Features Three Women of Colour student smiling.

Published on February 24th, 2014 | by Juliet Atto

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Is feminism only for middle-class white women?

Three Women of Colour student smiling.

Some of UAL’s female ethnic minority students feel under-represented at university. [Mary Sommer]

Feminism is meant to unify all women and their allies to strive for equality.

Despite the negative connotations it has today, the definition of feminism is: “The advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.”

International Women’s Day started in 1911 and the aim since then has been to fight for equality and to recognise not only the struggles that women face but also their achievements.

It is widely known and discussed that women still earn, on average, 30-40 per cent less than men for the same work, something the feminist movement has always advocated against.

However, not much is talked about the issues that feminism faces within itself. One of these issues is the question, “which women does feminism actually represent?”

Khadija Pandor, a journalism students at LCC, believes that mainstream feminism caters to a specific group of women, stating: “It’s mostly the middle class white women having a say [about feminism], whereas women of colour don’t have much speech.”

Fellow journalism student Raghad Bezizi, 21, agrees with Pandor’s statement: “Reports of feminism, when it comes to the media in a wider spectrum, is still a quite white middle class sort of thing.”

However, Bezizi argues that excluding non-white, non-middle class women is probably not done intentionally, adding: “I’d say that’s more of a political issue rather than something people try to do purposefully. But even that in itself needs to be addressed.”

“When you look at media culture and representation of women who aren’t white, they are usually very stereotypical.” Raghad Bezizi

Teleica Kirkland, is doing a masters degree in the history and culture of fashion at LCF, she believes that “women of colour are woefully underrepresented in mainstream media, let alone the issues we face.”

But it’s not just underrepresentation that women of colour face, but also the way in which they are represented. According to Bezizi, “when you look at media culture and representation of women who aren’t white, they are usually very stereotypical.”

Being stereotyped in mainstream media is a concern also expressed by LCC journalism student Sharayne Jones, who acknowledges that “women of colour are still marginalised within society.

When they are acknowledged or presented at the forefront of the media, they’re shown to be doing something outrageous – acting aggressively, ‘ghetto’, or sexually available – and are stereotyped in accordance to such behaviours.”

The public debate on feminism and how it excludes non-white women started on Twitter with the worldwide trending hashtag #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen.

The hashtag trended in four continents and at one point reached 50 tweets per minute.

Many saw the controversial hashtag, which is still going strong today, as a way to vent pinned up frustrations within the feminist community, while others saw it as divisive.

The hashtag trend started in August 2013 by the American writer and feminist blogger Mikki Kendall.

She wrote in The Guardian that the hashtag was not meant to point the finger at white feminists, but to be therapeutic for women who felt excluded by the movement: “It was intended to be Twitter shorthand for how often feminists of colour are told that the racism they experience, isn’t a feminist issue.”

Admittedly, this isn’t a new problem; white feminism has argued that gender should trump race since its inception. But that rhetoric not only erases the experiences of women of colour, but also alienates many from a movement that claims to want equality for all.”

Excluded

The notion of women of colour being excluded in mainstream society has been expressed not only in regards to feminism but also other areas that impact women.

Bezizi recalls visiting various high street shops that sell cosmetics and noticing the lack of make-up for darker skinned women: “I asked them about it and they said  ‘there isn’t really a market for it,’ but if you look at the actual percentage of the population who isn’t white, I think there actually definitely is a market for it.”

England has a population of over 10 per cent non-white people, and more than half of them are women.

However, the recurring theme of ethnic minority women having to go elsewhere for their needs to be met is reflected in the field of cosmetics which is predominately aimed towards women.

“[Women of colour] either have to go to designer places or go to Mac and pay a shit-ton of money for a tiny little bottle of foundation, or they have to go to smaller ‘ethnic’ stores. That kind of makes you feel segregated in itself , like ‘I’m not part of this white society,” said Bezizi.

Bola Tajudeen, a PR student at LCC, has dealt with exclusion by finding media outlet that caters to her needs and issues as a woman of colour: “[my mainstream media] consists of: Jane XO, Huffington Post: Black Voices, Ebony and Madame Noir. We have to be willing to engage in alternative media and make it our mainstream.”

