Black Feminism in the United Kingdom
Black Feminism in the United Kingdom
Black feminism in the United Kingdom (UK) has it roots in the postcolonial activism and struggles of black women migrants from the Caribbean, Africa, and the Indian subcontinent. These women came to Great Britain during the post–World War II recruitment drive for cheap labor. Official statistics as well as historical and social texts documenting this period often overlook the female contribution to this major wave of migration during the 1940s and 1950s. However, stories of black women’s participation have been kept alive by black women writers whose accounts disrupt the official historical narratives of those times. Among these women are Una Marson (1905–1965) who campaigned for the League of Coloured Peoples in the 1940s; the political activist Claudia Jones (1915–1964) in the 1950s; and the grassroots activist Olive Morris (1953–1979) and the trade unionist Jayaben Desai (d. 2003) in the 1970s.
As a theoretical and intellectual movement, black British feminism emerged in the 1970s. A fundamental premise of this movement is that to be black and female in Scotland, England, or Wales is to disrupt all the safe closed categories of what it means to be white and British and living in the United Kingdom. With its questioning of the racial and gendered subtext of Britishness, black British feminism profoundly challenges the meaning of British national identity and its unspoken assumption of whiteness. In this sense, black British feminism as a body of scholarship occupies a unique and destabilizing position, often referred to as a “third space.” From this position, black women reveal “other ways of knowing” that challenge the way white privilege and patriarchal power is constructed and pervades everyday interactions. In her seminal essay, “Difference, Diversity and Differentiation,” Avtar Brah explains this unique positioning, asserting that black feminism pried open previously closed ways of thinking that had asserted the importance of class or gender over all other axes of differentiation, such as race. Black feminism thus questioned the primacy of simplistic unified constructions such as gender or class in mainstream explanations for inequality and oppression.
Though there are many different voices among black feminists, they all speak of black feminism, not black feminisms, as if the political project has one single purpose. This purpose is to reveal the normative absence (i.e., everyday invisibility of black women from mainstream analysis) and the pathological presence (i.e., negative descriptions of black women when they are visible) of a group of women collectively assigned as the “black other.” Black women are largely invisible in the separate narrative constructions of race, gender, and class. Situated at the intersection of these ideological blind spots, black women are seen to occupy a critical place in racial discourse, where the subject is black and male; in gendered discourse, where the subject is white and female; and in class discourse, where “race” and gender have no place.
The concept of “black” as an umbrella term to signify multiracial difference emerged in Britain in 1960s. It was seen as a strategic political term embracing African, Caribbean, and South Asian peoples living in postcolonial Britain. Colonial and former colonial subjects, who were perceived as mainly male (not female) “colored commonwealth citizens,” found themselves occupying a broadly similar structural position as migrant workers facing racist discrimination in arenas such as employment, education, housing, media, the criminal justice system, immigration, and the health services. Though divided by language, religion, nationality, and culture, a new politics of solidarity became possible for postcolonial migrants under these new, shared economic and social relations of equivalence.
However, the concept of “black” has not been without its tensions, as the call to Afro-Asian unity by the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD) demonstrates. In the 1960s and 1970s, black British feminism evolved as a political project. In The Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain (1985) Beverely Bryan, Stella Dadzie, and Suzanne Scafe show how in 1978 the grassroots black women’s movement became important to an emerging black British feminist consciousness. Their struggles reveal the political agency of black women of different languages, religions, cultures, and classes who consciously constructed a politically based identity in response to the exclusion of women’s experiences of racism within the antiracist movement. While Afro-Asian unity appeared to be a strategic political articulation at the time, OWAAD folded under pressure from internal tensions within the organization as it became increasingly difficult to subsume women’s diverse ethnic and political identities within a single movement. Other black women’s coalitions, such as Southall Black Sisters and Women Against Fundamentalism, that have campaigned for African and Asian women’s rights over many years still survive, demonstrating the value of difference and diversity and the conflict it engenders as a dynamic for expanding democratic practices within feminist organizations.
