Black British feminism, it is collective and collaborative

by Sara Ahmed

I am responding as one of the two ‘brown academics’ referred to in the article published here yesterday ‘Black – Political vs Ethnic’.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss the words we use to describe ourselves, those of us who are ‘brown’ or ‘black’ and who stand out in the sea of whiteness.

I want to point out, however, that I have never used the term ‘politically black.’ That this article insists I do (it describes me as a ‘prominent advocate’ for this term) is thus perplexing and puzzling. In some of my work I have described myself as a Black feminist as a way of being part of a political and intellectual history that is ‘Black British Feminism’ (although not that often). Black feminism still tends to be used in the UK to describe a gathering; to identify with Black feminism is to gather with others around this term. Personally, though, when I am asked to describe myself, I tend to use the term ‘woman of colour’ (I think BME and BAME, which is the policy speak, tends to conceal the trouble of race so I tend not to use these terms unless I am in a policy context). But I still hesitate, even with these words. Words often fail us, especially when we inherit some of the words from the histories we are challenging. We can have a sense of being tripped up even by the words we claim.

I hope to think about these issues as carefully as I can. I share the sense that Nathan E. Richards offers us a sense: that the word ‘black’ does not do the work it once did; as a way of showing solidarity not only amongst people who are ‘not white’ (to share this ‘not’ can be to share a lot), but also between those living in the UK who came from countries that had been formerly colonized by the UK (‘we are here because they were there’). There are reasons this word does not do this kind of work anymore; working this out and working this through is or should be helpful. I think the need to recognise the specificity of anti-Black racism is a good reason for not using the word ‘Black’ as loosely as it has been used in some of our pasts.

I appreciate that Nathan E. Richards is ‘reticent to publicly condemn, attack or undermine the work of a generation of politically black individuals.’ However, I am still concerned by some of the points made in this article. I would like to comment specifically on this paragraph:

‘Key stakeholders and decision makers within university spaces need to be aware that hiring someone who considers themselves ‘politically black’, does not mean one has diversified their staffing body to better reflect the ethnic make-up of London, or the UK. It does not mean one has hired someone with a lived body of knowledge and experience related to African and Caribbean communities. It does mean, however, another brown academic has secured a prominent opportunity to talk about, and undertake funded research, on issues related to ethnically black communities – further increasing the number of brown academics beyond the embarrassing amount of black post-graduate scholars given the same opportunity.’

I find this paragraph rather troubling. Given the only two ‘politically black’ people or ‘brown academics’ mentioned in the article are myself and Heidi Mirza, there is an implication that I think we should make explicit: that our progression as ‘brown academics’ is at the expense of ‘black post-graduate scholars,’ in other words, that we have appropriated blackness for our own ends. I want us to hear what’s at stake in this implication. I leave you to hear what is at stake.

Both Heidi and I do what I call diversity work: creating pockets in the institution that centre on the work and contributions of Black feminists and feminists of colour. We both teach courses that prioritise this work. We both have sat on diversity committees and race equality groups. We don’t expect praise for this. It is part of our political commitment. But this ‘diversity work,’ is not typically valued by organisations; indeed far from it. Claiming diversity is usually about claiming us as signs of their diversity, not about recognising the work we do: it is not the kind of academic work that tends to ease your progression. This work is part of what we call Black British feminism. It is collective and collaborative work.

What are we doing? Why are we doing this?

It’s always good to ask yourself this question! We are working against the whiteness (as well as maleness) of the academy. We are trying to build an anti-racist and an anti-sexist university by reassembling our spaces around different bodies (including bodies of work). Given this, I think it is interesting that this piece does not reflect at all on whiteness (perhaps it implies brown is the new white?). Whiteness was something that I learnt about through reading the work of Black feminists and feminists of colour. I had experienced whiteness all my life; I had even bumped up against it, without having a name for it! Whiteness is worldly. Whiteness is institutional. So, in response to the paragraph I quote above, I would suggest hiring ‘brown academics’ from Asian and Caribbean backgrounds does indeed ‘diversify’ the white academy not because diversity is something we bring with us (black feminists and feminists of colour such as Angela Davis, Chandra Talpade Mohanty and Nirmal Puwar have been amongst the strongest critics of this model of diversity), but because we bring with us living knowledges of our communities and histories; communities and histories that would otherwise only be represented as objects of study in the white academy.

