I delivered the following speech at UK Feminista’s Summer School. A few people have asked about the content of my speech, so I thought I’d post it here. I understand that UK Feminista will be hosting video from the weekend shortly, so keep a look out for that also! Trigger warning below for discussion of sexual assault.
At summer school this year, there are some vital sessions centring on building your own feminist groups- which I think is fantastic. When I first started getting involved in feminism a few years back, I always found myself dismayed when I was the only black face in the room. If you are white and in charge of a feminist space, you might sometimes find yourself wondering why black women aren’t involved in your work.
Before I go any further, I must specify that during this talk I will be using the word black in the political sense. This term is for people who self- identify, originate or have ancestry from global majority populations (i.e. African, Asian, Middle Eastern and Latin America) and Indigenous and mixed race backgrounds. The phrasing has roots in the civil rights movement. I find it much more liberating that reducing myself to an ‘ethnic minority’ or defining myself against that which I lack- the term ‘non- white’.
Secondly, I’d like to tackle what’s sometimes referred to as the burden of representation. Inevitably, in a political sphere so heavily dominated by white voices, what I say is too often misrepresented as the ‘black women’s opinion’. Indeed, the nature of some of the work I do depends on this characterisation- that’s a compromise I have to make in order to be heard. But I need to stress that I’m not talking on behalf of anyone here but myself- if other black women agree, then that’s a bonus.
I’m going to speak to you today about intersectionality and privilege, both concepts that have been very much trashed in the national press. But first I’ll tell you a bit of my story.
I first attended at UK Feminista summer school a couple of years back. I learnt a lot and made some friends for life, but I also found myself confronted by some incidents that made me feel unwelcome as a black woman who is also a feminist. There wasn’t a big single moment- more of a dripping tap of signifiers that conditioned me to stay quiet about race for fear of rocking the boat.
On the first morning, someone had taken the time to scrawl the word ‘why?’ on the sign-up sheet for a black women only session. As feminists, we understand the importance of self-defining women only spaces, so that was jarring to see. In a session looking at beauty standards in fashion magazines, I found myself in the position of having to explain that light skinned standards of beauty could not seriously be equated with the fact that many models have long hair. I found myself explain to a white woman that she could grow her hair in an attempt to aspire to these beauty standards, but I can’t change the colour of my skin.
It was painful watching a white woman and a Muslim woman argue about the burqua- an argument prompted because the white woman insisted that the conference was not focusing enough on the evils of Islam, and that Muslim women needed to be saved.
Each of these moments of casually discounting the experiences of black women made for an unwelcoming environment. This isn’t an indictment of UK Feminista as an organisation. Panels like this one prove that race and intersectionality are on the agenda and are important. But it is indicative of a wider problem.
Our national discourse on race is warped beyond logic. Feminism is not immune to this. Every meaningful discussion about race centres on white feelings instead of black truth. I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve been accused of racism against white people for daring to discuss the consequences of a white dominated political atmosphere.
We seem to be in a state of colour-blindness, in which people insist that they ‘don’t see race’. This is a state of denial. When I repeatedly fail to see a reflection of my race in images of power, politics, influence, wealth, aspiration or beauty, I cannot afford to ignore the problem.
Black feminist academics bell hooks and Kimberle Crenshaw use term the white supremacy to conceptualise a landscape in which white is considered the norm. It’s less to do with the KKK, and more to do with the current state of play.
There are of course other factors that contribute to an unjust status quo, such as class, gender, disability, and sexuality. What is important is that none of these struggles are separate, and none of these struggles are hierarchical. Smashing the patriarchy whilst propping up other systems of dominance is useless (though it might help accelerate a few careers). In our fights, we recognise our privileges in conforming to the status quo and understand that these factors can often intersect. That is intersectionality.
The thing about insidious racism and insidious sexism is your narrative is constantly doubted. As a survivor of sexual assault I can draw clear parallels between both of these states. You might confide in a friend about your experience of assault, and you can quite easily find yourself confronted with a wall of denial. Some will be very invested in proving you wrong. Perhaps you’re just straight up lying, perhaps you provoked your attacker, perhaps you were asking for it. Expressing experiences of racism elicits a similar response. You have no proof that it was racism; you’re being over sensitive, you are playing the race card.
This victim blaming conversation will centre on the feelings of the person accused. Before reporting my sexual assault I was strongly warned to consider my attacker’s future career prospects, because, by reporting, I was ‘ruining his life’. When I wrote honestly about my experiences of racism, I was told that I was making a very serious accusation, that I had upset a lot of people; that I was cynically trying to make a name for myself, that I was trying to ‘shut down debate’ and stop white people talking.
I’ve outlined some of the problems I’ve faced in white feminist spaces today. Truth be told, many of the attitudes I’ve faced over the past year have almost succeeded in driving me away from feminist activism altogether. Debates around feminism in the mainstream press, some of which I have initiated or participated in, have been dominated by white voices. Debates about intersectionality and privilege have been less about meaningful conversations and more about white people passing the ball to each other. The women who deride and dismiss intersectionality in the press stand to gain from an overwhelmingly white feminist consensus. I’m sad, but not surprised to see that this consensus has pushed marginalised voices of black and transgender women to the fringes, again and again.
When I consider the future of any kind of inclusive feminism, I can’t imagine it without intersectionality. I’m not the first black woman to say this. It began with Sojourner Truth asking ‘Ain’t I a Woman’ back in 1851. Michelle Wallace was saying the same thing in the 1970s. In the 1980’s bell hooks was writing it, in the 90’s Angela Davis was teaching it. I’m sitting here in 2013, yet I don’t feel I can confidently say we’ve made any sort of progress.
I’m optimistic for the future, and I’d like to be proved wrong.