paramètres de la capacité d’une personne à éprouver une attraction physique et mentale. Cela n’a en soi rien d’intrinsèquement intolérant. L’attraction est physique, ancrée dans une réalité matérielle. Le désir se manifeste ou non. Mais la sexualité des lesbiennes est et a toujours été sujette à des attaques, du fait que les femmes vivant une existence lesbienne ne consacrent pas aux hommes de travail affectif, sexuel ou reproductif, toutes choses exigées par les normes patriarcales.

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Une lesbienne est une femme qui est attirée et intéressée par d’autres femmes, à l’exclusion des hommes. Que les frontières sexuelles des lesbiennes fassent l’objet d’une régulation aussi vigoureuse résulte d’une misogynie concentrée, que vient aggraver l’homophobie. Des femmes désirant d’autres femmes, à l’exclusion des hommes; des femmes consacrant notre temps et notre énergie à d’autres femmes, à l’exclusion des hommes; des femmes construisant notre vie autour d’autres femmes, à l’exclusion des hommes; c’est de ces façons que l’amour lesbien représente un défi fondamental pour le statu quo. Notre existence même contredit l’essentialisme traditionnellement utilisé pour justifier la hiérarchie du genre – « il est naturel » que devenir subordonnée à un homme soit tout simplement le lot de la femme dans la vie. La vie lesbienne est intrinsèquement oppositionnelle. Elle crée de l’espace pour des possibilités radicales, auxquelles résistent aussi bien les éléments conservateurs que libéraux.

Ces jours-ci, la sexualité des lesbiennes est contestée par le discours queer parce qu’elle est une reconnaissance directe et positive de la condition biologique de femme. Arielle Scarcella, qui gère un blog vidéo renommé, a été attaquée pour avoir affirmé qu’en tant que femme lesbienne, elle « aimait les seins et les vulves, et non les pénis ». Son attirance pour le corps féminin a été dénoncée comme « transphobe ». Le fait que le désir lesbien provient de l’attirance pour le corps féminin est critiqué comme essentialisme, car il est seulement déclenché par la présence de caractéristiques féminines de sexe primaires et secondaires. Comme le désir des lesbiennes ne s’étend pas aux transfemmes, il est « problématique » dans le cadre d’une lecture queer de la relation entre le sexe, le genre et la sexualité.

Au lieu d’accepter les frontières sexuelles des femmes lesbiennes, l’idéologie queer situe ces frontières comme un problème à surmonter. L’éditorialiste LGBT du webmédia Buzzfeed, Shannon Keating, préconise la déconstruction de la sexualité lesbienne comme éventuelle « solution » :

«… peut-être pourrions-nous simplement continuer à contester la définition traditionnelle du lesbianisme, qui présuppose qu’il n’existe que deux sexes binaires et que les lesbiennes peuvent ou devraient n’être que des femmes cisgenre attirées par les femmes cisgenre. Certaines lesbiennes qui ne sont pas 100% TERF demeurent par trop enthousiastes de se refuser à fréquenter des personnes transgenre en raison de « préférences génitales« , ce qui signifie qu’elles ont des idées incroyablement réductrices sur le genre et les corps. »

La sexualité lesbienne ne peut être déconstruite jusqu’à disparaître. En outre, problématiser la sexualité lesbienne est en soi problématique : c’est une forme de lesbophobie. Le lesbianisme a de tout temps été « contesté » par le patriarcat. Tout au long de l’histoire, les hommes ont emprisonné, tué et institutionnalisé les femmes lesbiennes, et soumis les lesbiennes à des viols correctifs – tout cela afin de contraindre les femmes à l’hétérosexualité. La lesbophobie de la vieille école applique la règle du « don’t-ask-don’t-tell », le prix de l’acceptation sociale (c.-à-d. d’un tant soit peu de tolérance) étant notre acceptation d’être présumées hétérosexuelles, straight jusqu’à preuve du contraire. Ce qui n’était pas menaçant.

La lesbophobie « progressiste » est beaucoup plus insidieuse, car elle a lieu dans les espaces LGBT+ dont nous faisons ostensiblement partie. Elle nous demande de rejeter le mot « lesbienne » au profit d’étiquettes douces et câlines, du type Women Loving Women, ou suffisamment vagues, comme le mot « queer », pour éviter de communiquer un ensemble strict de frontières sexuelles. Elle nous demande d’abandonner le caractère spécifique de notre sexualité afin d’acheter la paix avec d’autres personnes.

LE PLAFOND DE COTON

Le débat sur le « plafond de coton » est généralement rejeté comme une « exagération des TERF*», mais en fait, cette expression a d’abord été créée par le trans-activiste Drew DeVeaux. Pour la bloggeuse féministe queer Avory Faucette, la théorie du plafond de coton vise à « contester la tendance des lesbiennes cisgenre à […] refuser de coucher avec des transfemmes ou d’inclure des transfemmes lesbiennes dans leurs communautés sexuelles ». En mars 2012, la section torontoise de l’organisation Planned Parenthood a organisé un atelier devenu notoire à ce sujet, sous le titre Abolir le plafond de coton : renverser les obstacles sexuels que rencontrent les transfemmes queer.

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Les frontières sexuelles des femmes lesbiennes sont ici présentées comme un « obstacle » à « renverser ». On légitime l’élaboration de stratégies visant à encourager des femmes à se prêter à des actes sexuels non désirés, et la coercition sexuelle est excusée au nom du langage de l’inclusivité. Ce discours s’appuie sur l’objectivation des femmes lesbiennes, nous positionnant comme les objets d’une conquête sexuelle. La théorie du plafond de coton repose sur une mentalité de droit d’accès sexuel au corps des femmes, nourrie par un climat de misogynie.

La sexualité des lesbiennes n’existe pas pour assurer la validation de qui que ce soit. Les frontières sexuelles d’une femme ne sont jamais négociables. Soutenir de telles thèses dans le discours queer recrée la culture de viol produite par le patriarcat hétéro. Que l’accès sexuel aux corps des femmes lesbiennes soit traité comme un test décisif, une validation de la transféminité, est déshumanisant pour les femmes lesbiennes. Présenter la sexualité lesbienne comme motivée par l’intolérance crée un contexte de coercition, dans lequel les femmes sont pressées de reconsidérer leurs frontières sexuelles par crainte d’être qualifiées de TERF.

Refuser l’accès sexuel à son propre corps n’équivaut pas à une discrimination à l’encontre de la partie rejetée. Ne pas considérer quelqu’un comme éventuel partenaire sexuel n’est pas une forme d’oppression. En tant que catégorie démographique, les femmes lesbiennes ne détiennent pas plus de pouvoir structurel que les transfemmes; s’approprier le langage de l’oppression pour débattre du « plafond de coton » est, au mieux, hypocrite.

