When Time Out London invited the leading actresses of the new film, “Suffragette”, to be photographed for its October 2015 issue, they did not envisage the heated debate that ensued. The photoshoot featured the stars of the movie, Meryl Streep, Carey Mulligan, Romola Garai, and Anne-Marie Duff posing in t-shirts bearing Emmeline Pankhurst’s quote, “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.” The appropriateness of the t-shirts message was called into question. Reactions to this debate have been very enlightening as well as disturbing. The photoshoot provided another opportunity to see white feminism in action and the reaction shows how difficult it is for feminists of colour to be heard in a visibly white world.
Below are 8 reasons why the quote on the t-shirts is inappropriate, insensitive and offensive as a promotional material for a 21st century film that seeks to promote equality.
1- Not everyone has the luxury of choosing between being a slave or a rebel
My ancestors were humans who were carted off from Africa and made slaves in foreign lands. They did not have the luxury of choosing between being a rebel or being a slave. No one would “rather be a slave”. Many of them were rebels but this did not save them from being slaves. They did not just hand themselves over to their captors. They did not just roll over and decided to live the slave life. They did not choose to be separated from their families and land of births.
Captivity was forced on them. Slavery was forced on them. Many were born into slavery. Being a rebel in the sense of organising protests and speeches under police protection and throwing animal blood at their fancily dressed “Masters” were not options available to them.
However, the fact that millions of my ancestors died as slaves in foreign lands did not mean that many of them were not rebels. There were rebellions on the slave ships. Many died with their rebellion stories that will never be told.
Many slaves learned to survive and keep their sanity in the face of utter atrocities and the most degrading treatment known to humans.
Many were rebellious enough to keep their sanity, build a community, and nurture generations of rebels.
They were slaves not because they chose not to be rebels but because they were captured or born into slavery. They were humans turned slaves not because they had rather be slaves than be rebels.
2- It lacks Intersectional Feminism
In this day and age, progressives should be conscious of all the intersections that can unite or divide us as feminists. When those issues are raised, white feminists should not try to ‘whitesplained’ away the concerns of black feminists. They should listen, ask questions and learn. We are in the fight against sexism together. However, we all have different experiences that are magnified by colour, race, class, sexual orientation, and our different background and history.
As a black African woman, ‘Slave’ is a word that gives me the shivers. It is a word that comes with baggage and a horde of unwanted feelings. Slave is a word that serves as a vivid reminder of the atrocities my ancestors suffered in the hands of white people. Slave is a word that reminds me that I am still impacted and affected by that horrible history. ‘Slave’ is a word that makes me aware that we still have a long way to go before we come close to achieving a post-racial society.
I am aware that a white person wouldn’t necessarily have the same feelings I have as a black person towards the word ‘Slave’, especially when used as a noun. This is not so surprising because our history and stories concerning slavery and its effects are different.
I find it appalling that white people trivialise the word ‘Slave’ and even use it as a sort of fantasy game. For example, if only I had a penny for the numerous times white men on dating sites send me messages that they want to be my slave and would be honoured if I could whip their white arses. By virtue of their privileged background, they can afford to casually throw the word ‘Slave ‘around, whereas for me as a black woman, the word conjures up horrible images of the atrocities suffered by my ancestors.
As a black woman, I cannot afford not to have a negative reaction to the word slave; after all, it was not so long ago that slave owner paraded Sarah Baartman as a freak. A white woman’s reaction to being told by a white suitor online to be a slave would be different from my reaction as a black woman. Too much baggage comes with the word that it can never be a trivial, fantasy word.
Slavery is not a fantasy; it is the lived experience of my ancestors.
‘Slave’ is not just a euphemism or a verb to describe your discomfort; it was an identity forced on my ancestors by their white captors.
‘Slave’ is not just another word for a non-rebellious victim; it is much more than that.
‘Slave’ is a word that some white people still consciously or unconsciously associate with a black person, a black woman, a black employee, their black colleagues or the black neighbour whose presence in their neighbourhood has brought down the property value of the area.
‘Slave’ is an inaudible, taboo but still heavy word that permeates the atmosphere when black and white people are in the same room, especially when there is a conflict of interest. We might not acknowledge its presence, we might deny that it is even there but when we disagree, when tensions run high, when arguments get heated, the word ‘slave’ comes alive. “You could have been my slave in another life” are thoughts that come alive when the die is cast.
I bear this burden of invisible wounds, long lasting effects and impact of slave trade. I reel from the word slave. White feminists might not understand the shiver I get from the casualization of the word, but they should sit down, listen and learn why this word should not be so trivialised. Those who argue that sexism is itself a form of slavery really needs to take a seat and take a class in slavery. Even then, they still won’t get the full impact of it because only the wearer knows where the shoe pinches.
3- Turning a blind eye to racism in the name of fighting sexism is never right
The promotional shoot for the film ‘Suffragette’ tried to address a big issue by trivialising another momentous big issue. Considering that feminism should encompass all women including women of colour, the film promoters failed gigantically in not putting into consideration the impact of the word ‘Slave’ on women of colour. It is bad enough that the film erases the racism condoned by many suffragettes, but to actually go ahead to use such an insensitive quote to promote the film is tactless and harmful. The chosen quote does not promote an intersectional message and it failed woefully in living up to the standard of acceptable social consciousness in this 21st century.
