‘The Colour of My Struggle’: Black Feminism and Double Jeopardy in a World of Whiteness

An abridged version of this article was originally published in the Spring Edition of STRIKE! magazine –  a radical, quarterly newspaper dealing with politics, philosophy, art, subversion and sedition – in their celebratory Feminist Issue. This extended article is republished with permission.

An ongoing struggle and point of tension within the Feminist movement is the subject of race and how this intersection in particular has a significant effect on the experiences of women of colour in the UK and abroad. This tension has been written about extensively by esteemed Feminists of colour such as bell hooks, Audre Lorde, and Patricia Hill Collins (notice how these prominent names are names of American women and not women of colour from the UK – another issue and another conversation entirely) but still, in 2014, women of colour are battling one-sided mainstream dialogues of the ‘women’s experience’, fighting to put a spotlight on some of the traumas, challenges, and daily struggles they experience based on the colour of their skin. And although there are white Feminists who have acknowledged and checked their privilege, there are still far too many who refuse to do so and it is this refusal that threatens to damage any potential for a unified movement – something that has been difficult to achieve since the sixties and seventies.

Although bell hooks might take issue with a call for accepting FeminismS, it is necessary to accept that for each woman, equality means something unique to her wants, needs, and priorities and revolution may come in different guises. Women are not a homogeneous group and yet we are often spoken about as if we are. When the brave decide to speak out against such white-washing, derogatory caricatures, such as the well-known ‘Angry Black Woman’ stereotype are thrown around in order to shame and silence them. It is against this backdrop that Black Feminism has come to be and in all respects is flourishing as a legitimate political movement. Out of necessity, frustration, and the desire for their own voice, women of colour – the politically ‘black’ – are adding to the Feminist dialogue more publicly and more loudly than ever before. In this post, the debut from the founder of No Fly on the WALL, Siana Bangura, we explore the so-called ‘double jeopardy’ of being black and being female, the myth of the ‘Angry Black Woman’ and why it is a damaging stereotype, as well as why gender discrimination works alongside racial discrimination to ensure black women are not seen as equal to white women, even in the Feminist movement – a radical movement that is supposed to call for equality for all people regardless of their gender (and race, sexual orientation, class, and so on). 

 

“I am a Black Feminist. I mean I recognise that my power as well as my primary oppressions come as a result of my blackness as well as my womaness, and therefore my struggles on both of these fronts are inseparable.” – Audre Lorde.

I – like Lorde, hooks, Walker, Hill Collins, Davis, Morrison, Malveaux, Beal, and countless other women before me – declare fearlessly, unapologetically, and relentlessly that I am a Black Feminist. I am a woman. I am a member of the working class. I am a person of colour. I am a working class woman of colour and I wish to be accepted in my entirety. And it is only through acknowledging every facet of my complex identity that you will be able to understand my liberations, my incarcerations, my struggles, and my stance. As Lorde also said, ‘…what is important to me must be spoken, made verbal, and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.’ Amongst many things, it was this call to face adversity and have those difficult conversations that first encouraged me, the reluctant feminist, to wear the title for all to see. Having become radicalized at university after one too many ‘you’re pretty for a black girl’ comments and certainly countless occasions when it was argued my gender was more important than my race when it came to ‘the fight’, I was compelled to supersede the former and take on the label of Black Feminist. You see, I have learnt that there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because ‘we do not live single-issue lives’ and oppression works across several axes at any one time.

Having been told I am an ‘angry black woman’ – a very damaging and reductive caricature of a black woman who understands (what is more often than not) her difficult position – because I am outspoken, present, and resistant to patriarchy, I know very well the importance of refusing to be silent when people are uncomfortable with your truth. Let’s face it, women, in particular women of colour and working class women have much to be angry about. When Frances Beal wrote of the ‘double jeopardy’ of being both black and female, and offered her powerful analysis of the relationship between capitalism and racism, she spoke of how both were intertwined in denying the humanity of all people, especially the humanity of black people.