Pour dire les choses carrément, aucune femme n’a jamais l’obligation de baiser avec qui que ce soit.

CONCLUSION

La sexualité lesbienne est devenue le lieu où explosent des tensions de longue date entourant le sexe et le genre. Cela tient à ce qu’en régime patriarcal, les femmes subissent le lourd fardeau de valider les autres. Les hommes gais ne sont pas qualifiés d’intolérants du fait d’éviter les relations vaginales en raison de leur homosexualité. Aimer les hommes et désirer le corps masculin relève d’une certaine logique dans un contexte culturel construit autour d’une priorité à la masculinité, dans un cadre queer. Inversement, comme le corps féminin est constamment déprécié sous le patriarcat, les femmes qui désirent des femmes sont l’objet de soupçons.

« Si je ne me définissais pas pour moi-même, je serais écrasée et réduite aux fantasmes des autres à mon sujet et je serais dévorée vive. » Audre Lorde

Les lesbiennes ont dû affronter la même vieille combinaison de misogynie et d’homophobie de la part de la Droite, et elles sont maintenant scrutées sans relâche par la gauche queer et libérale : que nous soyons des femmes désintéressées par le pénis est apparemment litigieux d’une extrémité à l’autre du spectre politique. Les conservateurs sociaux nous disent que nous sommes endommagées, anormales. La famille LGBT+ à laquelle nous sommes censées appartenir nous dit que nous sommes désespérément démodées dans nos désirs. Les deux tentent activement de déconstruire l’existence même de la lesbienne. Les deux tentent de rendre les femmes lesbiennes invisibles. Les deux suggèrent que nous n’avons tout simplement pas encore essayé la bonne bite. Ces parallèles entre la politique queer et le patriarcat ne peuvent être passés sous silence.

______________________

*NdT : TERF = Trans-Exclusive Radical Feminists, une injure à la mode

 


BIBLIOGRAPHIE

Julie Bindel. (2014). Straight expectations.

Cordelia Fine. (2010). Delusions of gender.

Audre Lorde. (1984). « Scratching the Surface: Some Notes on Barriers to Woman and Loving », dans Sister Outsider.

Rebecca Reilly-Cooper. (2015). Sex and Gender : A Beginner’s Guide.

Adrienne Rich. (1980). La contrainte à l’hétérosexualité et l’existence lesbienne


 

Translation originally posted here.

Original text initially posted here.

Young Feminist Summer School – AGORA ’16

A brief foreword: this is my account of attending Young Feminist Summer School in Brussels from the 7-11th of September, 2016. My place was very kindly sponsored by Engender. Text originally posted here, on the European Women’s Lobby site.


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Before

My name is Claire. I am a feminist – specifically, a feminist of the Black and radical variety. I live in Scotland, where I’ve had the privilege of volunteering with the Glasgow Women’s Library for almost two years, and blog as Sister Outrider. In the year since I started blogging, I’ve written about intersectionality, how race operates as a dynamic, racism in the feminist movement, and white privilege. In addition, I run feminist workshops and speak about Black feminism at events; although writing has been crucial to me finding voice as a feminist, my priority is improving life for other women – women of colour in particular – and that requires deeds as well as words. So I applied to AGORA ’16 Young Feminist Summer School in order to learn more about how to bridge the gap between feminist theory and practice, between ideas and reality.

Feminist Summer School. Those three words promised everything about which I am passionate: learning, feminist politics, and an opportunity to work with brilliant women. Fifty places were open to young women from all across Europe, inviting us to Brussels for five days to learn how best our activism can bring about change. One of those places is mine. Young Feminist Summer School was organised by the European Women’s Lobby, the largest network of women’s organisations in the whole of the EU. Having read about the extraordinary achievements of my fellow attendees, the strength of their commitment to women’s liberation, it is clear that this project has so much valuable knowledge to offer about feminist campaigning, organisation, and projects.

It still doesn’t feel real. My plane tickets are booked, the boarding passes printed, and yet I can’t quite believe that I’m going to Brussels in September. I applied to AGORA ’16 at the beginning of the year – the deadline fell on the same day as my university required applications for PhD research proposals to be submitted and coincided with the funding application, too. Although things got a bit hectic (translation: staring at the computer screen and questioning the meaning of life, the wisdom of my professional choices), this turned out to be a bit of a blessing in disguise because, being so very stressed about my future, it didn’t occur to me to be nervous about whether or not I’d be accepted into Young Feminist Summer School. I had simply thought, best case scenario, AGORA ’16 would be a nice way to spend the time between finishing the dissertation for my MLitt in Gender Studies and starting my research degree. And it will be.

Confession time: my application was totally last minute. I sent the email within a half hour of the deadline, indecisive until the eleventh hour. This is because I wasn’t sure that I’d have enough to offer the programme to be a deserving candidate. Silly, in retrospect – there’s nothing to lose by applying. And yet… Young Feminist Summer School had been popping up on my Twitter feed for weeks, being shared again and again by women I respect both in a sisterly and professional capacity. It looked so wonderful – a way to develop feminist praxis, meet and learn from young women all around Europe, and go to Brussels, a place which I had never visited before.

One of my fellow Glasgow Women’s Library Volunteers, Louisina, talked so enthusiastically about how much her daughter had enjoyed and gained from attending the first Young Feminist Summer School in 2015. Feminist Summer School looked so brilliant that it became almost intimidating. Was I good enough, accomplished enough, to apply? And then I thought about how much impostor syndrome holds women back. I asked myself whether a straight white man with my skills, experience, and enthusiasm would ever question his right to such an opportunity. The answer: don’t be ridiculous! And so I send the form.

Full credit for this budding confidence goes to Glasgow Women’s Library. Spend enough time in women’s spaces, and you start to believe that anything is possible. All of the qualities other women see in you grow slowly visible to your own eyes, shape your self-perception, and gradually eclipse self-doubt. Through recognising the talents of other women, your own as you become part of the team, you subconsciously begin to unpick the layers of misogyny that were hidden away in the depths of your mind and develop a justifiable faith in your own capabilities.

My feminist praxis is intersectional, which means that I consider hierarchies like race and class alongside gender in my analysis of power structures and approach to feminism. In the run up to Young Feminist Summer School I have also been wondering how, as a Black feminist, I would fit in a European context. Here in Scotland, in Britain, it can be something of a struggle getting people to think about racism in the same way they think about sexism, to acknowledge that the two are connected. There persists an idea that race matters less than sex in determining women’s experiences, a perspective which completely overlooks the realities faced by women of colour. How that conversation generally unfolds in other parts of Europe, it is impossible to guess – I am very much looking forward to finding out, to hearing from women whose experiences are different to my own.