“Race is a very dangerous and touchy subject for most people, especially people who usually aren’t on the receiving end of any kind of racial prejudice.” Raghad Bezizi

Although this still does not solve the problem of exclusion, Tajudeen believes that the issues women of colour experience should still be expressed publicly: “With [the] gifts of tweeting and sharing, we are in a position to pass along critical pieces of information in which we believe could benefit friends and family with the hope that they do the same.”

In a time where we can openly discuss LGBTQ rights and also women’s rights in general, race seems to still remain a topic that not many want to take on: “Race is a very dangerous and touchy subject for most people, especially people who usually aren’t on the receiving end of any kind of racial prejudice,” said Bezizi.

Talking about race is not just something white people might feel uncomfortable talking about, but also people of colour.

Bezizi continues: “The problem with talking about feminism and race is that when you want to speak out, people are going to be saying: ‘Stop complaining, we’re already passed that stage, don’t you know that everybody’s equal now? We all have the same rights’.”

Although much progress has been made for the rights of ethnic minorities and for women in general in terms of laws, progress still needs to be made when it comes to ethnic minority females and how they are treated and represented.

Pandor agrees that talking about race and gender is the way forward: “It should be talked about more often – race and feminism – because the more we talk about something the more it becomes the norm. The more it becomes accepted.”

Beneficial

Students of non caucasian heritage sitting in a canteen.

The Shades of Noir program is an initiative started by UAL’s task group as a way to acknowledge and promote discussions of race in the arts and Higher Education at large. [Mary Sommer]

LCC journalism student Kasia Cunningham-Murray thinks that talking about the exclusion of women of colour in the mainstream would be beneficial for not just non-white women, but for society as a whole: “Although I don’t personally feel affected by it I do believe that this issue could be talked about more in mainstream media.”

UAL is the home of several societies that cater to different ethnic minorities, with the African Caribbean Society, the Chinese Society and also the Indian Cultural Society to name a few.

CSM graphic design student Rachita Saraogi, 21, founded the Indian culture society not just for people of Indian heritage but also for those interested in learning about the culture.

She explained: “It was started with the intention to bring Indian culture into the university experience, where people could explore what the culture is about through various events and also a platform where Indians within UAL could meet and interact, especially those a long way from home.”

When asked if she feels that minorities are represented across UAL colleges, Saraogi said: “I don’t know about other minorities, but the Indian Cultural Society definitely are. We are always encouraged to do as many events as we can and have been given support along the way.”

Jones also thinks that UAL presents a varied demographic of students, adding: “I think UAL is a pretty diverse institution. They place great emphasis on the talents of the students, as opposed to ethnicity. I think everyone is represented as students, regardless of their skin colour or gender.”

However, Kirkland disagrees with the idea that UAL is an inclusive university, but acknowledges that progress has started: “I don’t think minorities are represented at all. UAL know the issues but are very slow in sorting it out. The Shades of Noir program has made great strides in this area.”

The Shades of Noir program is an initiative started by UAL’s task group as a way to acknowledge and promote discussions of race in the arts and Higher Education at large.

The programme has gained recognition from the National Union of Students (NUS) in their Race for Equality report, applauding the program for addressing the taboo subject of race and working towards all students, regardless of ethnicity, to have the same opportunities for success in Higher Education.

Equal opportunities

The importance of all women being united, regardless of race, is something all women agreed on, including Jones who stated: “I think it’s important for women to stand together. Simply as women, not as black, white or Asian women, to establish equal opportunities for women in education and employment.”

Kirkland believes that in order for this to happen, mainstream feminism must try to understand the difference between all women, adding: “I really do think for real unity to be achieved every woman’s issues need to be considered.”

 “I think it’s important for women to stand together. Simply as women, not as black, white or Asian women, to establish equal opportunities for women in education and employment.” Sharayne Jones

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is ‘inspiring change.’

In 2013, groundbreaking achievements made by women of colour were celebrated in the mainstream media.

From the accomplishments of Pakistani girl’s education activist and author Malala Yousafzai, to the inspiring TED talk entitled We Should All Be Feminists by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (which Beyoncé featured a snippet of in her new song Flawless).

With the Shade of Noir programme, UAL is making the effort to acknowledge the issue of race in the field of education and the arts in general.

As difficult of a topic as race can be to discuss, demonstrated here by the women of UAL, the only way to make it less uncomfortable is to actually talk about it, and hopefully that will inspire change that will last for longer than a day.

International Women’s Day takes place on Saturday, March 8.

 

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