Over the last decade, Black and Arab women have been at the forefront of political activism in France. But Afrofeminism, Fania Noël argues, is facing backlash from white leftists and decolonial activists alike, in addition of the “regular” attacks from the rest of French society. Translated from French by Chanelle Adams.
“Fuck race, long live the class struggle!”
“Support the Nyansapo Afrofeminist festival!”
Two years separate these two phrases stated by different members of the same far-left platform in France. One upon the announcement of a Labor Day demonstration in 2015 for people of color led by Mwasi-Collectif and AssiégéEs, and the second one during the May 2017 controversy surrounding Mwasi collective’s Afrofeminist festival.
It would be tempting to see the difference between the two remarks as evidence of evolution — developments and improvements to the radical left’s relationships to anti-racism, including changing its mind about Afrofeminism. Appealing as this narrative may be, it would miss the core political stakes at hand: relationships to power.
Because Nothing Changes, Everything Changes ///
The Coordination of Black Women (Coordination femmes noires) held their first public meeting in Paris in October of 1977. Founded in May 1976 (two years after the formation of the Combahee River Collective in the United States), the Coordination did not escape the fate of the invisibilization of Black women and our movements.
Afrofeminists operating largely online, sharing texts and analyses, became visible in France around the year 2013 by problematizing issues in the anti-slavery and anti-colonial struggles. This emergence, at the time of Mwasi collective’s establishment, was largely seen as a trend. A grammar of novelty was mobilized to both describe and de-legitimize these forms of activism, especially in contrast to older, more historically legitimized struggles: class, of course, but also issues around race.
There were several fronts Mwasi had to face as a collective in-the-making. In 2014, when I founded the AssiégéEs journal, the work was not only a question of addressing the tension between reactionary racist attacks from the state and the white political left, but also divisions within anti-racism. The politicization of the race in relation to gender and sexuality was seen as a step towards recognizing the exploitation of women racialized by the State. This analysis is mainly found in discourses of saving sisters from Black and Arab men in the banlieues. Black feminist works, whether political, theoretical or literary, is full of examples of this understanding of Black feminist activism.
History repeats itself with the same accusations, but the actors change and the stakes change, too. It was not a question of excluding us from anti-racism, or even radical left struggles ; it was a question of keeping us around to add color to group photos of demonstrations and to diversify the movement on paper without being accountable to our political demands considered minority.
We were asked to compartmentalize our political lives — to stand at the side of white leftists to offer a rigorous analysis of class and of migration, or articulate race with class on our own terms. While the second proposition represented definite progress, it did not meet our liberatory demands as women, queer and trans folks. It was not a question of transforming other organizations into feminist spaces, but putting an end to antagonism and active campaigns (texts, conferences and positions) that saught the delegitimization of Afrofeminism. We became determined to neither disappear nor allow ourselves to be walked on.
Political Autonomy as a Compass ///
“We are a feminist organization in the Black movement,
not a Black organization in the feminist movement.”
Mwasi-Collectif, Afrofem (2018).
The political field of anti-racism led by people of color has seen many evolutions, notably the empowerment of Black movements in relationship to the decolonial movement. In France, anti-racist or decolonial movements — in opposition to moral anti-racism carried by the majority white organizations supported by the state — are predominantly comprised of people of Arab origin due to histories of migration. The majority of Black activists can be found in cultural organizations (by nationality) or pan-African with little or no contact with the decolonial movement. Decolonial organizations position themselves on racial questions in general, but we find that Black people are not only numerically a minority there, but minorities when it comes to specific struggles. These convergences have impacted the movement of Black people as autonomous political subjects. Our response to the minimization and subordination of Black struggles in these movements is self-empowerment. This emphasis on empowerment was at the center of my remarks in the closing speech given at the conference “Black conditions and the necessity of violence” organized by Sciences Po for Africa on April 13, 2017, at Sciences Po Paris:
“While having a global approach to the phenomena of oppression and exploitation, and defending justice as a political horizon for all the oppressed, it is important that Black people in France refuse to stay in the position of the “little brother of the struggle” — the little hands appreciated for the effort and their presence to color the optics of the ranks, but whose subjectivity and political thought is not of much interest, especially when it comes to the specificity of anti-Blackness. A sole Black person is fine, but a political body made up of Black people who question anti-Blackness in multiple forms across all political spheres, that’s when it becomes a problem.”
