‘The Perils of Visibility’: Black Female Activism in the Public Sphere

‘Black women are often painted as difficult, scary and quick to abuse. In disagreements they can never be sure that black men or other women of colour will support them’, journalist and activist Wail Qasim wrote in their recent critique of John Ridley’s ‘Guerilla’, a new series on Sky Atlantic supposedly about the history of the Black Power movement in Britain. The series has caused voracious debate because of the painful absence of Black women and Ridley’s determination to erase their contributions to the struggle in Britain. Frustratingly, this disrespectful treatment of Black women is not new, nor is it surprising. Even in ‘activist’ movements, toxic Misogynoir presents itself. As we at the No Fly on the WALL Academy prepare for our next event – a screening of critically acclaimed documentary ‘Generation Revolution’, a story of some of Britain’s most brave and bold Black and Brown activists of today, our girl Barbara Ntumy – student campaigner, outspoken magical Black Girl, and founder of political apparel line – Sassy Tees – reflects on being simultaneously hypervisible and invisible as a vocal Black woman in the public sphere and the abuse and trauma that often come with the territory.

 

My activism started when was I was in college.

I ran to be the president of our Students’ Union. I ran purely because I thought it sounded interesting. However, to my surprise I won with the highest vote cast in the election at that time and became the first black woman president of the union. This was the first step that changed my path. I started going on demos and getting involved in anti-racist campaigning activity. I believe I was drawn to this kind of activity because of my horrific experiences of racism from the age of thirteen until eighteen in Barnsley, where I grew up. Having spent the greater part of my life in Ghana until the age of thirteen, I had never experienced this thing called racism until I moved to Britain. When I did begin to experience it, it was a huge shock to my system. I remember being very upset with my mum who constantly told me to get over it. She was very grateful to be in this country and concluded that racism just came with the territory. My mum is of an immigrant generation who were taught to view racism as nothing more than an inconvenience – but you had to get on with it regardless.

I moved to London in 2013 to pursue a degree in Politics after receiving a qualification in Dental Technology. I was full of hope that I would have a role to play in changing the world for the better. Therefore, for over three years I have thrown myself into every aspect of political struggle from student activism, to anti-austerity campaigning, anti-racism movements, organising around abortion rights and pan-Africanism. For the most part I have always felt comfortable in these spaces.

Since my activism began, my goal has been to try and recruit people into different kinds of campaigns, encouraging a more intersectional approach to activism, particularly through my role as a representative of students from the NUS Women’s and Black Students’ Campaign.

In the summer of 2016 something extraordinary happened – I found myself speaking very publically about my support for Corbyn and his politics. I appeared on Channel 4 News several times, BBC Breakfast, BBC Newsnight and BBC Radio 4’s ‘Any Questions’. Gradually my Twitter profile and Facebook account became places where people targeted me with racist abuse. I have lost count of the amount of times people have told me to ‘go back [to where I came from]’, have portrayed me as aggressive and angry, and rather ridiculously, insinuated that I was using ‘black magic’. It is very clear that these people subscribe to racist stereotypes of Black women and the idea that Black women are angry — never just passionate. The accusation of using black magic also feeds into not just stereotypes of Africans but beliefs held by Europeans in the eighteenth and nineteenth century of Africans and their culture, or lack-there-of.  All of this can be traced back to the fact that Britain hasn’t confronted its colonial past and in most cases these untruths still remain in the population’s psyche.

When all of this was happening, it reminded me of what I have seen Diane Abbott MP experience as a Black woman in politics. The constant abuse and public violation she has endured, even from other members of parliament is well documented. She has had everything from her looks to her relationships scrutinised, often with racist, as well as sexist, overtones. That is unfortunately the experience of a visible black woman in politics – our presence is a disruption to the status quo.

I have dealt with a lot of this through humour and or just simply blocking people. Humour turns the hurt on itself. If you can laugh about it, it won’t hurt as much. If I were to absorb every racist tweet and or instance of racism I experience, I wouldn’t get much done.

I’m reminded of Toni Morrison who said, “the very serious function of racism is distraction” – for me, humour works as a coping mechanism in many cases.

However, humour cannot solve everything. My cumulative experiences came to a head when I was asked to speak on a Channel 4 News segment on the ‘Alt Right’, not knowing I would be in discussion with Jack Buckby, ‘Boy Wonder’ of the British Far-Right. During the discussion things escalated to the point of Buckby threatening me with rape, live on air, because I was in favour of treating refugees with dignity and respect. He relied on tired and widely accepted racist stereotypes of black women and came rehearsed and ready to force me into his own imaginings of who I was. He was affronted that that I did not pander to those imaginings. Later that night it started to sink in. The racist abuse poured in, including trollings suggesting I was ‘too ugly’ to be raped.

I would like to note the overwhelming messages of support I received via social media, but there were those who accused me of not challenging the rape comment, whilst others demanded to know how I restrained myself from expressing my disgust physically. To that I say, had I not practiced restraint, we would be having an entirely different conversation – one in which Buckby was the victim, and I the aggressor.

In the aftermath, he told his followers I was playing the ‘race card’, referred to me as a ‘ham sandwich’ and used a still image from the infamous clip as his Twitter and Facebook cover photo in order to taunt and provoke me. He continued to harass me online for weeks until Channel 4 got in touch with him and asked him to stop after I held them accountable for putting me in such a position.

As the hours passed it felt like I had a target on my back. On the tube if someone stared at me for too long I would move carriage. I would scan my surroundings constantly – a lot more than I used to. My mother called me in tears saying she was scared that I was putting myself in danger for being so outspoken. She echoed what the racists I’ve encountered have always told me – that I was not from Britain, so I should not speak out. I had no right to have an opinion. Although my mum was coming from a place of love, it stung. She was teaching me self-preservation, something which is ingrained in immigrants as a way to survive.

Just as the experience of Diane Abbott, Black women face a unique problem – the inextricable nature of racism and sexism, also known as Misogynoir.

Unfortunately, activist spaces are not immune to undervaluing the work and contribution of women.

The recent TV adaption of the history of the British Black Panthers is a prime example of how Black women – and our activism, sacrifices, and contributions – are written out of history and how even members of our own community play a part in our erasure. We are simultaneously hypervisible in the form of racist tropes, whilst our humanity is made invisible time and time again. Such revisionist accounts of the struggle should be resisted as should the continuous efforts to silence those of us who speak out.

Being a visible, vocal, and outspoken Black woman, I am learning, comes with its dangers. There are many people who prefer us to be silent and invisible. When we resist these demands, we are portrayed as aggressors, antagonists, violent, and are dehumanised.

The toxic racism of politics puts black communities and immigrants off participating in politics and political activism, when the reality is we need to be involved in these spaces now more than ever to stop the fear mongering and lies of those who would rather we did not exist.

 

Catch Barbara tomorrow evening – Friday 14th April – at DIY Space for London discussing the portrayal of Black women in ‘Generation Revolution’ after the screening and our place in the Black British struggle and activism at large moving forward. A limited number of tickets are still on sale. To keep up with Barbara more generally, find her tweeting here (@BarbaraNtumy). 

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