The Colour of My Struggle

Siana Bangura is a Black Feminist, writer and blogger; for our recent Feminist Issue, we asked her to give us an article on Black Feminism, the axis of oppression, and intersectionality…

Illustration by Sam Pash

The Colour of my Struggle by Siana Bangura

“I am a Black Feminist. I mean I recognize 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 radicalised 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. 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 in society) 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 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 but 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’, a concept often used in critical theories to describe the ways in which oppressive isms (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, xenophobia, classism, and so on) are interconnected and cannot be examined separately from one another. 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. The added axis of oppression – race – combined with factors of marginalisation such as class, gender, and sexuality amplifies the consequences of oppression more intensely.

Mainstream white feminist theory has neither comprehensively accounted for the economic, racial, and 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’s 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 in. And as is the case when the minority finally have their five minutes in the spotlight, the majority often takes offence. I’ve been in conversations with white women who claim that ‘check your privilege’ is a tool to exclude them from the feminist discourse and silence them. I find such claims deeply troubling and ironic.

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.”

At this point it is worth mentioning 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 biracial backgrounds. Groups such as London Black Feminists and Southall Black Sisters use this definition in the work they do, which is important to note.

No matter how well meaning prominent feminists like Caitlin Moran and Laurie Penny are, they 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.

When Lorde wrote “The failure of academic feminists to recognize 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 as 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 exist to divide. It exists because there is no room in the mainstream currently for the voices of women of colour. 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 recently and Baroness Flather closed her speech by claiming “Women do not support women”. She is right. Constant infighting 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.

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

Siana Bangura is a Black Feminist, writer and blogger. She is the founder of No Fly on the WALL, a Feminist blog and platform to discuss gender and other intersectional issues. She is a keen observer of the goings on in society and believes that every contribution to social revolution, no matter how small, is worthwhile.