Feminism in London Conference 2014: Part 2

Parts 2 and 3 deal with the morning and afternoon workshops that I attended at the Feminism in London Conference, which were on Shadism and Men’s role in the Feminist movement. In the first workshop I wanted to learn from the experiences of WoC (Women of Colour). As I am White European, I didn’t feel I needed to relate any experiences, despite the encouragement from Femi that all people present should speak if they wanted. Sure, I may have had things to say about friends, and about how having a Spanish name and curly hair has coloured my experiences, but I just didn’t think what I had to say was of that much relevance in such a short space of time, other than reinforce the points that were already being made in connection to shadism. I mostly listened, and only commented at the end when I urged people to help with the education, suggesting the TES website as a place to upload texts that could be read for English that deal with issues of race and gender etc. As again and again education is highlighted as being so important in opening a dialogue on these issues, I feel I am currently in such a privileged position and I need to take action.

Just to start off, in case you aren’t aware of what shadeism/shadism means, then I’ll give a quick definition. It is the discrimination of individuals based on skin tone, which can be both intrinsic and extrinsic to the race or community. It is heavily connected with the false perception that the closer an individual’s skin is to white, the more superior they are to other members of their race. It is something steeped in historical oppression, and often connects to class and other issues. Its place within the conference is also due to the fact that it often relates more strongly to women, due to the pressures of beauty standards. A film exploring just one aspect of this issue is the documentary ‘Good Hair’, presented by Chris Rock, which I saw a few years ago and was mentioned during this workshop. You can watch the trailer below… although it’s advertised here as a comedy, it’s definitely mixed with a whole dose of tragedy as humour is used to explore something that really is no laughing matter. [Edit! My friend, Natalie Cooper, drew my attention to the fact that ‘Good Hair’ is actually a rip off of ‘My Nappy Roots‘.]

Some of the points that were raised included (text in brackets shows my own points):

-The need for colour-blind casting in schools and in the wider world of acting.
-Comments on hair and touching without permission.
-Stereotypes: people saying they do not “sound Black” or white friends saying they do not think of them as Black.
-Older relatives handing down bleaching cream to young children.
-Members of the family being treated differently due to skin tone.
-The importance of language. It was strongly felt that to label oneself Black and have pride in that was vital in making a political statement.
-In a similar vein, it is up to the individual whether to a mixed race person identifies as either Black or White. This connects to people picking out features that go into either category, and it was asserted that it should not matter, should not be asked.
-The importance of encouraging girls to keep their hair natural until old enough to make an informed decision.
-Self-hatred is an important issue, which is why it is important to still tell young WoC that they are beautiful.
-WoC need more visibility in the media, advertising, in high street shops etc. (To ignore beauty and consumerism is a privilege.)
-The fascination with White people wanting to be tanned. It is that they want to be darker, but do not want the problems that come with being a WoC. White people need to understand the politics of bleaching is very different to wanting to tan. (However, seeing a mixed race tone as the ideal is problematic in terms of it perpetuating shadeism.)
-There are assumptions that Black people don’t care about appearance, when statistically they spend more money on this.
-White people should be able to describe someone as Black, yet it was also noted that this should not be to the extent that these White people do not see anything else.
-Stickers on things such as bleaching or “lightening” products (it’s the same thing, people, which is why I was disgusted at a poster I saw at a sk:in clinic). Consciousness raising.

By the end, it felt like we had only tapped the surface of shadism. We tried to conclude things, to come up with solutions and action plans, but each time women would return to speak more about their experiences. I don’t feel it is my place to even do more than share this list of points, but I hope that this post will be informative for white people, and that WoC who were unable to attend may be able to voice their own experiences and open up discussion, between friends, family and online platforms etc. Lastly, I have since come across an article by Victoria Bond which stated something that resonated with me: race is a spectrum, not a dichotomy.

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