There is no way to know what a project as new as Young Feminist Summer School is going to be like, to predict how I will find being in a new place and meeting so many new people. But all of those possibilities are exciting. I am proud to be going, and delighted that this year my home country Scotland is represented by two women of colour. It is the ambition of the European Women’s Lobby’s vision for building a better future, the creativity of their approach in bringing young feminists together to learn from each other, that make Young Feminist Summer School such a thrilling prospect. I look forward to AGORA ’16, and to everything that will follow in the work of my fellow participants.

During, Part 1

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I am not anxious about Young Feminist Summer School. Throughout the journey from my quiet coastal hometown to Glasgow, from Glasgow’s familiar buzz to the remote beauty of Edinburgh, I am free from the acute panic that typically plagues any journey to an unknown destination. In both a direct and philosophical way, this novel peace of mind is due to my enthusiasm for ideas, for translating feminist theory into practice. The night before AGORA I was on the phone with a friend, and we stayed up until about 3.30 in the morning talking about the tension between identity politics and structural analysis in the politics of liberation. It was one of those intricate, intense conversations to which a good night’s sleep is sacrificed without a second thought. Now, some 12 hours later and thousands of feet above the earth’s surface, I am physically too tired to experience anxiety. (Note to self: experiment with sleep deprivation before all significant undertakings…) At AGORA ’16, I expect to meet like-minded women. Though we have never met, I anticipate finding a similar passion in my fellow feminists.

Here in Brussels, on my first trip abroad in the capacity of feminist, I begin to think about national identity. Walking through passport control, I froze for a moment, uncertain of whether I could still queue as an EU citizen in the wake of Britain’s referendum, until Nadine told me it was valid for another 2 years. The practical implications of Britain leaving the European Union are still emerging, an endless string of unfortunate consequences. When the time eventually comes to change my passport, I wonder what will replace it. A woman after my own heart, Nadine has also suggested we Tweet our First Minister Nicola Sturgeon a selfie of the AGORA ’16 Scottish contingent. I like this idea. After the Black woman who ran the Ireland Twitter account for a week was sent torrents of racist abuse (as in the UK, Black can only ever be safe if it is considered other to the ’’us’’ who belong and make up the fabric of society), it feels important to show how proudly two women of colour are representing Scotland.

The air-conditioned bus into the city, with its tinted windows, is cool and quiet, allowing for introspection. I am a Scottish feminist. I am a Black woman. Here, in a different context, it’s a fresh opportunity to consider how those things fit together. I flew here with two women also involved in Scottish feminist organisations, and I myself am part of Glasgow Women’s Library. The three of us have worked together before. For the first time, I see how I fit into the nexus of Scottish feminism – rather than trying to define myself, my work, against it, I see now that they fit under the umbrella of Scottish feminism.

It can be disproportionately white, back home. Whenever I go to feminist events, I am consciously looking for women of colour. Are we a part of the audience? Are we represented on the panels? Are women of colour involved behind the scenes in feminist organising? If a feminist space or event is entirely white, it is quite simple: I do not belong in that context. No feminist setting that does not value and listen to what women of colour have to say is relevant to me – how can anyone fit into a group where they are ignored, made irrelevant as Other? In Scotland it feels like something is changing for the better. Our new Poet Makar, Jackie Kay, is a Black lesbian woman. At GWL we have established Collect:If, a network run by and for creative women of colour. Dr Akwugo Emejulu convened the Women of Colour in Europe conference in Edinburgh last weekend, highlighting the academic and creative contributions of voices marginalised altogether too often. That same weekend Lux screened a documentary about Audre Lorde, The Berlin Years, at Glasgow Film Theatre and it sold out – people cared about Lorde’s life, her significance. All these things give me place, knit me a little closer into Scottish feminism.

From bus to train, we venture into Brussels. I take a particular delight in asking for ’’un voyage, s’il vous plait’’. The ticket is quite different from those in Scotland. Trundling my case behind me, I am an obvious tourist. Upon getting stuck in the accessible ticket barrier, I envision spending the rest of my life in that perspex box before managing to escape. Emerging from the metro is like stepping into another world – so different to my native Scotland. The sky is blue, the streets cobbled, and the architecture distinctly European. On our way to the Mayoral reception there is so much to feast our eyes on, and the scent of freshly cooked waffles is near-impossible to resist, but it is well worth it upon arrival.

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The town hall is exquisite. It looks more like the Vatican than a municipal building, and I am in awe. Upon entering the reception, I am given a cool glass of champagne – so refreshing after a long day. It is significant, I think, that among the first to approach me and introduce themselves of the Summer School attendees are my fellow Black women. This recognition is so welcome – being in a totally unfamiliar environment can get unsettling. Without preamble, we delve into a fascinating conversation: the state of the UK Labour party, Black identity across the diaspora, how “diversity” only extends so high in organisations, the ways in which Black women do and do not relate to one another… It’s exhilarating.

The achievements of these women are extraordinary, and it is a privilege to be among them, energised by their enthusiasm and the breadth of their vision for engineering social change. This conversation, under the fresco decorating the town hall ceiling, is all that I had been hoping for and more. Everything that I have planned with my own work seems possible – a very promising start to Young Feminist Summer School. We head back to the hostel, buoyed by so much feminist company as we traverse the streets of Brussels. Later that evening, as my roommate curls up in bed reading Patricia Hill Collins, I realise AGORA ’16 is exactly where I am meant to be.

During, Part 2

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Feminist Summer School exceeds my every expectation. Our first session sets the tone for everything that follows, establishing our core values: to speak with intention, to listen with attention, and be mindful of the group. As we share collective responsibility for the conversation and how it impacts on our fellow participants, everyone tries to be particularly conscious of the needs of others – an early lesson on how to successfully translate feminist principle into practice, the value of which becomes apparent as the day continues. This element of care enables honest and open discussion, and truly creative thought flourishes. Critics of safe spaces perhaps do not always see how, in certain circumstances, they enable rather than hinder discussion. And there is no end of challenge to our opinions, even those closely held – as one participant observes, “there are many feminisms here, not one feminism.”

We are all curious about our sisters: where their experiences match our own and where their experiences are different. Our contexts are diverse in this group – 49 women representing 22 countries – and there are factors of race, disability, sexuality, class, faith, language, etc. shaping our individual lived experiences in a vast number of ways, so that curiosity is pressing.

