BCU Black Feminisms Event: Citizenship and Rights

This talk was given on 18th March 2017 during the “Black Feminism, Belonging and the Nation” Conference at Birmingham City University.

bcu black fem
Left to right: Beth Kamunge, myself, & Karen Salt on the panel

Thank you for inviting me to speak at this event, and to engage in what have already been several productive (and compassionate) discussions regarding Black feminisms, belonging and the nation. Although our panel is entitled Citizenship and Rights, I’m going to spend my time questioning what those terms mean to me, to Black feminism and to us in a post-Brexit, post-Trump context.

Who has the “right” to belong to the nation?

I am posing this question within a Brexit context that left many of us contemplating what it means to be a citizen of a nation that claimed you and your loved ones were part of the reason the nation had reached its Breaking Point. I am also posing this question alongside the context of British history, where the British Empire alternatively provided citizenship to Black and Brown people so as to exploit resources and labour, only to later deny citizenship when people demanded rights as equal members belonging to this nation.

I have also been thinking about the decision made by the European Court of Justice to uphold policies aimed first and foremost at discriminating against hijabis and niqabis in the workplace. Although this decision came as little surprise to those that have paid attention to the discrimination and harassment that visibly Muslim women face in public spaces, I situate this next to the use of images of the hijabi cloaked in the American flag that circulated during the Women’s March or the previous discussions regarding Muslim women wearing a poppy hijab here in the UK.

In both cases, Muslim women’s clothing practices are only acceptable when they are understood as a cloak for nations that have killed so many Muslim women abroad. The experience of being a Muslim woman within societies that discriminate against you in both overt and covert ways can be ignored in favour of one’s role as an object symbolising some great imagined liberal multiculturalism.

Did we ever have a “right” to belong to this nation?

My short answer would be no.

But I want to trouble understandings of citizenship to think about the false allyships we end up building with the British nation. These allyships allow us to think of those of us on this side of these bordered islands as somehow distinguishable from those that are kept outside.

This distinction between citizens here and non-citizens outside of here has prevented us from examining the similarities and differences between our experiences. Our quest to belong to the nation enables us to ignore the lives of those of us that exist on the margins and borders of this society.

This is particularly troubling for those of us who have built and learnt from Black feminism. Its activism has always been focused around centring the experiences of those positioned on the margins of Blackness, gender, sexuality and class oppressions. In focusing on people who are existing on the margins, Black feminists have pushed against existing structures of violence and the way certain bodies are erased and positioned as deviant from the norm.

When we focus on citizenship, rights and national belonging, we erase the struggles of our people (and they are our people) living in countries bombed to pieces by the British nation. We perpetuate a deviance inscribed onto our people living in camps and attempting to cross treacherous borders.

Moving from our Right(s): Lessons from Brexit

For me, this was one of the key lessons from Brexit: the racism that allowed the then Home Secretary Theresa May to send out vans telling “illegal” immigrants to go home is directly connected to the endless wars that the UK and USA have launched against Black and Brown bodies.

When these endless wars are seen as a problem that is abroad, we ignore how these wars are intimately connected with an inability to see Black and Brown people as human (as opposed to a statistic of disposable corpses). We perpetuate an assumption that those of us located in here would be somehow exempt from the processes of racialisation that have killed so many many people within and outside of UK borders.

Our proximity to the heart of the British Empire has enabled us to perpetuate a quintessentially British amnesia. This has allowed us to focus solely on those centred within the UK, and ignores how the UK has always been built through exploitative relations beyond the heart of the Empire.

So as difficult and heartbreaking as the Brexit vote was in confirming the racism directed both internally and externally, we need to use this moment to reframe our understandings of how to belong. We need to focus and uncover the commonalities and differences between those of located within and beyond the boundaries of this nation. And then let’s begin a fight back against a nation that promises belonging on such racist, racist terms.

Thank you for your time.

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