Beyond Feminism’s White Gaze

Beyond Feminism’s White Gaze

Akwugo Emejulu

I refuse to recount, in this short article, the importance of Black feminism and womanism as if these inter-related praxes are at all ‘new’ or as if Black feminists and womanists over the centuries have been unclear in our demands, interests and goals. To reckon with these intellectual and activist traditions requires a process of decolonisation in feminism. To centre and take seriously the knowledge, perspectives and experiences of women of colour necessitates an honest reflection as to why and how white supremacy is upheld and reproduced in mainline feminism and other ostensibly emancipatory movements. To recognise women of colour as intellectuals, political agents and authors of our lives requires purported ‘allies’ to critically consider why their chosen ideologies of gender, class, sexuality or disability will not permit complex understandings of race alongside—not in competition with—these other axes of difference. Thus, whilst Black feminists and womanists must bear the burden of misrecognition and invisibility—and continue to theorise and organise despite our erasure—this is not our problem to solve.

My colleagues and I are organising a one-day symposium on Black feminism, womanism and the politics of women of colour in Europe. This event is not a space to justify and explain Black feminism and womanism. Rather it is an opportunity to explore the varieties of ways in which these praxes are articulated and enacted in a European context. As such, the symposium is a concerted effort to organise outside of feminism’s white gaze. Our goal is not to demand inclusion in spaces predicated on our erasure and irrelevance but to create participatory and democratic spaces where different kinds of women of colour from across Europe can gather to build community, solidarity and imagine radical futures.

The systematic exclusion of women of colour in European feminist spaces is neither an unforeseen nor an unfortunate outcome of feminism. Rather, it is crucial to understand our erasure as a central feature of colonality. In order for feminism to maintain its fiction of the default whiteness of the category of ‘women’ and the homogeneity of ‘women’s interests’ demands the wholesale exclusion of women of colour and, simultaneously, our construction as passive objects either to be saved from our victimhood or as alien Others who exist outside and are a threat to the European polity. Feminism does not oppose colonality but, instead, plays a key role in its reproduction. Feminism is implicated in colonailty given the exclusionary systems of ‘logic’, ‘rationality’ and ‘modernity’ that constitute the idea of Europe. Because patriarchy is an important stratifying element of colonality, for white women to secure (albeit partial) recognition and inclusion in European spaces, requires the construction of Others who are illogical, irrational and backwards. Through our calculated absence and enforced misrecognition, women of colour play a paradoxically essential role in maintaining this system of exclusion.

We see colonial feminism at play across Europe, for example, in the central role some feminists played in the 2004 headscarf ban in France, in some German feminists appearing to racialise sexual violence by attributing it solely to the presence of refugees in the country since summer 2015 and in Britain, in some of the research I have undertaken with my colleague, Leah Bassel, we found that intersectional analyses were stifled in activist spaces. Thus, feminism cannot simply be reformed through the inclusion of women of colour. To counter the epistemic violence against women of colour in European feminism requires a commitment to decolonisation and the dismantling of the identities, ideologies and social relations that legitimise and reproduce our effacement.

While Black feminists and womanists are waiting for European feminism to fundamentally restructure itself, we have our own work to do. Our job is to try to build spaces for transnational solidarity for women of colour in Europe. This is no easy task. We are differently positioned in institutional structures by virtue of our race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, disability, language use and citizenship status. Solidarity requires us to resist essentialised notions of ‘women of colour’ and recognise the differentials in power and privilege that exist between us. Thus while ‘women of colour’ is an important identifier for us, it is only a starting point: we must seek to problematise this collective identity in order to name particular interests, inequalities and demands and to understand their contradictions across Europe. By collectively struggling to understand our differing experiences we can recognise our own positionality, which can spark solidarity, premised, not on a false idea of homogeneity, but on the shared knowledge of each other that the recognition of difference demands. Thus, the symposium must prioritise knowledge production about the diverse, contradictory and competing notions of what it might mean to be a woman of colour in Europe. We should be speaking with and listening to each other – especially to those women who are too often deliberatively unheard – in order to understand how we might live free.

In organising this symposium, my colleagues and I are trying to speak to a certain shared experiences, namely of being the only one in the room; being told, repeatedly, of the material conditions of class and ignored when you discuss the embodied politics of intersectionality; being asked to support women candidates and feminist political parties when they are silent or complicit in the maintenance of white supremacy; being in radical spaces where other worlds are seemingly possible—except worlds that include you. We are also reflecting a spirit of celebration where women of colour protest against austerity measures, against the criminalisation of refugees and for racial and gender justice. This conference will be a celebration of a rich intellectual and protest tradition that begins with a revolutionary idea: that we are human, that Europe is our home and that when we build spaces that sustain us, we can begin to ask different kinds of questions about who we are, what ‘Europe’ is and what a Black feminist and womanist Europe might be. So, please join us in Edinburgh—one of the financial centres of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and of the Enlightenment—women of colour haunt the city’s history. Let us subvert this space through our collective imaginings of new theories, solidarities and activisms for justice.


Akwugo Emejulu is Senior Lecturer and the founding Programme Director of the MSc Social Justice and Community Action at the University of Edinburgh. Her work has appeared in Politics & Gender, Race & Class, the Community Development Journal and Interface. Her co-authored book, The Politics of Survival: Minority Women, Activism and Austerity in France and Britain, is forthcoming with Policy Press.

Image credit: @marchediginite