13. Feminist activism in the Black Cultural Archives
By Mobeen Hussain
Whilst searching in the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton, London, I came across a pamphlet published by the Black Women’s Action Committee in October 1970. The Black Women’s Action Committee was part of the Black Unity and Freedom Party, one of many anti-racist and black rights campaign groups founded in the 1960s and 1970s in reaction to widespread discrimination. This group highlights a longer history of women of African-Caribbean campaigning in Britain. The committee’s pamphlet was distributed outside places where ‘beauty contests’ were held. Black beauty pageants were instituted in Britain for the very purpose of conveying pride in Black identity and pride.
However, this group progressively took an intersectional approach in protesting beauty pageants. Intersectionality or intersectional feminism, coined by legal scholar Kimberley Cershaw in 1989, takes into accounts and incorporates overlapping systems of oppression and discrimination that women face including race, class, gender. Although this group predates the coining of the term, considerations of class, race and gender as a triple oppression faced by women of colour are evident in the work of the group.
Interestingly, the pamphlet addressed both participants of beauty contests as well as those who enabled and promoted a racialized and exploitative beauty culture such as ‘Greedy Capitalist Black businessmen’ who exploit the vulnerabilities of women by idealising Eurocentric beauty ideals to sell beauty products. Essentially, the pamphlet propagated a feminism which negated beauty pageants and likened these spaces to cattle shows, and pushed alternative routes to self-empowerment through education. In their critiques, they were evocative and radical and paved the way for other BME women’s groups, and complicated the tenets of mainstream white feminism, then and now.