When White Women Close Ranks

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

Dedicated to Amanda Fucking Palmer and Victoria Brownworth

Olive Morris Print Credit: Twitter user @Extreme_Crochet


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black Studies: On Race, Place, and Headspace

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


 

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

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

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

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

Baby Beans

Baby Beans

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edinburgh

Edinburgh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Dispatches from the Margins: On Feminist Movement Building

A brief foreword: this post is, as ever, written in the hope that it will enable women to come to a greater place of understanding. After a period of contemplation, I have decided to address the issue of racism at FiLiA 2017 because if it requires women of colour to keep quiet about racism, it’s not sisterhood and never can be. There is potential for better. It is the first in a series of personal reflective essays about feminist movement building. The second and third are available here.


 

I am tired. So very tired. There are days when I want to withdraw from the feminist movement. There are days when I want to withdraw from life. So far, I have done neither because I’m conscious that it’s a sickness that plants the seeds of suicidality in my mind. And if I have to live in this world, you can be damned certain that I’m going to try and make it a better place for women and girls to inhabit – to firmly grasp the roots of injustice with both hands and pull. While my mental health and participation in the feminist movement may not at first glance appear connected, both are consistently and adversely affected by one common factor: racism.

It is widely acknowledged by feminists that sisterhood is the most sustaining force, what keeps our movement in motion despite the weight of constant struggle. And as women who live our politics, aiming to unite theory and practice in the everyday, that solidarity between women is vital to a feminist’s being in all spheres of her life.

As I have previously written, I believe that racism is one of the greatest barriers to sisterhood between women. Since 2014 I have devoted significant energy and time to removing that barrier by challenging racism within the feminist movement. This has involved using my back as a bridge to bring white women to a place of understanding, guiding white women through the process of unlearning racism, letting my experiences of racism become teachable moments, and – frankly – showing more patience with white women’s casual racism than anyone could reasonably be expected to give. I have tried to make myself and my words a conduit for movement away from racism, movement towards true solidarity between women and girls.

In some ways, this project has been a success. It shows when a white woman has taken the time to critically examine her own racism and altered her behaviour towards women of colour. I’ve run many gentle interventions, large and small, and actually feel really proud of that work when I see a white woman is consciously unlearning racism after our conversations, when I see a change in how she practices her feminism. I don’t do it because white women deserve the Morgan Freeman treatment – members of the dominant class (in this case, white people) aren’t entitled to a unique level of understanding from people of colour. No, I do it for the women of colour whose paths will cross with those white women in feminist organising and other settings. Women of colour deserve so much better from the feminist movement than to be pushed to its margins, just as we are within a mainstream context. And so I tried to build pockets of space where white women could get to grips with basic anti-racist politics without fear of being castigated for asking questions which belied racism (again, it took an extreme degree of patience) or spiralling into defensiveness when that racism was addressed.

I think that racism flourishes because of all the silences that are allowed to grow around it. Race exists as a hierarchy, and white people are invested in upholding that hierarchy in order to retain the socioeconomic power that comes with it – and maintaining the hierarchy of race is partly achieved by making its acknowledgement taboo. Through an extraordinary feat of mental gymnastics, talking about race – in particular the realities of that hierarchy as experienced when your skin happens to be Black or brown – becomes a far greater offence than being complicit in systematic injustice.

Talking about race becomes a transgression, which is politically significant. Both within feminist spaces and in mainstream society we are all, to varying degrees, rewarded for not speaking about race and – by extension – posing no threat to whiteness as an ideology. The shame attached to talking about the dynamic of race acts as a buffer of sorts, a layer cushioning racism from in-depth scrutiny or challenge. If we cannot name or identify racism, how can we oppose it? This layer of silence creates distance between the act of racism and accountability for being racism. It is what protects the ideology behind racism from being unpicked. And so I have crafted contexts in which race may be discussed.

FiLiARecently I delivered a keynote address at FiLiA 2017, sharing my vision of interracial solidarity in the feminist movement with the conference. FiLiA was a complicated experience. For months in advance I had planned to use my time to talk about the radical and often untapped possibilities within sisterhood – but it was only the day before conference that the reality hit: I would be stepping into a predominantly white space to speak about racism, putting myself in a more exposed position than is comfortably occupied as a Black woman. And it was a very white space: I saw more Black women in the student cafeteria upstairs than in the entire conference setting. Vulnerability is a necessary part of the radical honesty that movement building demands, yet there is a fine balance between what it is to be vulnerable in talking about race and exposed to racism. Still, I gave the talk and sent those ideas out to permeate the conference.

Responses to my FiLiA address have been rather overwhelming – mostly in a good way. White women have thanked me for opening their eyes to something they hadn’t previously considered with a bit of Racism 101, shared the ways in which they plan on organising differently, and a few even said that my words changed their lives. Women of colour’s responses have been more layered, coming at the issue from a standpoint so much closer to my own, and profoundly moving. But, in the immediate aftermath, one particular response devastated me.

After the session where I spoke, I attended a panel about body positivity: Flaunting Fearlessness. Fat, disabled, and Black women are the pioneers of the body positivity movement – so their absence on the panel was immediately noticeable. The speakers consisted of four white women in the room and one Asian woman Skyping from Los Angeles: I do not name these women because a public shaming is not my objective. Instead I want to address the impact of the classism, anti-Blackness, and ableism that were woven into the conversation and uncontested by the chair. It was deeply uncomfortable and, more than that, pushed women with little social power to the margins of the movement.  Listening to that panel I grew acutely conscious that they did not view our concerns as women’s concerns, did not perceive our struggles to be women’s struggles. Having spent the morning inviting women to build interracial solidarity at the conference, it was devastating.

