WoC Europe: What the Day Meant to Me

Laura Nsafaou aka Mrs Roots| 6.11.2017

FullSizeRender-18

 

I’m always eager about the places that exist to meet women of colour in Europe. I believe that international connections are a way to enlarge the scope and to give a better answer. WOC Europe is one of these places where it’s possible to share our experiences from different backgrounds but also to have a map of political strategies and movements in Europe.

For example, I discovered the collective, Yon Afro, during a session about Afropeanism. This collective built itself through experiences of five women of colour being excluded from society and battling for their mental health. It made me think about our different approaches to activism. How are we led to think ourselves as political subjects? Which modalities define our organization? Why is that my mother and sister are not at this conference, but I am?

I remember international afrocentric meetings and conferences which left me bitter, because of an overexposure to an American reality, or because it was too academic, too impersonal. WOC Europe was not like that and offered the atmosphere we need to build a large community: time to speak, to learn and share. Presentations were pragmatic, insightful and gave spaces for dialogue and *bienveillance*. 

Confronting individual and collective experiences through all the different sessions was enlightening. I can only wish the next events will benefit from our connections to become ordinary, and closer from those women who are not part of this conversation.

WOC Europe gave the key, but we have to build the access.

Layla-Roxanne Hill | 6.11.2017

Participating in the second #WoCEurope symposium…

Is interlacing single threads into a weave; (un)picking and shedding our (hi)stories as women of colour living in Europe and beyond.

wocpic

This year I attended as part of Yon Afro Collective (YAC), which I jointly founded through connections made at WOC Europe in Edinburgh in 2016. To present as part of Yon Afro, whose existence might not have been, felt like the coming together of my story and the localised and globalised struggle. We spoke about being women of colour in Scotland, coming together, from out there, in defiance of Scottish Exceptionalism – an ideology which casts Scotland as having a distinct political trajectory to the rest of the UK – and in spite of being unable to tap into a rich Black British history. Of being alone in a place which does not recognise the Other yet reinforces beliefs and structures which continue to seek ways of erasing our experience.  

The symposium for me, is the bittersweet culmination of 12 months of participating in offline and online spaces, where intersectionality is rarely rooted in Black feminism and working collectively won’t necessarily mean striving for structural change.

When surrounded by the women of colour who fill the spaces at WOC Europe, I am reminded we are here and must continue to be, for ourselves and for those like us. This is a space which needs to exist, to grow as it moves across Europe, calling and responding to the all too often unheard cries of our sisters.

Offering a place, where for one day we are visible, building solidarity and asserting our ability and desire to change the current narrative.

Mai Zeidani Yufanyi and Iris Rajanayagam | 4.11.2017

Mai and Iris devoted their entire radio show, Talking Feminism, to discussing WoC Europe. Listen here

FullSizeRender-20

Esme Allman | 4.11.2017

FullSizeRender-19
Read Esme’s article on safe spaces, WoC Europe and organising beyond the white gaze for Black Ballad here.

Francesca Sobande | 16.09.2016

Being involved in the organisation of the one-day symposium on Black Feminism, Womanism and the Politics of Women of Colour in Europe was an overwhelmingly empowering and encouraging experience. Seeing months of work and email correspondence culminate in a space buzzing with energy and filled with women from across Europe and beyond, was an incredible feeling. My hopes for the day were that lively discussions and debate were had and that women had the opportunity to meet and connect with other like-minded women.

Francesca and Cecile.jpg
Francesca Sobande & Cecile Emeke

As the event drew nearer I continually questioned and reflected on what I wanted to say as part of my presentation. Initially I intended to focus on my research to do with the depiction of Black women in the media and the experiences of Black women as media spectators but I started to feel as though I was losing site of what I ultimately wanted to speak about; being a Black woman involved in academia. I threw some caution to the wind and opted for a presentation that I hoped was more reflexive and auto-ethnographic in nature.

As part of my presentation I spoke about how I had initially doubted the adequacy of speaking from more of a personal perspective that day. I feel that this is just one example of the tensions that may exist for Black feminists in academia, who may see value in reflecting on their lived experience as part of their work but who may find themselves questioning how to do this effectively within some of the more restraining academic parameters that they encounter.

For me, not reflecting on my identity as part of my work seems counterintuitive to the task at hand. Approaching my research from a lens distinctly shaped by Black feminism has involved me embracing and navigating my own identity in a way that has undoubtedly shaped my work and who I am more generally. I have come to realise that this is not something to shy away from acknowledging and exploring but rather, is part of my research.

The impact and value of academic work may be measured in various ways. Conversations that I have had with Black women and women of colour as part of my research, including in informal and more formal contexts, may not traditionally be considered as constituting this. However, the opportunity to engage with and learn from such women as part of my research has made me realise that impact and value can take many forms. I feel that this can include the seemingly casual conversations that research can yield but which may spark new connections between people and a sense of shared experience.

