On the penultimate day of 2017, No Fly on the WALL team member Tenelle Matthew reflects on some of the highs and lows for Black women in Britain in the past 12 months. With the sobering events of 2016 and 2017 still fresh in our minds, where are we as Black women going and what is to be done? These questions are the inspiration behind our upcoming ‘Re-imagining Black Britain’ conference taking place on Saturday 27th January 2018 in Birmingham. Get your tickets here: www.reimaginingconf.eventbrite.co.uk
Epic feelings of solidarity and sisterhood filled the room at this year’s Women of Colour Europe conference in Amsterdam. Spaces like the annual Women of Colour Europe conference, wich took place in October, are still very much needed, and after what feels like an eventful 2017 in many ways for women of colour, especially black women, the conference couldn’t have arrived at a better time.
Having the (safe) space to talk about issues of race and gender within a European context felt therapeutic and healing, at a time when black women continue to be silenced, spoken over and gaslit when we attempt to articulate our lived experiences.
2017 has been filled with phenomenal wins and triumphs for black women despite the oppression we face but we still have a long way to go before we are treated with the value we deserve and fairly rewarded for our contributions to society.
What has been strikingly evident this year is the sheer viciousness and contempt brought our way for merely existing and, if we dare, speaking about our experiences as black women. It is unfortunate that in 2017 we are still being told our natural hair is unprofessional for school and work, losing jobs for speaking up about racism and white supremacy and having our rightful places at the country’s most prestigious educational institutions questioned and undermined.
2017 highlighted the ease at which black women can be virtually erased from black British history and then spoken over when they dare to mention this. As demonstrated with Guerrilla, a TV series based on black British activism in the 1970s produced by Sky TV, black women who asked questions about their (lack of) representation in a programme based on the Black Power movement in the UK were dismissed and portrayed as a nuisance not only by mainstream media outlets but those directly involved in the production of Guerrilla. Our valid questions and criticisms were reduced to us being angry black women.
The experience of silencing and vilification of black women is all too common for those who have the audacity to open their mouths and use their voices. The starkest and perhaps most frustrating example of this is arguably transgender model and DJ Munroe Bergdorf’s recent sacking from a L’Oréal campaign that supposedly celebrates diversity. Bergdorf’s crime? Speaking out against white privilege and white supremacy following August’s white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The accuracy of Bergdorf’s comments proved too bitter a pill to swallow for the masses. White fragility and defensiveness, including accusations of reverse racism and meaningless cries of ‘not all white people’, immediately clouded any constructive, honest public debates that could have transpired following Bergdorf’s comments.
All Bergdorf did was make a factual statement about the society we live in as non-white people, and the unimaginable abuse she received because of it speaks volumes about the ramifications of black women using their voices. Black British women in politics will know all too well the hostile racism and sexism that accompanies their existence in the political arena, often before they’ve even opened their mouths. Britain’s first elected black female MP Diane Abbott has been subjected to unjust, radicalised abuse throughout her 30-year career. According to Abbott, who opened up about the abuse she faces for the first time in February 2017, it is becoming more difficult to deal with the daily racism and misogyny that seems to be part and parcel of being a black woman in the public eye.
Similarly, when a video of Labour councillor Seyi Akiwowo debating immigration at the European Youth Parliament in May 2016 went viral in January this year, she was targeted by hundreds of racist trolls soon afterwards. Among the hundreds of abusive social media posts directed at Akiwowo, she was called the n-word numerous times, referred to as ‘monkey’ and ‘ape’ and told she should “lynch herself”. And yet, she was determined not to let vile trolls stop her from expressing her opinions and standing up to racism.
For over a year, Guyanese-born business owner Gina Miller has severely paid the price for choosing to take on the British government over Brexit. Miller became a victim of horrific online abuse when she initiated the successful Article 50 legal challenge that ruled MPs had to be consulted over Brexit plans. The onslaught of racist and sexist abuse she faced, which included rape and death threats, caused her to fear for her and her family’s safety. It also led to the conviction of an aristocrat this summer for offering £5,000 for someone to run over and kill Miller on Facebook. These examples I just mentioned are pretty extreme, but they illustrate how prevalent misogynoir is within our society and how commonly it presents itself in the form of social media abuse.
Existing as a black woman, especially one in the public eye, means facing excessive forms of discrimination and abuse. Singer and TV presenter Jamelia is vocal about racism and inequality, and as a result, she has been accused by white people of being “reverse racist” and creating issues that aren’t there. These were some of the ludicrous knee-jerk responses thrown at her when she presented a short segment for This Morning about the lack of ethnically diverse dolls available for children in May 2017.
As we’ve also seen this year, black female students attending British universities were given a hard time for simply being a black woman. For example, YouTuber and University of Cambridge student Courtney Boateng, originally from North London, shut down common myths and assumptions about how she got her place at Cambridge in a series of widely shared tweets. The fact that she was presumed to have gotten into one of the country’s top universities via a diversity programme is frankly a racist assumption. Today, black women are still having to explain and justify our presence in certain spaces because we are typically not welcome or worthy of occupying such spaces in the first place.
One thing that has been evident over the last twelve months is the level of intense hostility that unfortunately comes with being a black woman who is vocal about issues of race, gender and/or inequality. Speaking our truths and sharing our lived experiences as black women, especially when what we say disturbs the status quo, often means inadvertently opening ourselves up to vicious opposition and racist and gender-based abuse. Many of the women I mentioned have spoken about the devastating, crushing effects of the racist and misogynistic abuse they’ve experienced but refuse to let it silence them and stop them doing what they hope to accomplish.
And although the storms to weather have been plenty, we’ve seen resistance continue to flourish too with initiatives like Black Girl Festival taking place at the end of Black History Month, alternative platforms such as Black Ballad going from strength to strength, and exhibitions like ‘I, The Angry Black Woman & Other Stories’ defying and challenging tired and dangerous myths about Black womanhood.
Clearly, the world would prefer us to remain silent, silent about our opinions, our pain, our triumphs and experiences, but going forward, can we really afford to not speak up? We have a long way to go before we can live in a world free of racism, sexism and misogynoir, and it looks like we’ll be fighting a long, hard battle to make that world a reality – but despite how exhausting that fact is to digest, Black women in Britain have shown that we will not be silenced, erased, or abused and any forces attempting to do so will have a tough challenge on their hands too.