SOAS alumna Minna Salami on Black feminism

Minna Salami is an eminent feminist thinker, writer and keynote speaker who SOAS has the honour to call an alumna. She has championed conversations challenging existing systems of oppression at some of the world’s leading organisations including the UN and The Oxford Union. She is also the creator of MsAfropolitan – a blog where she thoughtfully explores Black feminism and the experiences of Africans in all parts of the world.

I had the opportunity to speak to Minna Salami. As someone who had never spoken openly about race or social issues, I was daunted at the prospect of speaking to someone so intelligent and aware. Yet she met me with resonant warmth, wisdom and patience that only makes me wish that anyone reading this could have shared that experience with me.

Not only was it a joy to speak to Minna, but it was also heart-rendering, informative and incredibly healing. I left our conversation feeling as if I had been held and seen, which I believe is a testament to the insightful person that she is and the immense progress that she has made in her work on herself and on the empowerment of others. 

Minna Salami in conversation with SOAS student, Gabrielle Nuttall

How does someone start challenging racism? Especially those who may have been reluctant to talk about race or voice their perspective before. 

We all come to challenge racism from very different places. Even though as people of colour there are similarities in how we experience racism, depending on our own life experiences, our identities and our personalities, we come to that very tough situation with different tools.

I think that one important thing is to de-centre whiteness. In a lot of anti-racism work there is a centring of whiteness, and it is important to point out how whiteness functions as an overarching system of oppression. Identifying, analysing and discussing the specific things that white people do to perpetuate racism is also necessary. But I think for people of colour and people of African heritage, in particular, doing that perpetuates engaging with the thing that has caused us to feel shame, fear, self-loathing.

I think the way to challenge racism is coming to self-awareness and saying: “I will not comply with that treatment, I am aware of my rights, my being, my right to be a human in this world”. Of course, self-awareness is a process, but the aim is to become a conscientious objector and to have a very strong sense of what is right and wrong.

Have you struggled with constructing and realising your identity, and how do you manage to embrace or move through those difficulties? 

I have certainly struggled. I think my whole life in a sense has been a struggle of constructing a solid identity of sorts. I’ve always felt like I didn’t fit in wherever I was. 

Growing up in Nigeria I had a sense that I didn’t quite fit in, even though I loved it and I also had a sense of belonging. This was not only because I was mixed race, but because I was a feminist child and found Lagos to be so patriarchal. As I started to express my feminism I was met with “No, you can’t be African and feminist”. Society was always telling me I couldn’t do the things that I knew were true for me. 

I think where I found a place of belonging for the first time in my life was actually in black feminism. I could explore myself without judgement and thinkers, activists and writers were thinking through things that I had been thinking through my entire life; it was extremely healing.

I would also like to point out, however, that there are many privileges in a mixed experience, and I don’t just mean mixed-race but anybody who has rich life experiences in some way. Though they may be difficult in their own way, not everyone has that.

You once said, “how do we challenge the systems of power if we use the same language as those who abuse power?”. I think this may be linked to unlearning some harmful and more dominant societal values and re-learning others that may be found in other cultures. Do you have any thoughts on what those values are?

There are so many. Ultimately, it’s unlearning everything. How we think about knowledge itself, how we think about the self and the body, and our relationship to the modern human world, we need to unlearn all of those things. 

So much of anti-racist and feminist struggle for me is the undoing of internalised oppressive conditioning. And that is probably a lifelong process. In addition, if you trace the root cause of so much of the ugliness that we face in the world it all stems from this kind of rabid individualism. I want to point out that the individual as a concept and as an actual entity is a very beautiful thing. The fact that we can be individuals is so central to how we can also love each other and relate to others. But individualism as a cultural practice and a way of organising our societies is so dangerous. Therefore, one thing that we can take from our culture, in this case, an African-centred culture, is community. What you find at the centre of any part of African philosophy that you engage with is always that notion of community and relationships. I would also highlight that community can be a negative word as well, as it can imply homogeneity and narrow-mindedness, but community as a strategy to organise society around is very beautiful. 

Relationships are also connected to community. Whether it is the relationship between oppressions like in intersectionality, or the relationship with each other and with this pursuit of freedom and liberation. And so, relationships and community I would say are the main things that we can learn. 

Do you believe that black women have still largely been neglected from feminism and black liberation at large? 