Black British feminism, in the context of the globalization of capital, places gender at the center of the new radicalized working class. In the 1970s and 1980s the insidious erosion of rights in the workplace emphasized Asian, African, and Caribbean women’s shared social and material conditions in a highly-structured, gendered, and radicalized labor market. Amina Mama’s article “Black Women: The State and Economic Crisis” (1984) maps the clear-sighted, lucid project of a restructuring postcolonial capitalist state, rationalizing its logic through the active production of a disenfranchised—and thus contingent and disposable—workforce. Black women, in large numbers (compared to the white female population), were (and are) disproportionately employed in low-paid, low-status work. The pervasive image of the invisible or passive black woman was interrupted by the labor struggles that exploded in the 1970s and exposed the world of British sweatshops. Amrit Wilson, in Finding a Voice: Asian Women in Britain (1978), gives a first-person account of the conditions and struggles for social and economic justice among Asian women workers on the picket line in the Grunwick (photo processing) dispute.
In the 1980s and 1990s, black British feminism—as a critical theoretical project—was concerned with a micro, or localized, analysis revealing the mechanisms that promote, contest, and resist racist logics and practices in the everyday lives of the collectively constituted “black woman.” One such critique was the struggle of black women to claim a space within the modernist Western feminist discourse. The effort to raise the racial consciousness of white feminists through engendering critical self-reflection consumed the black feminist project in 1980s. Hazel Carby’s seminal article “White Woman Listen! Black Feminism and the Boundaries of Sisterhood” (1982) embodies the classic black British feminist response to white feminist exclusion and authority. Centering her argument around the key areas of feminist discourse (e.g., the family, patriarchy, and reproduction), Carby explores the contradiction of the white feminist theoretical claim to universal womanhood, on the one hand, and the practice of excluding women who are different on the other.
While black feminists called for the recognition of racism in white feminist theorizing in the 1980s, white feminists were reluctant to relinquish their authority to define the social reality of the gendered subject. They strategically responded with liberal recognition of their ethnocentrism (the assumed authority of the white cultural perspective). In a heated debate in the pages of the journal Feminist Review (1984–1986), British white socialist feminists suggested that the solution to the problem of black female invisibility was to simply insert an appreciation of black cultural difference into the analysis of the family, work, and reproduction. Black feminists responded by arguing that racism had to be acknowledged if a truly critical position in relation to the discourse on whiteness was to take place.
By the end of the 1980s, the black feminist theoretical legitimacy began to be questioned by black women themselves, as the tensions of incorporating different ethnic, religious, political, and class differences among women under the banner of “black” remained unresolved. Sensitive to the limitations of such racial reductionism, and to the desire of many to explore emerging theories on postmodern difference, black feminist theorists have since turned to locating black female identity at the center of their analysis. In the space opened up by the discourse on postmodern identity and difference, black women continue the critical task of excavating new forms of cultural racism legitimated by dominant regimes of representation.
Key writings in collections such as Black British Feminism: A Reader, edited by Heidi Safia Mirza (1997), are orientated around issues of identity and difference, exemplifying new directions within critical black British feminist theory. Black feminist scholars explore issues as diverse as mixed-race identity, lone motherhood, popular culture, literature, art and media representations. They challenge theories of racism and nationalism through their writings on citizenship and belonging, hybridity, diaspora, religion, culture, and sexuality. By placing the “self” and the body at the center of their theorizing on power and patriarchy, black British feminists are challenging fixed ideas of racial difference (i.e., essentialism) by rethinking “black” and Asian identity as fluid, complex and fragmented in nature. Through a variety of methodologies—such as the oral traditions of storytelling, life histories, and autobiography, and reworking sociological and psychological theory—black British feminists have demonstrated the critical creativity engendered by the “marginal” or “third” space they occupy.
As a critical social force, black British feminism is an intellectual and activist movement that is contingent in nature, shifting, confronting, and deconstructing the intersectionality of class, gender, and racial exclusion wherever it appears, not only in Eurocentric and Western feminist academic discourse, but also in regions and nations historically associated with Great Britain.
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Heidi Safia Mirza