“Making noise: who has the permission to speak?”

A Women’s History Month blog by Cristina Cabral

Content warning: mentions of anti-Black racism and Transatlantic enslavement

History as celebration

Women’s History Month should devote itself to celebrating the sequence of incredible achievements and events that have marked the development of women’s positionality and resistance against patriarchy. Every day, women defy patriarchy in their creation of the extraordinary. The world would not be the same without women: they have built our world, and continue to build life. Despite certain improvements, patriarchy is not gone, and policies fail to treat women with dignity. The world still dismisses women, and denies them of their flowers. 

History as storytelling

Womens’ History Month can serve as an archive of all our diverse, unique stories and experiences of migration. As a Black woman with Cape Verdean and Portuguese nationality, who also lives in the UK, it can be hard sometimes to see where I belong. 

I am a founding member of Black Europeans, which adopts an intersectional approach to amplify the experiences of Black people with European nationalities, and how the experiences of injustice and austerity have worsened for us after Brexit. Our skin tone, accents and surnames mark us as different. We face racism in White communities, but also xenophobia from Black British society too. We aren’t accepted anywhere. For Black British communities, their identity revolves around their race, but for us, our identity revolves around our race, but also our accent. As Black people and as migrants, we need to work so many times harder.

When I first came to the UK, I worked in a restaurant whilst pregnant, and I endured a lot of struggles and abuse, and had to work overtime. I gave birth to my son prematurely whilst I was at university, and I had to pause my studies as he was in an incubator for a few months. I had to apply for welfare and housing benefits, but my application was rejected on account of me being from abroad, even though I had been living here for 7 years, and had rights to live here as an EU citizen. I took my case to a tribunal after 2 years of being denied benefits, and I was met with dismissive questions such as “did you come to this country to be on benefits?” and people doubting my English or that I could afford to pay private insurance.  People clearly didn’t take me seriously, and so I thought that the solution was to invest in education, to prove myself to people, and to know the laws and my rights. I also want my two children to know their rights. 

Despite the struggles I have endured, I am still privileged in some ways, due to my education, and the fact that I knew what it was like to navigate a new country like the UK since I had lived in the US before. However, I still have to prove myself every day, and my right to live here, as a migrant and a Black woman, especially in a post-Brexit society. In the UK we have diversity, but we do not have the same opportunities, we are denied our dignity, and we are not recognised as human beings. Even as an academic, people continue to shut me down and mistreat me, and racism is rubbed in my face every day. There is still a lot of work to do. 

Migrant women in general face unique experiences in the UK. We are humiliated, dehumanised and always subjected to xenophobic or racist stereotypes. We come to the UK because we want an opportunity to work with dignity, yet we are always seen as thieves who come to exploit and abuse the welfare and housing system. Having to constantly prove our worth and that we are deserving of respect and belonging takes a toll on our mental health. Once upon a time, migration was encouraged: the UK wanted to use us in order to rebuild British society, and now it has the audacity to discard and exclude us.

History as silencing

Women’s History Month must defy the silencing of marginalised women’s stories and histories. Black women and Women of Colour continue to feel silencing in a very profound way. Examples of this include the performativity of many EDI initiatives and tokenism, as well as the entirety of popular and political culture.

Mainstream history is written by those who are given permission to speak. As Black women, we are subjected to misogynoir and are denied the permission to speak. Not long ago, MP Diane Abbott stood up over 40 times during PMQs to share her voice on the disgusting racism she had been subjected to by Tory donor Frank Hester. On each of these occasions, she was denied the ability to do so by the Speaker. 

What this situation speaks to is the embedded idea throughout society that Black women do not deserve to be heard or taken seriously about the violence done to us¹. Our demands to be seen as human, and for our humanity to be respected in all its multitudes, falls on ignorant ears. We are painted as irrationally emotional and loud, and our struggles are often acknowledged too late: only after we are killed by this violent world, and never before. From police to therapists, from medical professionals to employers, we are dehumanised: our pain is dismissed or disbelieved, or we are expected to deal with pain, because that is all we are told we deserve. From a Black Studies perspective, the famous image of Escrava Anastacia, an Afro-Brazilian enslaved woman, with an iron gag over her face, speaks to this silencing. We are screaming to be heard, and no one is listening. 

History as the present

Women’s History Month should provide a critical perspective on history, and should make all of us aware of the historic stereotypes and narratives, such as the “Mammy”, “Sapphire” and “Jezebel” stereotypes², that continue to oppress Black women, in the present. Each of these three stereotypes, as with adultification bias, have their roots in the enslavement of Black people, and were created to justify enslavement³, either by presenting Black women as a dangerous threat that needed to be subdued, or by presenting them as desiring of, or willing participants in, their own domination.

All these stereotypes form the foundation of history as told through the coloniser’s eyes. And these reductive dehumanising tropes continue to silence our stories, our histories and our complexities

Women’s History Month should also counter the epistemic violence done to marginalised women: “violence exerted against or through knowledge”. As a Black woman in academia, I feel epistemic violence on a visceral level. I go into conferences to share my expertise and my knowledge, and I am disbelieved. My way of viewing the world is seen as inferior to a White woman’s way of seeing the world, who holds the same qualifications that I do, or even less. Automatically, the room will listen to the White woman, and take what she says as accurate, factual and scientific. But my knowledge, my expertise, and my lived experience is deemed to be inferior, ignorant, inaccurate or a lie. 

History as remembering: remembering as resistance

Women’s History Month can be a vehicle for us to remember our struggles and histories, and how they are all intertwined. It should be about learning from history, about coming together in common struggle so that we can prevent the same atrocities from happening again. For me, feminism is about respecting everyone and treating all people with dignity, and celebrating the diversity and richness of all our cultures and histories. 

My grandmother was a cousin of Amílcar Cabral, a pan-Africanist anti-colonial leader. I draw inspiration from him: instead of trying to get validation or fit certain ideals that were never designed for me, I am proudly vocal and I will never be scared of speaking up or being my authentic self. I became a filmmaker precisely because I wanted to defy negative stereotypes of Blackness, through powerful visual storytelling. 

I speak Portuguese, French, English and Creole, and this makes me a world citizen. Communication is how we change the world for the better. I am proud of my accent: it comes from the world, and it holds the power of the world. We must always continue to celebrate, dance and make noise: it is who we are. 


¹Colourism, featurism and texturism also influence whose stories are seen as worthy of being told, and whose pain is worthy of being taken seriously. These three words refer to how lighter skin tones, and hair textures and facial features closer to Whiteness are deemed superior to darker skin tones, afro hair, and non-European features. 

²The “Mammy” stereotype presents a caricature of Black women as submissive, as willing to put aside and sacrifice her own needs for White people, and as not having a life of her own, whilst the “Sapphire” stereotype, commonly referred to the “angry Black woman” stereotype, presents Black women as loud, angry, manipulative, hyper emotional and in need of “civilisation”. Meanwhile, the “Jezebel” stereotype presents the Black woman as oversexualised, and is also traceable to the violent fascination that colonisers and enslavers had with Black women’s bodies. 

³Once upon a time, the racist concept of drapetomania was considered an academic theory. This theory described Black enslaved people who tried to escape as having a psychological disorder. This theory speaks to a narrative that Black women must still contend with: that we are audacious, out of order, or that we do not know our place, because we are demanding that we be treated with dignity and respect. It also informs the idea that we should be “grateful” for policies that fall far below even the bare minimum.

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