Phyll: Are BME women politically engaged?
Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, known as Lady Phyll, is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of UK Black Pride, and Head of Campaigns at the largest civil service trade union. She describes herself as a politically engaged activist
Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, known as Lady Phyll, is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of UK Black Pride, and Head of Campaigns at the largest civil service trade union. She describes herself as a politically engaged activist and ally for anyone who is experiencing discrimination and injustice.
When it comes to thinking about whether BME women are politically engaged, it depends who you’re talking to and what constitutes as ‘politically engaged’. If you know your history, it means that you can tackle particular things and amplify your voice, and be quite confident about knowing that your whole being is political.
My own political awareness started when I was about ten, ten and a half, and we were shipped out from Tottenham to live in Hertfordshire. There used to be this little sort of dance club I went to, called the Town House in Enfield town. Now Enfield Town was renowned for its racism; the BNP had their headquarters there. One day I was walking from the Town House with two friends. People started beeping and swearing and saying ‘here they come, here they come’, and we were none the wiser but then we saw these thug-like skin heads marching down. And this old white lady, with her little shopping trolley, she said to us, “you better go and hide in there”. She told us to get into the shop front and wait there until they had passed by. So we asked why, and she said, “because they don’t like your sorts”.
So we had to stand out of the way in this shop front, just waiting for this troop marching to Enfield Town in all their glory, in their splendour- ‘they owned it’ and they claimed it. I think that was when I realised; you’ve highlighted to me that I’m different. I’ve always know that I’m different. But you’ve validated something in my mind that makes me realise that I’m different, but in a negative way for you.
Education and political engagement
I think education is absolutely everything. When you don’t teach young children of colour about their history, or her-story, or their-story, there’s a missed part of who they are; a sense of lost identity. So how do they go forward and become politically engaged? There has to be a click or a change that makes you drive forward and want to know who you are. And a lot of children haven’t got that drive or that instinct, because at school they’re being taught things like Christopher Columbus, or the Battle of Hastings in 1066. They’re not being taught about colonialism, or the ‘Empire’, the jewels and riches that were stolen from Asia and Africa, how people were taken to the Caribbean, where our background and heritage may be from. When you empower children with information, they are rich. They are rich with that diversity. When they don’t have that information, they are somewhat lost, and looking for the light switch in the dark basically.
I think what we have to remember is, the system wasn’t built for us. And my school peers – who were all white, would be none the wiser, because their history’s telling them about Churchill and the Battle of Hastings, and that is their reality. But my mum used to teach Fante to a group of children (that’s one of our languages that we speak), so that they couldn’t not know how to speak their language. Because one thing my parents were very clear about; be so proud of who you are, because our lineage is rich and it is beautiful and it’s real, and some people don’t have that. But we didn’t hear about any of that in school, you know – that Ghanaians had so many dialects and languages, and Nigerians, and Pakistanis, different languages or religions or beliefs. We just didn’t hear any of that. If I had to rely on my school alone to help develop or navigate me through my teens, then I’d have wanted to top myself or something.
Things also changed when I started to read and you know I found this book – Angela E Davis ‘Race and Class and Gender’ and my gosh. I mean I just fell in love with this woman! I wanted her to be my mother, my sister, my girlfriend, my boyfriend – everything, all in one! And I, I practically salivated as I was reading the book because it was like she was talking about me, she wrote that book for me. And then finding out about Bell Hooks and Assata Shakur, it was like – these are black women and they’re radical, politically engaged. You know when you’re so in awe of somebody, you don’t know them but you do know them because they are part of your life now. They helped me not to punch the next white person who said, ‘you look like the person in Roots’.
Exercising your right to be politically engaged
I think you’ve got core pockets of really strong BME women who are politically engaged, but we’re only really hearing things like that case with the MP Dawn Butler. In the Houses of Parliament, she’s going into the lift and they thought she was a cleaner! So here is a politically engaged BME woman, but the sort of white middle class very privileged elite group look at her and wouldn’t think that she has the right to be politically engaged; they would see her as a cleaner. And cleaners can be politically engaged of course. But you know, what is society telling these strong women that have studied, who are well versed and articulate and eloquent in their diction? That well actually, ‘we thought you were here to sweep up after us, we didn’t realise you were an MP’.
And this is why 1000women is so important. To show what we do, and who we work with, and how we build up an ally base – your struggle’s got to be my struggle, and my struggle’s got to be yours. Otherwise I’m putting my head above the parapet fighting this battle and you’re, you know, turning a blind eye to an injustice.
The question should be ‘how am I being an ally?’ How am I supporting disabled people in a wheelchair who are being discriminated against? I’m not going to just say oh that’s terrible, turn a blind eye and pick up my coffee and drink it. I’m going to be out on the streets with them, marching and chanting, taking it to ten Downing Street and saying ‘this is an injustice’. And an injustice to one is an injustice to all.
When you look back to civil rights, you know they fought hard. Some people lost their lives to make changes so that you and I, even in this country, could sit in a café together – and sit at the largest table, even when a white man comes in with nowhere to sit. So we’ve got to think politically back to what happened in the past in order to really be clear on what we want the future to look like.
So are BME women politically engaged? I always say to people you’ve got to understand that your very being, the moment you’re born is a political statement that you made. The colour of your face, your gender, your sexual orientation, your disability, is going to be political. Because you are probably going to be disadvantaged or discriminated somewhere along the line for difference. Difference which should really be seen as beautiful wonderful rich diversity.
Find out more: Supporting civic rights in the UK through activism
UK Black Pride promotes co-operation and celebration of diversity among all Black people of African, Asian, Caribbean, Middle Eastern and Latin American descent. To find out more or get involved as a volunteer, click here. TUC, the Trades Union Congress, represents the majority of trade unions in England and Wales, and campaigns for the rights of working Britons. To find out more, click here.