Decolonising feminism to change it all

Photo: Pau Berrena/Getty Images

The following statement is a response written by Bombo Ndir, Sara Cuentas and Arlene Cruz, activists from the Red de Migración, Género y Desarrollo, in response to their experiences organising for the International Women’s Strike 8M 2019.

We have thought long and hard about what we are about to write here. We did not want to make this statement in the heat of the moment, but we did want our memory to be fresh, that part of our memory used by the written word as a political tool of decolonisation. And though this text is rather long, what we express penetrates through our bodies, our identity, our origins (Senegal, Peru and the Dominican Republic), our being, our knowledge, our power. It intersects with our decolonial feminist activism, our way of relating to everyone and our practice of connecting by forging bonds across differences. 

We write in alignment with our practice of resisting racist oppression, wherever it may appear. Because feminist resistance must be anti-racist or it is not feminism at all. Of course, as feminists, we are not immune to assuming patriarchal, racist, Eurocentric, classist and transphobic practices, because as activists, we have been socialised, just like everyone else, by a hegemonic, colonial system that rules the western and westernised world. Therefore, in order to eradicate this oppression, we must practise denunciation, reparation and restitution.

Through our activism to decolonise European feminism, we have shown that we migrant, racialised and peripheral women, women who come from other backgrounds and cross borders, we all make certain feminists uncomfortable when we practise other forms of collective leadership with our own, autonomous voice. The legacy of decolonial feminists comes from the struggles of our female ancestors who resisted colonial oppression and defended the Earth, defended the body, territories that represent the collective rights of everyone. Whereas the legacy of European feminists is the struggle for individual, political rights. These divergent paths of vindication gave each group a different approach to seeking justice, taking action and relating to each other. One from the desire to be free of the colonial structure, and the other to occupy space within the colonial structure.

Within white, hegemonic feminism, there is still resistance to recognising the leadership of fellow activists with indigenous and/or black features, because in their colonial mentality “our otherness is too in-your-face”, we are still “different” and “foreign”, we are “not capable and don’t have ideas”, we are “intruders”, “permanent migrants”. We make them uncomfortable because we challenge their white privilege. They do not accept our dissident voices because they dismantle their discourse, their Eurocentric defenses, their ways of talking, expressing, doing and knowing. Obviously, nobody likes their white comfort zone disturbed, especially if that comfort zone gives them profit, power, recognition and visibility.

Perhaps some forms of feminism might consider us “irresponsible for bringing this up at the wrong moment”, because “the important thing is to celebrate a powerful and massive 8th of March”. Maybe they believe that we are “trying to divide feminism”. They might say that we’re “exaggerating and making things up”, or that we “see racism where it isn’t happening”. Nothing could be further from the truth. Why? Because we who have experienced racism directly in our everyday lives know all too well how to spot it, recognise it and feel its effects. And because it is painful for someone who identifies as a feminist to accept that they have done something racist since they show themselves publicly as “privileged white persons” in their colonial and hegemonic mentality. It is a challenge that very few are willing to take on: examining your own white privilege and overcoming your own racism.

Racist oppression penetrates everything – your physical, mental and emotional boundaries. It impacts you on an individual and collective level. It abuses you, brutalises you, makes you invisible. We who have experienced it with our own bodies know that we cannot remain in complicit silence or allow ourselves to be judged for speaking our truth. Nor can we remain silent “for the sake of feminism”.

We want to clarify that we are not asking for permission to write about this – we give ourselves permission with the power of our decolonial analysis. We draw from our subjective knowledge, our own lived experiences resisting oppression. Because in the current context, in which shelters for migrant children and youth are being attacked by racist and xenophobic groups; in which people drown to death in the Mediterranean because of deadly borders; in which children born into migrant families here are racialised and considered foreign; in which the work of migrant domestic workers is threatened and overexploited, it is essential that feminism aligns itself with the fight against racism.

Those who know us know that we have always voiced strong support for the importance of creating alliances between white, racialised and migrant feminists. Because the fight against the oppressive colonial system and its racist, heteropatriarchal, anthropocentric, classist and capitalist oppression does not make sense to us if we are divided, confronted and disjointed.