It is sad that many white women who consider themselves “non-racist” gets angry when women of colour talk about racism. White women are often irked when black feminists raise issues of racism in feminism. Why are white women so quick to trivialise or dismiss the concerns of women of colour? Some white women are very passionate about pointing out sexism but get defensive whenever issues concerning racism are raised. They are quick to throw around meaningless concoctions like “Reverse racism” and “Black on black crime”.
For example, during the 2011 London riot, I made a Facebook post about how I wanted to go out wearing my hooded leather jacket but looked in the mirror and thought, “Wrong skin colour, wrong place and wrong time” and discarded the hooded jacket. I also mentioned that I was glad my teenage son was not in London during the riot because of his skin colour and police prejudice, especially during a riot. Some of my online white friends were quick to admonish me for my concerns. A white friend said she was hurt that I felt that way! Those white friends with whom I joined hands to condemn sexism said my feelings and fears concerning racism were not valid. To them, concerns about racism in Britain is just an excuse black people use to be racist towards white people!
There was the time I posted a picture of black Barbie dolls that were selling at much lower price than white Barbie dolls and a white female friend with whom I share a common interest in addressing fatshaming and promoting body acceptance, said I was being too sensitive. She claimed i was just trying to find faults were there was none. When I told her I could write a treatise on the implications of the picture, she immediately unfriended me. At that point, I was no longer the feminist friend she fights body shaming with; I was a loud, angry black woman who sees racism in everything.
It is sad those white feminists are easily annoyed when black women of colour raise concerns about racism and its effects We can be their friends if we only care about the things our white friends care about. We can be body positive allies, we can rant against online sexism together, but we are not allowed to talk about other issues that do not affect them as white women. When we start talking about racism, we stop being their cool black friends. We become just another angry loud-mouthed black woman. We become the stereotype they have been warned about.
White feminists should stop being so irked when black people point out racism. We get it, racism is not top of your agenda as white feminists, racism does not affect your daily life, but kindly sit your privileged white ass down for a minute and actually listen to why it is important for us to talk about racism and address ways you could be racist or enable racism without even realising it. Surely, this should not be too difficult to do or too big a thing to ask.
4- It is much more than just an African American Vs UK suffrage movement debate
I don’t have to be an African American to find the t-shirts message repulsive, appalling, disconcerting, classist and racist. I did not need to know the connection between the word ‘rebel’ and ‘confederates’ before i was appalled by the quote on the t-shirts. As a black African Nigerian woman resident in London, I was immediately repulsed when I saw the white women cast of the film smiling into the camera wearing t-shirts with the slogan “I’d rather be a rebel than be a slave’. As a feminist, I went “Err, how thoughtless!”
If I was on a protest ground with fellow feminists fighting for equality and some white feminists wore these T-shirts, I would certainly side-eye them and probably engage them in discussion on why it was an offensive T-shirt especially in the context of our shared fight for equality and the need for intersectionality.
Treating the issue as if it were just a case of difference between the UK’s suffrage movement and America’s suffrage movement only serves to silence the voices of other feminists who are not nationals of those two mighty nations. By solely centering the debate on the difference between suffrage movements in America and Britain, they ignore the fact that there are feminists outside those two regions who find these t-shirts slogan appalling and disconcerting. This centrist focus further treats feminists of other nationals as irrelevant and invisible.
Dear white feminists, Britain and America are not the be-all and end-all of everything feminism. There are feminists outsides those two shores and they are also concerned and affected by the message promoted in the photoshoot.
5- Being a rebel does not automatically exclude anyone from being a slave
One can be a rebel and still be a slave of an oppressive system. One can be a rebel and a slave.
One can be a feminist and still be enslaved by patriarchy. Slave is not a title one award to oneself. ‘Slave’ identity was forced on enslaved humans.
A rebel makes a conscious decision to rebel against the status quo. It is a physical and sometimes mental expression to break away from the status quo. However, the mere act of being a rebel does not abolish the status quo.
Slavery is not just a mental state; it is a physical state as well. Those who benefit from the status quo and who are empowered by the system force it on others less fortunate than them. Also, during the slave trade era, many slaves were rebels but this did not mean they stopped being slaves.
6- It blames and shames the victims of systemic oppression
Do we now shame victims of oppression for choosing to survive rather than die as rebels while in ‘white terms’we define who qualifies as a ‘rebel’?
How is it OK to blame victims of oppression? How is it even acceptable to shame victims who are already subjected to gross violations of their human rights? Is it their fault that they could not break away from the chains of oppression?
The women in Saudi Arabia who are not allowed to drive cars or go out without a male chaperone are victims of patriarchy, religion and culture. Many of these women are rebels in their own way. Some of them challenge the status quo using strategies available to them within the constraints of their culture and environment. Who are we to look down on them and declare, “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave”?
