Silencing is something I’ve come to expect when discussing white supremacy and racism with white people. When I talked about feminism as a young woman, it felt like the whole world wanted to hear what I had to say. I was encouraged to join in on topics like ‘girl power’ or ‘#freethenipple’. As a young person getting into activism, this boosted my confidence. I wasn’t afraid to speak my mind because I felt supported. But that all changed when I started talking about race, and I mean really talking about race.
Back when I was engaging in the topics of ‘girl power’ and ‘#freethenipple’, I didn’t notice how cis-centric, white-centric, and performative they really were. Nonetheless, my white counterparts encouraged my feminist pursuits when race wasn’t a factor. Truth be told, white people only want to hear black people when we’re saying something that makes them comfortable, and benefits them in some way. I quickly realised my feminism was different to that of my white counterparts. As a marginalised individual, my aim is to disrupt the status quo that has oppressed my people and I for so long. White feminists, on the other hand, have shown that they want to uphold these archaic systems. Instead, white feminists ask black people to “be constructive” and work within systems that diminish our humanity. It’s draining for marginalised people to continuously have to fight to be listened to, to be heard in spaces that claim to be “feminist” and equal.
When I started discussing race, I quickly became aware that certain people wanted me to keep my mouth shut. During Black History Month last year, students from my university were recorded during a night out, using the n-word. ‘Racism’ as a word deeply scares academic institutions – not because they want to protect or listen to black students, but because it makes them look bad. As a result, my university put their reputation first and black students second. They released an ambiguous statement almost three months later, concluding the n-word was not said. Elite universities, no matter how progressive they try to appear to be, are built on class suppression and white supremacy. Unless they are actively fighting against this, by being transparent about discrimination as and when it happens, universities will always put marginalised students last.
When I read the statement from my university, I was furious. The Editor of our student magazine asked me to write about it, so I did. In my statement, I called out my university for their incompetence, and to many people’s surprise I also called out my students’ union. The students’ union, led by five white women, are mostly seen as progressive. I do acknowledge the effort they make with their anti-racism initiatives. But, as I mentioned in my statement, these initiatives mean very little if they don’t put into practice what they preach, failing to keep black students safe in the process. The sabbatical officers of my students’ union were not pleased with what I had to say, and deemed it ‘factually incorrect’. So the release of my statement was put on hold. My student union believed I didn’t make it clear enough that the decision that was made was the university’s, rather than theirs. My statement took into account both sides’ involvement (or lack of), and their refusal to denounce the use of the n-word by non-black students.
The Sabbatical Officers decided to nit-pick at my words, fearing I was calling them out for being racist. This wasn’t the case, but their reaction exemplifies how the justified outrage of black people is so often ignored by white institutions when asked to take accountability. I was reminded that mainstream feminism is just white supremacy in heels, and white people only want to hear black people when we are saying something makes them comfortable, not accountable. When speaking with one Officer, I was reminded of all of the diversity initiatives on campus, listed one by one – as if to say I shouldn’t be asking for them to do more… As if black people aren’t deserving of more.
Censorship has existed within black culture for generations. It’s the reason Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were murdered, the reason the NFL kept Colin Kaepernick out of the league after he protested the national anthem, and the reason Munroe Bergdorf was dismissed by L’Oreal Paris in 2017. White institutions behave as if they are keen to dismantle systems of oppression, but they don’t. They prove this time and time again when they prioritize their feelings over black people’s safety. When such incidents occur, I’m always frightened, because it shows the burden and the danger of being a black person and speaking up against racism. When I have moments of doubt, I always recall what Reni Eddo- Lodge said in her book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, “every voice raised against racism chips away at its power.” Suddenly, I’m not so frightened anymore.
White society may learn a thing or two from this article, but they aren’t who I’m writing for. I’m writing for all the black people out there at schools, universities, or workplaces who, just like me, have to deal with the exhausting issue of being silenced. It’s demoralising, and can take a serious toll on your mental and emotional health. Speaking up, even if it feels like you’ve failed, is something to be proud of. White silencing might make black people feel powerless, but we are not powerless – and it must never defeat us.
Written by Halima Jibril