Notes on the 3rd Annual Black Feminism, Womanism and the Politics of Women of Colour in Europe Symposium.
Last Saturday in Berlin, the #WoCEurope conference was held and brought together women from almost every country in western Europe and boasted three tracks of presentations and workshops. The abundance was a bit unfair because each topic seemed genuinely interesting. While I found myself rooted in the main track, I often flitted to the other tracks catching rays of brilliance wherever I went.
I’ll admit that I am biased. When I moved to Berlin in 2008, I felt like a pioneer. After the diverse cities I had lived in before, Berlin was a shock. I gathered the phone numbers of every black person I met on the street and this was possible because we were so few. I was yelled at almost daily by Berliners that wanted to announce my blackness to me and anyone within earshot. My daughter, who was a teen then, endured a crucible of verbal abuse. To think that years later that I would return to Berlin to witness a cornucopia of black feminist thought seemed unthinkable then.
It was fitting that the conference started with “Looking Back, Looking Forward: A Conversation with Katharina Oguntoye”. Katharina Oguntoye is an Afro-German writer, historian, activist, and poet. She co-edited the book Farbe Bekennen with May Ayim and Dagmar Schultz. She founded Joliba Intercultural Network and co-founded Adefra – Afro-Deutsche Frauen. Oguntoye was born in 1959 and gave some details about growing up in Germany after spending her early childhood in Nigeria. A generational divide was evident between her and her interviewer, Dominique Haensell around the somewhat esoteric question of “Can a woman have it all?”. Oguntoye expressed that a pause in her activism is what made her motherhood as a lesbian possible. Haensell responded that one can be both a mother and an activist. One idea from the audience that resonated was that motherhood is a form of activism. I felt that the divergence in how both mothers (Haensell & Oguntoye) viewed who could claim the label of activist reminiscent of my own shifts on the issue. Lately, I’ve been meditating on how feminized labor like mothering, is devalued even by feminists and how this has implications for feminists who are mothers who may not see mothering as a crucial part of their activism.
The conversation then shifted to the role of Audre Lorde in the Black German Feminist movement. Audre Lorde is often cited as a catalyst towards a Black German movement and formalized identity. As Oguntoye explained Lorde’s effect and impact, the question from the audience that resonated so much that it got applause was “Why do you think that white German women were more willing to listen to Audre Lorde than to Black German women?” This spoke to the frustrations of many WOC in Europe that find their voices ignored by their white countrymen who undercut their own expertise in their own experience. Katharina Oguntoye remains a vibrant force and reminder that present-day activists are part of a historical continuum of a marginalized population that has not always even been recorded. Our mothers, ourselves, our children.
“My mother was a feminist who denied it.” Katharina Oguntoye
So many of us have matriarchs that embodied feminist ideals that did/could not embrace the label. #WoCEurope
— Denise VanDeCruze (@solchica) September 29, 2018
Katherina Oguntoye talked about the different treatment between her and her brother being an early radicalizing influence. Her mother made sure that she had as much opportunity as possible and Oguntoye said “My mother was a feminist who denied it.” This focus on the importance of practice superseding the claiming of labels would prove to be a common theme throughout the symposium.
Its one thing to know these things in theory but another to make it real. – Katherina Oguntoye
The Politics of Home
I was particularly interested in staying with the track that explored the concept of home. As a transplant to Europe, I am often looking for strategies that allow me to be rooted here while allowing for all of my identities and history. For people of color born here, this desire is even more urgent. Non-white people in Europe are often assumed to be immigrants and not given the luxury and often birthright of belonging.
To be racialized as Black is to be excluded from the national narrative. – Gabriella Beckles-Raymond
In her talk, “Home as a Site of Freedom and Resistance”, Gabriella Beckles-Raymond laid out in painful detail how the home is often delegated to the realm of the feminine, hidden and marginalized. Yet that home as a site in modern democratic ideology as an intimate domain, broader but just as autonomous as the body. Like the body, the homes of People of Color in European contexts is denied and summarily infringed upon. These violations and others led to the recent Windrush scandal in England where long-time Carribean immigrants were stripped of their right to live in England as senior citizens who had been in England without due process. The unthinkable notion that a non-white body could also be a European one has seasonal violent expressions and constant if more benign effects for Women of Color in Europe. It leads to uncertainty whereby race can cost us nationhood and the protections therein.