There are many shared concerns, particularly the malaise that sets in with the popular misconception that we have achieved equality now, that we don’t really need feminism any more, a falsehood that enables the erosion of advancements that have already been made towards equality. This perception that equality exists erases ongoing social inequalities. The rise of fascism in Europe, of right-wing politicians propagating misogyny, racism, homophobia, classism, and anti-immigration rhetoric is also causing a palpable worry that transcends borders. We discuss how austerity disproportionately impacts women, the intersection of disability and gender politics that is overlooked in so much of the feminist movement, and how in conservative countries – even in Romania, where the procedure is legal – abortion and other aspects of reproductive healthcare are made so difficult to access.

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During the lunch break, these conversations continue at an informal level, women seeking out women whose perspective has resonated with them or overlaps with their own cause. I step into a discussion about the politics of Black women’s hair – how wearing it natural creates assumptions of radical politics in the vein of Malcolm X, and relaxing results in a whole host of assumptions about the politics of respectability. Through the conversation, parallels are drawn between the warped perceptions connecting Black women’s hair with our politics and the similar implications projected onto hijabi women.

During the afternoon sessions there are three workshops to choose from, two of which we can attend, offering real insight into the European Women’s Lobby’s campaigning. The first I attend is Whose Choice? A workshop on prostitution, the sex industry, and why the European Women’s Lobby endorses the Nordic Model, which is to criminalise purchasing sex (almost always done by men), not selling sex (almost always done by women) with a view to ending demand. This subject is particularly contentious in the feminist movement, with a divide between those who focus on the significance of individual choice and those who consider the context in which choice is made. Pierrette, our facilitator, creates an environment that is conducive to respectful discussion – as a result, we feel unafraid to share our perspectives, even when they are contradictory at points. It is a constructive way to learn from one another. With umbrella organisations it can sometimes be difficult to pinpoint a specific set of beliefs, and I gain a new respect for the European Women’s Lobby because they have a clear set of principles through which prostitution is acknowledged as a form of male violence against women in their analysis and campaigning.

Then we move on to Yes Means Yes, a workshop on sex education and consent. The European Women’s Lobby are starting a project to promote healthy attitudes towards sexuality. It is an area about which most of us are passionate and Nadine, my fellow Scottish candidate, does this professionally. As always, the quality and the depth of knowledge in the room is impressive. This makes me hopeful: it is only through education that we can change attitudes towards sex, consent, and subsequently behaviour. As many as three million women and girls are victims of sexual assault or other forms of male violence against women. It is endemic. But we have the ability to change that.

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Every moment filled with learning, Young Feminist Summer School is an exciting experience – but it is also tiring. So we go out into the city to unwind during the welcome party and get a sense of Brussels. It is a beautiful city, though I will never get used to the traffic. Despite the chaos of the roads, there is something fundamentally peaceful about Brussels. The balconies and bridges are so very picturesque, the architecture distinctly European. Yet, in some ways, Brussels is reminiscent of my home city: Glasgow. It has a friendly atmosphere. Le Space confirms that initial perception. There is wine and good food. On the bookshelves, I find George Jackson’s prison letters and pour over his words to Angela Davis. One of Zadie Smith’s less known short stories, The Embassy of Cambodia, sits between volumes of French literature. This is my type of bar.

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All the same, it has been a very long day. And I am still hungry. Three of us slip out in search of that renowned Belgian cuisine: chips. Becca is the strategist, orchestrating a methodical sweep of these unfamiliar streets. It is not long until we are rewarded. The chips are hot, delicious, and melt in the mouth. Bliss for three euros. It is no disrespect to AGORA ’16 that I consider this moment one of the highlights of my trip. When we return to the bar, someone has added chalk art to the walls. “Feminisme et Frites” – the perfect combination.

During, Part 3

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Visiting the European Parliament is one of the highlights of Young Feminist Summer School. Despite having been up late the night before for the party, there is a buzz about the group that carries me through the tiredness. We get up early for breakfast, double check that we have our passports, and it is time to go. The parliament building is visually stunning, a modern fusion of glass and chrome. All the flags on display, the variety of languages on every sign, convey a politics of unity and consensus that resonate with me, reflect the purpose behind the AGORA ’16 group.

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Ahinara, one of the Young Feminist Summer School attendees, delivers a talk on the European Union’s significance to her, describing her time writing about the institution as a journalist and then interning from the EU upon realising its power for enacting social change. Her enthusiasm and knowledge chipped away some of the mistrust I feel towards large bodies of government. As Audre Lorde said, “the master’s tools can never dismantle the master’s house” – in broad terms, my view was that the state existed as a fundamentally patriarchal and colonial institution and, as such, was fundamentally an oppressive structure. But the words of another attendee have been playing over in my mind concerning the European Union: “government has the power to liberate as well as oppress.” We learn from each other constantly during AGORA.

The next session is inspirational. Malin Bjork and Soraya Post, two MEPs active on the femme committee, come and speak to us. That the Young Feminist Summer School is worth fitting into their busy schedules is striking: I feel aware that not only of our existing achievements, but our potential for enacting change in the future, give us real significance as a group. Hearing Malin and Soraya discuss their politics and careers is uplifting, as their careers make clear that driving meaningful social change can be possible. Soraya’s words in particular chime with me: she is the first Roma woman to be elected as an MEP, and the intersection between race and sex shapes her politics. Soraya’s perspective is fully humanitarian, and this is in no way a cop out of claiming the label feminist: she fights for the humanity of Roma women and men, women around the world, to be recognised. The basic definition of human that shapes Soraya’s humanitarian politics does not stop at white and male – as is too often the case – and her passion for justice is wonderful to behold.

Soraya and Malin belong to different parties. They hold different perspectives, particularly with regard to the mainstreaming of gender. What strikes me is how their disagreements are in no way a barrier to them working together constructively, making the world a better place for women and girls. Many governments, especially the British Parliament, could stand to learn a great deal from their methods. Setting aside political point-scoring and one-upmanship not only brings integrity to politics, but brings about meaningful results.

I wasn’t prepared for how powerful an experience visiting the European Parliament would be. For the British women among the group, it is a poignant moment in the wake of Brexit. In the past, I have been ambivalent about the European Union – so concerned with reform that I didn’t necessarily appreciate the social good that it has brought about. It feels sad that I have only fully appreciated Britain’s membership of the European Union when we are on the cusp of losing it. The macho, isolationist politics of sovereignty have cost us a great deal.

That afternoon we begin learning about Appreciative Inquiry – far more exciting than it sounds. This session is, at heart, about stories and the role they play in providing us with self-definition. Storytelling is broken down into a process of three parts: storyteller, harvester, and listener. In groups of three, we take turns in each role and learn first-hand the ways in which narrative is shaped by those bearing witness in addition to the person telling the story. Sitting in the courtyard with Anna and Milena, the fountain splashing gently behind us, I am content. We share a great deal. It is good to listen. It is good to be heard.