When Friedan spoke of “the problem that has no name”, she was not talking about the plight of women who were not like her: white, middle-class, well educated housewives of privilege. She spoke for a select group of women who were bored with leisure, with the home, with children, and with cleaning the house. For some women, this was the “problem that has no name” and the cure for said problem was a career and independence. For most others, being given equal access with white men to the professions would not solve their problems. These women without men, without children, without homes, without time for leisure, non-white women and poor white women did not feature in Friedan’s brave new world. Significantly, the one-dimensional perspective on women’s reality presented in The Feminist Mystique became (and remains) a marked feature of the contemporary Feminist Movement. As bell hooks observes in her Feminist Theory: From Margin to Centre, like Friedan before them ‘white women who dominate feminist discourse today rarely question whether or not their perspective on women’s reality is true to the lived experiences of women as a collective group.’ Arguably it may be impossible to ever to speak of the ‘lived experiences’ of women as a collective group as we are not homogeneous and nor should we be. I cannot assume that the lived experience of a woman like me – a child of a Sierra Leonian single mother, raised in a council flat in South East London, who went on to study History at the University of Cambridge – will be the same as the lived experiences of my female friends, black or otherwise. And I do not ever wish to speak for all women like me, despite sometimes feeling as though those that do not understand and wish to understand, expect me to. I think therefore I am? I speak therefore I speak for all.

And it is this frustrating pigeon-holing of my experiences, particularly at university, that drove me to seek refuge in a movement that argues that sexism, class oppressions, and racism are inextricably bound together, with their relationship being called ‘intersectionality’. Intersectionality itself is a concept often used in critical theories to describe the ways in which oppressive institutions such as racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, xenophobia, classism, and so on – are interconnected and cannot be examined separately from one another. Third Wave Feminism, especially, thrived on the concept of intersectionality in order to redefine Feminism as inclusive, but fell short. The concept first came from legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 who brought the term to wider attention. It is largely used in critical theories, especially Feminist theory, when discussing systematic oppression. In the past, I and many other black feminists have been accused of trivialising the experiences of white women because I stand by Walker’s claim, and one of the theories that evolved out of the Black Feminist Movement – Womanism – that black women experience a different, more subversive, and more intense kind of oppression from that of white women. Black Feminist theory has argued that black women are positioned within structures of power in fundamentally different ways to those of white women. The added axes of oppression – race – added to factors of marginalization such as class, gender, and sexuality makes experiences and the consequences of oppression more intense.

Mainstream white feminist theory has neither comprehensively accounted for the economic, racial, ad gender exigencies of black female experiences, nor in many cases tried to. And although in recent times white women have been called to ‘check their privilege’, from my own experience, it is something that many find difficult to do. It takes great understanding of self to be able to imagine yourself in someone else’s position, particularly someone who is completely different to you. It is tough for the majority to put themselves in the position of the minority – not least because of fear and guilt of seeing what you may have knowingly or unknowingly been complicit to. And as is the case when the minority finally has their five minutes in the spotlight, the majority often takes offence and reacts. I’ve been in conversations with white women who claim that ‘check your privilege’ is a tool to exclude them from the Feminist discourse. I find such claims deeply troubling and ironic. In all cases, the privileged – be them white, male, wealthy, well educated, able bodied, and so on – can only struggle alongside the struggling minority (or in some cases the majority) and be true allies if they remove their privilege and see their counterparts as equals.

In December 2013, my friend and comrade at London Black Feminists, Lola Okolosie wrote in the Guardian:

“Within the media, and indeed the movement, there has been much celebration of our feminist resurgence. Yet our success is being marred by infighting. White, middle-class and young women are often seen as the ones spearheading this new wave of activity. Their high-profile campaigns – to have women on banknotes, challenge online misogyny and banish Page 3, for example – though necessary and praiseworthy, do not reflect the most pressing needs of the majority of women, black and minority-ethnic women included. The problem is not that these campaigns exist, but that they are given a focus and attention that overshadows other work feminists are engaged with.”