The spirit of the day included an emphasis on creativity and the power of story-telling which was beautifully captured in many of the presentations, including the keynote delivered by artist, director, film-maker and writer, Cecile Emeke. At times, the conventions commonly embraced as part of academia can place restrictions on how researchers write, research and express themselves. This event was a firm reminder of the role that reflexivity can and does play in my research, as well as how creative and visual methods such as poetry and photography, can fuel this.

Hearing about the lives and experiences of such a diverse group of women was inspiring and heartening. Although there may be many differences between the lives of all who were in attendance, it felt as though many themes of the day resonated with most, such as reflecting on the key influence of Audre Lorde’s work and the contributions of many other Black women and women of colour who are and were creatives, writers and critical thinkers.

It still feels surreal that the event has been and gone but based on the dynamic energy and excitement of the day, I have a feeling that it was the start of things to come, rather than simply the being the end-product of months of preparation. I am looking forward to keeping up with the activity and lives of many of the women who took part in the event and can safely say that being involved in it was a privilege.

Kavita Maya | 16.09.2016

The opportunity to participate in the #WoCEurope symposium during the final months of my PhD felt like an affirmation not only of the last several years, but of an ongoing quest: how do I understand and articulate my position as a feminist of colour in 21st-century Britain and Europe, in terms of my own life story and as part of a collective struggle? With our diverse experiences and histories, the symposium marked a space where European brown and black women could trace personal threads in a shared political tapestry.

kavita-presenting
Kavita Maya

A highlight for me was a conversaton on the theme of ‘inherited loss’ during the panel ‘Gendering Migration Experiences #2’. I relished the exchanges between European women of colour about the trauma and intergenerational alienation that has occurred in our families as a direct result of colonisation and displacement. It is political work to insist on naming our feminist, antiracist struggles as a continuation of these intimate, interconnected histories, and to carve out autonomous spaces to explore their legacy.

While writing my presentation on the colonial dynamics of integrative spirituality I asked myself: what do I want to say to other women of colour? Selecting a core thread from my thesis, I spoke about white women in the Goddess movement fetishising their imagined British (and European) cultural roots, itself a colonisation of the space of ‘inherited loss’, an erasure of the political subjectivity of contemporary black and brown women in Europe. It seemed to me the coloniality of whiteness was an important recurring theme throughout the day—meaning the appropriation and exploitation of the bodies, labour, cultures and histories of women of colour, out of which modern European identities are forged.

I included examples of everyday racism I’d encountered during my fieldwork year in Glastonbury which illustrate the kinds of exoticisation and Othering entwined with popular ideas about ‘spirituality’. I will always remember the vocal response from the audience of black and brown women—the first time I’ve had this response to a paper—of outrage, recognition, validation. I did not need to explain that these were racist microaggressions, to justify their inclusion, or elaborate on the frustration of being unheard under the weight of sexist and racist stereotypes. It makes me realise just how much women of colour feel obliged to swallow everyday tyrannies simply in order to cope with our social and professional environments.

The symposium was an exciting moment of convergence—and a strangely difficult one, because the whiteness of most other academic and feminist spaces in which I have participated is excruciatingly clear. In those spaces even intersectionality tends to be abstracted from its grounding in black feminism. As Akwugo Emejulu stated in her opening remarks, we must challenge those invested in the status quo who appropriate the language intended to resist and transform the different, interlocking oppressions of women of colour, draining its political force. We need more spaces like this one, where we are collectively visible, speaking and responding to what is ignored elsewhere.

Geetha Marcus | Closing Remarks 

For many of you, as it has been for me, today was a magical day of pride for being a woman of colour in Europe. It has been wonderful to be amongst such a vibrant group of women, to be surrounded by a sea of beautiful, unique black and brown faces, to be embraced in such warmth and camaraderie. Thank you to all of you who have given up your time to attend the conference and especially to those who have travelled from other cities and countries to be with us today. Thank you for filling this space with your reflections, emotions, and thoughts, and we hope that you gained from this experience – new ways of thinking and doing, new friendships and collaborations.

geetha-closing-remarks
Geetha’s closing remarks

My task is to summarise the key points before the conference comes to a close.

The situated and lived experiences of black women, women of colour, racialised and marginalised women are complex and heterogeneous. As Layla Roxanne Hill said in her presentation today, ‘a single thread does not make a weave’. We are not homogenous and there is no single thread that adequately defines us. Concepts of identity, belonging, and home are intertwined  – yet fluid, dynamic, flexible. There is no one kind of black feminism, the idea, for example, that we are afro-feminists as opposed to black feminists was suggested several times during panel discussions. The discussions also revealed ongoing tensions within feminism and feminist methodology.

