All posts tagged race

  • Dark girls, rise- shadeism and internalised racism

    This week, I guested on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour, taking shadeism with Dr Jude Smith Rachele. Jude organised the recent screening of Dark Girls in London- a US based documentary film interviewing several black women on their experiences of having their worth and beauty weighted on the shade of their skin. The film is powerful and resonates with scores of women battling white supremacist, Eurocentric beauty ideals in Africa, Asia and diaspora communities. You can watch a preview of the film here. Try not to cry.

    Shadeism, or colourism, is a devastating by product of living with the consequences of structural racism. However it is dressed up, it is the adulation of light skin, and the demonisation of dark skin.  I guess we can’t spend years trying escape colonialism without internalising some of it’s toxic ideologies. In our conversation, I tried to bring light to the fact that this white supremacist ideology can be reinforced from all areas- your family, the magazines you read- and that we need to make a conscious decision to reject the sexist, racist beauty ideals that have been foisted upon us without our permission.

    You can hear our conversation about the topic on Woman’s Hour here.

  • Our priorities are not the same.

    ‘Not every community has the same goals or the same needs. This takes us back to Step 1. Listen to what is being said, understand that just because your community functions a different way that doesn’t make it better [… ]Frankly, I couldn’t care less about whether or not someone changes their last name, or who is shaving what. That stuff is all noise to me, but if that is what matters to you? Great.  Just don’t expect my priorities to match yours.’


    Our priorities are not the same. Earlier today I tweeted Mikki Kendall’s piece on xoJane entitled ‘so you want to be a good ally’. I called it the definitive piece on racism in feminism – because it’s a piece of writing I’ll continue to refer back to over the next few years when I’m asked the questions she addresses in the piece. As a black feminist, there wasn’t much that I hadn’t heard before, but I feel like I learnt from the paragraph I’ve quoted above.  In particular, it helped me to understand and articulate the complete lack of sympathy I’ve been feeling for high profile feminist campaigns recently.

    I’ve not always felt like this. Those who’ve known me for years will know that I’ve often been vocally supportive of plenty of feminist campaigns have been in the news.  These campaigns are almost always headed up by white women, and if they are not, they are rarely branded as feminist. The recent win by anti FGM organisation Daughters of Eve, headed up by FGM campaigner Nimko Ali, is a very pertinent example of this.

    The race dynamics in feminist campaigning is inherently unbalanced- we can’t escape the structures of a racist society unless we’re always vigilant of it. There comes a point in any unbalanced relationship when you realise that there is a lack of mutual support. So, though I might resonate with these campaigns in theory, in practice I can see the shiny veneer of white universalism, and I wonder if that campaign was ever really relevant to me at all.

    And when it comes to black feminist campaigning, these women are not there. I’m expected to support you, but when I ask you to support me, you’re not there.  Our priorities are not the same, and when it comes to intersections, we can’t split them up.

    Feminist activism, work, and campaigning is a broad church. And this is why I like Mikki’s paragraph- she articulates my feelings on the most publicised aspects of feminist activism. But she doesn’t dismiss that those high profile priorities are important to some- she just says that it’s foolish to kid yourself that they’re priorities for all feminist women. We’re not a homogenous group. A host of our topics are important, but our priorities must not be surrendered to existing unjust power structures. I feel the same.

  • On race, feminism and activism- my speech for UK Feminsta Summer School 2013

    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.

  • On tolerance

    ‘I see that we’re living in two different consciousnesses. It’s necessary for me to understand yours, in order that I survive.’

    When it comes to multiculturalism, the word tolerance has always irritated me. Britain is a tolerant society, we’re often told. That’s how multiculturalism thrives. But the word tolerance essentially means reluctantly putting up with any given situation. It doesn’t have the same meaning as the words embrace or welcome.  In the UK, the discourse of multiculturalism has always implied a white country graciously but somewhat reluctantly giving way to the presence of people of colour. The history of colonialism and immigration in this country doesn’t tally with this lie.

    We live in a society not particularly passively tolerant, but is instead host to many different cultures, tightly packed together, with plenty of tensions. Some are expressed, some buried. Until I looked at tolerance within racial power constructs, I didn’t really understand its meaning. The tipping point, I think, was coming to my own conclusions about power and race, as well as watching this documentary on vimeo, called ‘The Colour of Fear.’ I don’t know much bout it apart from the fact that it was released over 20 years ago. IMdb informs me that ‘Eight North American men, two African American, two Latinos, two Asian American and two Caucasian were gathered by director Lee Mun Wah, for a dialogue about the state of race relations in America as seen through their eyes. The exchanges are sometimes dramatic, and put in plain light the pain caused by racism in North America.’ 

    It’s an hour and a half of a rollercoaster of emotions for those of us interested in race dynamics, white privilege and racism. Do watch it when you have some time fee.

