Portrait: The voices of black women are missing

2016-05-16 09:30

Victoria Kawesa is one of the originators of the concept of Afrophobia, is third on the Swedish Feminist Initiative’s list of candidates for parliament and is working on the first Swedish PhD thesis on black feminism and whiteness. She sees activism, policy making and research as different sides of the same coin.

‘It’s the same struggle. But it is carried out in different arenas.’

She is a Ugandan native and was born into a family run by strong women. Nevertheless, she soon learned how women are systematically treated worse than men in both the private and public sphere.

‘I was only five years old when I first reflected over the patriarchy. It was the first type of oppression I became aware of. I knew that my maternal grandmother was being abused by her husband. That my mum was abused. How society is constructed so that women always get short-changed.’

Victoria’s father died in the Ugandan civil war when she was three. Her mother raised her and her siblings alone and fled to Sweden when Victoria was nine. Since the plan was for the family to return to Uganda once the situation there improved, her mother put the children in an English-speaking school.

Had to pay the price

In seventh grade, all children in the English school were transferred to a regular Swedish school in central Stockholm. Victoria joined her classmates, even though it meant a long commute from the suburb of Tensta, where the family lived. She soon noticed that she was treated differently to the other children in her new school.

‘People seemed to believe that the colour of my skin signalled some kind of inferiority. Some kids spat at me and threw my books in the wastebasket. Eventually, I felt I couldn’t keep going there. I skipped so many classes the school called my mum in for a meeting. And instead of dealing with the problem, they said I should move to a school in my suburb.’

She tells her story with a smirk, but admits that the whole thing made her sad.

‘I realised that the people in charge, the head of the school and the teachers, seemed to think that we didn’t have any value. I realised that this was something I was going to struggle with for a long time, that racism is built into the system and that white Swedes neither realise nor understand their participation in the reproduction of racist structures.’

It was Victoria who had to pay the price for the racism she was subjected to. After gaining this insight, she decided that she wanted to work for human rights and the equal value of all human beings in the future.

‘I wanted to work against racism and sexism.’

Whiteness was not the norm

Victoria transferred to the school in Tensta. Most pupils were of non-Swedish background and she was able to blend in. And she did not have to deal with the class issue.

‘In the old school, there was a white upper middle-class norm. There was a strong focus on superficial things, like status, your last name and what clothes you wore. We were refugees and didn’t have much money despite my mum working two jobs. We couldn’t afford expensive brand name clothes. In contrast, there was no whiteness norm in Tensta, and because of this I didn’t have to live with a others misinterpretations and perceptions of the colour of my skin. I was able to relax.’

She felt that the world was so much bigger than Sweden and wanted to move to the U.S. and study at a black university. But she did not want to escape from Sweden because of racism and decided to stay in the country and take the fight there.

‘I love school and like to study hard. My parents had to pay for all their schooling. But in Sweden, education does not depend on how much money your parents make, the door is not closed just because you don’t attend the right schools. I tried to explain that to my mum when I was thrown out of school; I told her I’ll still run into the kids from that school at the university. There were different paths but the same goal, all I needed to do was study hard and get good grades.’

Did not want to write about racism

When she was 20 years old, she moved to Lund in southern Sweden to study at the university there. That is when she became engaged in feminist issues. She was on the editorial board of the antiracist publication Mana and participated in feminist demonstrations. She was also involved of the launching of another publication – Slut (in English “The End”). She also became engaged in the Afro-Swedish movement and was one of the initiators of HIRIS, the first HIV/AIDS organisation for Africans in the Swedish province of Skåne.

Victoria completed both a Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s degree in social work and also took freestanding courses at several departments: sociology, psychology, political science. She was also enrolled in the law programme. She spent several years working as a health adviser and counsellor at a hospital, and when she started working on her PhD in 2005, she decided to specialise in healthcare.

‘I didn’t want to write about racism because it hit too close to home. My entire life was focused on work against racism. I wanted to challenge myself and broaden my horizon by focusing on a research field that wasn’t directly connected to my daily life.’

She stuck with the plan for several years. Life went on, and she had two children. Then, last year, she had a change of heart.

‘I realised that if you’re going to write a PhD thesis, you need to write about whatever you feel the most passionate about, no matter how close it feels to you. Writing a PhD thesis about feminist theory is so much about growing emotionally and finding your voice. That took me a long time to understand. I used to think I could do something from a greater distance. But that wasn’t true.’

The new thesis topic was black feminism and whiteness. Victoria describes it as an autoethnographic study.

‘The study has a lot to do with my own journey and my experiences with racism and whiteness. After all, I have 30 years of experience with whiteness. So there’s a lot of navel-gazing. The working title of the project is Black Masks/White Skin, since I’m very influenced by Frantz Fanon. I want to apply a black feminist postcolonial perspective on the blackness/whiteness dynamic.’

But the study is not primarily about the Victoria personally. A lot is tied to the representation that she and other blacks have to carry.

‘Blacks always have to live with a representation where others interpret and project things. You always need to negotiate and relate to a distortion of blackness, and that’s my metaphor, Black Mask. I’m going to interview several black feminists. However, they are not just my interview subjects but also co-creators of the narrative. I want to show that this is something that is happening collectively. And that the black feminist movement is growing.’

Gender research is too white

Despite the increased focus on intersectionality in Swedish gender research in recent years, these are voices that Victoria has missed.

‘The gender research is way too white in the sense that it is populated by white bodies. It is allowed to display an uncritical attitude to whiteness, and thus the experiences and perceptions of white bodies take centre stage. Unless the perspectives are expanded, the field will miss large groups that really need gender research. We need a more antiracist pedagogical stance.’

She points out that black women are positioned at the very bottom of the racial power structure.

‘When we talk about women, we mean white women, when we talk about blacks, we mean black men, when we talk about people, we mean white men. Where’s the black woman? We black women need to find our voice and make it heard through our perspectives.’

These voices are also partly missing in black feminism. Since black feminism as a movement and research field comes from the U.S., it is based on the conditions faced by black women in a white normative Western society.

‘Those who live in a black normative society like Uganda don’t need to deal with the white distortion of blackness on a daily basis. Whiteness doesn’t serve as an oppressive structure in everyday life. People don’t need to negotiate with whiteness and create their identity in opposition to it.’

She is critical of theories about blackness that do not consider that blacks can also be found in African countries and that those who live there are not positioned in relation to whiteness in the same way as blacks in Europe or the U.S.

‘Since I gained my first and most fundamental experiences of being black out of sight of whites in Uganda, I have a different perspective of the blackness/whiteness dynamic. In Uganda, people are differentiated based on ethnicity, religion and gender, but not according to racial categorisation of blackness. It is mainly the construction of blackness based on the postcolonial feminist perspective that I want to apply on black feminism. I want to bring the black African woman into the dialogue.’

Victoria Kawesa will serve as a keynote speaker at the gender research conference g16 in Linköping, Sweden in November 2016. She is also a member of the scientific committee set up for the conference. Read more about g16 here

Author Cecilia Köljing, translated by Debbie Axlid
Photo Victoria Kawesa, photo: Fi press
Related material
show more news ›