The Balancing Act of a Brown Feminist

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Words ||Sara Choudhry

Almost anyone who calls themselves a feminist in the year of Miss Rona 2020 is familiar with intersectional feminism. The inequality of inequality; acknowledging how race, socio-economic status, disability, and many such factors play a role in one’s experiences as a female identifying person. For example cis women may not understand the way trans women are oppressed differently to them, or how black trans women specifically are further oppressed differently and so forth. It sounds straightforward but can often be an elusive and complicated concept to grapple with. Discussions of intersectionality often come from the critique of ‘White Feminism,’ a colloquial term for feminism that focuses exclusively on the experiences of middle-class white women while failing to acknowledge other experiences.

My own experience as a woman is defined by several different elements, each with their own complexities. However, the one which takes up the most of my internal reflection regarding feminism – especially in today’s social and political climate – is being a South-Asian woman. This one category alone will show how intricate intersectionality can be. 

Brown women, like all women of colour, are negatively impacted by the exclusivity and single-mindedness of White Feminism; which again, is an issue which becomes even more complex once we add other factors like religion, sexuality, and so forth to the mix. Often, WOC – though in this case I can only speak for myself as one individual brown woman – will fight the fight alongside white women, our voices as loud as any. However, mainstream feminism can in return often leave issues specific to us in the dust, glossing over the role white supremacy plays in combination with the patriarchy to put down WOC in a way different to white women. Often these minority-group-specific topics may not even be acknowledged as existing or being a feminist issue in the first place, let alone being placed on the agenda. 

In combination with this struggle of addressing issues specific to us as brown women within the greater movement, we must also address sexism, colorism, casteism, and other such issues in the context of feminism within our specific traditions and cultures. Now I’m not labelling South-Asian culture as being more flawed or misogynistic than any other, but I am pointing out that brown women – like all women who stem from diverse cultural backgrounds – are tasked to be both Western feminists and also feminists within our own cultures. We must tackle the patriarchal standards of our cultural backgrounds, as these affect us as much as ‘mainstream’ patriarchal issues do. This is even further complicated by the fact that our cultures are susceptible to racist criticism. We must address sexism in our communities while not giving racists the greenlight to utilise us or our talking points to spread their hatred. 

On the other hand, while we do face issues of our own, something else we have to address is our own contribution to unjust ideals. Oppressed groups contributing to the oppression of others is a complex and at times controversial issue. This is the idea that you can be a gay person of colour and perpetuate harmful ableist rhetoric, that you can be a white trans person and contribute to racism, or that you can even contribute to hatred towards your own community. These are all things which occur, and yet can be a point of disagreement. In recent times the subject of anti-racism has been sparked with the mainstream resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. With this many have rightfully prompted white people to analyse how they contribute to anti-Blackness, in Australia in specific relation to Indigenous people. However, many non-Black people of colour have also had to look at how they contribute to these issues. 

During this time among other things I have grappled with the ‘model minority’ myth, something often attached to those from various Asian backgrounds. The idea that if you are a ‘good’ minority, if you work hard, if you assimilate well, and you don’t get into trouble, then you’ll be fine. You’ll achieve social and financial success and be treated as an equal. These ideals are not only thrust upon us but often we ourselves embrace them. However, they are also oppressive tools. These stereotypes not only grant us conditional and false respect but also allow us to overlook the inherent inequality of how those from backgrounds different to us are treated. As a South-Asian woman I experience various inequalities, but they are different to those experienced by Black people in general, and Black women further. By perpetuating or embracing systems of oppression such as the model minority myth we further the oppression of those who aren’t stereotyped into these categories. 

Further, our own communities can contribute to racist principles. One of these is colorism which is abundant in the South-Asian community particularly among older generations. Stemming from years of British rule and white supremacist ideals that have been left behind and imbedded through colonisation, its link to racism stems from the idealisation of white features and demonisation of dark skin and non-Western features; this is further complicated by casteism and how that contributes to these ideals too (another little something the British left behind). Along with this, our communities often prescribe to Western anti-blackness, buying into the model minority myth and not acknowledging the way in which Black people are oppressed differently to us. If you want to get even more complicated, if we look to the aforementioned issues of sexism in our communities in combination with anti-Blackness, that creates further issues to address on how we are pitted against women from other ethnicities in a way which either paints them as the ideal – usually white women – or demonises them due to their proximity to Blackness. 

All this jumble of ideas is to say that trying to be an intersectional feminist is complicated… and all I’ve touched on so far are general ideas of race and feminism. We have a million different things to consider, the rights of others and ourselves to address, the anxieties of these and other social issues to deal with along those of regular – and currently not so regular – life. It’s not always easy, it can feel like fighting a losing battle to not only be up against centuries of patriarchal ideals but their interconnectedness with racial inequality, homophobia, transphobia, religion, and so much more. These are also the very reasons we keep going, the rights of ourselves and others, the years of injustice experienced by so many. 

But dear reader, they should also be the reasons we’re easier on ourselves. No one person can change the world, and no one generation can either. Those before us fought for what was right, and so will we. Like them we won’t see all the change we want to in our lifetimes, but we will see change. 

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