Lola Okolosie: “As a black feminist, I see how the wider movement fails women like my mother”
Fighting Page 3 and online misogyny, while praiseworthy, overshadows the work of black and minority-ethnic groups. Feminism must become feminisms
I grew up in a household where domestic violence was a God-given right. Last year 1.2 million women in Britain experienced domestic abuse, according to the charity Women’s Aid. Having witnessed such violence, statistics like this call up feelings of sickening fear, terror and helplessness. It is why gratuitous violence is something I never find entertaining. The sound of fist crunching bone is too close to home.
I call myself a black feminist and hold that label dearly, but the naming happened after the fact. I was a black feminist from the moment, as a child, I recognised the violence in my home was gendered and somehow seen as acceptable because of this.
When neighbours called the police to our back-to-back terrace in what is now the red light district of Bradford, I would feel anger that my mother’s fear of the police and what they stood for took precedence over her own safety. As a Nigerian immigrant whose husband had full control of her documentation and the processes through which she had managed to remain in the country, my mother believed that speaking truthfully to the police was not a choice she could make.
As I grew, my childish anger gave way to a recognition that my mother was a black woman caught in her own particular understanding of what it meant during the 80s and 90s to be black and a woman in Britain: a place where over half the population agreed that we lived in a racist society; a place where immigration was (and continues to be) seen as a damaging factor in British life; a place so hostile to her presence that a walk home from work resulted in racist abuse so regular that it wasn’t worth mentioning.
Through the work of feminists looking at race, class, disability, sexuality and nationality, I came to understand my mother as a person who was, as we all are, constructed by social and cultural forces beyond her control. My jumbled-up feelings and ideas found full voice in the work of literary and academic black feminists: women like Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, bell hooks, and Kimberlé Crenshaw showed the meaningless of separating sexuality, class, race and gender oppression when they simultaneously affect the lives of black women. What a relief it was to discover that in “feminism” you could find a place that collated all the experiences of women like my mother – women who were, and continue to be, routinely ignored by the dominant feminist movement.
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.
Organisations such as Women Asylum Seekers Together, which has groups in London, Liverpool, Leeds, Cardiff and Manchester, are not only meeting to support and empower themselves through their shared experience. They are also working on challenging gender discrimination within the UK immigration system – a system that can still ask whether a rape victim had adequately resisted her rapist, or whether a trafficked woman had enjoyed her work as a prostitute. Women from countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo – which the UN calls “the rape capital of the world” – are met by a culture of disbelief that sees them as asylum claimants to be interrogated and caught out rather than as vulnerable and in need of support. This is a feminist issue, too, but the movement is largely silent on the plight of such women.
Or organisations such as Manchester’s Lesbian Immigration Support Group , which offers practical help to members with asylum applications based on sexuality. Or the London-based black feminist organisation Imkaan, which is working in partnership with Women’s Aid to support and maintain specialist services dealing with violence against women for black and refugee women. In these times of austerity, the ability to save refuges from closure is no small feat and should be celebrated. Yet such groups do not make the headlines or gain enough support despite the profound change in lives that they enable.
The majority of women both in the UK and across the globe do not live lives that are negatively impacted by sexism alone. Because of this reality, the black feminist concept of intersectionality, the idea that oppressions criss-cross and compound each other, has been seismic. Through it black feminists have been able to point out the failures of the wider feminist movement – which lie in its continual failure to capture and reflect the extreme differences in how women live their lives. That we sometimes point this out with a lack of patience has garnered more column inches than the critiques we are making. This is saddening but predictable. It is a type of quibbling that enables procrastination in the matter of the difficult work of turning feminism into feminisms – something more representative of our wonderful variety.
It is ironic that even some within the feminist movement, when engaging with criticism from black feminist quarters, use the stereotype of the angry and humourless black woman. At the black feminist meetings I attend we are angry with a lot of things, because – shock horror – we live in a world where racism, sexism and economic inequality abound. Our meetings are, however, also filled with laughter and a deep love for having a space in which much that is said is empathised with, not minimised, questioned and treated defensively.
I call myself a black feminist because I am unwilling to be silent and complicit. The black feminist academic Sara Ahmed puts it well when she writes that “sometimes you can only stand up by standing firm. Sometimes you can only hold on by becoming stubborn”. Emotionally, black feminism reminds black women that the racism and sexism they experience on a daily basis are not a figment of their individual imaginations but are real and structural.
Critically, black feminism is championing a more nuanced understanding of how oppression and privilege operate. We, all of us, must understand that at the level of the individual, we can at differing points occupy positions of privilege. I am a black woman from a working-class background. I also have qualifications from elite universities that mean I am able to access a career, friendships and a lifestyle my 18-year-old self would never have imagined. When and where I experience privilege or oppression changes from day to day, hour to hour.
Though women who live in the “real world” – ie outside academia – may not bandy the word intersectionality, it nevertheless speaks to our lives within it. This is not to deny that power can be invested in language and that for some the term is perhaps alienating. It would be great if we had a word already in existence that conveys the complex and complicated nature of oppression. We do not. The language that we currently use serves to compartmentalise inequalities. It won’t do. I am less interested in whether feminists choose to use the word or replace it with (no less academic) phrases such as multiple oppressions. What is of greater concern is how we work to empower women whose lives are impacted by a number of inequalities.
Despite prevailing misconceptions, intersectionality is not merely concerned with the academic; it is and always has been about tangible positive change for those who so easily slip through the gaps of popular thinking and attention.
Organisations such as Southall Black Sisters, which are committed to meeting the needs of black and minority-ethnic women, did not exist in my hometown. My mother remained locked in an abusive relationship, living in shame and fear, isolated and helpless. I cannot dare to imagine what difference such a group might have made to her as a young black woman. It is too painful to think of what could have been. For the feminist movement, it is also best to not repeat the mistakes of the past. It would demonstrate an inexcusable carelessness for the lives of women like my mother who are too often silenced and unheard.