Next month Goldsmiths University is to host an event on black feminism, with two guests from the institution to speak on this important topic – the event is billed thusly: “Conversation on Black British Feminism”. Two of Britain’s internationally acclaimed professors of race and gender will talk about Black British feminism and the inspirations, ideas and experiences that ground their own landmark writing. Sara Ahmed (The Promise of Happiness; On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life; Willful Subjects) and Heidi Safia Mirza (Young Female and Black; Black British Feminism; Race Gender and Educational Desire: Why Black Women Succeed and Fail) have a dedicated following within and beyond the academy.”
Many young black academics, however, have expressed concern about the ability of ‘politically black’ academics to adequately represent and elucidate the experience of ‘ethnically black’ women. The social media backlash began in earnest a couple of weeks back; contact was made with the organisers, and though I am not clear on any solution negotiated, initial responses seem to have agitated the matter further.
While I am no advocate of the term ‘politically black’, I caution those vehemently opposing its use in the dialectical lexicon concerned with race.
Yes the term conflates those who regard themselves as ethnically black with those who unite under a shared banner of oppression. This is highly contentious to say the least – for reasons others have long already tackled, and will no doubt tackle in great detail in the future.
However, and I will be short on words here; the newer breed of young scholars and activists who take offence to its use, who consider it a ‘redundant’ term, should be careful about arbitrarily excluding an entire generation, who are still very much alive, from an important conversation. This is a generation that sharpened their intellectual and activist teeth under this banner, and for who the term still holds relevance.
This apparent ‘redundant’ generation did not use the term ‘politically black’ as a means to undermine as yet un-conceived ethnically black academics, no, they embraced this term because it made sense for their age, for the context in which they were living. We should grant them the respect and honour for what they have contributed to the discussions around anti-racism, representation and identity. And indeed, their contributions are many.
Heidi Mirza, Sara Ahmed and others – prominent advocates of the blanket term ‘politically black’ – have contributed significantly to the discussions of race within the UK. Mirza in particular has made some significant contributions to the discussion of black feminism in this country – contributions that shape the academic foundations of feminism in Britain today.
Now, while acknowledging that I have not engaged in the full spectrum of Mirza or Ahmed’s work, I am reticent to publicly condemn, attack or undermine the work of a generation of politically black individuals whose intentions, I believe, should be beyond question.
Does this mean we should not re-evaluate the relevance of such a term in contemporary society? Absolutely not! A new conversation is most certainly in order.
With the fracturing of various ethnic groups – all fleeing from under the umbrella of political blackness, and a growing number of ethnically black academics and thinkers trying to produce and interrogate issues specific to African or ‘ethnic’ blackness, it makes sense we rethink our stance.
Without such a conversation it makes it difficult to interrogate the insidious anti-blackness rife among non-white communities, or even speak on the nuanced experience of minorities in regards to educational, academic and economic attainment – areas that reveal vast distinctions between Asian, Caribbean and African communities.
These valid concerns aside, I would not wish, as I have previously stated, to see an attack on very influential and important scholars who identify as politically black, particularly when those individuals have contributed so favourably to discussions around race and identity.
Again, I urge caution, not only because they are our seniors, in so many ways – having contributed more than our short lives have yet to – but also for the sake of fostering intergenerational dialogue, that will guide our collective concerns to solutions and not further antagonism and disintegration.
Our focus should be on the institutional structures that consciously, or not so, continually exclude voices of ethnically black academics, in favour of brown academics that consider themselves politically black. Personalising these issues will not make a dent in the structures of inequality and misrepresentation this discussion seeks to address.
Key stakeholders and decision makers within university spaces need to be aware that hiring someone who considers themselves ‘politically black’, does not mean one has diversified their staffing body to better reflect the ethnic make-up of London, or the UK. It does not mean one has hired someone with a lived body of knowledge and experience related to African and Caribbean communities. It does mean, however, another brown academic has secured a prominent opportunity to talk about, and undertake funded research, on issues related to ethnically black communities – further increasing the number of brown academics beyond the embarrassing amount of black post-graduate scholars given the same opportunity.
Those who consider themselves politically black need to be reflective enough in regards to how such self-definition can become a hindrance, a silencing mechanism, to the voices of ethnically black individuals within the academy. Indeed it is incumbent upon the politically black to realise that the term is losing, if not has already lost, its historical meaning among most contemporary ‘minority’ communities, and does not signify what it once did among young academics engaged in discussions of race.
The era of the politically black is in its death throes, though it does not mean solidarity must go the same way. If however we do not address this issue soon, and most importantly, address it in a respectful and conducive manner, I suspect it will be a site of growing conflict and disillusionment among participants of this important struggle.
Political blackness does not sufficiently describe my life, nor my political and cultural outlook, however, it is political blackness that has enabled my generation to consider so much more about race and identity within our contemporary society than previous generations were able.
Let us engage with respect and compassion, not least for the generation we ourselves precede.
Read a response to this piece ‘Black British feminism, it is collective and collaborative’ by Sara Ahmed
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Nathan Richards is a freelance digital journalist specialising in digital video production for the web. He is currently a doctoral researcher at Goldsmiths University with a focus on Digital History, and online communities. @umanyano
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