We consider it essential to join forces, to acknowledge each other despite our differences, with meaningful leadership, with our own voice, from our diverse pools of knowledge and from shared power. We maintain that any space said to be for feminists should be available to all of us, in all our diverse forms, so that we can transform from within the hegemonic, heteropatriarchal, racist, classist and transphobic thinking that certain feminists fall into by not questioning their own privilege. This is what we decolonial feminists call “politics of resistance”.

Below we will explain incidents that occurred during the organisation of the International Women’s Strike 8-M 2019 that were directly experienced with pain and outrage by those involved in our collective La Red de Migración, Género y Desarrollo. For some, these accounts will just seem like unnecessary anecdotes; for others, who share our point of view, they are significant evidence of the drastic need for change. We can learn from these experiences because they are gut-wrenching and spark complete outrage in each of us. The same outrage that our sister Audre Lorde felt when faced with the racism of white North American feminists is what we feel when confronted by the racism of white European feminists. We should clarify that this racist thinking is not shared by all of the members of the Women’s Strike, but by a handful of the organisers.

This article may lead to resentment, rage, fear, attacks, insults, nervousness, shouting, slammed doors, expulsions, etc. Some might say: “They’re not balanced”, “They’re speaking from anger”, “They’re taking everything too personally”, “They’re trying to create conflict among white, racialised and migrant women”, “They’re making it up”, “They see problems where there are none”, “They’re making too big a deal out of it”, “They don’t know how to interpret racism”, “How small minded they must be to denounce their own feminist movement”, “They’re as bad as the misogynistic right”, etc. Maybe some will get angry with fellow white activists who are not hegemonic per se but question these attitudes. Ultimately, it is easy to constantly throw around arguments that disqualify, scorn, devalue, and make others invisible when you feel questioned and when the coloniality of power permeates through to your bones. We commit to not being silent, because silence makes us complicit, because silence perpetuates any oppression that it faces and because it ends up delegitimizing us. It minimises our activism and undermines our dignity. If we do not start pointing out the obvious, we will never be able to change and overcome irrational ways of thinking with our feminist practice.

Never have we felt as unsafe in a feminist environment as we have these past days and weeks participating in the organisation of the Women’s Strike. Never had it occurred to us that we would not want to go to organisational meetings in order to avoid feeling the ever-present discomfort of rejection, the loss of self-worth at being taken for idiots and the hope that, at the expense of a tiring fight, we will manage to be heard or that we as migrant and racialised women might have our ideas taken into account. We had never before witnessed one of us leaving a meeting in tears after seeing hegemonic white feminists gang up and close ranks to deny their own racism and Eurocentrism after pointing it out to them.

La Red de Migración, Género y Desarrollo is a part of the Comisión de Migración, Descolonial y Antirracista (The Migration, Decolonial and Anti-Racist Commission) of the Women’s Strike. Part of our collective took on the task of participating in planning meetings and organisation: assemblies, organisational talks between commissions, attending meetings to prepare for the closing ceremony, discussing the final copy of the general manifesto, etc. We were really excited to take on this action and, always active, we began to organise ourselves to strengthen the role of the Women’s Strike in the fight against racism. This is how #Migrantas8M was born.

Just like last year, we decided to create our own migrant manifesto, which was approved by the general assembly in Catalonia three times in a row. However, in private, some feminists who were active in organisation, did not like the idea that we had our own manifesto because they thought it “divided” our action. The Manifiesto por una huelga feminista descolonial y antirracista (Manifesto for a decolonial and anti-racist feminist strike) is very powerful and we are very proud of it. The hegemonic white women were not even interested in reading it though, nor did they ask us how they could support it. They were not even interested when we shared it in their social networks. They were not conscious of the fact that we had many specific ideas and a multitude of demands that were important to express. There was a significant difference between what the whole collective agreed on and approved in the assemblies and the opinions of a small group of people who controlled all the decisions. We realised that the organisation did not really represent the collective and assembly.