Sitting in the audience was acutely painful. I deliberated over whether to say anything, but a friend pointed out that the burden of challenging racism shouldn’t fall to a Black woman. So Siân raised her hand and, with real empathy, invited the panel to consider how the racism projected onto Black children has resulted in them being penalised by their school or having their hair cut off by teachers. She spoke about how money acted as a barrier to so many spaces and experiences that were being described as crucial to body positivity. She addressed the harm done by recreating hierarchies within feminist spaces. She brought up the issue of representation, or lack thereof, on the panel. And Siân, bold and brilliant, was applauded by women across the room. It was the best example of a calling in that I have ever witnessed – a genuine, compassion-filled invitation to connect.

But Siân’s invitation, like mine, was rejected. The panellist who claimed to be part of a movement so inclusive that even her dog belonged in it said “I could talk about race all day, but we can’t make everything about race.” In a society founded upon white supremacist principles, everything is already inherently racialised. To claim that those of us who address the hierarchy of race are responsible for making an issue about race is to miss the point spectacularly. Explaining that to the panel was impossible. Building a bridge was impossible. So I left the session. And I wasn’t the only one.

I left that session in tears, empty and exhausted. I found a quiet place to sit and breathe. I brought the issue to the attention of the FiLiA team, who admitted to having concerns about the Flaunting Fearlessness panel beforehand. And I agreed to help the collective as they take the necessary steps to ensure such a thing never happened at any future FiLiA conference – a point to which I will return. My reason for doing so was the same as my reason for attempting to build interracial solidarity between women in the first place: to improve a feminist space for women of colour. All the while Siân was checking up on me, making sure I didn’t feel alone.

I did not ultimately decide to leave the conference, but neither did I attend any other sessions that day. Instead I ended up sitting on the steps with Liz and letting myself be drawn into a series of comfortable conversations with women – conversations about the gendered expectations of caring, women’s spaces, and the politics of lesbian weddings. Liz Kelly is something of a litmus test for how I will engage (or not engage) with white women in a feminist setting. There are very few white feminists holding my absolute trust, but Liz is one – and so the white women she vouches for are generally among the white women I’m open to connecting with. I will not universalise this experience and say that this is an option for every Black woman: it’s not. But letting Liz’s judgements inform my own is a mechanism that saves me a lot of energy that would otherwise be spent guarding against racism in one form or another.

sisterhood

Liz has enabled me to occupy a range of predominantly white feminist environments that would otherwise not have been bearable. Siân’s courage in holding space for Black women saved me emotional labour and alienation. As I have previously written, I dislike the concept of allyship because it invariably sinks into something hollow and performative. Instead of allyship, I consider such actions as a manifestation of solidarity between women. Sisterhood is powerful – or it can be, when women are prepared to work to build it.

I value sisterhood with white women, complicated as it is. And I value solidarity with men of colour, though they are similarly complicated by context. The two are not mutually exclusive – actually, in my experience, they fit together because they are both born from living a politics of connection. The Black security guard kept catching my eye as I danced with a group of otherwise white women at the FiLiA party on Saturday night, and every time I’d laugh. Those little moments of shared understanding made me feel seen as surely as Liz or Siân did.

Within my interactions with other women of colour lies the greatest significance. But, for various reasons – all of which relate directly to power – those are the interactions about which I can say least. Most women I will not name, because they have enough to manage without being scrutinised by white women as a result of these words. Some (me included) recede into ourselves in predominantly white feminist environments, too focussed on how best to negotiate the space, too guarded against the very real risk of racism, to be fully connected with what’s going on. This is white women’s loss far more than it is a loss for women of colour. Since becoming part of the feminist movement I have watched many of the brightest and most insightful women I know clam up in spaces that are hostile to them, spaces in which their perspectives would have been of greater relevance and use than anything said by the voices centred. Such is the risk of treating white women’s voices as default.

During both days at conference I took the opportunity to connect with women from various feminist networks and communities – some of them posted about catching up with me on Twitter and Facebook, which is pretty standard of how these things go. And on more than one occasion another woman of colour messaged me privately to indicate which white women I ought to be careful around any why. (When it comes to racism, the receipts will always catch up with you.) The reach of racism in any mixed feminist space is disconcerting. And while it is grim that women of colour are in a position where protecting one another is necessary, it is a wonderful thing to be held by that sisterhood.

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The final product

On the second day of FiLiA I carried a bag of knitting around with me – having a repetitive, constructive action from which something beautiful grows is soothing. I joked to friends that returning for the next day of conference after addressing the issue of racism felt a bit like being Maleficent at Aurora’s christening. Knitting was a way to retreat from those worries and find a sense of calm. Over the lunch break I sat on the steps with a group of friends and knitted, having reached the level of anxiety at which eating food ceases to be a viable option. One of those friends was a woman I first met at the previous conference, when it was still known as Feminism in London – we had both been quiet with one another, feeling out of place (read: conspicuously brown) in that context. Although that same discomfort persisted, we had a frank and gentle conversation about anxiety – I felt seen by her, and hope she felt seen by me too, which can be the greatest gift when you are conscious of being made Other.

Later on, after knitting my way through a panel on specialised women’s services, I felt like food was possible. In the queue I bumped into Rahila Gupta and another woman. We talked about the politics of voice – who is heard, who is ignored. We talked about public speaking, when we preferred to read from notes or speak off the cuff. And Rahila asked for my perspective. It was nothing short of astonishing to me that a woman as brilliant as Rahila Gupta would treat me as a peer. Long before meeting her, I read of Rahila’s work with Southall Black Sisters in archive materials at Glasgow Women’s Library.

