Racism cannot be separated from feminism

As a person of colour my solidarity lies first and foremost with people of colour

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The Independent Online

Last week I gave up buying a bottle of Coke because I didn't have the heart to carry one that asked those around me to share a glass with "Siobhan". This, the name I have been called (even written to me in email with the spelling of mine clearly above it) by those who rather can't be bothered to learn my "strange" name.

Last week I spent an afternoon responding to the familiar questioning of casual-racists, "Where are you from? No, where are you really from? Where are your parents from?" - only this time from the passport office, when renewing my British passport.

Last week I read sixteen articles in national newspapers that were xenophobic, Islamaphobic or both. I filled a doctors’ form stating my ethnicity as "other" and was consequently reminded that it's not worth sparing an identity simply because it's not the preferred one. Last week I moved train carriages when a man stared at my Arabic necklace and shook his head with a scowl.

All this time my experiences of sexism were present, but they paled in comparison to the racism. Last week as a woman of colour, the focus rested itself - much like the practices that had occurred around me - on the "colour" part.

And so we arrive at the feminist stalemate. It is frustrating, of course it is. For many white feminists the challenging language of this now well documented in-fighting is reminiscent of what we have encountered from men; “you are flawed”, “your feminism is wrong”. From here - and understandably - comes a cry for solidarity: We are all women, let us please be in this together, let us not re-enact the separation we encounter from men.

This is not wrong, far from it. As a woman I firmly believe in alliance, that women should come together, even when our thoughts and practices are not the same. Yet my experience of race goes beyond gender; it is linked, of course, but even amongst the disenfranchised there is hierarchy and corruption.

My feminism is with other women but - and herein lies the problem - as a person of colour my solidarity lies first and foremost with people of colour.

The criticism of this is explicit; it is counter-productive, incongruous, reverse-racism even. I would say I have been taught to think like this. I have been taught to be pitted against other women, white women. I have been taught that there are two types of women; white and everybody else. I have been shown that white women play beautiful and successful characters in films, and that women of colour play their race.

Of the hundreds of possible examples in film, take Lupita Nyong’o, star of 12 Years a Slave, who recently said of her childhood: “I would turn on the TV and see only pale skin…My one prayer to God, the miracle worker, was that I would wake up lighter skinned”. In music, why not try Lily Allen’s latest tirade against feminism - “Everyone is equal”, she says - which comes just months after one of her videos was criticised for its portrayal of ‘bootylicious’ black dancers, who are left to gyrate at the video’s close, mere flesh for the audience, while Allen sassily departs.

Then I have been sold advertising for hair that is sleek and noses cute, unless they are not white, and instead "frizzy" or "hooked" respectively. A patriarchy that is exploited still by many women this situation suits, whose successes stem partly from the system that holds back women of colour. Yet I am asked to forget this, to re-learn my experiences and unite.

I want to unite, truly, believe nothing else, but it is hard to pursue solidarity when I have been shown over a lifetime that I may only expect to find it with other non-white people, perhaps regardless of gender. This is too large a problem for feminism to shoulder or answer for alone: Institutionalised racism in feminism exists, for no other reason than institutionalised racism exists. 

My feminism is one of solidarity, but my ethnicity has left me standing on tip-toes, fingers gripped to the window-ledge to peer in. Women of colour have spent our lives peering in. It seems impossible now, unreasonable even, to ask me to break the window so feminists of all colours can see each other a little better, when so few of those inside had previously cared to look out.