Black women are often sidelined by politics – but we have a lot to teach mainstream parties

Black women suffer hugely from austerity, yet are too often sidelined by both labour and feminist movements. If these movements are to succeed, they have to listen, and learn.

Zita Holbourne
17 October 2014


Black women - defined as people from the African and Asian diasporas - face a double whammy of race and gender discrimination in the labour market, are often held back in the lowest grades on the lowest pay and disproportionately targeted when it comes to job cuts. Austerity measures are amplifying both racism and sexism in Britain, especially because the public sector is the biggest employer of black women. In one London borough, they made up five per cent of the workforce but 23 per cent of the redundancies

There are many incentives for black women to organise, yet they can often fall between the gaps between feminist groups and the labour movement. Feminist organisations and women’s groups have never felt very inclusive and can be dominated by white women who are not interested in black women’s concerns. That’s why groups such as BARAC and Southall Black Sisters are campaigning and organising on their own terms, sharing knowledge, support, tools and resources to overcome barriers to participation.

I co-founded Black Activists Rising Against Cuts (BARAC UK), a coalition of black, public and voluntary sector workers, trade unionists, community organisations, service users and individuals. From the beginning, we placed a particular focus on the double impact of the impending government cuts on black women and young black people. BARAC supports many family justice campaigns, which are predominantly led by black women family members who have been forced to put their own lives on hold as they fight for justice for those who have been killed at the hands of the police or state.

Political parties could learn much about community engagement from organisations like BARAC and others, but at the moment there is a clear disconnect. BARAC does have individual Labour MPs who work with us and have supported our campaigns, but we are not currently involved with any Labour groups. A number of BARAC activists have stood as candidates in local elections but not for Labour or any of the main parties.

In order to try and bridge the gap, political parties needs to open up a dialogue with black groups and commit to addressing some of the issues that they campaign on. Party representatives need to be visible in local communities, not just when there is an election on. For black women to be attracted to party activism, such groups must be willing to support our grassroots campaigns in the spaces we have created too.

If it is hard for a black woman to be involved in women’s organisations, then it is even more difficult to be involved in the wider labour movement. For black women who are busy providing for their families is it any wonder that there is no time let alone energy left in the day to then go and battle with the white, straight and male dominated labour movement? It’s essential that labour (and feminist) organisations acknowledge the discrimination black women experience and welcome the ideas, experiences and skills we bring.

The first step is to identify why black women are not participating in their groups or movements and to then to put in place an action plan. This may involve taking these organisations to the communities that black women live and work in; campaigning in partnership with black (women’s) organisations on local issues; producing literature aimed at black women and published in different languages; running training programmes on equality awareness for unions and other organisations; or allowing for flexible schedules that take into account work, religious and family commitments.

Throughout history there have been black women leading the way, from Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Mary Prince and many more. Along with a group of other campaigners, I recently succeeded in keeping Mary Seacole on the national curriculum when Michael Gove sought to remove her and others and replace them with more white male historical figures. Despite the odds stacked up against us, these women give us inspiration and empower us to keep on keeping on.

This article originally appeared in the Fabian and Compass collection 'Riding the New Waves: Feminism and the Labour Party' edited by Anya Pearson and Rosie Rogers. It is available to read online here.

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