Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Feminism is not All White

By Adunni Adams

Lexy Topping’s article in yesterday’s Guardian declared the advance of the feminist movement towards a world in which people are not ashamed of identifying themselves as feminists. According to the article, this advance has resulted largely from the activism of young people fighting back against the sexual objectification of women, leading to a growing coalition of ‘feminists who do not fit easily into stereotypical moulds’. Furthermore, UK Feminista is cited as the source of information about ‘dozens of new feminist organisations springing up around the UK’.

I assumed the inclusion of the phrase ‘feminists who do not fit easily into stereotypical moulds’ would lead to some mention of those organisations which do not fit into the white, middle-class heterosexual stronghold which has come to typify the feminist movement. As I continued reading, I assumed the scope of the article would include the Black, Working-Class, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender feminist organisations, most of which are not new, and most of which have so far managed to escape the attention of commentators on feminism.

The recent ‘three little pigs’ advertising campaign (promoting open journalism as a means of representing different perspectives) puts The Guardian at odds with the ‘one size fits all’ style of reporting typified by Ms. Topping’s article. The announcement that something (or anything) is happening at the grassroots level of the feminist movement – not to mention the fact that the movement has caught the attention of the mainstream media – could, and should, have reflected the true strength of the movement in its depth, dynamism and diversity at all levels.

The contact details of a representative of the Women's Networking Hub were sent to Ms. Topping, but no contact was made, even after a follow-up e-mail was sent to her. No contact was made with Blackfeminists UK, an organization with over 1100 followers on Twitter and over 150 followers on Facebook, nor with Blackfeminists Manchester. Grassroots organisations such as these are a vital part in the advance of contemporary feminism – broad, multi-faceted and inclusive – and it is remarkable that The Guardian would overlook these, and many other important groups.

Given the emphasis in the article on ‘lads mags’, it is unfortunate that Ms. Topping does not take account of the way in which the sexual objectification of women has varying connotations linked to race. A prime example of this is the apology made by Cadbury to Naomi Campbell last year, which was also covered in The Guardian. Perhaps if Ms. Topping had made contact with any one of the above mentioned groups, she would have gained insight into the impact of this and many other issues which exist at the intersection of race and gender.

Ironically, the article ends with a reflection on the economic cuts. The brunt of the cuts is not only being faced by women but specifically black women, yet articles such as these ensure that we remain invisible. I feel that my response should be heard because the feminist movement, by definition, should not privilege the needs and contributions of one group over another, which is precisely the effect this article has had, regardless of any well-meaning intentions.


  1. I had similar thoughts when I read the article. I absolutely agree that the marketisation & objectification of women's bodies are important, but in austerity Britain there are more pressing concerns for working class women and these don't seem to get the coverage they deserve. The anti-porn issues seem to get a lot more coverage than any other feminist issues in the mainstream press (and as you say, often in a way which leave the objectification of black women's bodies invisible).

  2. Hello,

    Lexy Topping here from the Guardian. Thanks for your interesting blog and for getting in touch with me directly, I'm always glad to open the debate around these issues and receive feedback.

    I would like to make a few points however. I did indeed receive an email from the Women's Networking Hub, along with a stream of emails from various feminist groups after a call for help on Twitter and among contacts. The email was not accompanied by a note saying why the organisation would be good to speak to for this particular article and under deadline unfortunately I simply didn't have the time to contact everyone who got in touch with me. This post slightly makes it sound like I purposefully ignored BME feminists - which is really not the case!

    As far as I'm concerned the article did not suggest the advance of the feminist movement was "largely from the activism of young people fighting back against the sexual objectification of women" it was merely a snapshot of some, not all, of the "new faces" within feminism. As the above posts note - BME feminists have been playing a very important role for a considerable amount of time.

    The article was in no way meant to be a definitive treatise on the breadth and diversity of the feminist movement - reflecting the "true strength of the movement in its depth, dynamism and diversity at all levels" would be a very tall order in 800 words. We will need a series of articles!

