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.”