Black women are hyper-visible and simultaneously invisible. When we share our first-hand experiences, the response is usually denial, abuse and cognitive dissonance. Being an educated black woman is to be a deviant who doesn’t deserve active listening, support or respect. To those outside of our communities, we are an anomaly and not the rule.
Black women in the UK are actively challenging these dismissive responses. We are more defiant in our attitudes and deliberate in our speech. Whether you agree with her politics or not, Diane Abbott is a joy to watch – she says everything with her chest. As is Bonnie Greer who consistently and mercilessly challenges old white men on their politics and ethics.
A few weeks ago, Tola Jaiyeola and I appeared on the ITV EU Referendum debate. We were both chosen to address Farage about his obsession with migration. Tola was possibly one of the calmest audience members on the show. Farage saw “black” and told her to “calm down”, which was both disrespectful and rude. Instead of shying away she remained assertive and continued to press him for a non-condescending answer. I, on the other hand, passionately echoed the concerns of friends, family and listeners about the consequences his anti-migrant rhetoric might have on the non-white British population. Like Tola, I grew frustrated with his deliberately misleading answers and fired back with a more straight-forward question before confronting him on his lies.
The aftermath was astounding. To these middle-aged white men Tola and I were interchangeable, at one point we were both mistaken for writer and No Fly on the Wall Founder Siana Bangura (note: she wasn’t at the debate). To them, all black women look the same. Ironically, my Twitter mentions were full of racists calling me a “racist”, and accusing me of “playing the race card” and the odd south Asian man telling me that I “don’t speak for them”. All the while memes of my face carrying the caption “the face of racism in Britain” circulated the internet. I’ll let the irony of that simmer for a minute.
I spoke with the ITV producers and editors at major publications, and they all asked me whether I expected the backlash from my question. My honest answer was no. I had no idea that all of the internet’s cave-dwelling trolls and troglodytes were waiting to get lit and turn up in your mentions when we decide to speak. In my Guardian and Buzzfeed bubble, I naively believed that Diane and Bonnie spoke freely and openly with little consequence. I never went beyond my TV screen to see what happens next.
‘Memes of my face carrying the caption “the face of racism in Britain” circulated the internet’
I’m not alone. Recently, Rosalind Brewer, the CEO of Sam’s Club in the USA, made some innocuous comments about prioritising diversity initiatives at her company. As a result, she too was called a racist and received death threats. The Harvard Business Review published a study titled ‘Women and Minorities Are Penalized for Promoting Diversity’ referencing the incident alongside some data that revealed what many us already knew. I still question the use of the word “penalised”. It doesn’t adequately represent the seriousness of the death threats Brewer and her family received.
Online harassment, bullying and threats are the reality of daring to critique society while being black and a woman. In an interview with Fortune Ms Brewer said: “I will continue to use my voice”, a slap in the face to her racist tormentors. Unfortunately, middle-aged white racists aren’t the only people that torment us online. When we dare to critique our own communities or the shenanigans that we allow in it, the trolls look more familiar.
In June, black people across Europe headed to Paris for AfroPunk to celebrate their blackness with like-minded individuals. Chanté Joseph, President of the Bristol University ACS, attended the event. Chanté witnessed some Black German women calmly explaining what cultural appropriation is to three white women dressed in ‘cultural’ attire, head wraps and all. The white women immediately burst into tears and Chante took a picture with a caption that summed up what she had just witnessed.
Chanté says: “It was mainly black men being abusive towards me, and black women being sympathetic towards the white women.” When the tweet started to go viral more black men flooded her mentions and “were saying that ‘black feminists were crazy’ and they were trying to brand all black women as angry and mad. I was very upset that the black men were caping [for the white women] and didn’t even hear the black women out before becoming threatening and violent towards them.“
Those three white women’s tears and subsequent defence is why hashtags like #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen exist. At no point did any of her online harassers stop and think that they are denigrating a black woman in the public domain. Chante’s friend and poet, Siana Bangura talked to the Melanin Millennials about how disappointed she was that a black man didn’t hesitate to raise his hands to a black woman in a room full of people celebrating their blackness.
I asked Chanté if she has been put off speaking about cultural appropriation again, she told me “Never! As long as I have a platform, I will openly speak on these issues. At uni when people brought up the incident in Paris I didn’t shy away I continued to talk about it. It makes me feel ill how entitled people are to our culture and identity, and I believe that should always be protected.“
Black women continue to protect the culture and black men, and instead of gratitude we are chastised for it. Public support and solidarity exist, and offers a brief respite, but if you blink you miss it. These assaults can have a real impact on our mental health. Therefore, it’s so important that we have our private spaces to vent, debrief and deconstruct the very real gaslighting that takes place online. Photographer, writer and filmmaker Jendella Benson describes her disorienting experience in a blog post: “So many times I’ve asked myself if I’m crazy when I see people repeatedly deny the reality of black women’s experiences as if they have some kind of deeper insight into our lives than we do. No wonder many of us find safe spaces, in real life or online, a valuable retreat when we are brow-beaten by the ignorance of the world…“
‘These assaults can have a real impact on our mental health. Therefore, it’s so important that we have our private spaces to vent, debrief and deconstruct the very real gaslighting that takes place online.’
It’s evident that people need to hear our voices more so that it doesn’t come as such a shock to them. In spite of all of the vitriol, black women continue to resist the bullying, overcome the fear, and deflect the threats. Every attempt to silence us galvanises us to speak louder because deep down we know they don’t listen, but they hear us. Our collective voices are getting stronger, and people are starting to notice. I was facetious when I quoted Drake and Future earlier, but in all seriousness, what a time to be alive.