Race Matters

Bringing visibility to black British women

In the wake of Black History Month 2017, Jane Tanner of the Women's Resource Centre describes how helping with her niece's school project brought the importance role models into sharp relief.

Everyone needs that inspirational person; someone you can see pave the way to your more ambitious climbs.

I strongly suspect that there are many women who, like me, have felt life is a disappointing quest for reflections of oneself.

My mother and aunts are phenomenal women and fantastic role models. But outside of my immediate family, I craved to see black women in public life – ‘on the telly’ achieving in the way their white counterparts were doing.

Thankfully this is (gradually) changing, however I continue to ask myself ‘why are black women still so invisible?’

As a child in the 70s growing up in the north-west, I never saw BHM celebrations. When I eventually did, they always seemed to pull out Mohamed Ali or Dr Martin Luther King Jr; that is, usually men and always American. In more evolved times, Rosa Parks might have been included.

This year, I helped my sister plan her contribution to her daughter’s primary school celebrations of their Black History Month (BHM) project. Sadly, but unsurprisingly, some of that planning included preparing answers to head off  the perfectly ‘reasonable’ questions from parents who usually ran the parent-led activities but were new to the concept of celebrating BHM. ‘Why do we need to?’, ‘Is there enough time to do this?’

In these divisive, Brexit, faux-news times, it has never felt so important to drive home the contributions of black Britons to British culture and not just as a tag-on which has somehow happened in the last 50 years, but as an integral element of Britishness.

In the end, my niece’s north London primary school delivered a brilliant BHM celebration as a festival of learning for parents, teachers and children alike. It was packed with resources, cultural experience and beautifully, an opportunity for all the children to do their own research for their preferred British heroes who happened to be black.

I wanted to be a part of this, as I understand the importance of role models to young, impressionable minds. Watching ‘Black is the new Black’ as part of the BBC’s Black and British season last year moved me beyond measure. It was the first time I had seen close head shots of so many talented, black Britons from politics, business, sports, science, in one sitting. Beautifully produced and simply shot, they all just talked about their experiences of growing up (very similar to mine), who they were, and how they’d got to where they are now. Among their number were some amazing black British women at the top of their game.

The impact this exposure of positive role models on young black girls will be profound. I wonder who I might have grown up to be, had I seen the same thing as a child?

So, why have black women role models been so invisible to me?

Much has been written about women’s invisibility and particularly that of black women. For my part, I think of the intersecting challenges of race and gender (and as a mid-life aside, I also think about age).

I automatically look to the numerous instances where black women are hyper-visible and wonder how complicit we become in the invisibility when the opposite is nearly always too dreary to deal with: a mostly highly sexualised, stereotyped and commoditised treatment in all parts of society.

The invisibility arguably becomes a haven from the daily assault - both the figurative and physical - and a means of survival for some. But at massive cost.

The lack of visibility of black and minority ethnic (BME) women is contributing to the decimation of key specialist services. Women and girls experience sexual harassment as part of everyday life, what is rarely acknowledged, or even understood, are the very specific ways that BME women experience sexual and racial harassment.  Policy responses commonly separate issues of race and gender in a way that is unhelpful for black women. However, BME-led women’s organisations success is based on dealing with the whole woman and the challenges she faces. In other words, policy trends are making BME women and the structures best placed to support them invisible.

In the immediate wake of Black History Month 2017, I prefer to take inspiration from the positive stories. Seeking out black British women heroes has been a heartening part of my own journey of increased grounding. Becoming reacquainted with the success of some wonderful and inspirational women, gives me some hope that we can put a dent in negative trends.

Below is the list of names I encouraged my niece to include in her celebration of BHM.

Black British Women Heroes: Past and Present

Sarah Forbes Bonetta Davies (pictured)
West African girl in Queen Victoria's household

Rt Hon Patricia Scotland, Baroness of Asthal 
Secretary General of the Commonwealth 

Zadie Smith
Writer

Claudia Jones 
Feminist, political activist, community leader and journalist 

Nicola Adams OBE
Boxer, Olympic Gold Medallist

Anne-Marie Imafidon 
Tech Social Entrepreneur

Amma Asante 
Writer, Director

Malorie Blackman
Writer

Maggie Aderin-Pocock MBE 
Space scientist 

Chi-chi Nwanoku 
Bassist, Educator, Activist
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