What might it mean to decolonise left politics? I've been thinking a lot about this question in relation to the research project I co-direct with my colleague, Leah Bassel, Minority Women's Activism in Tough Times. This study explores the variety of ways in which women of colour activists in Britain and France organise and mobilise to resist austerity measures and advance an intersectional politics for social justice and equality. I've been struck by the need to decolonise the left given what I see as the failure to take women of colour seriously as thinkers and actors in ostensibly ‘radical’ spaces.
For example, we found that some women in our study were actively excluded from left protest spaces in London when they argued for an intersectional analysis of the 2008 economic crisis and austerity. By challenging the hegemony of Marxist thinking that privileges class and seeks to de-prioritise analyses of race, gender and sexuality, some activist women were silenced when they sought to centre the experiences of women of colour and highlight the particular ways in which they experience and challenge austerity. In Glasgow, many of the migrant women activists in our study were prevented from joining community-based anti-austerity campaigns because of the racism and xenophobia expressed by supposedly radical activists. In Paris, a political culture—particularly on the left—that denies the saliency of race and racism generated, for some women of colour activists, a self-censorship which stopped them from articulating their experiences in terms of institutionalised and everyday racism, and compelled them to adopt less threatening language and analyses in relation to austerity. (Although, note, this is starting to change with demonstrations such as Les Marches de la Liberté.)
In each of these instances, we can see how women of colour must censor and efface ourselves and/or accept our wholesale exclusion and the misrepresentation of our experiences if we wish to build political alliances with white-dominated anti-austerity campaigns. The experiences of the activists in our study demonstrate the asymmetrical power relations and epistemic violence at play on the left. Political solidarity requires recognition, respect and a political imagination to develop a sense of shared fate among different marginalised groups. Too often, solidarity is not extended to women of colour because we are not seen as competent and worthwhile political subjects and agents. Under a guise of radicalism, a toxic mix of racism, sexism and xenophobia appear to govern these left spaces rendering solidarity an impossibility. I am unconvinced that solidarity can be built through ‘education’ and ‘dialogue’ with white radicals. This unnecessarily burdens women of colour with the duty to fix the white left’s racism and xenophobia.
The systematic exclusion of women of colour in radical protest spaces is not an aberration, nor can it be resolved under current social, political and economic conditions. Rather, the erasure of women of colour on the left is an indication that colonality is working as intended. By ‘colonality’ I mean the asymmetries in power that emerged from colonalism and that continue to define contemporary social relations and knowledge production. The white left’s (I include Marxists, anarchists, feminists and liberals here) refusal to recognise women of colour and our analyses of the social world is a central project of colonality. Securing essentialised identities such as the ‘working class’, ‘women’ or the ‘collective’ and supposedly universal tenets such as ‘class struggle’, ‘patriarchy’ or ‘freedom’ demands the silence of women of colour and our construction as passive objects either to be saved from our ethnic and racial ‘barbarity’ or to be ejected from the European polity completely. For the Enlightenment and modernity to be meaningful, these epistemological movements of violence require the construction and debasement and of alien Others who do not and cannot represent logic, progress and humanity. The left does not sit outside the structures of colonality but plays a key role in its reproduction. The left’s dangerous myths about itself—that its movements for liberation were open and inclusive for all marginalised groups—are jealously protected in order to defend its colonial identities and conceptions of an emanicipatory politics that is premised on and made possible by the exclusion of particular social groups who exist at the intersection of race, class, gender, sexuality, disability and legal status.
Thus, if we are serious about emancipation and liberation we must move beyond the idea that the left can be reformed through the inclusion of women of colour in these spaces or in the diversifying of said spaces. The liberalspeak of diversity and inclusion leaves intact oppressive knowledge production and social relations. It is only through a process of and commitment to decolonality that we can dismantle the identities, ideologies and social relations that wreak epistemological, ontological and physical violence on women of colour.
If the left is deeply implicated in colonality, what would a decolonised left look like? To decolonise means to dismantle the power relations that (re)produce hierarchies of race, gender and knowledge and construct new knowledge and social relations to imagine and build other possible futures. For me, a key starting point for a decolonised left in Europe is centering the ideas, knowledge, experiences and analyses of women of colour. In seeking to centre the most marginalised groups, we are not seeking to reaffirm essentialism. Instead, we are prioritising and amplifying subjugated knowledges that are, under a regime of colonality, dismissed and delegimitised. What would it mean for liberation struggles to act as if race, class, gender, sexuality, disability and legal status—intersectionality, in other words—always mattered to our political imaginations, organisations and mobilisations? In struggling for other possible worlds and other possible knowledges we seek to achieve cognitive justice and recognise women of colour as competent beings, knowers and doers.
Let us return to our project on minority women’s anti-austerity activism to demonstrate what decolonality might look like in practice. When we seek to centre the knowledge and experience of women of colour, the meaning and lived experiences of the economic crisis and subsequent austerity measures shifts dramatically. Even before the 2008 economic crisis, people of colour and particularly women of colour in France and Britain were experiencing persistent economic and social hardships. However, this institutionalised social, political and economic exclusion does not particularly feature when we discuss poverty and inequality in Britain and France. Decolonality would take as a starting point the ‘banality’ of women of colour’s poverty and inequality and seek to understand the processes that render women of colour’s precarity a common sense reality unworthy of dedicated policy and political action. Once we understand that many women of colour exist in a constant state of economic crisis we can begin to dismantle fallacy of the construction of the 2008 economic crisis that erases women of colour’s institutionalised inequality. We can then start asking more relevant questions such as ‘whose crisis counts’; ‘whose crisis are we naming through the misleading political narrative since 2008’ and ‘how are some women of colour organising and mobilising despite living in constant crisis’? In so doing, we bring into sharp relief the governing frameworks that erase women of colour as political agents and seek to tell counter-narratives about both crisis and resistance through a lens of intersectionality and decolonality.
I remain sceptical about decolonising the left. There is too much at stake in terms of preserving the mythical radical past and present of Marxism, feminism and anarchism. What we can do is expand those already existing spaces of decoloniality (which, of course, are not wholly unproblematic) in Black feminism and womanism, trans feminism, decarceration struggles, indigenous people’s movements, migrants rights and sex workers rights in order to imagine and make real a different kind of future and geography of justice and equality.