And: there can be nothing more unsettling than when objects speak.

The following paragraph also concerns me:

‘Those who consider themselves politically black need to be reflective enough in regards to how such self-definition can become a hindrance, a silencing mechanism, to the voices of ethnically black individuals within the academy. Indeed it is incumbent upon the politically black to realise that the term is losing, if not has already lost, its historical meaning among most contemporary ‘minority’ communities, and does not signify what it once did among young academics engaged in discussions of race.’

The implication that those who use this term (‘those who consider themselves politically black’ and this ‘those’ sticks, given that only two of us have been named in this article as those who consider themselves in this way) have not been reflective enough about how this term ‘becomes a hindrance’ is far from generous. And to keep using ‘politically black’ as a description of certain people (‘it is incumbent on the politically black to realise’) is exercising the very language it chastises others for exercising. I find this surprising.

Please note I respect the right of each generation of scholars and students to question the terms in use. I value these questions. And I also think it is important to ask: who appears? Who does not appear? Invitations are often tricky. Sometimes when I am invited on a panel I can tell that I am being invited as the one woman on an otherwise all male panel, or the one person of colour on an otherwise all white panel. I try and avoid such panels! And when I am invited to speak at international events, I always ask: is this at the expense of the local women of colour? Will they be speaking too? If not, then I should not be speaking, of that I am sure, although sometimes I have got it wrong. I was taught to ask these kinds of questions by Audre Lorde who always wanted to know whether she was speaking to the women she wanted to speak to, wherever she went. She wanted to speak to black women, women of colour, and indigenous women. And she often had to be willful to speak to the women she wanted to speak to; she had to risk being judged as angry and ungrateful by her (often) white feminist hosts. I hope always to learn from her example: her way of doing transnational feminist solidarity through recognising our differences and our complex embodied relation to these difficult histories.

Difficult histories surround us. Public conservations between women of colour are not business as usual in our universities. I accepted this invitation to speak as part of a series of events leading up to the introduction of a new MA in Black British Writing at Goldsmiths. Other speakers in the series have including many black and brown women who continue to inspire me. I accepted this invitation because to have a conversation with Heidi Mirza about Black British feminism at my own institution seemed like an opportunity to share with an audience a history in which we have both been involved. I was glad to accept this invitation. I am deeply grateful to the many women of colour, especially Heidi Mirza, who has been a mentor to me and to many, who have contributed to the living history that is ‘Black British feminism’ and who certainly have made it possible for someone like me to feel more at home in the academy.

I hope my dialogue with Heidi Mirza can be about how we live this history; how we hold on to what is not gone.

“Conversation on Black British Feminism”. is at Goldsmiths University, Friday November 28

Further information on Goldsmith’s MA in Black British Writing

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Sara Ahmed is an Australian and British academic working at the intersection of feminist theory, queer theory, critical race theory and post colonialism. Sara is a Professor in Race and Cultural Studies. Born in Salford, England to a Pakistani father and English mother.  She has published 6 single-authored booksDifferences that Matter: Feminist Theory and Postmodernism (1998); Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality (2000); The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004); Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (2006); The Promise of Happiness (2010), which was awarded the FWSA book prize in 2011 for “ingenuity and scholarship in the fields of feminism, gender or women’s studies”; and On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012). Buy books

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7 replies

  1. If you can’t constantly and consistently critically engage/assess/examine the ways in which you benefit from anti-blackness/misogynoir as a non-black/non-perceived black person, as part of your political commitment, all the external work you engage (papers, conversations, conferences, etc.) is null.

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  2. I have to agree; Dr Ahmed ‘s response is rather weak and patchy in places which is illustrative of an unwillingness or inability to be truly reflective when addressing Nathan ‘s points. I would have liked to see you engage with the idea that this term has become a silencing mechanism and what the implications of this are for black female academics.