    I started thinking. In the conversation about race and racism, a great deal of us, black or white, recognise the injustice that has been done in the past. Fewer might recognise the less overt, structural injustice that still prevails today.  Even less will actually agitate to change it. But to move towards progress, one camp – black, or white – will have to concede. For too long now, those on the receiving end of racism have been the ones to change. We’ve quietly assimilated to demands of colour-blindness, doing away with any evidence of our cultural and heritage in an effort to fit in. We’ve kept our gripes to ourselves, changed our appearance, names, accents, and dress to fit a status quo that was never made for us. Considering the meaning of the word, this phenomenon might just be the best living descriptor of tolerance in 2013. We have bitten our tongues, exercised (not good, but safe) judgement, and tiptoed around white feelings in an effort to not rock the boat. We’ve bent over backwards in an effort to be awarded some crumbs from the table of power. Indeed, we’ve been tolerant up to the point of not even mentioning race lest we’re accused of playing the race card, or actually perpetuating racism by vocalising our opposition to it. So, some of us stopped doing that. Yet, racism is still rife- dangerously, violently rife. Someone has got to give, and I don’t think it can be people of colour any more.

    When I think of tolerance, I think of the bravery and honesty of the people of colour who – perhaps recklessly- put their life experiences on trial in an effort to persuade society that white supremacy was suffocating us. I watched the Colour of Fear and was genuinely impressed by the men of colour’s persistence in the face of white denial, and white adversity. In the face of a man who was dedicated to dismissing their experiences. Tolerance is the calm, yet passionate manner in which the majority of the men in the room rebutted his continually racist remarks, even after they had explained their experiences of marginalisation to him. Tolerance is a state of expecting this, yet never accepting it.

    There is untold strength in conceding to the denigration of your humanity daily, yet still finding the guts to voice your objections to it. And I can’t quite express my admiration for the men this documentary who were  welcoming and embracing to the bare faced, defiant man, who once confronted with evidence, pain, frustration and personal testimony, took the step to concede his privilege and treat them like human beings. It’s never ending, it’s heart-breaking, it is sad, but it is inspiring, too.

  • For Trayvon Martin

    There is something about the similarities of structural racism in the UK and the US that results in me awake at 4 O’clock on a Sunday morning crying about the loss of Trayvon Martin. Perhaps foolishly, I kept just half an eye on the progress of the trial of George Zimmerman, whilst going about my daily life. I thought the outcome of the trial would be obvious. George Zimmerman murdered an unarmed teenager. Zimmerman’s defence, branding Trayvon as ‘looking suspicious’, was textbook racism, racism as old as the days of slavery in which men with black and brown skin were marked as a threatening, dangerous, wild, and volatile. That stereotype still pervades today, it’s an ugly rigid style of patriarchal masculinity, it makes people believe that that black men aren’t capable of gentleness, kindness, of love and overall, of innocence.

    Innocence. That’s a characteristic not often equated with black skin. And as the verdict of the Zimmerman trial made its way to the UK in the early hours of Sunday morning I learnt that it was Zimmerman who had been found not guilty. His defence had asserted that Trayvon, by virtue of his dark skin and hoodie, was suspicious. His defence mounted around a claim that Trayvon had tried to attack him and that he had shot the teenager in self defence. And I knew that this verdict would mark Trayvon’s skin again, in death, as guilty.

    The trial of Zimmerman was, in practice, the trial of Trayvon. Not even death vindicated him from suspicion. He was guilty of having black skin, and in this day and age, to too many, black skin is a threat. Like female flesh and slut shaming, the black body is political whether we want it to be or not. It’s the unwilling home of a thousand projections and insecurities of an aggressively unjust status quo.

    The denigration of dark skin infects us as soon as we’re touched by society. I remember being very young and asking my mum when I would turn white, because even at 5 I understood that being black was a thing that was quite wrong and abnormal, something to avoid if you could. From decades old social experiments to aggressively Islamophobic rhetoric, normalised by seemingly sympathetic TV and radio producers in the UK, this rhetoric is socially constructed, continued and perpetuated by people who benefit from it and have a stake in its existence. People who can’t quite comprehend a world in which whiteness suddenly becomes visible, a world in which meritocracy is exposed as a lie, a worked in which white people no longer have the upper hand.

    I cried for Trayvon because the task of dismantling this social construct seems completely insurmountable. I cried because it felt a lot like we are condemned and consigned to a terrible history and at times like this it feels like it’s atmosphere is thicker than ever and we might never escape it, and I wondered about my future family and thought perhaps the kinder option might be to not subject any more little black boys and girls to a society that considers them subhuman.
    But it’s ok to feel down at a time like this. Sometimes you run out of anger and you just feel sad, and we all need space to mourn. So I’ll cry for Trayvon today, and fight tomorrow. Alice Walker said activism is the price she pays for living in this world. So if you’re dedicated to critical anti racism, then you and I owe it to Trayvon and the hundreds like him to continue speaking about race and racism, to continue going against the grain, to keep live in a state of transgression, to chip away at this ugly violent status quo whilst we’re here.