We made this clear when they did not want to incorporate all of the migrant demands as they had been written, despite the Asamblea de Catalunya (The Catalonian Assembly) having agreed to incorporate them into the general manifesto and also having agreed in Valencia that the fight against racism was one of the core themes of the Strike. Only a few of the demands were included, not all of them. Our words and ways of expressing ourselves were changed. Very academic language was used and certain denunciations were “softened”. Clear evidence of racist epistemology. This outraged us. However, wanting to move ahead and assuming that we would have our own manifesto, and because we had to include many demands of other struggles, we “reluctantly yielded”. A very long manifesto was created with academic words and long sentences that had very little connection to the struggles themselves. 

Ready for the march

Another tense moment was when we decided that during the reading of the general manifesto at the closing ceremony, one of our fellow African activists had to represent us and read the demands of the migrant and racialised women. At first, they did not want to accept this, claiming that if they did, then they would have to agree that anyone reading would have to be from the movement and that this would create conflict. They tried to impose the logic that the women who were reading were high-profile in order to attract media attention, that they were known and white. “Who’s speaking in our name?” we wondered.

The reading ability of our African compañera was being called into question as well: “Can she pronounce things correctly?” or “Won’t she get nervous?”, “It’s not the same as when a journalist reads, someone more qualified than an inexperienced activist who might get nervous in front of the audience”, “Better make the text short so she doesn’t get tired”, etc. We expressed our anger, calling these comments Eurocentric, racist and devaluing. We were angry at how it was possible, at the height of fascism and racism, that they could allow themselves to speak like this and to judge the abilities of a fellow activist. Their responses made clear what was already evident: “Don’t call me Eurocentric; I participate in actions of solidarity with migrant communities”, “My best friends are racialised and you can’t tell me what racism is”, “Vox’s fascism will affect all women here equally, not just the migrants”, “Why does it have to be a migrant reading about migration? A Spanish woman could do it too.”

These were difficult meetings. Our “otherness” confronted them. They even began to think that we, the ones trying to negotiate, were doing it to be seen. They couldn’t fathom that we were fighting for other racialised activists and migrants to occupy the space. They never understood that their own voice and representation need the visibility and physical presence of migrants and racialised individuals, that we did not want them to speak for us, that it angered us to to be tokenized. We demanded feminist generosity. This year was the year to firmly denounce racism and fascism because of the adverse context we are about to face and because the feminist struggle should focus on anti-racism and opposing colonial oppression more fiercely. “There are other struggles in feminism,” they told us. “You can’t just come and impose your own struggle.”

Since the dais was big enough, we suggested that some of our compañeras hold signs and stand behind the four activists that were going to read the manifesto at the closing ceremony. They did not agree to this because they saw everything that we proposed as a conflict. “We can’t do that because the others will complain that some get to stand there and others don’t.” We insisted and proposed that they be migrants and racialised women, so that the others wouldn’t have problems or conflict. They did not want that either, and they were even offended and said: “In addition to appearing in the front lines of the march with all the cameras and journalists, you’re also asking for this?” Another organiser told us, “If you’d asked in a different way, maybe they would have said yes,” i.e. we should have asked in a soft voice without showing any anger. So nothing came of it. They did not understand that the equitable presence and visibility of diverse bodies is extremely transformative on a communicative level. Those ideas did not fit into their Eurocentric interpretation of things, much less in their white hegemony. 

We also asked — in front of the assembly, most of whom applauded — for the leading banner of the demonstration to have a slogan referring to the anti-racist and antifascist feminist struggle. But when this idea was brought up in smaller circles, it was not taken into account. We had to “put up with” the comment: “The word ‘anti-racism’ alludes to conflict and as feminists we don’t communicate like that.” “Is that seriously the comment of a feminist?” we asked ourselves. What was the best idea to satisfy everyone? Well, that there was not enough budget and that the same banner as the previous year would be used with the slogan Ens aturem per canviar-ho tot (We stop to change it all). That was the end of the discussion. Just by painting an image of Angela Davis or Audre Lorde on the banner, they thought that they had already incorporated anti-racism into the feminist struggle. 

