So here’s a brief history of my road to feminism. When I was a little girl, my mother told me this: “You have two things going against you in life, dear. You are a woman and you are black. So you’ll have to work twice as hard to be taken seriously.” This isn’t to say that it isn’t hard being any other kind of woman, or a different gender, but the unique position that black women are in means that we have certain obstacles to overcome that others don’t. (By the way, do other ethnicities say that to their kids? “You gotta work twice as hard to be seen as half as good”? Genuinely curious.)
As I got older, I began to wonder what was more important and what needed to be focused on. I grew up in a majority black country, so the contrast I saw was between what was on American TV versus the reality of my people. I couldn’t get Gilmore Girls and their constant decision to make their lives more difficult than it needed to be. Same with Gossip Girl, same with Friends (like… they hardly worked and were always in each others’ lives without any outside influences beyond who they slept with. If I did that, I’d be beaten), the list went on. So it was the black thing that meant I had to work twice as hard, right? But then I went to a school where, for all its faults (It was a convent spearheaded by a terrifying nun), was low-key feminist, and I learnt that no, actually, womanhood was the hard one. I remember when Obama was running against Clinton, a political race that we had no stakes in personally but everyone seemed to have an opinion on, and everyone around me saying “We’d vote for Obama because he’s black.” People hung pictures of him in their houses, people prayed for him and loudly proclaimed their affiliation to a man that we couldn’t even vote for. I was 15, not legally able to vote in any country and perplexed.
“Because he’s black?” I remember thinking.”On that logic, I’d have to vote for Hilary because she’s a woman and I’m a woman! What makes skin colour more important than gender?” I looked up some of their manifestos, thinking to myself that this would help me decide whether I was a Black Panther or a feminist. Malcolm X or Emmeline Pankhurst. Closed fist or burnt bras. Obama had better ideas, I decided to mentally vote for him by proxy. I think we all did. When he won, my people, my skin-colour, we cried. We celebrated like he was family. We thanked whatever God we followed in our churches because, you see, if one of us succeeds, we all succeed. If he can (and yes he could, twice), we could.
I think it took me a little while to realise that someone else’s success, no matter how many glass ceilings it shattered, would mean nothing if others didn’t ascend afterwards. But that’s by the by.
Anyway when I came to England, and met the most militant feminist I have ever met (and probably will ever meet) and she asked me my views on feminism, I shrugged. In my mind, if I suddenly woke up a black man, I’d be in a position of power for the time it took for me to get out of the house and get stopped by the police. “Why cheer for a feminism that only really benefited one subsection of the human race?” my teenage mind thought. If I had to pick, I’d like to be equal to a white, middle class, Western straight English-speaking male. I didn’t want to be equal to a gender subsection that faced so much discrimination. So I came to the conclusion that I’d work on the whole race thing first, and deal with the woman thing later. If one rises, we all rise.
In this time period I read Maya Angelou, I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, I read Meera Syal, I read women of colour with talent and wit who confirmed my thoughts that yes, prejudice was a thing, and it would be a struggle. I wondered about the feminists I saw on TV and on websites, rich blondes arguing about whether armpit hair was important to the struggle, and wondered why they didn’t talk about female genital mutilation, or underage marriage or honour killings or any of the stuff that women of colour dealt with. I thought “how can I be a feminist when the ones I see care more about Page 3 Sun Girls than the education of Asian girls, the representation of Black Girls, the voices of Hispanic Girls?”I assumed I was humanist because I couldn’t see how I could pick any part of me to defend when I was a whole being.
And so I come to the definition of Intersectionality: The view that women experience oppression in varying configurations and in varying degrees of intensity. Cultural patterns of oppression are not only interrelated, but are bound together and influenced by the intersectional systems of society. Examples of this include race, gender, class, ability, and ethnicity. I remember reading about this, about 3rd wave feminism, about this not-so-new-yet-newly-celebrated bit of feminism that meant that suddenly there were spokespeople that looked like me and cared about people who looked like me. Suddenly I didn’t have to choose, because my unique struggles, my two things holding me back were one thing I could use to push back, and I wondered why people didn’t talk about it more. The glorious thing about it was that it didn’t demean what other feminists were talking about, it just shares the limelight by focusing on other problems as well. Suddenly the floor opened and we spoke about black hair, about black beauty, stereotypes people of colour have to deal with, police brutality… all black problems, all feminist problems. My identity was whole. It also meant that suddenly I began to hear of other races, other genders, other people who needed feminism. I guess you could say I became ‘woke’.
If this came about as preachy, I apologise. I’m in no way educated enough to talk about the many complexities of race, gender, and empowerment. But if one person read this and looked up intersectionality, then I’m happy I helped. However you define we (we feminists, we people of colour, we women, we the oppressed people), if one of us rises just a little, then we can all rise. Preferably without burning bras, I quite like mine.