Next, we meet local feminists involved in campaigns around Brussels, representing three organisations: Isala, the House of Women, and Garance. Isala is a team of volunteers working to prevent women in prostitution from becoming isolated, to stop society from turning a blind eye to their exploitation. Garance teaches self-defence in order to increase women’s agency against male violence, with the core aim of making women and girls feel safe, strong, and free as we occupy public space. The House of Women is, in some ways, reminiscent of Glasgow Women’s Library: it is motivated by empowering women in very practical terms. They seek to emancipate women through teaching new skills, encouraging independence, and advocate an openness that enables women to take up the public space to which we are entitled – as Adrienne Rich said, “When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her.” Hearing about their work helps us to break outside the Brussels bubble of political power and consider how the threads of feminist activism weave together to form what is a global movement.

As Soraya Post says, “you have to take your place in the room, set the agenda.” And the participants of AGORA ’16 are ready to do that. We prepare our own workshops and invite our fellow feminists to attend. The expanse of knowledge present and available in the room is extraordinary. From feminist podcasts to instructions on grassroots organising, a range of practical skills are covered. With discussions on the role choice plays in feminism and how to be a white ally to women of colour, the distance between feminist theory and practice is bridged with finesse.

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The next morning I facilitate a workshop on intersectionality and co-existing identities in the feminist movement with Rosa, a Brazilian feminist with a flawless undercut and keen insight into geopolitics. The honesty women bring to the group is humbling, and I am profoundly touched that they are prepared to share so much of themselves in the discussion. The personal is political, a truth unavoidable when considering intersectional feminism. Running workshops is a very rewarding experience. I received facilitation training from Glasgow Women’s Library, who are always keen to upskill their volunteers, and have been putting on workshops since. It is a wonderful thing, to be able to do what you believe in. Afterwards, I go to a workshop facilitated by Hélène of Osez le Féminisme in which we share strategies for activism. My own plans for Sister Outrider slide into sharper focus.

We spend the afternoon at Amazone, where almost twenty women’s organisations hold office space. I decide to write, reflect, and take some time for myself in their sumptuous garden. Nearby, an impromptu workshop runs. It is a peaceful place. We return in the evening for our final party – bold lipstick and a black dress turns out to be a popular look. I am described as “witchy” – exactly the aesthetic I was striving for. Though we are openly critical of the beauty standards to which women are held, there is a lovely discussion about our lipstick choices, the ways in which our female friends have used it as a means of encouragement and support, a way to help us find little moments of joy. My own lipstick, Vintage Red, carries enough such history that every application brings me a measure of daring.

The wine flows, and so too does the conversation. It is lovely to be young, to be surrounded by other women as the night draws in, and to have the freedom of moving through Brussels as une femme seule. On such evenings, it feels as if anything is possible. And for the women of Young Feminist Summer School, it is.

After

My intention for Young Feminist Summer School had three parts: 1) Learn about effectively bridging the gap between theory and activism. 2) Support other women in their learning and be part of collective growth. 3) A bonus objective – have fun and meet new people. AGORA ’16 brought me all of these things and more.

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In the space of five days, in the company of fifty women, my feminist politics have developed in ways that defied prediction. And I have grown a little more self-assured. After getting off the plane at Edinburgh Airport, returning home, I waited for the confidence AGORA brought out in me to fade – early on in the Summer School, I ceased questioning my right to speak as part of the group and the validity of my contributions – but it didn’t. The magic of Young Feminist Summer School lingers, continues to do its work. On the flipcharts papering the wall, a post-it note perfectly sums up why that is: “You will never walk alone! Because all AGORA will always support you.” That support has brought with it a degree of self-belief that continues to thrive.

Agora is a Greek word meaning marketplace – a public space in which not only goods but ideas were exchanged. And that sharing of ideas was exactly what we accomplished. That reciprocal learning was the highlight of Young Feminist Summer School, seeing the extraordinary depth and variety of knowledge other women brought and answering it with my own. And I became more aware of what it really is to be part of a collective unit, too – how powerful it is to be in a group of women, the way each and every one of us shapes the dynamic. This is something I have done in my home context, for a range of purposes, and found infinitely rewarding. That it is possible in an international setting too makes the world seem even more full of possibilities.

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Young Feminist Summer School has also acted as an antidote to the Imposter Syndrome that shadows me through every achievement. In secondary school, I was certain that my university place would fall through. It didn’t. After completing my undergraduate degree, I was terrified I wouldn’t qualify to study for the Gender Studies MLitt. I did. This summer I was more than slightly concerned that the university would write to explain that offering me a place to undertake a research degree had actually been part of an elaborate practical joke. It wasn’t. Yet it never occurred to me to assume the inevitability of success. But, during AGORA, I found the courage to mention my PhD plans when people asked about my career and life. Nobody was surprised or disbelieving. They even thought my project – researching Black feminist activism in the UK – sounded exciting, worthwhile.

Something about the way these women responded to my ambitions, saw my hopes for the future as legitimate, enabled me to do the same. After Young Feminist Summer School, I didn’t let myself hesitate before talking about my PhD plans when asked – at a party filled with other feminists, at the Collect:If network for creative women of colour, with curious family friends, I mentioned my intention of undertaking further study. The more I spoke of those plans to other people, the more real they began to feel. The doubt was there every single time, but speaking about my studies made it a little more possible to see myself through the eyes of the women I was speaking to. Gradually, it got easier to ignore the voice of imposter syndrome and see success as the natural product of hard work and skill.

Looking back on Young Feminist Summer School, the thing that stands out most is how our politics shaped the way we treated each other, our dynamic as a group, and our relationship with public space. The compassion and trust within the group enabled real sisterhood. It also made being away from home, in another country previously unvisited, less intimidating than it otherwise could have been. Walking through the streets of Brussels as a group of fifty feminists was an adventure. Being together with other women, laughing and unafraid as we explored the city at night, was as much a novelty as a treat.

AGORA was a totally enriching experience: I am richer in travel, knowledge, experience, and – best of all – richer in friends. Since we left Brussels and returned to Britain, the UK AGORA group have stayed in regular and close contact. It’s a lovely support network, a group of understanding and encouraging feminist friends. We all have projects on the go – watch this space – and are planning to meet up again very soon, which is really exciting. I am grateful that Young Feminist Summer School brought us all together.

