Women of colour make up the fabric of the UK, but their many contributions to society are often overlooked. Stereotypes abound – even in a modern, ‘woke’ age.
Phyll Opoku-Gyimah is a queer black feminist who co-founded UK Black Pride to celebrate LGBT+ people of colour. She famously refused an MBE in the New Year’s Honours List in 2016.
At the time, her reasoning was clear:
As a trade unionist, a working class girl, and an out black African lesbian, I want to stand by my principles and values.
I don't believe in empire. I don't believe in, and actively resist, colonialism and its toxic and enduring legacy in the Commonwealth, where – among many other injustices – LGBT+ people are still being persecuted, tortured and even killed because of sodomy laws… that were put in place by British imperialists.
I'm honoured and grateful, but I have to say no thank you.
With International Women’s Day just gone, indy100 spoke to ‘Lady Phyll’ about Black Panther, the pay gap and British women of colour.
Movies like Black Panther and Get Out underline the importance of being seen and included in the mainstream. To paraphrase Malcolm X is: Is the black (or rather BME) woman still the most disrespected?
What Black Panther did so brilliantly was reaffirm what any black woman already knows: we are strong. This strength is drawn from a fortified well of shared histories and women from every imaginable diaspora in the UK will be able to tell you a story of a strong woman in their life, who has helped shape who they’ve become.
The hurdles we face on the long march towards equality are much the same as they’ve always been.
Whether we’re battling against well-worn tropes about the angry black woman or immediately assumed to be the assistant in a room full of white men, or whether it’s our trans siblings fighting for their right to live as who they are, we continue to push for equality, in all aspects of society – but not just for ourselves, for everyone.
The contributions of people of colour to British society is immense, but it often gets sidelined in the mainstream narrative. One of our favourite British women is Margaret Busby – the youngest and first black female book publisher.
I’m a huge fan of Olive Morris, who is a great community leader and activist in the feminist, black nationalist and squatters’ rights campaigns; Pragna Patel of Southall Black Sisters; Chardine Taylor Stone Founder of Black Girls Picnic, Olivette Cole-Wilson, one of the founding members of Stonewall UK, Zita Holbourne, co-founder of BARAC and Marai Lasai, Director of Imkaan. There are so many and I could go on and on…
[Also], all the women working within UK Black Pride are contributing to a better world, not only through UK Black Pride, but through the work they do in various industries.
A new report from the Trade Union Congress found the pay gap to be more than 18 per cent. That means women work at least two months of the year for free. What are your thoughts on this?
As a trade unionist myself, we work tirelessly to protect workers’ rights, including these unacceptable pay gaps.
Angela Davis has a truly enlightening book, Race, Gender & Class, which I’d encourage anyone with a vested interest in closing this pay gap and working towards parity to read.
There seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding (at best) and willful ignorance (at worst) when it comes to the nuances of white privilege. What are your thoughts on this?
What I’ve learned is that self-care is paramount – when mentioning self-care you have to acknowledge Audre Lorde. As women (and I use that identifier in its most capacious and inclusive form), we must learn to step back when we need to, because we are worth protecting.
Activism is hard. Standing up to be counted is hard, but it doesn’t mean we have to agree to abuse.
The Time’s Up movement is about self-care, about choosing ourselves. We deserve to be happy, to work without harassment, violence or discrimination, to try and create a better world for the next generation without being assaulted.
I do believe that we are moving in the right direction, but we can’t keep moving in the right direction unless we all realise the role we play in the system as it currently is – while trying to smash the patriarchy. The privilege conversation is long and nuanced; what I will say is that privilege is not elective: it’s bestowed. Whether or not one has privilege is not what this is about. It’s about what we do with it.
How can Britain address the diversity balance? And what can women of colour do in order to assert themselves more fully?
Corporate Britain should work more closely [with] trade unions and of course with grassroots, and community-led organisations by providing substantive funding if they hope to improve their talent pipeline and ensure the future of their businesses.
What we don’t see enough of is corporates putting their money where their diversity mouth is… investment is key if we’re to see real and lasting change across industries and in communities where investment is most needed.
I’m really excited about the women of colour who are creating their own platforms and businesses, who are picking up cameras and microphones, who are navigating in the corporate spaces and looking after children or elderly relatives – women will address the diversity imbalance by doing what they do best.
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for black and brown women, but I will tell each of you this: you are worthy, you deserve the life you want and you have the tools you need to succeed within you, it is important that we know we are not alone in our journey.
Do you think the LGBT+ community has become more inclusive with regard to queer people of colour?
I’m really pleased Stonewall has decided to extend the scope of their support for UK Black Pride. The racism, and sexism the LGBT+ community faces is very real.
Our siblings are dealing with an inordinate amount of sexual racism.
Lesbians/bisexual women of colour are all but nonexistent in media narratives here in the UK. And so while I think there has been some progress, I don’t think we’ve made massive great leaps and bounds in inclusion, but we are on the way.
UK Black Pride is coming up – can you tell us about it? What sort of things are being planned? What are you most excited about?
I’m also excited about our theme: “Shades of the Diaspora”, which continues to affirm UK Black Pride’s place as the welcoming and inclusive aegis under which all diasporic communities are represented. No matter from which diasporic community you descend – African, Caribbean, Middle Eastern, Asian, Latin American – including our friends, allies and supporters, you are welcome, fought for and celebrated at UK Black Pride.
It [would] be a spoiler if I told you what you was in store for this year, however it will always be good food, music, entertainment, speakers, politics, education & empowerment workshops, community vibe and much more – it will be there place where you feel you are in the safety of family!