In many ways 2017 has been a triumphant year for black women in British politics.
In June, a record number of ethnic minority MPs were elected to Parliament, including 7 black women. Most prominent of all, Diane Abbott, the first and longest serving black MP, won her highest ever majority at 75%. Within student politics, Shakira Martin was elected as NUS President, the first ever black woman and mother to hold this position.
However, we must not let these recent triumphs lull us into a false sense of security, as although this increase in representation is welcomed, it cannot be celebrated as liberation.
Indeed, Abbott has bravely spoken about the rampant misogynistic abuse she has faced and her treatment can act as a cautionary tale to black women who wish to follow in her footsteps.
On Wednesday 11 October, the SOAS Students’ Union invited Abbott, Martin and newly elected MP for Peterborough Fiona Onasanya to speak at its Black History Month event “Black Women in Politics”. The event was designed to celebrate the extraordinary achievements of these women and to shine a spotlight on their experiences.
I was delighted to be asked to chair the event, not least because of the opportunity to share the stage with such trailblazers – but also due to my own varied experiences as a black woman within student politics.
Abbott has long been a hero of mine; it seemed surreal to introduce her to the cheering crowd. She gave a presentation about her entry into politics, the importance of unity and the possibility of a left wing prime minister in Jeremy Corbyn (an “amen!” is heard from the crowd). She also talked about the abuse she has suffered, stating that when things got difficult she “had the young Diane [in mind], I said I have to make it better [for today’s girls] than it was for me”. Drawing upon this I asked her advice for young black women; “newsflash” she replied, “being a black woman is hard”. She then went on to urge us to “believe in something”, as her desire to fight racism was instrumental in her race to shatter the glass ceiling.
As a former sabbatical officer I am well acquainted with Martin. A self-professed “girl from the ends”, she is passionate about the transformative nature of education and practical solutions to alleviate poverty. From my perspective, she is a refreshing addition to the cut-throat, careerist world of student politics. I was left most surprised however by the fantastic Onasanya.
Lured into politics by a “man in a pub who told [her] to join Labour”, she assertively states that she will be Britain’s first black prime minister. (Yet another “Amen!” was heard from the crowd.) She delighted the audience with her ‘Fionaisms’ (“GHETTO means Getting Hyped Every Time Talent Overcomes” or “you don’t have to be male, pale and stale to be in politics.”)
The conversation began with discussions about Labour’s complacency with black voters, Theresa May’s Disparity Audit and the extent to which their race and gender was an obstacle to their success. Shakira provided further intersectional analysis to the last question, drawing on the micro aggressions she faces as a result of her working class background. It was not long before the discussion became cathartic for the three of us; both women admitting to forgetting cameras were rolling as we laughed and spoke candidly about dating, Nigerian culture and natural hair.
I left the BGLT brimming with positivity. Although I am cynical about racial progress in Britain, it was inspiring to share the stage with black women daring to seize power and fight for change despite the countless hurdles. Happy Black History Month!