Daring to apply for AGORA ’16 is one of the best decisions I have ever made. It renewed my commitment to feminist politics at a time when I was growing weary. It reminded me of the joy found in working together with women to better the world around us. It gave me a positive vision for a feminist future. It let me be part of something so much bigger than myself. Watching my AGORA sisters grow and gain confidence over five days, consistently encouraging others to do the same, was a real honour. And being part of Young Feminist Summer School is an experience I will carry gladly for the rest of my life.

Self-Care or Speaking Out? A Black Feminist Dilemma

On the personal and political implications of misogynoir.

Shortlisted for the 2016 Write to End Violence Against Women Awards, Best Blog category.


The Personal

I should be writing my dissertation. I should be writing the abstract for that conference paper. I should be preparing the workshop on feminist voice I am to deliver. There are a hundred and one things I should be doing – things essential to my life that I am not doing, because I am curled under my desk having a panic attack.  The abuse I receive online has reached new heights. For the first time (and probably not the last) I feel physically unsafe because of it. Along with the persistent misogyny, the overt racism, the steady drip drip drip of “shut up nigger”, there is something new: the threat of violence.

A white man told me that he wanted to hit me with his car. He wanted to hit me with his car and reverse over my body to make sure that I was dead. The scenario was so specific, the regard for my humanity so little, that it felt more real somehow than any of the other abuse I have received. It shocked me in a way that nothing on Twitter ever had before. I could hear my bones crack. He believed I deserved to die for being Black and having an opinion different to his own, that endorsing Black Lives Matter made me a legitimate target of violence. Seconds later, another white man appeared in my mentions with a chilling casualness to say that my being ran over would be “fair enough.”

It is not ‘just the internet’. This abuse does not fade from the mind when I close my laptop, when I put down my phone. It is a part of my life. It has altered my way of being. It is, at points, debilitating. There is a clear pattern: it is when I am most vocal, most visible as a Black feminist woman, that the abuse occurs most frequently, is the most vitriolic. Not a single one of the accounts I have reported in the week (for calling me nigger, for threatening me, for telling me to go back to Africa, etc.) has been suspended. Twitter Support’s failure to penalise accounts spreading racist threats and harassment creates the impression that people are free to abuse others with impunity – and Black women are so often the targets of that abuse.

In the same week, Black Girl Nerds received vicious harassment on Twitter. Media Diversified, whose editor Samantha Asumadu is a Black woman, were subject to appalling abuse over their endorsement of Black Lives Matter UK. Like Leslie Jones before her, Normani Kordei announced that she was taking a break from Twitter due to the relentless racism directed her way. Misogynoir was everywhere I looked.

The Political

Feminista Jones authored an article explaining that “vocal black women on social media are the least protected users of these platforms”, and she is quite right. Visible Black women voicing our perspectives face a double jeopardy of racism and misogyny, neither of which Twitter makes the slightest effort to address. We are abused, often by white men, in the hope that we will stop speaking and fade into the background. This sustained misogynoir is a powerful silencing tactic designed to undermine any direct challenge to hegemonic structures of power. Any deviation from the white perspective, the male perspective, is treated like a threat and targeted accordingly.

Therefore, Black women are faced with two obvious choices. The first is to capitulate, to accept the reward of silence: to be on the receiving end of substantially less abuse, resulting in far less disruption to our emotional and mental well-being. Although this approach is of personal if not political benefit to the individual, it precludes the possibility of driving any meaningful, sustainable cultural shift. The second choice is to continue speaking out, challenging structural inequalities, and be forced to live with the indirect yet near-inevitable consequence of targeted harassment. This approach prioritises the politics of feminism, of anti-racism, but comes at great personal cost.  It is a significant dilemma, particularly in terms of Black feminist praxis.

As Audre Lorde said, “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Not simply surviving, but prioritising the self and placing value on the Black, the female, in a society that tells us both are contemptible, is a form of radical political action. It is an inherently bold defiance of the system of values upholding white supremacist patriarchy.  However, adhering to that principle – particularly in a digital context – is not always straightforward.

Audre Lorde was also right in saying that “your silence will not protect you.” In silence, we inevitably remain vulnerable to racism, to misogyny, and various other manifestations of structural oppression. Without directly opposing the status quo, we will continue to be marginalised in ways both pervasive and harmful. Actively challenging oppression at its very root is the only solution, the only means by which liberation will be achieved. The question remains: to what extent should personal well-being be sacrificed so that dominant structures of power can be dismantled?

To advocate an uncompromising prioritisation of the political over the personal in this context requires a degree of purism, an abnegation of the Black and female self, that contradicts the very principles of Black feminism. To focus solely on individual needs, to divorce the personal from the political in the name of comfort, is another such contradiction as it precludes the structural analysis vital to Black feminism.

How, then, to negotiate this dilemma? At the time of writing, I am preparing a workshop to help young women of colour find voice and encourage them to use it. That this workshop coincides with the most severe abuse I have ever received raises something of an ethical quandary. Finding and making use of feminist voice has severe consequences – in the form of harassment, abuse, and even threat. How to guide others on this matter when I myself have difficulty negotiating that balance between political struggle and personal well-being? It is not a question easily resolved.

Self-Care

Self-care is a surprisingly controversial subject in feminism – it is often disparaged as narcissism, an intensive focus on the individual that atomises the movement, by those feminists with the least need to practice it. Those women whose lives are cushioned by whiteness and class privilege do not always see how vital self-care is to their more marginalised sisters, how political struggle pervades almost every aspect of our lives in a way that threatens to become all consuming. There is no stepping back from the very fabric of our existence, no sphere of our lives in which the politics of liberation become any less pressing. Self-care is a survival tool.

“Do you know that the first act of self-care for us as Black people might be recognizing that we deserve to be cared for in the first place? Seen as human? Especially Black women.” – Trudy Hamilton

At times, though counter-intuitive, refusing to engage is a form of self-care. Which conversations to participate in, which subjects to discuss, are entirely at your discretion. I’m still working out where to draw that line. Abject racism and obvious derailments (e.g. on the theme of Black Lives Matter, the inevitable “don’t all lives matter?”) are both tactics employed to distract us from working towards enacting meaningful change – choosing not to engage with either can be a form of self-care although, of course, making that decision does not mitigate the damage of being exposed to graphic racism in the first place.

The intellectual and emotional labour of Black women have long been consumed without due acknowledgement or recompense. Even within institutions such as the academy, where ideas are currency, it is clear that the concept of knowledge is not neutral – that where you are positioned structurally determines the value placed on your perspective. The white, male voice is standard. The Black and the female, Other. This is true is most given contexts. Even when our ideas are not explicitly political, that a Black woman has the audacity to speak – to demand to be seen and heard, visible in the public sphere – is enough to draw abuse.