At the beginning of the week of March 8th, the last open planning meeting was held. At that meeting, it was agreed that some organisations would come out to give a two-minute talk next to the truck while the march was going on. Several organisations signed up, including our collective. It was proposed – and approved – that the representatives of each organisation, who would make their speech from the truck, could stand behind the compañeras reading the manifesto on stage and take part in the reading collectively. Neither of these happened. At no time were we signalled that it was our turn to participate, nor did they let anyone to the front of the stage to take part in the reading of the manifesto. Is this the feminism that we want – feminism that makes collective diversity invisible?

The moments before and during the press conference involved difficult situations. It had been decided collectively that two migrant spokeswomen would go to the conference and that it was time to show the press our collective, non-hierarchical, practices of representation. Conflict arose again: “There was only enough space for a few people,” they told us; “It wasn’t relevant”; “We will only take one person.” Meanwhile, they had already decided who would be the spokeswomen without consulting the assembly, when it is well known that the job of spokesperson is eminently political and should have had the backing of the entire assembly. They did not accept our proposal, though, and the conference was postponed. 

When the new date came around, we insisted again. We informed them that we would read the manifesto of the Comisión de Migración, Descolonial y Antirracista during the conference and that two spokeswomen would be present. Even so, an hour before the beginning of the conference, we were told, “Please don’t boycott the conference”, “Why do you need to read the manifesto?”, “You can’t just come impose yourselves”, etc. We wondered what sense, if any, this thinking made. If collective representation has always been a feminist practice, then what is fueling this constant negativity?

That day we had prepared some signs referring to our anti-racist, feminist demands. We were going to carry these signs on the day of the demonstration, and it seemed appropriate to have them at the press conference as well. When we arrived at the Plaza del Rei, where the event was being held, they tried to stop us from taking out the signs: “They aren’t signs for the strike.” And we assured them, “They are posters from the Comisión de Migración for the strike, of course they’re for the strike.” They also told us, “There’s no need for them now, it’s not the time”, “The posters are these white ones, and we need to put up all the white ones for clearer communication.” Even so, we decided to show our signs. The white signs made references to the consumer, labour, student and care strike. Nothing about the fight against racism. 

The beginning of the conference was meaningful. While the white organisers were chanting “Women’s Strike, Women’s Strike”, we migrants added the words “and anti-racist!” which, by the way, was not echoed by the white women. They kept silent and then responded: “Everyone chant together, everyone together.” We were disappointed to see that fellow activists whom we had seen as sisters on the same path, now adopted attitudes that denied us a space. 

Even so, we resisted. The migrants’ manifesto was read collectively (over unkind whispers that we had to listen to behind us as we read). Our spokeswoman spoke about the struggle of female domestic workers, but not without first being put under pressure: “Are you going to talk for long?”, “What are you going to say?”, “Are they seriously going to read the whole manifesto?” When the conference ended, our spokeswoman was not invited to make a statement to the media. The only spokeswoman, a white feminist self-appointed as representative, spoke in front of the cameras and left us waiting in the sidelines. They had taken our protest signs away and kept them, so we could not even hold them up behind the woman giving a statement to the press. 

A few hours later, news about the conference came out in the media. We had managed to reach the public. They spoke about our manifesto and announced the march that we would carry out on the morning of the 8M in the neighbourhood of Sarrià. We were happy, although this success cost us a lot of tension and unease because we were not off the hook. It could have been so easy if our white compañeras had shown reciprocity, empathy and compromise with the migrants’ and racialised women’s action. They made it difficult for us with their Eurocentrism and lack of recognition of the feminist fight against racism. Audre Lorde was right when she said that sisterhood does not exist because it is based on white privilege.

The 8th of March came around. On the website of the Women’s Strike, the migrants’ manifesto still had not been published. It was only published days later. Weeks before, the assemblies had approved giving greater visibility to migrants and racialised women in the demonstration. All of us migrants, racialised women and Gitanas were supposed to be in the front lines, carrying the head banner. Despite all of the obstacles we faced along the way, that day was a thrilling, joyful moment with our purple balloons that said: Decolonise yourself! We were coming from a decolonial march in the morning, feeling really strong. Despite the police trying to stop us from marching down Vía Augusta to Balmes to Plaza Catalunya, we succeeded in reaching our goal. 