Yet we share certain commonalities as women of colour, however we wish to brand our method and movement. Our narratives today revealed that we share experiences of:

Marginalisation, racialisation and racial discrimination, sexism, exploitation, everyday and brutal systems of patriarchy, criminalisation, silencing, obliteration, erasure of our identities and colonized manipulation of our histories – individual or collective; and our voices disqualified, a persistent trend towards a lack of personal and professional recognition.

Unlike many ‘academic’ conferences I have been to, it was especially striking that our ‘talk’ also exposed a range of deep-seated powerful emotions – anger, shock, exhaustion, annoyance, despair, pain. But there was laughter, joy, humility and respect for each other’s experiences, and energy for driving change. Many agreed our sharing was therapeutic and have asked that we meet annually as women of colour to build a ‘Sisterhood of Solidarity’.

Discussions also highlighted:

  • The role and impact of migration and border talk in diasporic communities
  • Transnational black women’s human rights within European feminist discourses
  • The particular issues faced by LGBTI individuals
  • The essential role that intersectionality plays in exposing multiple layers of inequality faced by black and women of colour
  • The various ways in which women are getting their voices heard
  • bell hooks’ argument for a greater awareness of global issues within feminist activism

Concerns were raised about the colonisation of the image of black women and women of colour – their hypersexualisation, on the one hand, and the portrayal of us as victims, slaves, displaced figures, with no agency, no choice, no voice, a fragile individual oppressed in every possible way, with no room to visualize within-group difference.

And so, there have been calls today for the decolonisation of these stereotyped images and discourses, but also perhaps the need to confront our own collusion in our oppression as a starting point for our liberation, our own decolonisation.

However, what came through strongly are the challenges we face of speaking with the same voice whilst having different identities, histories, backgrounds and lived experiences. Also, the need to respect every woman’s right to choose her path, not being prescriptive know-it-all feminists.

So how do we stare out the glare of the white patriarchal gaze? How do we continue to claim our right as women of colour to be as much a part of Europe as our white counterparts, and not just an inconvenient Other to be tolerated? How do we remind our colonisers that ‘we are here, because they were there’? Several suggestions were made throughout the day:

  • The importance of counter-storytelling and ‘reclaiming the narrative’
  • The importance of naming and claiming of experience, not keeping silent, especially with regard to the daily microaggressions we face
  • Through the use of art, literature, poetry, plays, films, documentaries, dance, cyber-activism, street activism, as tools for social change and exchange of ideas – what Matters of the Earth referred to as ‘critical imagination and creative resilience’
  • Matters of the Earth group advised countering patriarchy by recentering matriarchal revolutionary principles and Audre Lorde’s uses of the Erotic as feminine power
  • The Amsterdam Black Women Meetup suggested not being reductionist in our view of ourselves, but being celebratory, loving, sharing our skills, and using ‘radical love’ to build positive community spaces where women of colour can thrive
  • Being positive role models to each other and to the next generation

We close with a reminder once again from Audre Lorde that, ‘there is no such thing as a single issue struggle because we do not lead single issue lives’ and therefore as Layla Roxanne Hill pointed out – ‘a single thread does not [and cannot] make a weave’.

The message that comes through today is that despite our individual differences and circumstances, and because of them, we have to work collectively and connect to give space and pride to our lived experience to stare out the ‘white patriarchal gaze’.

Jaleesa Renee Wells | Gathering as Enterprise | 28.09.2026

My rose-tinted glasses have officially been shattered. The glass has been swept up and thrown into the white bin of black naiveté.  This shattering is a direct result of the powerful Black Feminism, Womanism and the Politics of Women of Colour in Europe conference at the University of Edinburgh.

dsc_0159
Jaleesa Renee Wells

Though, I began this shattering process approximately two and half years ago in an Art and Political Struggle course I was taking during my master’s degree: “Black female identity. That’s political, right?” This is the question I asked myself and a small, but growing group of other black women arts enterprisers: What made our bodies, our minds Political? With a capital ‘P’. Why is my sheer existence a matter of (inter)national speculation? And, at 25, began reading the black feminist philosophers.

On September 4, at the WOC Conference, I was introduced to the notion of intersectionality. It’s also the first time, since moving to Scotland from America, that I saw a myriad of skin colors in one room, where the predominant voice was female, and where the energy was heightened to a state of collective concern and creative action. I felt as if, “This is what I’ve been looking for my entire life.” And, I felt as though the stark coldness of pale-male-stale research began to thaw by the flame of enterprising gathering.

With confidence, the space created at the WOC conference was alive—for me an acute awakening filled with an entrepreneurial essence.

