Writeup of Feminism and Race workshop (Aug 2012)

(Dear FAC, apologies for the long delay in publishing this! I’ve been reminded that it needed doing after the very timely response to the recent review.)

Structure of the session

  • We shared experiences in which we felt we had been treated unfairly
  • We made and discussed a list of ways in which women are oppressed relative to men, asking ‘why?’ or ‘what is the history?’
  • We made and discussed a list of ways in which Black and minority ethnic people in the UK are oppressed relative to white people in the UK, asking ‘why?’ and ‘what is the history or institutional basis?’
  • We found some parallels and related aspects on these lists
  • We discussed ways of taking anti-racist work forward into the future

Ways in which women are oppressed compared to men

  • Money – through having more low-paid jobs; careers damaged by child-bearing and expectations and finances surrounding pregnancy and motherhood (e.g. more maternity leave than paternity leave; women more likely to give up their jobs to become child-carers, partly since they are likely to earn less) – partly because many high paid jobs have only relatively recently become officially open to women; lack of female role models; women’s lack of self confidence; stereotypes surrounding jobs and gender norms; discrimination in hiring (both conscious and subconscious); normative career structure has historically been designed for men and does not include time off for pregnancy and child rearing; men demanding higher pay is viewed more positively than women demanding higher pay; professions which are coded male or have a high proportion of men also have higher status (there have been historic shifts such as teaching and clerical work becoming lower status and poorly paid since women started doing it and nursing becoming higher status and better paid since men started doing it); women needing to invest finances into their appearances to meet more demanding standards of what looking ‘professional’ looks like …
  • Pornography
  • Institutionalised religion – e.g. women being excluded from higher status religious positions in most major religions in the UK; and the interaction of this with other legal and political institutions e.g. there are no women bishops and there are seats in the House of Lords reserved for bishops
  • Marriage – tying women’s legal and social identities to men; assumption of man’s right to have sex with wife – marital rape only became a criminal offence in 1991 in the UK
  • Personal power
  • Pressure to be ‘nice’ (unthreatening, say yes to things, etc)
  • Women in leadership in a double bind – (e.g. Hillary Clinton), need to be ‘nice’ to be feminine but ‘strong’ to be good leaders; linked to women wanting to ;be one of the men’
  • Class pressures
  • Street harassment, violence against women and fear of violence
  • Birth control and abortion rights – women being expected to take full responsibility for any pregnancy and for pregnancy prevention; being pressured or forced to have abortions; being denied access to abortion;
  • Rape and sexual assault – low conviction rates; stereotypes about lying women; expectation that all women should put up with ‘low level’ pressure and harassment about their sexuality
  • Media – lack of media representation of women as whole people; media focus on men and their stories and lives (illustrated by Bechdel test); misogynistic coverage of women; women in media usually young whereas men of all ages get media representation
  • Language and narrative – women’s words not powerful to define reality; our language lacks the vocabulary to describe those experiences

How are Black and minority ethnic people in the UK oppressed relative to white people?

