BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups) is a term often seen on job applications to meet diversity quotas. BAME means that there exists a homogenised person of colour group - encompassing all who are not white. Being Black, South Asian, East Asian etc of course means further fragmentations such Caribbean, Pakistani, Indian, Tibetan, Korean etc. A critical question therefore to consider is, in the context of feminist discussion, can the term black and minority ethnic, capture the richness and diversity of the issues of women of colour (woc) subgroups?
With BAME being such an umbrella term, it can be seen how woc, particularly non-black woc, can bypass the issue of the extent, type and therefore difference of oppression faced by each sub group encompassed within BAME.
This issue of bypassing can be seen to be encapsulated in a tweet by actress and model, Jameela Jamil who to many, was a familiar face as a pundit for E4 before moving on to an acting career ( currently taking the role Tahani in the Netflix Original series The Good Place). Jamil uses social media as a platform for body positivity activism - as seen by her spearheading of the ‘I Weigh’ movement. In October 2018, Jameela Jamil tweeted this:
Several black women took to Jamil’s tweet, one saying, ‘This is about black people, not people of colour who are nowhere to be seen when black people ha(v)e their worries.’ The central argument articulated by black women responding to the tweet was this: Rihanna is a black artist and businesswomen. This means that she as an advocate of the barriers and oppression that are present for black women, not just every woman of colour meeting the BAME criteria.
Jamil, being of Indian and Pakistani heritage, discussing Rihanna’s actions in the context of people of colour in general, is problematic.
To render the oppression faced by subgroups within BAME as comparable, means to see how the struggles - irrespective of woc subgroups, can become dilated. The backlash of Jamil’s tweet highlights the issue of homogenising strands of oppression, which are in themselves, rooted in respective race. For instance, South Asian women do not have the burden of dealing with the ‘deadbeat father’ trope in the same way that black women will not be pressured into marrying someone within the same cast. Yes, oppression transcends race but its roots and manifestation does not.
It’s crucial to examine why non-black woc, (either consciously subconsciously) may feel that their struggles and oppression are comparable to that of the black community in the first place. Central to the sense of solidarity amongst woc is the acknowledgment of the historical treatment of white women in comparison with their (woc) counterparts. Alongside centuries of white supremacy and patriarchy, ethnic minority women have been oppressed by the power dynamic created by white men and white women being at the top of any hierarchy.
Whilst white women have of course been subject to the patriarchy for centuries (hence the existence of feminism as a movement in the first place), white women are privileged in comparison to woc because of differences in the way they have been treated historically. For example, white women were the beneficiaries of black labour during the transatlantic slave trade. The superiority of white women and their fairer skin and dainty, Caucasian features means that these characteristics have been seen as the pinnacle of beauty. Centuries of white women being held in higher regard than other women, has paved the way for a sense of allyship and solidarity amongst ethnic minority women as a whole.
Of course, non-black women of colour citing Rihanna as their inspiration can be seen as unproblematic however, where non-black woc dominate conversations that are of particular significance to black women, it becomes a disservice to the work and experiences of woc. This is because the nature, roots and manifestations of oppression on a systematic level which impact the lives of black women, cannot be compared with the experiences of South Asian contemporaries. Talking about issues within an umbrella of all woman of colour is dangerous because oppression is underpinned by unique historical contexts. For black women, colourism is rooted in the transatlantic slave trade where back slaves existed to serve their ‘superior’ white male and female masters. For South Asian women, colourism was exacerbated by imperialism imposed by the British during where lighter skin tones and inherently Caucasian features become a stronger ideal.
Navigating woc spaces and feminist discourse is something that must be approached with caution because oppressed minorities can live amidst and be active contributors to the oppression of other minorities.
Let’s take anti-blackness as an example - a form of prejudice so problematic within the South Asian community. It Is common amongst South Asian women to be praised for the lightness of their skin and therefore their proximity to whiteness as opposed to having skin which ‘makes them look black’. The popularity of skin lightening creams such as Fair and Lovely amongst The South Asian community can also be seen as testament to anti-black attitudes. The South Asian community has contributed to strands of oppression faced by black women. Taking this into consideration, when non-black woc dominate conversations regarding black oppression and black role models who have thrived within it, black women (rightly so), call this out. It is true that woc, face oppression not experienced by white women however, it’s also true that non-black woc need to understand that oppression is grounded in lived experience, dependent on race. We as South Asian women cannot always occupy the same feminist spaces as black women, purely out of respect for the differences seen in lived experienced between both minority groups. For instance, Rihanna as a mixed-race woman, would have had to navigate institutional barriers that Jamil wouldn’t have.
There is a difference between expressing solidarity and (even subtly) dominating conversations that aren’t completely relatable in terms of lived experience. Responses to Jamil’s tweet highlight an acknowledgment that the black community have their own spaces and role models which, are significant because of the unique black experiences that have shaped them. As South Asian women, it’s our prerogative to ensure that a sense of solidarity for other racial groups is rooted in the appreciation of the multifaceted nature of oppression.