How to deal with being a black feminist

‘Racists will not stop being racist if you ask them to.’ Here's how to fend for yourself

Screen Shot 2014-02-06 at 12.57.13
From Illuminati Girl Gang #3 Brittni Collins

Can being slutty disrupt the sexual status quo? What does it mean to be a female writer? In conjunction with our Girls Rule issue, some of our favourite writers, activists and artists will be musing on these questions for Girl Guides, a series of how-tos and thinkpieces on the state of modern womanhood. Here, Feminist Times commissioning editor and blogger Reni Eddo-Lodge talks about what it means to be a black feminist.

You are not alone

Loneliness works like a crushing weight on the shoulders of any first time black feminist. You are not the only person who thinks like you, though at times it can feel that way.  Find a group. If there are none near you, start a group. Go to events on your own, meet people, stay in contact. Four years ago I was the only feminist in my English class, calling out the misogyny in the books we read, and receiving serious side eye. I found a space for black feminists at a conference in 2011 and it felt like a weight off my shoulders. Coming to terms with your feminism can be hard, and some people might not want you to grow. Friends and family may take it upon themselves to relentlessly mock you, play devil’s advocate, ridicule you, even shout you down. I had a friend whose boyfriend broke up with her because of her feminist activism. Those people are not interested in letting you develop. It might feel difficult to do, but find your own chosen family – people you feel safe to discuss the injustices of the world with, without fear of judgement.

Angela Davis on a protest
Activist Angela Davis speaking at a protest

Get involved in activism

When I first found feminism, I’d go to conferences, marches, protests and events on my own. It can be daunting at first, not dissimilar to watching a film at the cinema by yourself, or eating alone at a café. But activism, whether you start out by yourself or with friends, is the path to finding your chosen family. It is the fool proof way to learn from each other’s struggles, to show solidarity and, most importantly, broaden your horizons. To this day, I think being packed into a crowd of likeminded women at an anti-rape march chanting "we are feminists" was one of the most exhilarating moments of my life. Some interesting activism that has taken place in recent years is Southall Black Sisters resisting against the Home Office’s racist Go Home vans in communities. Then there are campaigns like 40 Days for Choice, whose aim is to counter anti-choice protesters that intimidate women outside abortion providing clinics. 

“Racists will not stop being racist if you ask them to, and sexists won’t suddenly change their ways"

Internet arguments are a waste of your time and energy

Pick your battles. When you first find black feminism, it can be tempting to spend your time arguing with people who are wrong on the internet. But racists will not stop being racist if you ask them to, and sexists won’t suddenly change their ways. I’ve learnt the hard way that getting stuck into internet beef leads to a spiral of deadlocked futility. So decide exactly what your goal is, focus on it and ignore the distractions. Social networks have reached a point where what was once your own little corner of the internet has suddenly transformed into a place where everyone’s watching- at least, that’s what it feels like for me. It’s the collision between those who use networks to network, and those who use them to broadcast. Threaten the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy by speaking your truth. What’s your message?

Audre Lorde
Celebrated author and black feminist Audre Lorde Robert Alexander

Draw energy from the women who came before you

I’ve always liked text. Books and blogs are magical, transformative things, places where the feelings you can’t quite put into words are perfectly articulated by someone who came before you. It’s an amazing thing to find solace in the words of women who felt the same feelings as you do now, long before you started thinking them. Some of the feminist writers who initially restructured my mind are bell hooks, Audre Lourde and Sojourner Truth, as well as the hundreds of bloggers and tweeters I stumbled across when I first tapped in the phrase ‘UK feminism’ into Google a few years ago.  That search led me to the first feminist blogs I ever read – The F Word. With women writers of all ages, all viewpoints and all backgrounds, the writing on that site expanded my brain. It’s still one of the best.

“You may be criticised on your feminist journey, but remember that criticism goes two ways – punching up, or punching down"

Be willing to question yourself, be open to being proved wrong

It’s fine to not have all the answers, and it’s foolish to assume you do. Feminism is a journey – I know I’m still working out my politics. An incredible thing about the internet is the way it can open your eyes to perspectives you’ve never considered. Utilise this. Read work by people you wouldn’t normally read. You may be criticised on your feminist journey, but remember that criticism goes two ways – punching up, or punching down. Try to keep this in mind when you’re dealing with it. It’s also vital to apply your understanding of patriarchy works to other structural inequalities. We live, breathe eat, sleep and move in a structurally racist, structurally sexist society. By default, we embody those politics until we actively choose not to- and even after that realisation, it’s still a constant process of unlearning.

Remember, you don’t owe anyone your time

If you are expressing opinions that appear to be marginal to the majority, there this assumption that you’re doing it to ‘advocate’, to convince the dominant view. Unless you are a professional campaigner, that is not always the case. You don’t have to be anyone’s teacher. It is fine to draw boundaries. Getting agitated about injustice can be mentally depleting. You’ve got to look after number one, so be wary of where the request is coming from. If said person wishes to learn from you, they can follow your words over a period of time in good faith, rather than demanding long and complicated explanations on their terms.  Australian comedian Aamer Rahman said it well – "There’s this assumption that if you do something political, you’re trying to convert people.” Preaching to the choir is fine, and not having all the answers is ok.

Your first steps into black feminism might lead to more questions rather than any solid answers. But hopefully, this non prescriptive guide will ease the journey, alleviate burnout, and start an excellent support network. Good luck! 

More Arts+Culture