That interaction stayed with me all through the day and long after the closing session of FiLiA. Maya Angelou, who was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom for her outstanding contributions to literature, once lamented that “I have written eleven books,maya-angelou-quote but each time I think, ‘uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’” As was often the case, her words lit upon a truth – one which I find highly relatable. Part of me suspects that sooner or later it will emerge that my ideas are worthless – all writing opportunities withdrawn, prizes and nominations revoked, and so on. Even being invited to give a keynote by the FiLiA organising team, I did not have a sense that it was legitimate for me to occupy that space and worried that my thoughts on feminist movement building would immediately be discredited. The things I wonder ‘is it legitimate for me to say this?’ are often the things that most desperately need saying. And yet…

Imposter syndrome isn’t uncommon among women of colour. In fact, imposter syndrome is rife within the networks of Black & brown women who make up my peer group. They achieve extraordinary things, build extraordinary spaces, create extraordinary works – and continue to be plagued by self-doubt. That self-doubt is informed by context: it is what happens when we absorb the racism and misogyny thrown our way in this society. Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff is one of the finest journalists of this generation, yet she too is familiar with imposter syndrome:

“This is the key difference between the imposter syndrome suffered by women of colour and others: the strong forces telling our subconscious that we are undeserving of success and that we don’t belong in the environments we inhabit. We don’t see people who look like us, hear accents like ours, or, necessarily, have role models. Our insecurities over our achievements are the effect of people reacting with shock when they realise how well [we are] doing…”

If the feminist movement is truly concerned with the liberation of all women and girls then we as feminists must ensure that our spaces do not replicate the same old hierarchies, but instead create a viable challenge to those hierarchies. If those spaces happen to be racially mixed, white women have a responsibility to uplift women of colour – to centre our voices instead of pushing us to the margins. White women have a responsibility to actively unlearn their racism. It is the white women who cling to racism that should doubt the legitimacy speaking on feminist politics, not the women of colour whose words are a fundamental challenge to white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

In the weeks after FiLiA I was hugely conflicted, but ultimately I stand by my radical vision of sisterhood – one in which true interracial solidarity between women is possible. Whether or not I have the energy to help bring that vision into being is another question altogether.  I am not a well woman. Neither am I a resource for white women to mine. And, in the spirit of honesty, it is far more tempting to devote all that energy to becoming a crochet master – something sustaining, not draining.

Still, I have spoken with Lisa-Marie – the founder of FiLiA – about the conference. To me, the most significant factor is how a white woman responds to racism – will she deny the issue is there, or will she grasp it at the root? Lisa-Marie was adamant that FiLiA is to be a space where women can engage with feminist politics free from racism, classism, ableism, or any other form of prejudice. She fully acknowledges that FiLiA is imperfect in its present form and is determined that the space engages with issues of structural power – which is why I offered Lisa-Marie my perspective on how FiLiA can evolve and gave her permission to check in with me on developments. FiLiA is flawed, but something good can grow there. Perhaps, with enough work, FiLiA will become a place where interracial sisterhood flourishes. Like I said on the stage: “to be a feminist is to be an optimist.”

 

Interracial Solidarity in the Feminist Movement – #FiLiA2017

A brief foreword: this is the transcript of the keynotes address I delivered at FiLiA 2017, on Saturday the 14th of October. I was initially hesitant to share this speech, as I can no longer think of interracial solidarity between women of colour and white women as a viable project. However, out of commitment to feminist documentation and the women who requested it be made public, I have decided to post the transcript.

Writers and theorists who remain immobile, closed to any shift in perspective, ultimately have little to offer. Perhaps in the future I will return to advocating interracial movement building. Perhaps not. Either way, this transcript is an outline of the thoughts I held on the matter.


It is an honour to be here with you all today, and a privilege to share the stage with Kate, Sophie, and Cordelia. Thank you for inviting me to be part of this year’s FiLiA conference. As someone who is passionate about movement building, it is a pleasure to be here speaking about the radical potential within feminist sisterhood. As Adrienne Rich once said, “The connections between and among women are the most feared, the most problematic, and the most potentially transforming force on the planet.” Given their revolutionary potential, I think that as feminists it’s worth exploring the possibilities contained within the connections between women – some of which remain largely unrealised or underexplored. For this reason, I’m here to talk to you about interracial solidarity within the feminist movement – a mine of untapped potential within our politics and many women’s lives.

Before we get going, it’s important to say that the burden of self-reflection and action required to improve the dynamic of race within the feminist movement lies with white women. This is at points a tough conversation, but it’s also a necessary one, and for the white women hesitant about engaging fully with it I’d like to point out that racism is consistently undermining the efforts made by feminist women – the benefits to fully unpicking racism from feminist spaces and communities are legion. To the women of colour in the audience, I have decided to focus on this specific issue because it is vital that all the Black and Brown girls coming into this movement experience better from it than what has gone on before in mixed feminist spaces. Every last one of them deserves more.

Feminism is a social movement devoted to the liberation of women and girls from oppression. The oppressions we experience are the result of white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy – quite a mouthful, but it is vital to acknowledge that these hierarchies are all interconnected. Systems of oppression cannot be neatly divided into separate entities when they constantly overlap in our everyday lives. Since you’re engaging in a feminist space that’s all about trying to develop ideas on how to improve our movement and make this world a better place to live in, I’m working in the belief that most of you will be receptive. We are all here at FiLiA as feminists who understand the value of movement building. I’ll try to be gentle, but not at the expense of the radical honesty this conversation demands.