Clementine Ewkolo Burnely came back to the tenuousness of nationhood in “The Future of Nonbinary, Trans and Cis Women* Identified Activism in Communities of Color: Transnational, Local, Different”. She remarked that at any time her passport could be taken away. She used this to stress the importance of a self-determined identity. One that refuses to let the dominant narrative control how we see ourselves. This was underscored by AnouchK Ibacka Valiente who does not use she/her/feminine pronouns to describe themself. When Burnely stumbled on their pronoun, it was openly discussed in front of the room as two people that care deeply for each other. This was a living blueprint for active learning and conflict resolution within our communities.
Burnely said, “Love is a good entry to talk about topics and go deeper.” They then expressed that if love is true it has to include accountability and action. It is not enough to just say you love someone if you can’t respect them, gender them properly or listen.
While dealing with differences within activist circles may be painful, they are not insurmountable. They necessitate the prioritization of people with more at stake and a willingness to act on a behalf of the collective instead of the individual alone. This was evident in how the group talked about their strategies for combating instances of colorism:
- Name what is happening
- Refuse to take the power that is given to you because you are higher on the color hierarchy
- Actively include those who are excluded
Art was infused throughout the symposium, most notably through how the attendees showed up beautiful and solidly owning their space. The visual art was also stunning and included a series of portraits on Black Feminist Activism & Black Sisterhood by Ife Akinroyeje.
I was fortunate enough to stand outside of a full room and catch glimpses of a mesmerizing poetic visual performance by Silex called All That you Touch. The delivery in French was synced with the English translation and accompanying visuals on video. The visceral collective memory of how our identities were weaponized against us so early in our lives, in school rooms, on playgrounds in casual passing left me near tears. How do we fit into systems not designed for us? Is fitting in the goal? What do we gain? What do we lose?
In “For Us, by Us: Brown Girls and the Birth of a Women of Colour Movement in Finland”, Jasmin Kelekay deconstructed the implications of the myth of Nordic exceptionalism from racial issues. The historical, systemic and ongoing forgetting that is required to keep that myth alive. Erasure, not collecting race data is justified by Nordic color blindness. This method of post-racial policies to cover any instances of racial inequality is being deployed throughout Europe. What does it mean when national identity is defined by whiteness and you are not?
“Struggle is rarely safe or pleasurable.” – Clementine Ewkolo Burnely
Even though that was acknowledged, there was so much focus placed on self-care from many of the presenters. We gain nothing by exhausting ourselves. Some presenters mentioned the importance of demanding compensation for our often invisiblized labor. Claiming happiness and love in the midst of our work even if that means embracing motherhood or claiming your sexuality or gender identity is seen as a betrayal by your peers or family. Our solidarity and focus must first be to ourselves. The personal is political, but, also, the personal is our home. Our own realm to curate and define in a way that sustains us beyond our daily survival into our calling.
In her keynote, Noah Sow said: “We are taught to adapt before we learn to love ourselves.” The conference was a place where we returned to the center and got to view that position from different angles and possibilities.
“‘The taboo is not that we fight but that we refuse to harm ourselves in that fight. That we survive that fight.” – Noah Sow
Sow’s keynote address offered some levity, humor and a challenge for the community to not only examine the boundaries that shape our society, but also the boundaries that we create in order to form coalitions with each other. Is it still necessary to frame spaces as women* centered in 2018? How do we justify that and are we asking non-binary and trans people to leave some of themselves at the door in order to enter these spaces? Is it just tradition or is it based on an epistemology that can be defended within a Black feminist framework?
Sow also broached the need for protected spaces and discussions. With social media giving the world access to formerly closed discourses, the intellectual capital of Feminists of Color is often co-opted and misused. “Intersectionality” was offered as a prime example of this. People with little understanding of the term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw tend to use it to shore up their “radical” credentials or to even excuse themselves from critique. While Sow approached this with welcome humor the tension between the potential for an extended community and the potential for cultural or intellectual appropriation leave many with an ambivalent relationship with the exposure of social media. Our wealth of thought and experience is so rich that unfortunately it is often used by people without regard to our well-being. Sow gave some strategies that encouraged growth and new ideas while being intentional about who we give access and why.
The conference is too short. I wished desperately that I could be in all three tracks at the same time. I took furious notes trying to capture the magic of being surrounded by so much brilliance. In the end, nothing can capture the joy of being there and having some of my most uncomfortable or exhilarating moments articulated and deconstructed. I commend everyone who took part and I look forward to next year… wherever in Europe that may be.