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.
Article published in The Funambulist 29 (May-June 2020) States of Emergency. Click here to access the rest of the issue.
“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.