That the racism and misogyny Black women receive qualifies as abuse is forever being questioned – by Twitter Support, by the mainstream media when they put scare quotes around racism, by the hordes of white men whose greatest pleasure in life comes from playing devil’s advocate with marginalised voices. Racism is reframed as “perceived racism”, a subtle shift which serves to negate our perspective.

“…to frame lived experience as perception is not a neutral act. It is one of the most common way marginalised and/or painful experiences are invalidated or trivialised because they are inconvenient. It is a speech act. It is a silencing act. If you doubt that, simply pay attention to whose experience is usually defined as ‘perception’ and whose become naturalised, objectivised and legitimised.” – Guilaine Kinouani

When it is not your work, not your ideas that are questioned, but the legitimacy of your voice – a racialised voice, a gendered voice – then meaningful engagement is impossible. It is the basest manifestation of identity politics, seeking to invalidate the Black and female voice simply because it is Other. Audre Lorde commented on this phenomenon, the requests to “justify my existence and my work… because of my identity” that followed her throughout her career as poet and educator from the 1960s onwards. Little has changed with regard to the low value conferred upon the knowledge of Black women.

Refusing to engage with those negating your voice on the grounds of identity can be a form of self-care. It is not necessarily a solution, but in saving yourself that energy you are preserving yourself – both for radical political action, and your own life. There is an expectation plaguing Black women: that we remain strong, no matter how great the struggles we face. This fortitude emerged throughout necessity as a result of surviving systematic racism and misogyny. The Strong Black Woman trope is part of the legacy left to us by slavery and colonialism and, while the idea of a deep inner-strength can provide solace, the ways in which it manifests relating to the expectations of others ultimately proves dehumanising (Harris-Perry).

The Strong Black Woman trope plagues us. Even in messages of support and kindness, I am encouraged to be strong in the face of abuse, a word which is loaded with meaning when applied to Black women. It is complicated, this notion of resilience that is attached to us. Without addressing our capacity for vulnerability, the full humanity of Black women goes unrecognised. Therefore, acknowledging the hurt sustained through misogynoir – both to ourselves and others – is a key component of self-care. In doing so, we create a greater possibility for Black women to step back, assess the situation, and address our own needs. As Black womanhood does not typically engender protectiveness in others, I believe that we should prioritise protecting ourselves and, subsequently, each other.


Bibliography

Gradient Lair

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

Lorde, Audre. (1982). Learning from the ’60s.

Lorde, Audre. (1988). A Burst of Light: Essays.

Race Reflections

Intersectionality – a Definition, History, and Guide

 

Intersectionality has been a common theme in feminist theory, writing, and activism for the last few years. It has even become something of a buzzword. And yet there remains a great deal of misunderstanding over what intersectionality actually means and, subsequently, how it is supposed to manifest within the feminist movement. This confusion has resulted in a degree of backlash, claims that intersectionality distracts women’s energy from the key aims of the feminist movement – dismantling patriarchy, ending male dominance and violence against women – when in fact it is only through a truly intersectional approach that these goals become possible for all women, not simply the white and middle-class. And feminism is about uplifting all women, a goal which becomes impossible when only those aspects of women’s experiences relating to the hierarchy of gender are considered. This is where intersectionality becomes essential.

What is intersectionality?

Intersectionality is a framework designed to explore the dynamic between co-existing identities (e.g. woman, Black) and connected systems of oppression (e.g. patriarchy, white supremacy). The term was created by Kimberlé Crenshaw and challenges an assumption continuing to undermine the feminist movement – that women are a homogeneous group, equally positioned by structures of power. In a feminist context, it allows for a fully developed understanding of how factors such as race and class shape women’s lived experiences, how they interact with gender.

Intersectionality is actually a pretty straightforward idea: if forms of prejudice have the same root, growing from the dominant power structure of “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” (hooks), then challenging one aspect of structural power alone is almost entirely ineffectual. Opposing one facet of systematic oppression also requires a degree of selectivism, treating one form of structural power as a bigger threat than the others, e.g. when white middle-class feminists argue that gender is the primary means of oppression in all women’s lives, disregarding the realities of working class women and/or women of colour. For an effective feminist movement that tackles the very root of persisting inequalities, in the words of Audre Lorde, “there can be no hierarchies of oppression.”

The lens of intersectionality allows for the overlap between identities of race, sex, class, sexuality, etc. to be fully incorporated in structural analysis, thus providing feminist analysis with the perspective to encompass the true range of all women’s lives, the scope to understand all women’s experiences. Intersectional praxis prevents marginalised women from being further side-lined within the feminist movement. It also defies the expectation that feminists of colour ought to prioritise sex in our analysis:

Although racism and sexism readily intersect in the lives of real people, they seldom do in feminist and antiracist practices. And so, when the practices expound identity as woman or person of color as an either/or proposition, they relegate the identity of women of colour to a location that resists telling. (Crenshaw)

Where did intersectionality come from?

Despite the concept of intersectionality being relatively new, that mode of connecting forms of oppression together in structural analysis can be traced back throughout the activism and liberation theory within modern history. For example, when the abolitionist Frederick Douglass championed women’s suffrage during the mid-19th century, he did so in the belief that women (both of colour and white) were every bit as entitled to participate in democracy as Black men – unlike numerous suffragettes, Douglass resisted prioritising the struggle of the group to which he belonged above the struggles of others, a commitment to universal equality that ultimately strengthened the position of both women and Black men pursuing suffrage.

Intersectionality also manifests in Black feminist writing from the 1960s onwards. Michele Wallace was a pioneering thinker in this respect, her criticism of misogyny within the Black Power movement highlighting the dynamic between misogyny and racism and, subsequently, the nature of oppression faced by Black women. The writing of Angela Davis was pivotal in unveiling the racism and classism of the women’s liberation movement, analysing the history of Black women being further marginalised within feminism. Her work gave a clear demonstration of the relationship typically existing between race and class, and explored the role played by both in the oppression of women. bell hooks too asserted that racism and sexism are inherently connected forms of structural oppression, that Black women are positioned in such a way that makes that link undeniable.

Kay Lindsay postulated that as Black woman are relegated to the sidelines by both the misogyny within Black liberation politics and the racism of feminism, we find ourselves as outsiders in both movements despite being the object of the oppressions they seek to address. This position of marginalisation twice over is what Frances Beale first termed a “double jeopardy“.

It was this context from which Crenshaw drew on in providing a comprehensive description of the relationships between identities and oppressions. Patricia Hill Collins built upon her theory, arguing that multiple forms of oppression connect to form a “matrix of domination” – just as identities overlap, so too do the hierarchies by which structural power imbalance is maintained.