During the gathering, we experienced racist attitudes. There were white activists that asked us for balloons and we explained to them that they were for migrants. Some understood but others did not. They got angry and snubbed us, saying: “We’re migrants too”, “That’s discrimination”, “You can’t refuse to give me material belonging to the strike, the strike is for everyone.” It was shocking. 

Some white women were standing on the other side of Gran Vía looking at us. They would come over and tell us, “Don’t get upset, the demonstration will begin soon,” but there just was not enough space for us on the sidewalk. We were not “upset”. We felt as if they were trying to keep watch on us at every moment. When it was time to take the head banner, some of us migrant and racialised women, along with everyone else, were still trying to squeeze in as best we could because we also had to make room for the taxis bringing journalists in ahead of us so they could broadcast from there.

At that very moment, everyone was squeezing in to get settled.  At one point, when the African and Gitana activists were trying to take hold of the banner, a white feminist organiser arrived and, without attempting to understand what was happening, she interpreted it as some (Africans and Gitanas) trying to take space away from others. Instead of making an effort to deescalate the situation, she began to reprimand the African women, saying that they should step aside and let the Gitanas by. Without missing a beat, one of our compañeras told her: “We’re able to organise ourselves, thank you”, “We know what we’re doing”, “Don’t start conflict where there isn’t any.” So the white feminist screamed at her: “You’re a racist because you’re excluding me. I can help to organise too!” So much outrage had built up that our compañera wanted to leave the demonstration. We all encouraged her to stay and told her that we would put up with it together: “We’re brave”, “Don’t let them see us cry or be weak”, “We are all valuable, we give each other energy, we have to keep smiling”, “We have to show them that they can’t get us, that migrants and racialised women are strong.”

The march began and some fellow activists were behind the banner getting us all revved up. We were practising the slogans that we were going to chant loud and clear while the music was playing in the truck leading the demonstration. Two activists got everyone to chant slogans against racism and about the strength of migrant and racialised women. Suddenly, we noticed a very loud noise silencing us. The music from the truck was turned up to full volume and drowned out our slogans, no matter how loud we shouted. Behind the truck, some of the organisers were dancing, indifferent to our vindictive action. We had to tell them to turn down the music. A compañera with a megaphone had to get their attention so that we could even be heard. We could not understand why, at such a meaningful moment, a moment to demonstrate sisterhood with the fight against racism, they decided to play music. They did not understand that it was not just a big party, but actually a relevant action to express demands. We couldn’t believe it. They were silencing us. We even wondered if it was unintentional, if they were completely unaware of what they were doing (Yeah, right!). They simply did not connect with our struggle. Their ‘We stop to change it all’ seemed like a distant sentiment. 

At Plaza Catalunya, backstage, two of us migrant activists were forming part of the closing ceremony committee. Honestly, we did not even want to be there after everything that had happened. Even so, we stayed to comfort our compañera Aissa Diallo, who was going to read the general manifesto of the Strike, and a few white feminist allies who were going to perform a rumba catalana as the first artistic act with lyrics composed by our collective: “Vivas, nos queremos vivas” (Alive, we want to remain alive).

Aissatou Diallo reading the manifesto

The reading of the manifesto by Aissa was as we expected – brilliant and wonderful. She put feeling, emotion, heart and anger into it because she, along with all the other racialised and migrant activists, was the author of every word she uttered.

Again, reading because you know how to read is not the same as reading and connecting with your audience because you are reading from your own personal knowledge about your own reality with a voice that carries emotion and gives meaning to every word. That is what Aissa did. She connected with all of the feminists that were at Plaza Catalunya listening attentively. Moreover, she put her body out there, her identity, her presence and her communicative energy. Nothing compares to that. We think that it would have been powerful if sisters from other social movements and struggles had been up there together with Aissa as well. 