  • Martha-Renee Kolleh, and tackling racism head on

    This week, Martha-Renee Kolleh, a cafe owner living in Osset, nest West Yorkshire, took extreme measures to combat the racism that was slowly strangling her business.

    It was quite simple really. She put up a black and white sign in the window.

    Attention!’ it read. ‘Everyone be aware I am a black woman and always will be. If you are allergic to black people, don’t come in. But if you prefer quality wholesome meals in a pleasant and clean environment, come in. I don’t bite!’

    She told reporters that she had been experiencing customers leaving the cafe soon after seeing her behind the counter. She was proactive, testing her theory by hiring a white member of staff to serve customers and gauge reaction. She told the Daily Mail ‘She [the member of staff] did very well and we had a lot of custom, but as soon as I was back behind the counter, nobody comes in.’

    In the words of Kanye West, racism’s still alive. They be just concealing it. And, of course, the white reaction to an incident like this one is too often of instant dismissal, an earnest demand of PROOF, PROOF, PROOF, and a keenness to insist that you’re just imagining it. In Martha-Renee’s case, too many have accused her of ‘playing the race card’ to drum up a bit of publicity for her business. Because, can she know that it’s racism, they ask, almost breaking their backs as they bend and twist in an effort to avoid the problem. How can she truly know?

    Martha’s story tells us something significant about the subtleties and implicit biases of an embedded, structural racism. This is the sort of racism that doesn’t spit in your face and tell you to go back to where you came from, but will smile at you politely and tell you that you didn’t get the job this time because there was someone else a little more suitable, and a little more white.

    Those of us who notice these implicit biases are ignored, dismissed, ridiculed, discredited, or shouted down. At the very least, we’re told we are imagining it. Here are some facts that aren’t imagined. The police are 25 times more likely to stop and search black people than white people.  The overall unemployment rate of black women is 14.3 percent, compared to 6.8 percent for white women, while Pakistani and Bangladeshi women’s unemployment stands at 20.5 percent. Black women are concentrated in part time work. Employment tribunals have seen cases in which black people have seen job applications rejected when their names sound African, and invited to interview when their names sound British.

    These are the facts. Racism doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Racism is blindly perpetuated by those who indirectly gain from its continued existence. They might be your friends, your lovers or your political allies, but god forbid you utter the words white privilege, or point out the benefits they enjoy from a society that is structured towards white needs. As Lola Okolosie writes , you might just find that they consider you the racist for pointing it out.

    According to home office statistics, the number of recorded racist incidents have dropped by 8%, from  51,585 in 2010/11 to 47,678 in 2011/12. Something interesting is at play here. Perhaps those who aren’t comfortable around us are less likely to articulate it to our faces nowadays. But it’s still there, a stifling atmosphere that, instead of being lanced and brought to air, has settled like a irritating spot under the skin.  

    All the while, we continue to discuss racism as though it is only ever incident based, a series of terrible anomalies in which Good White People couldn’t possibility be implicated in, just in case their feelings get hurt.  We need a grown up conversation about racism in all its forms- overt and covert, insidious and blatant, the structural, and the interpersonal. Only then can we lance that boil and work towards ridding ourselves of what essentially, is a socially constructed disease.


  • Mike Tyson’s commodified Black Power



    There’s no denying that Mike Tyson’s public persona capitalises on racist depictions of black masculinity. At his peak, Tyson was a pioneer of a particular kind of black fame that honed in on physical prowess. His was boxing. He punched and punched and punched until he was at the top of his game, quickly rising to undisputed champion status. Tyson was a black man known and celebrated in a sport notorious for aggression. Whilst he’s been off the radar for a number of years, his pervasive public caricature still lingers in the back of the mind.

    The public’s temptation of harnessing the sheer power of a right hook have finally been satisfied, long after Tyson’s retirement, in a Polish energy drink endorsed by him, named Black Power.

    Before the phrase  was co opted to market a sugary energy drink, Black Power stood (and still stands) for a movement that was the pinpoint of defence against racist oppression.  Perhaps of the most iconic pop culture references the movement is the tight fisted salute at the 200m final in the 1968 Summer Olympics. That Black Power was defiant and proud, typifying an astute threat to a white establishment reluctant to budge on human rights.

    But this new sugary, energy laden Black Power signifies a cynical subversion of those values. It’s still threatening, but not in a liberation from oppression way. It’s threatening in a beat the crap out of your opponent and mercilessly rip off an ear way- a metonym for unrestrained violent aggression in a can. Both threats disrupt the status quo- one  for the means emancipation, another destructively so.   This raises some serious questions. In a white supremacist patriarchal society, powerful blackness- a concept that exists in within structures not favoured to black advancement- is either reduced to benign humour or inflated to threatening, dangerous and angry.