    I do agree that BME issues are often overlooked by the mainstream media, and that is something we very much try to counter at the Guardian. I have written quite a lot about issues facing BME women and BME feminists and I would really like to again in the future. Here are a few examples:

    I don't want to sound too defensive here - I really think that essentially we have a lot of common ground and would be delighted to work together on other stories in the future. If anyone from BME feminist organisations reading this does want to contact me about possible future stories or just come into the Guardian for a cup of tea then that would be great.

    Thanks for giving me the opportunity to respond,

  3. Responding to Lexy, if I may, your explanation is not good enough. With any awareness of Anglo-American feminist history, which necessarily includes black feminist critiques of Second Wave feminists' oversights (and I'm putting that nicely), and with any commitment to a broad and diverse feminist movement, you article *should* have included black feminists. And you should have sought us out not, as you seem to imply, expected us to demonstrate why we would be useful to profile.

  4. @ Lexy,

    There is much work to be done to redress the imbalances, so it would be great to take up the opportunity to meet with you and / or keep you updated on what we are doing. We'll put it to the group, thanks for that!

    And I want to second SimiD here, too. It's really not enough for journalists to not have diversity front on mind when writing articles on feminism - because the irony is too striking - or any article on any theme. If you are seeking out quotes, keep people who are not white, male and middle class in mind otherwise your article lacks credibility (and personally for me, it loses my respect), especially in an article on feminism: talking about men in the movement without first looking to women other than the white middle class women immediately opens your article up to obvious and easy criticism. I just think that article could have been so good! So it's a bit of a missed opportunity which is costly for feminism.


  5. Hello Lexy

    Thanks for your response.

    Lexy, I must say that I do echo the sentiments of both Rhiannon_lockley and SimiD above. The oversight of the contributions of those outside of, what is arguably, the mainstream feminist movement, is as bad as purposefully ignoring 'BME feminists'. The point remains that we are all integral to the forward motion of the movement and systematically, there are viewpoints which are ignored, side-lined or placed into the niche of 'BME'. In not naming any black feminist, LGBT feminist, Working class feminist groups, your article compounds the issue that my blog post raises. Stories like that of Cadbury and Naomi Campbell are not just 'my' issue, but that which belongs to the whole feminist movement. Race, class, religion, gender, sexuality all mesh together to form systematic barriers to all feminists, not just an easily identifiable minority.

    I think it would be great for us to work together to try and redress the definite imbalance that exists in the reporting on the feminist movement. I (or a BlackfeministUK colleague) would be happy to meet with you soon. Perhaps you could send us a message on Twitter (@blackfeminist) and we could arrange something.


  6. Hey,
    I'm a feminist, and I'm white British/Europeanish, and I was troubled by the lack of a mention of BME feminists/ more intersectional feminisms generally (for example broader anti-imperialist stuff, the persistent and overlooked work of people like Southall Black Sisters and probably other groups I should have heard of but haven't because articles like this keep being published in the MSM!). At the very least, tf the latest grassroots feminist groups look pretty white and pretty middle-class, that needs to be commented on. A sentence would have done it - readers could have drawn their own conclusions or commented on organising they've seen/been part of which might contradict Lexy's picture.

  7. http://lists.econ.utah.edu/pipermail/margins-to-centre/2006-March/000794.html

    Lexy, you might find this essay useful.

    'In academic feminist circles, the answer to these questions is often, "We
    did not know who to ask." But that is the same evasion of responsibility,
    the same cop-out, that keeps Black women's art out of women's exhibitions,
    Black women's work out of most feminist publications except for the
    occasional "Special Third World Women's Issue," and Black women's texts off
    your reading lists. But as Adrienne Rich pointed out in a recent talk, white
    feminists have educated themselves about such an enormous amount over the
    past ten years, how come you haven't also educated yourselves about Black
    women and the differences between us -- white and Black -- when it is key to
    our survival as a movement?'