The reality is that race politics are where a lot of white women fall down in their feminist practice. Not all white women – but enough that women of colour are reasonably wary of those interactions. White liberal feminists have a habit of failing to consider racism in terms of structural power. White radical feminists can be quite unwilling to apply the same scrutiny or structural analysis to the hierarchy of race as they do to the hierarchy of gender. Both liberal and radical white feminists often carry the expectation that women of colour should prioritise challenging misogyny over resisting racism, as though the two issues are mutually exclusive and not woven together in the fabric of our everyday lives.

For years amazing women such as Stella Dadzie, who will be speaking to you tomorrow morning, have been documenting and challenging the racism and misogyny that Black women experience in Britain. I’m not here to prove that racism exists or has negative consequences for women of colour in Britain: it does. I am here to talk about how we – as feminists, as women who share a social movement – can unpick racism from feminist communities. I’m going to talk about movement building, the dynamic of race in the feminist movement, and practical steps towards building interracial solidarity between women.

As we participate more in feminist spaces and conversations, women build a deep understanding of patriarchy – how it works, and where we are positioned by the hierarchy of gender. Feminism has enabled women to connect the personal with the political in our analysis of patriarchy. Nothing about feminist politics or theory is abstract – it all connects back to some element of women’s lives. The movement also gives us space to think about how structural inequalities have impacted upon our experiences, shaped our realities. And once you start to join the dots between the personal and the political, the extent to which women are marginalised around the world becomes clear.

White women rightly consider themselves to belong to the oppressed sex class. And I think that it’s because white feminist women fully understand the implications of belonging to the dominant class that exploring what it means to be part of the dominant racial class can be so challenging. This awareness punctures the fundamentally misguided belief that all women are positioned the same within structures of power.

That knowledge does not fit alongside the claim that a unilateral, one-size-fits-all approach to feminism is going to work – that really gender is the main problem women have to contend with, and everything else can wait. So in order to side-step any difficult conversations about race and power within feminism, we’re fed this idea that talking about race divides women. In addition to protecting white women from the having to confront their own racism, this argument suggests that the energies of all feminist women would be best concentrated on challenging sex-based oppression – if we follow this logic, it leads to the expectation that women of colour work towards an agenda that sees a great many white women liberated while we are left within exploitative hierarchies.

Focussing on misogyny alone isn’t going to solve all of the problems created by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, let alone dismantle that system of power. Being selective about the forms of exploitation and dominance that we analyse is not only ineffective, but a contradiction of core feminist principles. Every feminist knows that revolution isn’t brought about by half-assed politics. We have to live those politics and let them diffuse throughout every aspect of our lives. There’s no way that we can drive a cultural shift towards women’s liberation if we don’t make sure that feminism recognises and prioritises the needs of all women – of colour, working class, disabled, migrant, lesbian, bi. All women.

It isn’t talking about race that divides women – it’s racism that divides us. To be specific, women as a political class are divided by the racism white women direct towards women of colour, the racism that white women observe and fail to challenge because, ultimately, they benefit from it. Whether intentional or casually delivered, that racism has the same result: it completely undermines the possibility of solidarity between women of colour and white women. White women’s unwillingness to explore the subject of race, to acknowledge the ways in which they benefit from white supremacy, acts as a barrier between mutual trust.

So It’s not really a secret that certain strands of feminism have an ongoing problem with race. The feminist movement didn’t form inside of some sort of social vacuum, separate from white supremacist values or beliefs. Everyone in this society absorbs racism. People of colour internalise it. White people weaponise it against us. Even within the movement. Here are some examples of how.

Less so now that intersectionality has become so fashionable, but some white women have a tendency to position racism and sexism as totally distinct and separate problems, issues that do not overlap and do not therefore need to be analysed together. This perspective completely disregards the lived realities of women of colour. While a significant amount of early radical feminist writing and activism was what we would now describe as being intersectional in nature, white womanhood was too often treated as the normative standard of womanhood within the second wave of feminism. As a result, women of colour were and continue to be further marginalised in a context that is supposed to be about the liberation of all women.

Another issue is the response when we try to address racism in the feminist movement. When white women disregard and speak over those women of colour who do voice concerns over racism, that’s not sisterhood. If anything, that pattern of behaviour undermines sisterhood by exploiting the hierarchy of race. Telling us that we’re angry, scary, imagining things, being overly sensitive, or playing on any other racial stereotype to shut down the conversation and assert the innocence of white womanhood is racism, plain and simple. Yet it happens so routinely.

And then there are the hierarchies that manifest within feminist organising, hierarchies that only replicate the system of value created by white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. The balance of authority tipping towards white women in mixed feminist spaces is not neutral. Women of colour ending up on the fringes of a feminist group or campaign, brought to the centre of the team only when there’s a camera about, is not neutral.

Looking over patterns that unfold within feminist spaces, there are three main areas which I invite white women to consider for future collective projects within the movement. This is by no means an exhaustive list of every single issue that stems from racism within the movement, and neither is it a definitive guide. The politics of engagements between white women and women of colour are contextual, relational, and shifting – nothing is set in stone, and truly organic connections can’t be pre-scripted. That being said, perhaps some of these points will prove helpful in shaping approaches to those interactions.

The first point is white women acting as gatekeepers of the feminist movement, positioning themselves as authorities of feminism above other women. Of course white women have developed a rich body of knowledge throughout their participation in feminism, but feminism is a global movement containing multitudes of women – however worthwhile it may be, white women’s theorising cannot reasonably be assumed to hold universal or absolute feminist truths applicable to all women. This tension manifests in a lack of understanding towards the perspectives held by Black and Asian feminists – there can be a tacit assumption that our ideas aren’t worth meeting or building upon within mainstream feminism. Or, if we approach an issue from a different angle to white women, there’s often an implication that if our ideas were a little more developed or nuanced, the disagreement wouldn’t exist. And that makes it very difficult to enter a feminist conversation on an equal footing.