Her point is profound. Although seemingly contradictory, I advocate that it is important to acknowledge the existence of FeminismS – with a capital “S”. This is not a call to divide (an already fractured) movement, but instead to give centre stage to all groups of women and allow them to speak for themselves and highlight their needs, wants, and what change means to them. My heroine, bell hooks, would raise an eyebrow as she lamented extensively on the disunity and disharmony amongst women who claimed to fight for the rights of women. However, the age-old problem that Feminism has faced is the alienation of most women because of a handful of non-representative voices silencing everyone else. At this point it is worth pointing out that “black” is used throughout in its political sense – that is to denote women, including trans*women, who self- identify, originate or have ancestry from global majority populations (i.e. African, Asian, Middle Eastern and Latin America) and Indigenous and Bi-racial backgrounds. Groups such as London Black Feminists and Southall black sisters use this definition in the work they do, which is important to note. The term is indeed inclusive and further emphasises that on a global scale, white women would be considered the minority. Interestingly, as written about in an article by Lianne De Mello, editors of a prominent Feminist publication, The Vagenda, in 2012 had the audacity to claim in a blog entry in New Statesman that “feminism is, and to an extent always has been, a white, middle class movement.” They also expressed their concerns over “issues of race, class, religion, sexuality, politics and privilege… fracturing feminist dialogue.”

And there are those who question why we are irate? No matter how well meaning, women like Caitlin Moran and Laurie Penny have all put their foot it in it at some point and dismissed intersectionality as an unnecessary consideration in Feminist theory. Intersectionality may be an academic term that has spilled into common usage among many feminists, but that does not mean that the concept it refers to isn’t real and worthy of discussion. In Who Said It Was Simple, Lorde ends by musing:

‘But I who am bound by my mirror/ as well as my bed/ see causes in colour/ as well as sex/ and sit here wondering which me will survive/ all these liberations.’
Which ‘me’ will survive all these liberations? Which part of my whole must I sacrifice in order to attain equality? Which part will survive the revolution that has not been led by me? Which part of my whole must be silenced so as not to ‘fracture’ the Feminist dialogue? The failure to accept the struggle of our sisters in their entirety seeks to threaten the overall success of the Feminist movement and will continue to alienate those who are on the sidelines, who watch and feel that they have no ownership of or part to play in the conversation. Lorde wrote that “The failure of academic feminists to recognise difference as a crucial strength is a failure to reach beyond the first patriarchal lesson. In our world, divide and conquer must become define and empower” is true now as it was then.
She goes on to say, “We welcome all women who can meet us, face to face, beyond objectification and beyond guilt.” Black Feminism does not exists to divide. It exists because there is no room in the mainstream for the voices of women of the “black” diasporas. It exists because prominent white feminists on the left, and opponents of any movement promoting equality persist to silence the voices of those sharing opinions that do not fit into their understanding and analysis of the female experience. Black feminism exists because for the most part, the mainstream Feminist Movement is transphobic. It exists because white privilege is real and it is only through accepting this and endeavouring to rid oneself of such privileges that we will be able to struggle together as sisters who accept that we are not homogeneous. I spoke at a conference to celebrate International Women’s Day earlier this year and Baroness Flather – a no nonsense, fierce, teacher and politician – said something extremely significant and rather sad because it is so true: “Women do not support women”. Constant in fighting between different groups within the movement will only serve to keep us fractured. The ultimate aim is a united sisterhood, which will nurture a movement that is part of a greater struggle and more noble cause: The struggle for equality for all.

And just as we started, so too we will finish with a few wise words from my “black-lesbian feminist mother lover poet” heroine, Lorde:

“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognise, accept, and celebrate those differences.”


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