How Growing Up In A Racist & Sexist Britain Moved Me To Activism

Anber Raz is a British feminist activist. She is Acting Deputy Director of Donor Direct Action, an organisation which partners with visionary front-line women's groups around the world.

When I grew up in Liverpool as a British Asian woman in the 1980s, it was not the cultural and diverse hub it is today. Being one of the very few non-white families in the city came with a price. The price I paid back then shaped who I am today; it’s why I identify as a feminist and why I work as an activist. Growing up in a racist and sexist Britain taught me something I only found words to put to later, when I read the iconic feminist and civil rights activist Audre Lorde:

“When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”

My mother was 17 when she came to the UK from Pakistan. It was 1968. Like many young women, she dreamed of travelling and getting a first-rate education abroad. Her reality was very different. She described how, when she went shopping, shopkeepers who would smile at her with their “good old British charm” would then refuse to accept payment from her. They kept a jar of water filled with dishwasher soap and asked her to drop money in there, lest her brown skin rub off on them.

Unlike my mother, my siblings and I were born in the UK; it’s the only home we’ve ever known and loved. However, some people never failed to point out that, actually, this wasn’t our home and we didn’t belong here. Our car was petrol-bombed numerous times; the 10-minute walk to and from school became something we dreaded, as we ran the gauntlet of having eggs and racial slurs thrown at us by neighbours and passers-by. I remember our parents were forced to turn our house into a fort, with bars on the windows and a steel-enforced front door, which took two people to open.

During my teenage years in Liverpool, the racism I experienced took on a new form; it became tinged with sexism. We were already dealing with the patriarchal culture of our own British Asian communities and now we found ourselves the subject of extreme misogyny laced with racism. Asian women were viewed as “exotic and submissive” and Black women as “always sexually available”.

I remember on one occasion a middle-aged white man once asked me what my religion was. When I answered “Muslim”, his response was: “Oh wish I was one of them, then I could have four of you”. Because of a combination of fear, frustration and intimidation, I felt it was usually best to ignore. But the feeling of being a target for racial and sexual harassment and an object of “fetishisation” in my home city, just for being a woman of colour, never left me.

Over time, things changed for the better. More movement of people meant greater diversity. The UK’s non-white population increased from three million in 1991 to eight million by 2011. Black and Asian women fought for their rights and for those rights to be protected in law. The 1976 Race Relations Act was replaced by the 2010 Equality Act, but attitudinal change was the major force. Blatant racism slowly became less acceptable in a “decent” society, which isn’t to say that it stopped, as any person of colour will tell you – it just became less obvious.

Since we are at least now talking about these issues publicly, with movements like Black Lives Matter and seemingly better awareness of violence against women, I had hoped on some level that things had moved on. But deep down, I know that there is a huge gap between what some people say and what they really feel, which is hatred for anyone they think may rock their apple cart of power. This fear of losing privilege means that various combinations of structural sexism, racism, discrimination and hatred against anyone seen as “other” permeate all our lives.

Shopkeepers kept a jar of water filled with dishwasher soap and made my mother drop money in there, lest her brown skin rub off on them


Perhaps what’s so insidious about racism and sexism today is that we talk about equality, but we don’t see it in the highest levels of power. We don’t see it in the US Republican Party, which is largely controlled by conservative white men, and which did not condemn Trump for hiring a chief government strategist who previously oversaw a website promoting anti-women and anti-Muslim views and white supremacy. We don’t see it in a UK that voted to leave the European Union, or a UK that experienced a surge in anti-immigrant hate crimes – particularly directed at women – back in June this year.

Having grown up around blatant acts of racism, what shocks and terrifies me today is how big public displays of hatred, which have global ramifications, are not being challenged. Over half of white women in the US voted for a man who not only threatens their bodily integrity, but also their reproductive rights. In recent years in the UK, not just men, but some women viewed violence against women – such as female genital mutilation and domestic violence – as "cultural". It scares me that so many women internalise misogyny, just as some people of colour internalise racism.

It’s important to realise that institutionalised racism and sexism in the UK and US affects women and girls everywhere. In the connected world we live in, decisions made in countries like ours have direct policy implications and make it less likely that women will be involved in critical peace-building efforts – and yet the presence of women at the negotiating table means that peace is 35% more likely to be sustainable.

Funding through international aid is also likely to be affected, which means that work by front-line women’s groups in the economically developing world is put at risk. The small groups I work with operate on a shoestring. The shrinking of their funding means that women's lives are under threat. In the last month, I have talked to one organisation that helps female survivors of violence in Afghanistan, to another that helps get reproductive rights for women in El Salvador, to MARTA in Latvia, which fights against trafficking, and to WRAPA, which takes on cases of domestic violence in Nigeria.

They all say the same thing: they are horrifically underfunded and the attitude of the supposedly developed world has a direct impact on how much money they receive each year.

It can be very frustrating since it is obvious to me what amazing work these groups do and how little funding actually reaches them – when, honestly, they do not need that much. Growing up, I could feel that what was happening to me and my family was awful, but I knew that it didn’t have to be that way. We were made to feel like we were somehow different – first of all, because of the colour of our skin but even more so because I was female. There is only so much “taking it on the chin” that any one person can do. Enough was enough and it was time to fight back, to focus on what I could do to make things better.

This is why I got involved in the feminist movement and why I’ve been working in it now for over 15 years – most recently at Donor Direct Action. I’ve seen that the best way of dismantling hateful structures, which hold us all back, is to support grassroots women’s groups that are addressing institutional sexism and violence against women. I urge other women to do the same. I know what it feels like for many women of colour to have to fight multiple battles and just how exhausting it is; but I also know that we have the ability to fight back if we refuse to give up our activism, if we refuse to be mere objects and stereotypes.
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