Part of the ongoing feminist resistance of intersectionality stems from the marginalisation of Black women’s scholarship, where the theory has predominantly been developed – dismissing it as jargon is easy as it requires no critical self-reflection from white feminist women, whereas engaging with an idea with the power to radically alter praxis and deepen understanding of structural power demands a significant level of honesty both in dealing with yourself and others.

How does intersectionality work?

 

Intersectionality proposes that the greater a deviation from the Cartesian subject – the standardised ‘norm’ of a white, wealthy, heterosexual male – the more layers of prejudice the individual in question must face, those prejudices combining to form a matrix of domination. Looking through the lens of intersectional feminist theory demonstrates that there is not one fixed reality to be lived by all those sharing a single umbrella identity (such as woman), but rather a multitude of realities, the experience of which is determined by co-existing identities (hooks). In other words, a Black woman and a white woman will both experience womanhood differently owing to the vector of race. One is not “more” woman than the other. Treating white womanhood as a definitive standard, particularly during structural analysis, erases Black womanhood and propagates racism within the feminist movement.

Separating identities, and indeed the experiences that arise as a consequence of those identities, is highly implausible. As Audre Lorde said, “there is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”

An intersectional approach to feminism considers social inequality beyond that which is part of your individual experience. The discomfort of acknowledging that you, in some hierarchies, belong to the dominant class is essential to the redistribution of structural power. An intersectional approach also requires a thorough consideration of power – how it operates as a dynamic on both an individual and collective basis. Intersectional thought rejects the binary assumption that a person must belong to either one group or the other (e.g. woman OR person of colour). The relationship between multiple identities is acknowledged and considered in feminist praxis. An intersectional approach to feminism is also mindful of context, conscious of how comparative privilege can shape and even limit perspective. (Hill Collins & Bilge)

Intersectionality extends the reach and relevance of the feminist movement. This is because intersectional praxis has the power to dispel the misconception that feminism is simply “a white thing”, by and for white women. Intersectional praxis is crucial if feminist sisterhood is to exist. It has the power to foster solidarity between women – all women – and make our movement stronger.


Bibliography

ed. Cade Bambara, Toni. (1970). The Black Woman: An Anthology.

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

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

Hill Collins, Patricia. Bilge, Sirma. (2016). Intersectionality.

hooks, bell. (1981). Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism.

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

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

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

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.

Online Misogyny – a speech

On the 25th of October 2015, I spoke at the conference Feminism in London. The subject was online misogyny, and I was honoured to share the panel with Connie St. Louis, Dr. Emily Grossman, and Alison Boydell. The following is a transcript of my speech.

Hello and thank you for having me to speak at Feminism in London. I’m Claire, and it’s an honour to be here, and to be discussing something so relevant to women’s experiences both in terms of activism and in a more personal capacity. I wonder if I could start with a show of hands – how many people here have experienced misogyny online? Thank you. [Vast majority of hands raised.]

That’s sad, but not at all surprising.

If anybody is going to quote me on Twitter, please make it this: I believe that misogyny is endemic. It’s true that the Internet has revolutionised almost every aspect of our lives, but it hasn’t fundamentally changed the nature of people’s values. From behind a screen, perhaps from a position of anonymity, men are harassing women, swearing at women, abusing women, threatening women, stalking women. The internet, much like the Force, can be used either for good or bad. It has never been easier to sign and share a petition but, equally, the odds are signing one the one the old fashioned way with ink and paper is far less likely to result in you being called scum and told to die. 

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As is the case offline, women speaking out can attract a lot of abuse – it’s not usually the opinions being shared that generate this anger in these men, but rather that the person sharing them happens to be female. Where the internet differs, with particular regard to social media, is the variety of tactics used to harass women. Men – and, in my experience, it is almost always men – say things to women that you hope they would never even consider saying offline. Yet, online misogyny has me wondering, how many of them think like that? Even if it’s generally not expressed quite so explicitly in person, those feelings of misogyny are still there. 

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Though she is now controversial, I’m going to paraphrase Germaine Greer here. Germaine Greer is of the opinion that women don’t realise just how much men hate us. I would suggest that the Twitter feed of any known feminist or prominent woman provides a clear demonstration. The men who sent rape and death threats to Caroline Criado-Perez, the men that intimidated Sue Perkins into deactivating her Twitter account, they exist and operate offline, presumably interacting with women outside of the digital world. How does it translate?

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There seems to be a distinction between conduct offline and on, lines which the perpetrators of online misogyny consider it acceptable to cross from behind a screen, but not in the flesh. I think that a cultural shift is essential if we are going to live in a society where women are not abused or threatened for speaking out, online and off. But, until we get to that point, how do we as women cope with online misogyny? How do we go on living our digital lives in such a potentially hostile environment? 

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Firstly, and most importantly, I suggest solidarity. This applies offline as well as on, though in some ways it’s easier to connect face-to-face. I know that things can get a bit fraught when we’re trying to make a complex and detailed point in 140 characters, especially when the conversation relates to our experiences and our identities. But other women aren’t behind the misogyny we experience, nor are they responsible for upholding a system in which it flourishes. Audre Lorde described it as horizontal hostility – wasting our time and energy on people also disadvantaged by a racist, classist patriarchy, instead of challenging vertical power structures. 

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A pattern I’ve noticed and experienced is that misogynistic comments often overlap with another aspect of a woman’s identity. Older feminists are treated as irrelevant, called crones and dinosaurs. Like Andrea Dworkin observed, their human worth to men is often entirely rooted in their perceived fuckability. Working class women are dismissed and dehumanised, which allows for their lived reality to be conveniently ignored. Women of Colour are relentlessly Othered, made to feel insignificant on grounds of race and sex.

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Obviously there are disparities in privilege, along the lines of class, race, sexuality, etc. I’m very much of the opinion that, like bell hooks says, true solidarity can only exist when these differences are acknowledged. And once that solidarity exists, it is strong. Sisterhood is powerful. Without the encouragement and support of women I am proud to call sister, I would have grown so weary of online activism. For every man who calls me dirty nigger bitch, there are a hundred moments of support and understanding with other women. It makes a real difference.

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Secondly, I encourage women to point out misogyny whenever it is realistically possible. There will, of course, be times when it is better for you to avoid engaging. Self-care matters. The digital world is often contrasted with ‘the real world’, but it is a real world in which real people interact with one another. Those threats, that abuse, can have a strong impact on us. It’s naive to pretend otherwise. But, when you are comfortable doing so, point out that some sexism has taken place. Highlight why the comments are wrong, what their implications are. Don’t accept misogyny. Have other women’s backs. Make those sexist comments less and less acceptable, show that there is no place for them. 

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I can’t claim to have all the answers but, in my experience, an incredible amount can be achieved when women work together.