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Racism, Sexism, and...

Racism, Sexism, and the Glass Ceiling

On the slippery ladder to success, many Black and Asian women throughout England may be crashing their heads against a glass ceiling that is much thicker than what their white British female counterparts confront. But in London, a 140-year-old organization has launched a campaign for justice for these sometimes “invisible” women through the “Seeing Double” project.

The organization, known as the Fawcett Society is a leading equalities nonprofit that campaigns for the rights of women. Originally created by British suffragist, Millicent Fawcett, in 1866, in London, to gain women the right to vote, the Fawcett Society has gone on to extend their founder’s legacy by focusing on contemporary social and economic issues for women in Britain. Poverty, employment, domestic violence, women in the penal system, and political representation in public life are some of their primary focuses. Distilled, they cover three major themes: money, justice, and power.

“Seeing Double” crosses all three areas of Fawcett’s “core areas,” creating an opportunity for closer inspection for how race and gender are experienced in the lives of Black and ethnic minority women in the UK in hopes of achieving equality, says race and gender policy officer Zohra Moosa.

Previous to this new project, the society published a report on how the Black and minority ethnic women were faring in the UK within social and political arenas. Their initial study informed their decision to create a three-year program dedicated to examining the special barriers that Black and ethnic minority women face as a result of “double” discrimination. “In doing that piece of work [“Black and Minority Ethnic Women in the UK”] we realized how different the experiences were and why our existing work didn’t have the capacity to look at it in detail,” Moosa said.

“Some of the facts that we found were that women are severely underrepresented in public life, for instance—there are only two female ethnic minority MPs [British Members of Parliament] in the whole Parliament.”

Imagine life in the United States Congress without America’s groundbreaking female politicians such as Shirley Chisolm, Barbara Jordan, Maxine Waters, Carole Moseley Braun, or Cynthia McKinney.

In the UK, there are also no ethnic minority women constables (police). By comparison, Beverly Harvard, an African-American, became Atlanta’s top cop in 1996. She is the first Black woman to hold that position in a major city. Also, in February of this year, New York native, Joyce Stephens, became the first African-American and woman promoted to Deputy Chief in New York City.

“Black and ethnic minority women in the UK also have different health outcomes compared to white women in the region,” Moosa said. For example, infant mortality within the first week of birth is more than twice as likely to happen within the immigrant Pakistani and Bangladeshi community. And women of these two communities are also more likely to face higher pay gaps.

Black and ethnic minority women make up about 3 percent of the population in the UK according to Fawcett’s report published in 2005. The definition in the UK of Black and ethnic minority women is similar to the American definition for women of color, but also includes Irish and Roma travelers (properly known in the UK as gypsies).

The Fawcett Society is a feminist organization and the “Seeing Double” project is very much an extension of this ideological agenda. Moosa says part of the society’s purpose for this campaign, and their work in general, is to establish how feminism is different for different women. 

But does feminism have the same resonance for Black and minority ethnic women as it does for white women in the UK?

Although the society has not done any formal research on attitudes toward feminism within ethnic minority communities, Moosa said she would not say ethnic minority women do not like its principles. “I think there are some people who like feminism—the word—and some people who just don’t like the word, but in terms of the issues, they impact on all women and all women sign up to that.”

The “Seeing Double” project is less than a year old and will last for three years. There is still plenty of research needed to explain and inform the double barriers of racism and sexism. This experience women face can make life and discrimination cases infinitely more complicated.

“The way that equality has worked in the UK is that it looks at different equality areas in silos. We have discrimination laws that focus on race; we have discrimination laws that focus on sex… so what happens if you fit in both those categories? For instance, if you are a black woman, if something happens to you, if you experience discrimination, you have either to go and argue that it was race discrimination, or you could argue that it was sex discrimination, but you can’t argue that they both happened at the same time. You can pursue two separate cases, but you can’t actually say they were happening concurrently or that the particular kind of sexism or racism you experienced was affected by your race or gender, whichever the other one is,” Moosa said.

“Seeing Double advocates look at women “in the round” [as a whole person] so as not to try to isolate the different aspects of women—as if there’s only ever one thing at one time (because there never are). You’re always everything [an ethnic minority and a woman] all the time. Different identities might come to the fore in different situations, but to pretend that those other identities just blanket don’t exist because you’re experiencing one kind of discrimination or another is not actually how it plays out for women,” she said.

Some of the legal and social context for what is currently happening in the UK is not applicable to the States. But something that we can all realize is women’s rights is an important fight for everyone, no matter where you are from, Moosa said.