    Advertisements for the drink draw on tired clichés of what a successful black man’s life looks like- he’s surrounded by attractive white women in both adverts, their objectified flesh gleaming at the viewer whilst they smile and keep eerily silent. In one advert, a woman is handed over to another man as a gift. This objectification of female flesh isn’t new, but thrown into a mix of imagery dominated by the glorification of Tyson, a convicted rapist, the dynamics change somewhat.

    Images of powerful, predatory black men and docile, prey like white women effectively hark back to a racist understanding of black masculinity as old as slavery- with blackness equated to danger.  It existed back then, and it’s prevalent today in the heavily biased amplification of Asian sex gang stories, with young white girls described as ‘easy meat’ by those who claim to protect them. Whilst these generalised stereotypes find themselves sticking to black men regardless of flesh incriminated, Tyson has been proved to be a danger to women. A supermarket that stocks an energy drink endorsed by any man convicted of rape unwittingly legitimises violence against women in all its forms. Women shop in Sainsbury’s and Tesco. Rape survivors shop in Sainsbury’s and Tesco. Frankly, stocking these goods is an irresponsible act.

    This product’s clearly marketed to straight men, and there’s some unpacking to be done in regards to what energy drinks stand for  in the discourse on heteronormative patriarchy, and what Tyson adds to it as a rapist, glorified and endorsing a product that promises to give you a rush. But, Tyson as an admirable public figure? That’s not how black works.

  • Has Michelle Obama ‘redefined black women’?

    When I was a child, American culture always seemed to trump it’s British counterpart, particularly when it came to representations of black identity. As a little black girl, it pervaded my understanding of myself amongst a whitewashed backdrop of what it meant to be British. It was the country that offered me a fully formed and popular black scene when its parallels were being buried in the UK. The US had the Fresh Prince and the Cosby Show- canned laughter sitcoms with main characters that had black faces. They were narratives that presented being black as the norm, not as other. We could be at the centre of the narrative, not that token black family on Eastenders. Where black felt erased in Britain I could always look across the Atlantic for validation. Eight year old me found it pretty subversive.

    So it stings when I read a wildly misguided, pseudo optimistic US based comment piece proclaiming that Michelle Obama has redefined black women. Based on the first lady’s appearance at the Democratic National Convention, Sophia A. Nelson herald Michelle as ‘a strong, beautiful, accomplished black woman…elegant, educated, and full of grace’. Apparently she’s now redefined black women- implying that we weren’t any of those things already. But the question that Nelson asserts really has two meanings- does Michelle Obama redefine what it means to be a black woman, or does she redefine perceptions of black women? I’d hazard a guess that the author’s intention is the latter, but both questions are seriously problematic.

    I’ve written before about my frustrations with black women’s representation in an appropriated culture- we’re fiery homemakers or oiled up fleshy decoration and there’s no in between. And it’s nice to see that Michelle Obama changes the horizon.

    Undoubtedly she is one of the most high profile black women in the world- and she is unique in that, despite repeated attacks ,her notoriety is not bogged down by negative stereotypes.

    There’s a lot to dislike about the Obama family’s politics- the fact that, in every public word and gesture, race is continually the elephant in the room- but the worldwide cultural significance of a black family in the white house is undeniably palpable. The very fact that they exist in country as racially segregated as the US is gloriously trangressive. But it’s foolish to consider their occupancy as anything other than the exception to the rule. So it stings when that beaming CNN piece proclaims Michelle Obama’s transformative effect on the representation of black women. Yes- she’s dented racist, sexist stereotypes of black women as welfare queens. But I can’t see anything in her representation that suggests a deviation from her white predecessors, and more importantly, her mere existence is not enough to change what bell hooks called the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.  I want a world where black women can exert ownership over our own identities- not a compromise in which we rely on the ever composed first lady to subvert some stereotypes. And we need an identity that goes far beyond imitating the patriarchal constructed, sweet docile wife like white woman of old. We need more than an exception.

    Black women don’t need redefining, instead we need to challenge who owns our definition in the first place- because it certainly isn’t us. Of course, owning it is easier said than done, and bell hooks didn’t speak so deftly about the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy for nothing. Unlike Nelson’s projections, we do not need humanizing, we do not need softening, because we were already these things another thousand more- and if you didn’t recognise that black women are full human beings through your racism and sexism, that’s not our problem.

    As long as we uphold Michelle Obama as the perfect black woman, we further reinforce this virgin whore dichotomy and throw other black women under the bus- because, frankly, it’s impossible to reach her standard. The position of the president’s wife is already taken.