I actively listened to women from around Europe, to those of us who moved to Europe to pursue further opportunities, and to those who allied with us in our fight against abundant, divisive oppression.  I listened to women in the arts, in business, in education, in social work, and in all of the other areas we inhabit.

The stories we all told, while different and deeply personal, spoke to the same sentiment of building community. In fact, we are beyond the organization of community, but need to engage in an elevation of our gatherings. We are the architects our enterprising culture.

As a researcher exploring the space between creative production and social entrepreneurialism, I consider the term ‘enterprise’ as social platform built to bring forth significant creative and prosperous change in a society. Entrepreneurship doesn’t have to be about only building a financial wealth base.

It can also be the creation of space in which to gather ourselves and our resources.  In these gatherings, I’ve noticed how sub-enterprises develop as new friendships and catalytic connections. Thus, I would express the WOC conference as a creative catalyst for pending entrepreneurial activity; and, furthermore, call us creative social entrepreneurs.

Marly Pierre-Louis | Diasporic feminist feels: Reflections on Edinburgh
11.10.2016

I knew the conference would be lit as soon as conference organizer and opening speaker Dr. Akwugo Emejulu dropped the first of many gems on us and instead of the usual polite conference applause, the first 2 rows of fly black women affirmed her statements with emphatic YAASSSes and mmhmmms.

 

marly
Marly Pierre-Louis & Tracian Meikle

I’m one of the founders of the Amsterdam Black Woman Meetup. I came to Edinburgh with one of my co-founders Tracian Meikle. ABW Meetup was started a year or so ago along with 3 of our other good friends. We wanted to do some intentional work around creating community for black women expats in Amsterdam. Tracian and I came to the conference thinking we’d present on our little meet up and at best do a bit of networking. But what ended it up happening was more than either of us could have imagined.

As soon as Dr. Emejulu started speaking, I felt instantly seen and validated. I recognized myself as part of this international tribe of diasporic Black feminists roaming around Europe creating affirming and healing spaces as we go. Dr. Emejulu framed the conference by explaining how in Europe WOC are positioned as both passive victims and existential threats to the homogenized left.

As I listened, a chocolate brown sista with the smoothest skin ever seated across from me, complimented me on my outfit. Black women have a way of being both secure in their own flyness and affirming yours in the same breath. Love it. Dr. Emejulu went on to affirm that Europe has not and cannot exist without an alien other and we, fabulous WOC are those aliens. And this fact is not unfortunate, it’s calculated.

The first panel I went to was called, “The Politics of Home”. There, I listened enraptured as Fanny Essiye, a self identified French Afro Feminist, broke down the many ways that France has erased ‘race’ as a concept from the national discourse. I learned about the damage that stems from the romanticization of Europe by Black Americans living abroad like myself. The idea of Europe as a racism free space where Black folks are free and safe has been propagated since the Harlem Renaissance when James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Josephine Baker and others fled American racism for bluer skies across the Atlantic. What this narrative does is give license to French society to point to America as the place where racism of the worst kind exists and to vindicate the French of their own brand of it. As Essiye says, France points its finger at America’s tumultuous racial history while deflecting its own history of colonialism and institutionalized racism. She explained that the importance of a conference like the one we were all attending lies in the fact that in France the work of French Afro feminists has been erased making it impossible for women like her to see their experiences reflected and affirmed. Essiye ends on the imperative for us all to center and elevate the work and stories of our diasporic feminist foremothers.

Traci and I presented on the next panel called “Black feminist/Afro feminist collectives in conversation”. The highlight of presenting at this conference for me was not the presentation itself but all the positive and energy we received from all the dope women in the room. Our co-panelist was a tall and impressive British organizer with a fro from an organization called Matters of the Earth, who made all our jaws drop each time she spoke. Also sat in the room was Siana, a spunky artist and poet with bright lipstick and hip glasses, a member of Abasindi – an autonomous cooperative for Black women founded in ‘79 and many more fly and brilliant sistas. Dr. Emejulu herself facilitated our panel where we discussed intergenerational movement building, policing blackness, and transphobia in feminist spaces.

After the final session of the day, we were all ushered into the main hall where we were blessed with reflections from British director and artist Cecile Emeke who shared the real challenges with centering Blackness in her work. My biggest takeaway from Emeke’s talk was that while we can’t control who consumes our work, we can control where we spend our time. As a writer who struggles with not writing for the white gaze, I really appreciated this nugget of wisdom.

Before heading back to Amsterdam the following day, Tracian and I got the chance to spend the day exploring Edinburgh. The sun was shining and the sky was blue (unusual for September from what I hear). We floated around the city glowing, carried by the energy of the previous day. Feeling a little less alone, a little less crazy and a lot more buoyant, bold and Black.

 

Advertisements