After listening to her read, we forgot everything that had happened. We even forgot the terrible feeling we felt when, backstage, some white feminist activists attacked one of us for pointing out inconsistencies in front of two African sisters who were talking in private, while a white woman tried to hear what they were saying, disrespecting them. “We’re tired of you calling us racist,” they shouted to one of us. 

We forgot our tears of anger. When Aissa came down from the stage, we hugged, all of us racialised, migrant compañeras, everyone full of emotion. One image that we will never forget is seeing how one of the white feminists who was most adamantly against Aissa reading, was the first to hug her and tell her how well she had done. We do not know if it was a heartfelt acknowledgement or just an act. Regardless, we very much doubt the sincerity of that hug. 

And that is how the 8M ended for us. We could not celebrate it as it deserved to be celebrated. Everyone from our collective went home tired, exhausted, hurting from everything that represented that internal resistance we met. We saw the happy faces of other people and thought, “If only they knew what we have just experienced.”

Still, we felt satisfied by all of the defiant energy of our fellow African, Asian, Latin American, transmigrant, and Gitana sisters and activists who made their bodies and voices seen and heard; and for Afroféminas who, though they did not participate in the strike, were always empathising with our feelings and outrage and with whom we share our manifesto. We recognise all of the organisational strength of the activists and organisations that integrated the Feminist Strike’s Comisión de Migración, Descolonial y Antirracista for their involvement until the end, for their confidence, for their collective leadership and for their practice of community. And although there was much debating, we remained united. We take a lot of comfort in all of our white feminist allies who stuck with us through this strike/walkout process, in all those who are questioning their white privileges, in those who listened to us in previous conversations, debates and collective reflections and who never felt uncomfortable with our critiques and questions; on the contrary, they expressed the need to eliminate hegemonic white supremacy in order to conquer and erradicate it. 

After reading the critiques that racialised compañeras made from outside of the strike organisation, explaining that it was a “white and whitewashed feminist strike”, we certainly believe, much to our dismay, that the presence of racialised and migrant women in the feminist strike contributed to “polishing the image” of those who represented that Eurocentric and racist feminism. But also, it contributed to revealing the organisation‘s Eurocentric thinking, its racist epistemologies and its colonialist being and power. Without our presence, this reflection from within would not have been possible, this reflection from our own lived experience of resistance, even at the risk of facing consequences. 

We persisted because we believe that we have to be present in – and that we also belong to – these spaces. We believe that we cannot let them take these spaces away from us. Nobody invited us into them – we had to claim them for ourselves. Our marginal, decolonial stance must be taken not as a mere slogan, but as a political practice. For it is an act of reparation and restitution in the face of coloniality. Although we wonder if it is worth it to go through so much pain at the cost of energy and our health. We are emotional beings and we are present here with our word. Will white feminists be willing to overcome these ways of thinking? We eagerly await their reactions.

We do not want to generalise that all of the activists in the Strike behave like this. We point out that the wall, that impassable, colonialist mental border that Fanon has taught us so much about, was present in private conversations, in coordination spaces, where the assembly and other commissions could not reach. It is there that several people asked us: Are we really fighting against the undeniably vertical hierarchy of patriarchal oppression? Is the Feminist Strike antirracist? It was also in these spaces that several people raised doubts about us: “If this is being a feminist, then I don’t want to be a feminist.”

Aside from our own, there are thousands of voices and bodies from all over the planet demanding that we overcome hegemonic, white, upper-middle-class feminism. In order to change, one must recognise contradiction, assume otherness and embrace difference. It is a necessary condition for making the political practice of feminism real, for making it overcome Eurocentrism in its arguments and banish ethnocentrism and classism in its emancipatory discourse, as Anzaldúa pointed out. 

We will persist in unusual alliances, which our sister María Galindo so strongly encourages us to do. This article is a call to all feminist sisters in all their diverse shapes and forms to reconsider their ways of relating to “otherness” by recognising difference; it is a challenge to decolonise spaces of decision making and coordination; it is a demand to break down Eurocentric and racist borders within feminist relations; an invitiation to free your minds; a commitment to decolonise being, knowledge and power. Are you willing to do this, sisters? We are. 


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