Addressing allyship in intersectional feminist spaces

This week I was honoured to represent SheFest at the Sheffield Hallam University’s Feminist Society panel event, in celebration of Women’s History Month. The event enlisted some of Sheffield’s leading women to discuss the topic of Intersectional Feminism and encouraged a stimulating, healthy conversation with an engaged and invested audience. It was a joy to be involved in.

Joining myself on the panel were; Anjana Raghavan (Hallam lecturer in Sociology), Julie Hirst (Hallam Professor of Sociology), Charlotte Stanbar (Hallam Journalism student) Sile Sibanda (upcoming Radio Sheffield presenter), Sam Bramhall (Together Women project), and Ana Maria Sanchez-Arce (Hallam lecturer in Literature and Creative Writing). Together we shared our expertise and experiences on a wave of feminism, which we all agreed was imperative for a society founded on equality and inclusion.

Some of my personal highlights of the night included an explanation of Intersectional Feminism, which positioned it as social justice and removed the stigmas of its label by explaining that patriarchy is the common enemy. Following on from that, it was interesting to learn many of my fellow panel members felt they had been unknowingly feminist for most of their lives before being introduced to the concept, reiterating the idea of social justice. Another included learning about the global complexities of identities from the perception of migrant Diasporas, whereby intersectionality translates into lived experiences a daily basis. Not to mention Sile’s amazing poetry on Melanin, and her encouraging words to write and feel as parting words and a hopeful way to end the night.

Nevertheless, although the evening was mostly filled with positive rhetoric, as with most events of this kind there were issues raised both verbally and in essence. These are worth addressing, predominantly because without addressing said issues, we remain stagnant and are unable to move forward. It’s also important to address them as they embody a common theme which I, for one, encounter time and time again; the role of allyship in activism. My main concern is that while we dedicate time to ensuring allies feel comfortable enough to support issues, the issues in need of supporting are paused. It is my overoptimistic hope that this article encourages allies to introspectively examine their role in relation to some key areas discussed below.

Why aren’t you doing enough?

Throughout the event a question was posed around cuts to libraries in Sheffield and nationwide which have a direct effect on women who make up a large body of its workforce: “what is feminism going to do about this?” My automatic reaction: Jesus we’ve got to fix austerity as well have we? That’s not to say that cuts to libraries and other public services aren’t an issue, they definitely are, they’re definitely relevant, but are they almost so indicative of a broader issue that they’re worth having their own entire panel dedicated to? I’d say so, yes, because a topic of this scale is almost too big for an event like this one.

What this question does is assume the responsibility of austerity on not only feminism generally, but on a panel of women who are already dedicated to their own respective fields. This plays into the stereotype that women should be doing everything, and if we’re not, shame on us. It was rightly pointed out by one of my counterparts on the panel that while class issues are intrinsic to the Intersectional Feminist scope of recognition, there are equally strands of feminism that are solely dedicated to class struggle; Marxist Feminism for one.

Why aren’t you angrier?

The second comment I’ll address is one which invokes a smirk to my face while typing it, even now. The irony of a comment made by an audience member who said they felt feminists should be “more angry” would be funny if it wasn’t for the serious connotations when later unpicked. The list of reasons why I’m angry is lengthy enough to cover a whole other article. I’m angry at patriarchy, I’m angry at inequality, I’m angry at a Tory government, I’m angry at the man in a white van who catcalled me on the way to this event and I’m angry at the comment.

Why?

1. Don’t tell women how to feel.

2. Don’t tell activists how to channel their work.

3. If I had a pound for the number of times I am told “if you were less aggressive your message would be more palatable” or “you make some valid points but your delivery of said points was too aggressive therefore I will reject said points completely” in this year alone I’d be able to pay my car tax in a lump sum. It is a very privileged position to think that people can express themselves in whichever way they want without consequence.

It is a very privileged position to not have to be aware of your delivery of a serious issue because whether your words are heard is dependent on how much of an “angry black feminist” you project. We are angry, and we have a right to be angry, we don’t need permission to be angry, yet we are persistently penalised to the point of stereotype for this anger.

Further irony followed later in the night from the defensiveness of the man who’d initially given us permission to be angry. When we did express the slightest hostility, he said “well some of us do try”, both expunging himself of responsibility, while simultaneously minimising the plight of the female audience member who challenged him and also dismissing the validity of the anger which he’d granted us earlier in the night.

Raising children: when, what, why, how and who?

For me, the most interesting and engaging part of the night ensued following a question from an audience member on raising children, as this invoked a level of personal reflection and learning which was exhilarating for me. The question asked: “At what point do you think its right to introduce these issues to a child?” Building on the notion that feminism equates social justice, a valid point was made that the majority of parents are already instilling notions of right and wrong, good and bad in your children, and that it’s important to lead by example due to the intuitiveness and impressionability of kids.