Feminist organising is another area worth drawing attention to. It takes such energy and commitment to sustain a group or campaign. I fully appreciate that, and commend all the women who are part of creating that magic. All the same, it’s important to keep working towards best feminist practice – and improving the dynamic of race within mixed feminist spaces is very much an achievable goal. If there are no women of colour in your group, team, or collection, ask why not. Please don’t fall into the trap of complacency and think that no women of colour are interested in working collaboratively. If there are none, there’s a reason for our absence. Reflect on what it might be about the project that’s off putting and try to work out steps to change it. Give women of colour reason to trust you. Think about it this way: how much time would you realistically spend in an optional activity where being on the receiving end of misogyny was a distinct possibility?

And when there are women of colour within the feminist space, think about your approach to us. Do you give us the same support, encouragement, and understanding that you would another white woman? When we speak, do you listen to our voices and engage with the layers of what we have to say? Do you think of us as full members of the collective, necessary to the work done by the feminist movement, or as tokens and boxes to be ticked on a diversity form? How you answer those questions make a profound difference. Those are deciding factors in whether sisterhood can exist.

The most direct step is to reconfigure how you think about women of colour. I don’t really like the word ally, because allyship tends to devolve into something hollow and performative. It also doesn’t really offer the scope for a mutual connection, which is what interracial solidarity between women is. But unpicking racism has a steep learning curve. How could it not when white supremacist values are at the foundation of this society? During the course of that learning process, especially during the early stages, try and keep in mind that most feminist women of colour have had these conversations about race dozens and dozens of times. And those conversations cost us more than they cost you. There are plenty of quality books and resources on the subject, so make use of them.

And now I have some points for women of colour who are pursuing any kind of solidarity with white women – less advice than reminders. Look after yourself. Don’t forget to prioritise self-care. Your needs are important, and it’s okay to take whatever space and time you need. I think because of the superwoman quality that gets projected onto Black women especially, we are not always positioned as in need of gentleness or empathy – so it is crucial that we take care of ourselves and each other.

Remember that you can say no. It is a complete sentence, short and sweet. And you don’t owe anybody an explanation as to why.

You’re not a learning resource, and you’re not the Morgan Freeman type character in a white woman’s story – you’re a human being with her own story. So don’t be afraid to set boundaries, assert needs, and follow your own instincts.

There is something fundamentally freeing about spaces that are built by and for women of colour. Those spaces have a joy and easiness to them, and there is this indescribable feeling of connection – it’s very nourishing to experience. Women come out of our shells and share so much of ourselves that it is impossible to be unmoved by a women of colour space. Last weekend I was in Amsterdam for the second annual Women of Colour in Europe conference, and inhabiting a space like that is sustaining. That feeling is what I think of when I picture sisterhood. And I think we’ll have achieved a greater degree of interracial solidarity when there is greater scope for women of colour to access that feeling of ease and belonging in mixed feminist spaces.

If I am willing to remain an optimist, it is because I believe in a feminist movement built upon true solidarity – one in which “all women” means “all women”, not an insistence that white women are prioritised. And I can’t think of a better place to start building it than FiLiA. Although our movement struggles with the dynamic of race, it can improve here and now. To be a feminist is to be an optimist – to retain the belief that structural inequalities can be dismantled, the belief that better is possible.

When women of colour address the racism demonstrated by white women, we are seeking to overcome the ultimate barrier between women. I don’t think many women waste their breathe on a critique if they don’t think it can bring about positive results. I’ll finish with this quote by Chandra Mohanty, which sums it up beautifully: “…sisterhood cannot be assumed on the basis of gender; it must be forged in concrete, historical and political practice and analysis.”

Dear Shappi: An Open Letter on the Jhalak Prize

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Dear Shappi,

I am looking forward to reading Nina is Not OK. I like your comedy very much, and am of the view that comedians have a gift for addressing the darker elements of life, so am keen to see how you highlight issues surrounding addiction and sexual assault through Nina’s story. Until the Jhalak Prize longlist was released, I hadn’t known about your novel but am very glad to have discovered it. Since last February – for almost an entire year – I have been anticipating that list and the selection books it would introduce me to. You see, I love nothing more than a good book. And the list has not disappointed!

chasing-the-starsMalorie Blackman is Children’s Laureate for very good reason – her books are impossible to put down and, for all the lessons they contain, never verge on moralising. After David Olusoga’s Black and British documentary series, which was rigorously researched and so full of heart, I can’t wait to read his book on the history of Black people living in Britain. Speak Gigantular had been on my wish list since friends raved about the beauty of Irenosen Okojie’s writing – I downloaded it as soon as the Jhalak Prize longlist was announced, and it is a delightful book. Then there is the treat of new books by unfamiliar authors: Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, Kei Miller, you.

The longlists of book prizes are like manna from heaven for bookworms. The quality of the books assured by the panel of judges, a great reading experience is pretty much guaranteed. For bookworms, prizes are like the literary equivalent of being gifted an all-inclusive holiday at a five star hotel. We know that these are books with the power to move, to provoke thought, to inspire feeling. These are books that will capture our hearts and quite possibly break them. These are books that will captivate our minds, stay in our heads long after the last page has been turned. The Man Booker, the Costa, the Bailey’s – each year, we bookworms look forward to those lists the same way we look forward to birthdays or bank holidays.

bare-litI was there at the Betsey Trotwood when the Jhalak Prize was announced. It was the launch party for Bare Lit Fest, Britain’s first literary festival centred entirely around the writing of Black and Asian authors. It was a weekend filled with brilliant books and the politics of liberation. Instead of the same old talk about change or resignation to the flaws of the publishing industry, this was action that promised results. Media Diversified and the founders of the Jhalak Prize had put their money where their mouth was. So had we, the people who bought tickets to attend and books once we were there. And that was really exciting to be part of.