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  3. We are speaking about Black British feminism not on behalf of or about a group of women. A key reference point will be Heidi Mirza’s important edited collection Black British Feminism, published in 1996, in which I had a paper; one of my first ever! We are speaking of a collective and collaborative history of which we are a part. This is a conversation we were invited to have. It is not a panel. Can I repeat: it is not a panel. I hope there will be many panels on Black British feminism: we are indeed holding such a panel in the Centre for Feminist Research on December 11th. Incidentally Nathan I was brought up in Australia and came to the UK in the 1990s. I am not even part of the generation you keep referring to. But I live the consequences of what they struggled for with respect and gratitude. Critical differences, and it is critical to work through our differences, requires full and careful consideration of the work.

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  4. Genuinely feel that Nathan.E.Edwards respectfully opened dialogue but Dr. Ahmed either refused or had inability to truly scrutinise her platform and engage with Edward’s valid points. Why does ‘whiteness’ always have to be the place of departure? Thats problematic in all manners of ways and probably an example of huge gap between ‘political black’ or ‘POC’ crew and new generation of Black Brits keen to express themselves differently that places them or rather ‘us’ at centre of our being whether in Afrobeat or Grime. Dr. Ahmed too defensive without ever really considering the ideas which makes this a missed opportunity. But respect to Media Diversity (Diversified?) – proving a great space a year on from founding.

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  5. If people want to have a Non-Black-Women-of-Colour panels discussing Black Feminism, fine. But Black Feminist panels, with no ethnically Black women on them, need to GO. That you don’t see this I find quite surprising. #BlindSpotsHaveDeveloped #YourPrivilegeIsShowing

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  6. Thank you for the response Sara – I appreciate that you took the time to engage.

    I guess I should just briefly clarify a few things that I should have been more explicit about in the article:

    1) The only reason the two academics are mentioned in the article is because this piece was in direct response to a debate online, over three weeks ago, about the Goldsmiths event. There was a lot of animosity towards the organisers, and to some extent the two speakers. I was writing to say I don’t think that’s fair – and that there is a broader context from which these two speakers, and more specifically a generation of scholars emerge – I do believe I said so more than once.

    2) When I say politically black I mean when people use the term black in a political sense, such as black feminist. Again I was speaking back directly to the concerns I heard. I accept you have never used the term “politically black” directly – forgive me for implying so.

    3) In regards to the broader context the above scholars emerged from: what I’m saying, and I should have been more explicit here, is that while your generation (not specifically you, but people of your generation) of scholars embraced these terms, because they made sense at the time, and importantly because there was broad consensus – the newer black and brown scholars exist in a different context.

    So in adopting this term in the present they can become a hinderance because that shared sense of identity doesn’t really exist at a community level, and arguably is rather tenuous at an academic level. And so being asked to speak on issues impacting ethnically black lives in the absence of that lived, as well as academic, experience, which you speak of, means important voices are not heard – and who has said its ok to speak on their behalf? This I don’t think can be said for an earlier generation of scholars, where there seemed a more cohesive sense of solidarity, and a greater collective agenda.

    So those comments towards the end were not about Mirza or yourself at all – in fact very little of the article was, but instead about the growing number of new academics, black and brown. Different generations, different contexts, means, to me, that brown academics cannot really rely on the experience and political context of the previous generation to inform them on this issue, not solely at least. Instead we all (younger academics) would need a broader consensus for THIS generation – and that currently doesn’t exist, hence the need for conversation.

    4) It’s not possible to prove my intention in writing this article – all I can give is my word that I was not interested in personalising this discussion – or offering sly digs at anyone. All you have is my word to go on, though I appreciate that people are going to read into what I wrote in their own way.

    I feel like I have obviously made some errors in this piece if you have interpreted my comments as a personal attack. Again, this was not my intention – I was more interested in having a productive conversation that alleviates some of the animosity I see circulating regarding the idea of politically black – animosity that may have filtered into my own writing, despite my best intentions.

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