The Afrofeminist movements were surely the first political bodies to take on this empowerment process, focusing their activities on the fight against anti-Blackness while also creating cooperation between Black and pan-African organizations. In 2016, Mwasi Collectif was one of the ten Black organizations behind Black Lives Matter France (BLM France). The demonstration organized by this group in August of that year produced turmoil and controversy within the decolonial movement. This included the ordeals of separatism once again. But, the most stand-out tension was around a BLM France event for the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party. This tension exposed the sentiment of “ownership” over the decolonial movement and the struggles of Black people in the U.S.. Black activists and thinkers serve as ideological pillars and symbolic references for many organizations made up mostly of non-Black people. Mobilization against slavery in Libya was by far the most divisive, and the positions of decolonial organizations were perceived as perpetuating an ignorance of the global aspects of anti-Blackness that extend beyond colonial links. The scale of the movement and its composition: thousands of Black people in the streets of Paris demonstrating that the humanity of Black people remains the most pertinent question for us, a specificity of the struggle for Black liberation which cannot be contained in the struggles of local districts that reach beyond national and territorial frameworks.
A Politics of Back-and-Forth ///
“The major source of difficulty in our political work is that we are not just trying to fight oppression on one front or even two, but instead to address a whole range of oppressions. We do not have racial, sexual, heterosexual, or class privilege to rely upon, nor do we have even the minimal access to resources and power that groups who possess anyone of these types of privilege have.”
The Combahee River Collective Statement (1977).
The majority of faces of anti-racist struggles in France, on a spectrum ranging from the most integrationist positions to the most radical, are Black and Arab women. This configuration can be explained by two factors: a greater involvement of women in activist spaces as well as by the racialization of non-white, specifically Black and Arab masculinities. Indeed, even if they speak out radically and against the state, women from post-colonial migrations are perceived to be less violent and at risk. They are not perceived as harmless, but they are more easily granted the benefit of the doubt when it comes to capacity for reflection and articulation — one may wonder if this does not intersect with ideology of the French Republic when it comes to the positive role of education which “despite it all” saved women of color from the savage inherent in the men of their communities.
Whether representatives, theorists, organizers, or offering support (big or small), a sizeable portion of Afrofeminists have sought theoretical and practical spaces to articulate and define racialization and the hetero-patriarchy, mainly using the concept of intersectionality (conceptualized by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989), and more specifically misogynoir for Afrofeminists. Afrofeminist collectives and spaces stood out due to the number of Black women who in activist, university, media and digital spaces both embraced and produced Afrofeminist identities. The aspect of Black aesthetics is not to be overlooked either. The Afrofeminist demonstrations such as March 8, the March of Dignity in 2015, May Day, and the Nyansapo festival, all produced impactful images in line with the Black aesthetics of activism (Black Panthers, Sankarist, Amilcar Cabral, etc).
Aware of our tight-subject positioning and the different valences of issues (the State, the reactionary right, the white left, the anti-racist movement and the Black movement in France), we did not give in to the logic of conflict and preferred a politics of back and forth between the general (anti-Black, anti-racist and anti-capitalist struggles) and the specific (struggles centered on racialized hetero-patriarchy). Far from the fantasy that one could fight against everything all the time and in the same spaces, the so-called “minority” activists of anti-racist struggles sailed between different spaces, getting involved in anti-racist struggles while also creating spaces for specific struggles.
It was through re-configurations of the Black movement in France and this back and forth strategy that allowed space for a reversal in the balance of power. Afrofeminists have succeeded in consolidating the movement by grouping together the most important pillars: a clearly identifiable and large demographic (Black women), a solid theoretical and militant political tradition (Black feminisms), the materialization of politics with actions, and an active participation in global struggles against white supremacy and capitalism. It is on the basis of this work that we have built our legitimacy and our necessity. Through our work and presence, it became more and more difficult for the white left and anti-racism movements to continue with the explicit confrontations, not necessarily out of goodwill and kindness but because it became clear that the antagonism with our movement could lead to loss on a political level.
Now in 2020, Afrofeminists are more determined than ever to shape politics through a vision of the Black / Pan-African movement in France. It is within the framework of an autonomous, empowered and strong Black movement that we can procced into relationships with both anti-racist movements and the white left. Always acting in service of Black liberation, assured by the belonging to a space that is revolutionary and utopian, a nation which forms the largest diaspora in the world, what Paul Gilroy designated as The Black Atlantic. ■