Saturday, March 08, 2014

Feminism vs Racism

“ Here at Yaaya, we think that this sudden interest in Feminism is brilliant!... However what intrigues and worries us is why there is not an equally heightened interest in speaking about the ‘other’ equally important social problem - racism?

Of late, we’ve realized that Feminism has become an increasingly popular subject in Britain and around the world. In fact, we can’t recall a time of when Feminism has received so much attention.

It’s almost impossible to not come across an article, blog post, tweet or comment about Feminism and gender equality nowadays. Feminism is now debated on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. National newspapers such as the Guardian have resident Feminist commentators, and international campaigns about the girl-child in the developing world now seem to have unprecedented attention. Gender inequality has claimed its place firmly on domestic and international political agendas, and celebrities now perform at large concerts to raise awareness of gender inequality, domestic violence and rape.

On an ideological level, the historical origins of feminism and its future trajectory are openly debated by the young, old and politically indifferent. Black feminists in recent times have actively challenged racism within Feminism on social media platforms, and the inability of some white feminists to see and accept their prejudices and privileges. In addition, there has been more discussion about men’s roles within the Feminist movement, and how gender equality and challenges to patriarchy also benefits men.

Practical solutions to address the different experiences of women have also come to fore, especially within the corporate world. “Mentoring”, “coaching”, “sponsoring” and “leaning in”, are some of the terms that get bandied about in corporate activism, as companies strive to increase the number of women in senior and executive level positions. The Guardian recently set up the Women in Leadership Network that aims to produce debate about women in leadership positions, and corporate women’s only networks and online mentoring platforms such as Visible Women engage in several initiatives designed to boost female leadership; from connecting women with mentors to help them achieve their goals, to running development seminars and workshop.

We must say what topped it all off for us, is when BeyoncĂ© sampled Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s popular speech , “Why we all should be feminists” on her ‘Flawless’ track in her new self-titled album. Granted BeyoncĂ© is noted for her ‘female empowering’ tracks, however sampling this speech was particularly significant, as it brought issues of gender inequality to an audience who may not have deeply pondered on some of the questions and experiences of women and girls that Chimamanda asked and described. For a few seconds, celebrity feminism i.e “paying my own bills”, sexual confidence, having multiple sexual partners, and looking beautiful wilted against a proper representation of the issues that ‘real’ Feminism is concerned with.

Here at Yaaya, we think that this sudden interest in Feminism is brilliant! As a platform that is interested in creating conversation and debate, we fully welcome dialogue about social ills such as gender based inequity around the world. However what intrigues and worries us is why there is not an equally heightened interest in speaking about the ‘other’ equally important social problem - racism? Or rather, why does Feminism and gender equality feel like ‘safer’ topics to discuss, than race.

We’ve noticed that in many European countries (Britain included); an honest and open debate about racism does not exist. There is neither the forum, nor the willingness to openly speak about it as a nation, because it is admittedly an uncomfortable topic for many people to speak about. There seems to be an air of dismissiveness when racism is spoken about, as though it is somehow an irrelevant, “solved” and anachronistic topic, that people of colour are overly sensitive about. Such attitudes may be the result of Europe’s unwillingness to confront and remember ugly parts of their history such as slavery, colonialism, racial violence and institutional racism.

If this is the case, then we point to America, a nation that also has a history of slavery, like Europe, albeit on home soil. Racism, race relations and race is openly debated in America on different platforms. It’s discussed openly on news channels, and in the world of academia, there are journals solely dedicated to the study of race relations and racism. In addition, there are several well known initiatives that have been developed to address the social and economic disparities experienced by particular ethnic groups. One of the most recent is Obama’s ‘My Brother’s Keeper’Initiative which has been launched in an attempt to address the challenges facing young boys and men of colour.

Explanations as to why there seems to be more dialogue about race or racism, or at least an appetite for it in America is arguably rooted in several factors. For starters, America experienced a civil rights movement which forced a national discussion of the ‘race problem’, and pressurized successive governments to enact civil rights legislation and equal opportunity employment measures (affirmative action). Such measures ensured that African Americans had the same legal and constitutional rights as other Americans, and that there were measures in place to address the disadvantages suffered by black Americans who were (and still are) rooted in centuries of discrimination. Secondly, with such steep racial inequalities that continue to plague America, success stories of African Americans who have achieved great success seem to be emphasised more, as they are contextualised within their experiences of growing up black in America, which is statistically one of the most disadvantageous groups in America.

In Europe however, particularly countries with significant ethnic minority populations like France and the U.K, there seems to be a denial culture about racism, which is particularly seen through questions like: “how can you be sure it’s racism?”, “You have taken it the wrong way”, “why does everything have to be about race?” Such questions can often make people who are interested in the study of racism and race relations, or those that have experienced racism (covert and overt) feel as if they have been characterised as race-agitators, paranoid, extremists, anti-establishment, irrational and walking around with a chip on their shoulder. Some people as a result altogether avoid conversations about race and racism, due to fear of being shut down.

Such dismissive questions are confusing, as anecdotes from women about the experience of gender inequalities in the workplace through examples such as “I’m often passed over for important projects” or “I feel as though I’m not listened to as much as men”, makes us wonder ‘how do they know that such situations is a result of their gender?’ and forces us to question why such experiences of sexism is not met with the same level of contempt or defence as they often are when racism is concerned?

A controversial example of playing down racism was when a black female cafe owner Martha-Renee Kolleh put up a sign on her shop window reading: “I am a black woman. If you are allergic to black people, don't come in”. This sign was influenced by her frustration about the covert racism she has experienced by potential customers in the white majority town of Ossett (west Yorkshire) who walk in and right back out of her cafe when they see her. She tested her theory by employing a white woman in her cafe, which consequently resulted in locals patronizing her establishment. The reaction by commentators on several news sites to Martha-Renee Kolleh’s experiences in Ossett was to label Ms Kolleh as ‘over sensitive’, and that her belief that racism was the main factor in the lack of customers she received was ‘incorrect’. Other factors were instead offered which consequently downplayed her experiences of the racism she believed she suffered from. This incident, in addition to countless other similar ones, forced us to question: ‘why is it so hard for some people to accept that racism exists?’

Another response we’ve noticed about the discussion of racism is something we like to describe as ‘oppression Olympic diatribes.’ Comparisons between slavery and the Holocaust, and comments of how ‘Jews don’t play the race card’, or ‘aren’t overly sensitive about race like black people’ are common. Other dismissive arguments also include the absurd rhetoric about ‘forgetting’, ‘moving forward’, and protest that ‘class inequalities are a more important issue to discuss than racism’. So why do such sentiments exist?

One answer to this question of ‘blindness to racism’ is white privilege; or rather the normality of whiteness in society, which makes it difficult for Europeans to comprehend racial micro aggressions or structural racism, as it is not part of their day to day experiences. In this sense, it’s understandable that some white people are unable to relate to, or emphasise with experiences of being able to pick up on seemingly covert racial biases or being a victim of structural racism. Understandable, yes. Acceptable, no.

In conclusion, this article is not trying to infer that racism is a greater social - ill than feminism. On the contrary, it’s pointing out that though some societal problems are easier to discuss than others, and that they shouldn’t be met with contempt and insensitivity, but given the same level of time and attention.

Your thoughts?


Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...