The short answer is a big fat yes. Both historically and in the way that it still continues today. But I think as a consequence of that, what isn’t really emphasised enough is that black feminism is in itself a social justice movement. 

When I say black feminism, I am referring to black feminism as an ideological movement. It represents precisely this kind of intersectional analysis of race, class, gender, the natural world and the arts. Because black feminist thought in itself is a social justice movement, it is separate from other different kinds of feminism in the ways that liberal feminism and Marxist feminism are different. It may be fair to say that it has been excluded from liberal feminism, but not from its own school of thought. I think it is also important that black women be allowed to speak about their experiences only as women if they need to, and only as black people if they need to. And with so much focus on intersectionality, it is almost like we are committing some kind of social crime if we only think about womanhood without thinking about race at the forefront as well. 

In the past decade, it has become a lot easier to come into contact with the violence, but racial violence in particular, through social media. What are your thoughts on how we can process this trauma and not feel defeated by it or numb to it? 

It is indeed really sad, I just thought as you were asking the question that it had been a year yesterday since the SARS protest and the images of people being massacred in Lagos. Definitely one way of dealing with this is in community with other people; being able to share with others is really important. I think when it comes to feeling numb, there is a need to make a bit of a distinction between the numbness that arises from trauma and grief, which is an incredibly normal and crucial part of grieving, and the numbness that is created by capitalism, capitalist media and the superstructures of white supremacy. They pump these images out and create clickbait and such things whose aim is very intentionally to desensitise us to our concern; to make it so normal to see black pain and black suffering that we stop caring. 

I think one of the things that is very difficult but very bizarre in our times is that there is so much trauma that is caused by social media and yet we are constantly there. You cannot heal if you don’t distance yourself from what is causing you pain. And I am not saying that everyone should leave Twitter because it is also a very important platform and space for conversation. I just think we should exercise caution in order to heal.

How do you feel about the impact of online discrimination, particularly on young people? Do you have any advice about how we deal with this increase in exposure once more? 

I think it goes back to this idea of constantly exposing ourselves to the root cause of trauma and anger. It is so tricky. I use social media and we are all addicted to it in some way, and I think it is key to recognise those addictions. Maybe one way to think about it is if our ancestors, people who lived in times when racism was not subtle in the way that it can be today if we are lucky, if they were to see us voluntarily going to spaces where we would be exposed to very discriminatory language or images, they would think we were crazy. 

I think we really urgently need to limit our engagement with not only social media at large but with specific conversations and I definitely don’t think young people should be engaging with racists online. I don’t think it is worth the pain that it causes. I think choosing community and really taking control of your space and what you are interacting with is important.

I wondered if you had any advice or words of comfort for those of us that feel terribly insecure at this time? 

I think I will take the liberty to speak on behalf of my generation and say that we love you very much. I love young people so much and really admire how much you care about society and the future and understandably so, because it is all very precarious, and it always has been. There is this dangerous narrative about divisions between us and that is why I want to emphasise that we love you and we are in this together. 

I want to encourage reading because I think a lot of the information and content that is out there is so focused on these very real pressing urgencies, but it leaves so little room for hope and joy and the things that are beautiful in this world. When you make it part of your lifestyle to constantly read, you are reminded of friendship in the words of another person who has laboured for a long time to create a book. You will encounter both the sorrow and the worry but also so much of that feeling of human hope and ability to transcend.

I really value your insight and thoughts on your blog. I was reading through your archives and wondered if, as exposure increased, you ever started to feel pressured to write a so-called “killer-post” or increase your output? Do you still feel a personal connection to your blog or that you can continue to use it to voice your thoughts freely? 

I haven’t been blogging regularly at the moment and what I feel as you ask this question is that I miss it. So, I suppose I haven’t been feeling the pressure recently. I want to say that having my own platform has been life-changing for me. Even though I am not blogging a lot at the moment, just knowing that I own that domain and have the freedom to say what I want gives me peace of mind. What matters at the moment to me isn’t whether exposure will compromise my message or whether I should write a killer-post, what matters is basically just creating good work. Content that can be of value in some way. And allowing that to take on the format that it needs to take on.

About the Author

Gabrielle Nuttall is a second-year SOAS student studying BA Chinese, who is interested in communication and understanding human experiences and emotions through language and culture studies