What stayed with me about Bare Lit was that not one single person of colour apologised for or questioned their seat on a panel, the legitimacy of their work being showcased. Along with new friendships and a suitcase full of books, I took a piece of that confidence back home to Glasgow. As people of colour we are forever expected to justify our successes, our voices, and even our very presence. We’re forever fighting this assumption (on the part of white people) that anything we achieve is down to the colour of our skin and not the merit of our work. The spectre of tokenism casts a shadow over the accomplishments we earn. And I’m really sad to hear that this concern over giving “ammunition” to racists caused you to withdraw from the Jhalak Prize. Being longlisted was a huge achievement and you deserved to own it. That Nina is Not OK is your first novel made it all the more impressive.

The tokenism/merit binary has a lot to answer for. It plays a key role in upholding racism in society. When people of colour don’t get ahead, it’s because we don’t work hard enough or just aren’t good enough. When people of colour do get ahead, it’s all down to positive discrimination. How hard we graft, the barriers we face with our work – these are never given the same scrutiny. Due to your stand-up I know you have come up against those barriers too, lost a role in a sitcom because the production team decided against casting an Iranian woman for the part of a nanny in a British series, and so I don’t blame you for how you handled being caught in a situation that has so many difficult layers.

nina-is-not-okThe reason given for your withdrawal from the longlist was fear of alienating your audience. This is difficult to understand because surely, like all the other people who found your book through the Jhalak Prize, I am part of that audience. If anything, being shortlisted for a literary award broadens your audience by encouraging more people to read your books. Why reject the grounds for our interest in your novel? If the Jhalak Prize amounts to tokenism, our interest in the books listed is tokenistic too – a reductive view to take, given the superlatively high standard of the books on offer.

Appreciation of good literature is what the Jhalak Prize is all about. And books by writers of colour – no matter how brilliant – are far less likely to get the appreciation they deserve. Men named Dave are statistically more likely to make it onto a best-seller list than any man or woman of colour. The publishing industry is overwhelmingly white, with under 1 in 10 of its employees identifying as people of colour – this impacts not only on whose stories are told, but the extent to which their promotion is prioritised and their authors supported.

The only audience likely to be alienated by Nina is Not OK being longlisted for the Jhalak Prize are white people who feel threatened by any direct celebration of the talents of people of colour – the sort of white people who reduce people of colour succeeding to tokenism rather than acknowledge the grounds on which that success is deserved. You worried that a white girl reading your book might think “oh right, so you’re not with me” because of your book being among nominations for the Jhalak Prize. But being with that white girl – having words with the potential to speak to her – is not and should not be at odds with any acknowledgement of your Iranian heritage. Good stories have universal value. “Should a reader be aware of someone’s ethnicity?” The alternative is that the reader assumes you are a white woman.

Obscuring your ethnicity might enable readers to pick up your book open to the idea that its content will be relatable, but it does nothing to unpick the perception that books written by white people speak universal truths and books written by people of colour are of limited relevance. If a reader picks up Nina is Not OK because they are intrigued by the premise, but puts it back down again because the author is Iranian, that amounts to racism.

good-immigrantYou spoke of the limitations imposed on immigrants in explaining your withdrawal, the hostility that immigrants face in Britain today. Nikesh Shukla, co-founder of the Jhalak Prize, edited an anthology on that very theme: The Good Immigrant. In that collection Darren Chetty’s essay draws from his experience as a primary school teacher, recalling a conversation in which two young pupils explain to one another that stories are only about white people. He analyses the prevalence of the idea that books are by and about white people, the implications of internalised racism in determining how Black and Asian children understand their position in the world. It is powerful stuff, and I highly recommend The Good Immigrant if you haven’t yet read it. By challenging the notion that a story must be by or about whiteness to be legitimate, we also challenge the underlying logic that dictates ownership of stories is white: the assumption that we are Other.

In spite of rather than because of your withdrawal from the Jhalak Prize longlist, I remain a part of your audience. However, as both a passionate bookworm and a Black woman, I now feel alienated because this decision makes it seem as though you value the comfort of your white audience above the engagement of Black and Asian readership. I do not feel as though you value me as a reader, or anybody else the Jhalak Prize has brought to your novel. Leaving the longlist was not a neutral act. It carried the potential to discourage just as surely as you imagined being present on the longlist might.

Your work is your property, under your control as creator. And that’s fine. I wish you every future success, Shappi, and hope that your writing continues to receive critical acclaim. And I leave you one final question about audience: is reaching white people who engage with your work in spite of their racism really more important than reaching people of colour who engage with your work from a place of solidarity?

Yours in sisterhood,
Claire

For the White Woman Who Wants to Know How to be My Friend: A Black Feminist Guide to Interracial Solidarity

A brief foreword: this is the conclusion to my series of essays on race and the feminist movement. Parts 1, 2, and 3 can all be accessed here. The following knowledge was acquired at great personal expense. Use it how you will. Dedicated to every woman – Black, brown, and white – who has sustained me through sisterhood.

Update (27/11/17): This essay is now available in French.


Whenever I discuss racism in the feminist movement, this question is invariably asked as a result: white women wonder “what, specifically, can I do about racism? How can I create solidarity with women of colour?” It’s a complicated question, which I have been considering closely for over a year now, and there is no one simple answer. Instead, there are many answers, of which none are static and all of which are liable to shift in relation to context. The reality of the situation is that there is no quick fix solution for the hundreds of years’ worth of racism – racism upon which our society was built, its hierarchies of wealth and power established – that shape the dynamic between women of colour and white women. That imbalance of power and privilege colours personal interactions. It creates the layers of justifiable mistrust that women of colour feel towards white women – even (perhaps especially) in a feminist context.