At first, I felt I didn’t have much to contribute on account of the fact that I don’t have children and listened intently to my panel members discuss childhood development and learning. This made me reflect on myself and when I was first introduced to social issues. My mum never sat me down with a PowerPoint presentation titled “100 reasons why the world is shit” but I can distinctly remember being introduced to inequalities aged 4, when I started nursery and felt the weight of being 1 of 4 brown people in my entire year group. As a very young child my little afro was the source of my identity crisis. It made me realise that other people saw me as different and treated me as such, in the “innocent” ways of a child who has not been taught any better by parents who probably also assumed their children were too young to be taught.

This question therefore is undoubtedly coming from a position of privilege. A position every single person of colour will never have the luxury to experience; to be able to choose when and how you and your children are exposed to the shit in the world. If you have not had to engage with social issues, or reflect upon your role in society until university, until you have a child, or at any stage in life past primary school, this really is the rawest form of privilege.

Using ethnicity as the most obvious example, a person of colour is unable to ignore or hide from society’s bullshit. You experience the inequalities before you have chance to learn of them, or be taught about them. You are navigating these inequalities from childhood, quickly learning that you will have to be equipped to navigate them for the rest of your life. It’s not uncommon for parents of colour to sit their children down and prepare them for the inevitable possibilities of persecution they will face in the big bad world.

So, as a white parent, being able to grant your children the luxury of wearing those rose-tinted sunglasses for as long as possible is quite frankly offensive. It is one of the most important responsibilities and roles of an ally to educate and raise their children as allies themselves, along the same trajectory and timeline as a parent who is not granted the same privilege. 

What about me?

The last question of the evening risked ending the event on a sour tone, as at face value it seemed that the issues we were talking about had fallen on deaf ears when someone asked “at what point do you think people who look like me, *then going on to describe himself as the perfect Aryan race* will be able to be on a panel like this, and on a poster like that?” (The event poster was a collage of influential female public figures).

The air in the room immediately became tense, my knee jerk reaction was to be defensive, and I replied: “When you do the work.” The question is loaded with fragile masculinity in an arena where men can nod their heads in agreement to gender equality on the condition they do not ever feel like they are having to compromise and therefore lose their inherent privilege. It also implies an ignorance to activism both historic and present, which has largely been built on the shoulders of black queer women, with arrogance that white, cis men can then start to do the bare minimum, decades later, and not only be recognised but made front and centre.

What’s important to remember is that a white man at the centre of a movement made to support marginal communities is not only morally abhorrent but would ironically be a token gesture, given the fact that across the board white men still hold positions of power and privilege even in the social sector. Take Sheffield Hallam University for instance, the role of EDI Chair (responsible for ensuring Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at a university whose student demographic is 93-94% white) was given to a white, cis male over an Afro-Caribbean female candidate with an OBE.

Despite the efforts of activists addressing a broad spectrum of social issues, the security of white cis men is largely still intact. Space is still automatically granted to this demographic, and requiring recognition for holding said space is a problematic viewpoint that doesn’t align with the values of allyship.

Actions speak louder than words

I think at this point it’s important to note that all the above comments which I’ve addressed were posed by white, male audience members. This is not only problematic in the sense that it worryingly reflects the views of white men who are assumingly liberal enough to attend a Feminist event, but it raises the ongoing issue around Taking Up Space.

Having questions is fine, having questions is good. Never feel like you can’t ask a question. However, be mindful of the space you’re in, of the time frame you have, and of how many questions you are asking in that time frame. Is this the time to speak or is it a time to allow the voices of marginalised people to be heard? Is it a time to listen and learn? Is it worth going away and doing your own research on an area where information is easily accessible in order to allow the conversation in a room to move forward? As opposed to being stuck in the quick sand of white fragility and fragile masculinity? Are your actions within this space perpetuating systems of oppression? For example, interrupting or talking over women, including women of colour, which perpetuates an engrained belief that what you have to say is more important?

These are areas worth reflecting on for anyone at the point of allyship who acknowledges their privilege within a given space. It’s about being able to hold your hands up and say: “I think I may not be the right person to speak on this issue.” If in an environment where you can recognise demographics are either underrepresented or undervalued, your allyship is in ensuring that changes.

Being present in that room suggests that some white men are interested in becoming allies which can only be a positive thing. However, someone who holds privilege cannot be a feminist and expect to be heard and centred in the fight for gender equality. That’s the point of intersectionality and, as we learnt in the panel; if it’s not intersectional, it’s not feminism.

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