  • Money – Black and minority ethnic people more likely to have low paid and low status jobs due to both conscious and unconscious discrimination at every level of education and employment
  • Non-Christian (maybe especially non-Abrahamic) religion equated with superstition
  • Black and minority ethnic cultures and religions treated with a lack of respect and/or seen as exotic while white UK culture and religion is seen as ‘normal’
  • Police harassment and police violence – disproportionate police/legal attention to violence perpetrated by Black and minority ethnic people against white people combined with a lack of attention to violence perpetrated by white people against Black and minority ethnic people
  • Hate crimes
  • Media – extreme lack of media representation; tokenism; focus on Black and minority ethnic people who come closer to white beauty standards; media representation tends to focus on a few fixed narrow tropes
  • Language and narrative – Black and minority ethnic people in the UK lack the power to define their own experiences; English language lacks the vocabulary to describe those experiences
  • Street harassment
  • Politicisation of immigration
  • Laws (not sure exactly which we were talking about, can anyone at the workshop remember?)
  • “War on terror” and impact of war on BME people (e.g. increased street harassment, hate crimes, police harassment etc)
  • BME teenage mums – treated badly by the system; used politically to reinforce white British people’s feelings of superiority and of prejudice
  • Class – assumption that BME people are working class
  • Silencing by use of language like “political correctness”
  • Being used as a token, or having to act like one of the dominant group, when successful
  • Racist treatment of inter-race marriages – (is it worse for women?)
  • Colour prejudice (paler skin seen as better than darker skin)
  • White women with Black children (can anyone who was at the workshop remember exactly what we were saying here?)
  • Hypersexualisation combined with sexual disgust (as depicted in pornography)
  • Assumption by white people that Black and minority ethnic people don’t ‘belong’ in the UK (as illustrated by ‘where are you from? Where are your parents from? Where are you really from?)
  • Colonisation/slavery
  • Exclusion from common narrative and history (e.g. national curriculum is focused on white English history)
  • Use position of women – I think this referred to the political use of women in countries like Iraq to justify wars, can anyone who was at the workshop confirm/clarify?

What’s the way forward?

Dialogue! One common dialogue looks like this:

“This made me uncomfortable” => <= “I didn’t mean it that way”

Or more generally:

Attitude 1 => <= Attitude 2

Remember power dynamics – these aren’t actually equal arrows. Where is the second (right-hand) arrow coming from? (hint: a position of power!)

one green arrow on the left, many blue arrows pointing back on the right

We could think of it like this…

small green arrow on the left, large blue arrow pointing back on the right

… or perhaps like this

Be aware in dialogues that you can be “-ist” (sexist, racist etc) – see below

Some important points

  • Racism and sexism are backed up by massive official and unofficial power structures; we have all grown up in a racist and sexist society and have all absorbed some of those messages. No one is immune from this. When we say or do things that seem innocent to us we may still be playing into sexist and racist structures. This does not make us ‘bad people’. When we do something which is sexist and/or racist we are following one of the channels that our racist, sexist society has carved out for us.
  • It’s also important to recognise that if a member of an underprivileged or oppressed group responds to our well meaning comment or action with exasperation, they may be in a position where they have to respond to those same things several times a week (or day!). e.g. ‘where are you from/where are your parents from/where are you really from?’ Rather than taken their frustration as a personal attack, we could start thinking about it (‘why did I actually ask that? Did I think it was relevant? Why? How could I make conversation with this person in a way which isn’t implicitly questioning whether they are British?’)
  • As such, it doesn’t need to be a huge existential threat if someone ever tells us that our comment or action (or lack of comment or lack of action) was uncomfortable or threatening for them as a member of a minority group. We can take this constructively by a) apologising (a real apology, not an ‘I didn’t mean it that way’ apology) and b) working in ourselves and our communities to stop saying or doing those things.
  • When telling people about their sexism/racism/etc, one possible strategy includes giving them a ‘way out’ e.g. by beginning with ‘I’m sure you didn’t mean to be sexist, but …’. BUT even if we think this is the most productive strategy, it is NOT the place of men to tell women they are being ‘aggressive’ in the way they raise issues of sexism; of white people to tell BME people that they are being ‘unproductive’ in the way they raise issues of racism; etc.

Some important questions to ask ourselves

  • What is the history of this trope/thought/stereotype? (negative stereotypes of minority groups e.g. as being lazy often shift from one group to another)
  • What are the societal structures which support it?
  • As feminists, how do we wish men would respond when we talk to them about sexism we have experienced (both from them as individuals and from other individuals or institutions?) What can we learn from that about how we as feminists can respond when underprivileged groups talk to us about their experiences?

This workshop was kindly facilitated by Ila from MENTER (the East of England Black and Minority Ethnic Network). Thank you, Ila!

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