Who says they are not rebels in their own way?
Who says the white idea of rebellion is the best way and only way to be a rebel?
Is it that unless they discard of their hijabs and go naked on the streets to protest their oppression, they are not rebels and therefore have chosen to rather be slaves?
My friends in high schools and the many African girls who were subjected to female genital mutilation did not have the option to be rebels; they were just kids who fell victim to an awful cultural practice that stems from patriarchy. They did not choose to not be rebels, they were victims.
Women who are trafficked and held as sex slaves did not choose not to be rebels; they are victims.
Going by the logic of “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave”, we can now blame and shame the innocent schoolgirls captured by the Nigerian Islamist terrorist group, Boko Haram. We can wear our fancy t-shirts and look down on them from our high position and wonder –
- Why on earth are they still choosing to be a slave to Boko Haram rather than be rebels like us”?
- How dare they not have escaped, organised freedom speeches and lynch their captors?
- How dare they not be rebels? How dare they remain slaves!
Yeah, somehow, some white feminists thought it was ok to dress white women in t-shirts with the thoughtless quote “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave”, as a rallying call against sexism and patriarchy while they look down their noses on those who have allegedly ‘chosen’ to be slaves. No dear white feminists, it does not work that way.
“I’d rather be a rebel than a slave” is a victim-blaming slogan. Such slogans only serve to divide rather than unite. It is classist, it is racist, it is divisive, and it is insensitive.
7- As an Emmeline Pankhurst quote, it is still questionable in context, and on T-shirts
The fact that a famous suffragette said these words in a rally 100 years ago does not validate the appropriateness of the quote for all time. It does not even mean the quote was appropriate for its time, especially not when many suffragettes were racists and did not encourage the full participation of women of colour in the suffrage movement. Emmeline Pankhurst whose quote it was could hardly be held up as a paragon of racial equality. Therefore, even in its original context, the words are not that palatable.
Messages on promotional T-shirts are powerful; they send a message across to a diverse audience. I learned to be conscious of t-shirts message in my teens. As a teenager growing up in Nigeria, I bought a pretty second hand pink t-shirt with the words “Touch the mountains” emblazoned on it. In my naiveté, I thought, it carried a profound message like “Reach for the sky” or “fly high”. However, I was constantly surprised when strangers, particularly men on the streets, would read the slogan aloud and try to touch my boobs. When I jumped in surprise or got angry, they would say, “But you said to touch the mountains”. Well, to them, the “Touch the mountains” slogan on my t-shirt meant, “Touch my boobs”, because to them, boobs are mountains! It took me longer than I was proud of to finally figure out that the message on that t-shirt could be construed as a lewd invitation rather than a motivational message. Since that sexist, abusive experience, I tend to seriously scrutinise the words on any t-shirt I put on.
Would I wear a t-shirt with the quote, “I would rather be a rebel than a slave”? No, I would not.
Would I be happy if my fellow feminists, especially white feminists don this t-shirt? No, I would not.
Would I yank it off them if they did? No, I would not.
However, I would attempt to let them know why the T-shirt is offensive and insensitive. Sometimes, people just don’t get the underlying harmful message in a t-shirt slogan, a supposedly powerful quote, or even in a protest song.
8- White women equating sexism to slavery is disgusting
So white women have never been slaves? Slavery is something that have ONLY happened to black people?
As I was not inclined to humour her, I asked her to go educate herself and take her trolling ass off my wall, to which she responded
You can block me and delete my comments – as you can block and delete the history of abuse against all women including white women in your own mind. But the truth will not go away.
As it was one of these days that it was easier to reach for the block button than write a treatise, I blocked her ass. Unfortunately, this inane, disgusting, and ridiculous argument keeps surfacing.
Do we really want to start playing the game of “I was a victim too, how dare you complain!”
Do we really want to compare the sexism suffered by white women to the Atlantic slave trade?
Were black men able to legally purchase white women as slaves? NO.
White women enjoyed the inhuman privilege of owning black slaves.
By virtue of their skin colour, white women could whip, sell or lynch their black slaves.
Yes, sexism curtailed the social standing of white women; however, racism raised the social status of white women.
It is disgusting for a white woman to diminish or trivialise the effects of racism by citing sexism. White women did not suffer mass murders in the name of sexism. Black people were massacred and hung en masse. Black Africans were thrown off slave ships into the oceans alive sometimes under very frivolous circumstances as insurance claim. Those who survived the brutal, degrading, disease ridden journeys were on arrival paraded like animals, sold to the highest bidders, brutally branded, forced to learn new language, take their owners’ names and were worked to death under inhuman conditions. Comparing this abhorrent time in the history of humankind to sexism is highly ignorant, offensive, and appalling.
Meryl Streep and her “Suffragette” movie co-stars posing with t-shirts that read, “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave”, screams white feminism. It sends across the awful message that white women concerns are more important than intersectional feminism. We cannot address inequality while ignoring racism. We cannot do feminism without taking on board intersectionality. We cannot successfully tackle inequality without breaking down the systemic barriers that foster inequality.