Altering that dynamic in which race exists only as a hierarchy, building sustainable forms of solidarity between women, is going to require persistent self-reflection, effort, and a willingness on the part of white women to change their approach. Here is my perspective on the practical steps white women can take to challenge their own racism, held consciously and subconsciously, in the hope that it will create the potential for them to offer real sisterhood to women of colour.

“The first thing you do is to forget that I’m Black.
Second, you must never forget that I’m Black.”
Pat Parker, For the White Person Who Wants to Know How to be My Friend

Acknowledge the differences brought about by race. Do not define women of colour by our respective ethnicities. Equally, do not pretend our lives are the same as yours. Not seeing race means not seeing racism. Not seeing racism means allowing it to flourish, unchecked. Start by recognising our humanity, seeing women of colour as self-actualised people with insight, powers of critical thought, and – that which is most often neglected in this conversation – feelings. Begin with examining how you think about women of colour, and build from there.

Gatekeeping and Authority

Many problems are perpetuated by white women positioning themselves as gatekeepers of feminist discourse, authorities uniquely qualified to determine what is and is not Proper Feminism. It is no coincidence that women of colour’s contributions, in particular commentaries addressing racism or white privilege, are frequently dismissed as a distraction from the main feminist concern, i.e. issues which have a directly negative impact upon white women.

The tacit assumption that a white woman’s perspective is more legitimate than ours, more informed, that if women of colour simply learned more about a particular issue then our outlook too would become nuanced, is persistent. Underpinning that assumption is the belief that white women are the guiding experts of the feminist movement, women of colour in a position of subservience. The same situation unfolds in the context of class politics, with working class women dismissed as uninformed when their feminist perspectives do not align with those of middle class women. Reinforcing these hierarchies is the greatest hindrance to solidarity between women.

White women have a habit of arbitrating what is and is not feminist in a way that centres white womanhood, positions it as the normative standard against which female experience is measured. If white womanhood is standard, Black and brown womanhood become deviant forms by definition – a paradigm which contributes to women of colour being Othered.

Feminism is a political movement devoted to the liberation of women from oppression. Some of that oppression is gendered. Some of it is racialised. Some of it is class-based. Some of it relates to sexuality. Some of it concerns disability. And within these categories, there is always the potential for overlap. A failure to acknowledge the intersection of identities ensures that the most marginalised women will continue to be oppressed – not a feminist objective by any set of standards. Responding with “this isn’t your moment, guys” when women of colour address racism is a direct contradiction of feminist principles. Expecting women of colour to remain silent for the greater good, i.e. for the benefit of white women, is not an inherently feminist act. The idea that there is a time and place for acknowledging a form of oppression experienced by women undermined the principles upon which the feminist movement is built. White women need to stop derailing critiques of racism and instead listen to what women of colour have to say on the subject.

There is an unfortunate pattern of white women framing themselves as the enlightened saviours, men of colour as savage oppressors, and women of colour as passive victims of an oppression stemming purely from men falling within our own ethnic group. This model acknowledges that women of colour experience gendered violence whilst simultaneously erasing the racialised oppression to which we are subject. Furthermore, it denies the reality of white women belonging to an oppressor class – a deft and disingenuous manoeuvre that absolves white women of their role in maintaining systematic racism. If the problem of racism does not exist, it need not be discussed. If racism is not discussed, white women may continue to benefit from it unimpeded.

For inter-racial solidarity to exist within the feminist movement, the question of ownership must be addressed. Time and time again, white women behave as though the feminist movement is their exclusive property, something with which women of colour may join in but never lead in establishing discourse or action. This approach not only erases the crucial role women of colour have historically played in the feminist movement, but denies the possibility for future collaborative efforts to occur on an equal footing.

White women who want trust and solidarity with women of colour must first consider how they position women of colour in their minds, how they conceptualise us – do you see us as sisters, or someone to whom you pay lip service without ever properly listening to? Are we a central part of feminist struggle, or a box-ticking exercise? Honest inward reflection is essential. Analyse how you think of us, critically explore why that might be, and work from there.

Feminist Organising

Are you planning a group for women? Creating a feminist event or space? Building a feminist network? Every gathering of women creates new possibilities for the feminist movement, one of which happens to be an opportunity to improve upon the dynamic of race in a feminist context. With collective organisation, there is a question which white women must ask themselves: are there women of colour in this group? If not, there is a reason. It is all very well talking about how women come together as friends or a set of activists sharing a particular goal, but the way in which that group was formed did not take place inside a social vacuum. It happened in a society where women of colour are racialised and Othered to the point our womanhood is perceived as fundamentally lesser. As a result, our grasp of women’s political issues and therefore feminism is perceived as inferior.

For example, the stronger my commitment to Black politics, the more my feminist credentials are policed by white women caught up in two fallacies: first, that it is impossible to care about multiple issues simultaneously, second, that the politics of liberation can be neatly divided because no overlap of identities need ever be taken into account. The perception that my support for Black liberation must come at the expense of my support for women’s liberation, diluting my feminist politics, misunderstands the essence of how both sets of politics were established and the fact that they are inherently connected through Black women’s lives.

If there are no women of colour involved in your feminist set, consider how that came about and subsequently how it can be addressed. What about your way of organising, your content, your feminist praxis, could be alienating? Critical self-reflection is by no means a comfortable process, but it is a necessary one for solidarity to be possible. A key element of this subject is the way in which white women behave towards women of colour.

Treating women of colour as an exercise in diversity as opposed to authentic members of the team betrays a form of racism in how we are conceptualised. Our skills, knowledge, and commitment to women are not considered the natural state of affairs in a feminist setting in the same way that white women’s contributions to the group are. The assumption that we can only ever be present as a means of filling quotas conveys an obliviousness to our humanity. Set aside that line of thought. Look for our value as individuals in the same way you are automatically inclined to look for it in a white woman, and you will grow accustomed to seeing it. Unpick your racism with the same vigour you unpick internalised misogyny.

It is important that there are women of colour involved at an organisational level, as part of the team designing your events and campaigns. Let go of the paternalism that assures you, as white women, you are in a position to speak for all women.

Behaviour

The most obvious point: do not be racist, in word or in deed. One way or another, it will come to light. If you are saying something about women of colour in a private context that you would not voice in a public context, consider why it is that you differentiate between the two settings – the answer usually relates to white women not wishing to appear racist. Appearing racist has, paradoxically, become more taboo than racism in itself.

And if your racism is addressed, do not treat this as a personal attack. Do not be the white women who makes it about her own hurt, the white woman who cries her way out of accountability for her actions. Reflect instead upon the magnitude of the hurt dealt to the women of colour subject to that racism – I guarantee it is so painful that your own discomfort is small by comparison. Give women of colour experiencing racism the empathy you would extend to a white woman experiencing misogyny.

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Do not remain silent when your friends are racist. Do not look the other way. Do not pretend that nothing has happened. Your silence makes you complicit in that racism. Your silence normalises that racism, is part of what legitimises that racism in a mainstream context. It’s not easy to confront someone with whom you are close, someone with greater power or influence than your own. But the right thing isn’t always easy to do.
Lastly, do not grow complacent. In a recent interview with Feminist Current, Sheila Jeffreys lamented the rise of identity politics, which she conflated with intersectional praxis, claiming that because men never got caught up in being expected to do everything, women shouldn’t either. This attitude is not atypical among white feminist women. However, Jeffreys’ perspective begs the question: since when did radical lesbian feminism model itself after the behaviour of men? Feminism is not a race to the bottom, it is a radical political movement. And that involves some intensive critical thought – a consistent of challenging of structural oppression that is not selective, but thorough.

It will not be comfortable. It will not be easy. But it opens up whole new avenues of support and sisterhood between women. Solidarity that will sustain and nourish all women as we work towards liberation.


Bibliography

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

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

King, Martin Luther. (1968). The Trumpet of Conscience.

Parker, Pat. (1978). Movement in Black.

 

Race, History, and Brexit: Black Scottish Identity

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

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


 

brexit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

White people critiquing “White Feminism” perpetuate white privilege

Update (12/02/17): the ongoing popularity of this essay is a pleasant surprise. My first blog post has been accessed around the world, translated into Portuguese and German, and republished by a variety of feminist resources.


If you are involved in feminist discourse online, the chances are that you will have noticed a particular phrase becoming increasingly common: White Feminism. Sometimes, a trademark logo will even be added for emphasis. The term White Feminism has become shorthand for certain failings within the feminist movement; of women with a particular degree of privilege failing to listen to their more marginalised sisters; of women with a particular degree of privilege speaking over those sisters; of women with a particular degree of privilege centering the movement around issues falling within their own range of experience. Originally, the term White Feminism was used by Women of Colour to address racism within the feminist movement – a necessary and valid critique.

Although white women are at a personal and political disadvantage due to the existing social order being built upon misogyny, they are also the beneficiaries of institutional racism – whether or not they want to be. Even white women with firmly anti-racist politics cannot opt out of benefiting from white privilege, from white women receiving greater (albeit lacking) media visibility than their BME sisters, to a wider wage gap for Women of Colour, to a significantly increased likelihood of police violence shaping the lived reality of Black women. That is how white privilege works. We live in a culture steeped in racism, with a great deal of our country’s wealth stemming from the slave trade. Much like misogyny, it takes much time and conscious thought to unlearn racism. It’s a learning process from which we never fully graduate. Women of Colour challenging racism from within the feminism movement give us all an opportunity to consciously disengage with behaviour rewarded by the white supremacist patriarchy.

However, the phrase White Feminism is no longer being used exclusively by Women of Colour to challenge the racism that we face. Recently, it has become de rigueur for white feminists to dismiss other white feminists with whom they disagree as embodying White Feminism. White people have started calling out other white people for… whiteness. I shit you not. In a recent piece for Vice magazine, somewhat ironically, Paris Lees laments that “White Feminists have the biggest media platforms…”. Artist Molly Crabapple, with both media platform and sizeable income (unless bigging up Samsung was an act of charity), tweeted to dismiss the views of “fancy white ladies” on the grounds of privilege. But, from where I’m sitting, both Paris and Molly look pretty comfortable.

Instead of amplifying the voices of Women of Colour, or using their platform to highlight the intersection between race and gender, a number of liberal white feminists have hijacked a critique of racism in order to bolster their own image as progressives – as the right sort of feminist, not a White Feminist. But co-opting Women of Colour’s analysis of racism within the feminist movement is exactly the kind of behaviour the phrase “White Feminism” was created to prevent. White people critiquing “White Feminism” perpetuate white privilege. Prioritising their own image above the anti-racist struggle led by Women of Colour is at best narcissistic, at worst racist. These actions support the notion that the racism faced by Women of Colour is a side-issue, not a main concern, within the feminist movement.

White women using “White Feminism” as a stick with which to beat each other, and not a prompt to consider their own racism, is peak whiteness in action. In the rush to “launder privilege“, white feminists become the dreaded White Feminist by misappropriating the words of their marginalised sisters for personal gain.