Less than a year ago, I had the privilege to march in solidarity with 10,000 women in Brazil’s first national black women’s march to protest racism, violence, and other injustices. It was inspiring to see women from a diverse range of movements and with different identities coming together to say that we need to focus on black women right now. This message needed to be heard. Afro-Brazilian women, who make up over 25% of Brazil’s population, experience the largest wage gap, the highest rates of maternal mortality, and increasingly higher rates of gender-based violence.
The march was one of the first environments I was in where I felt that my entire identity was being acknowledged, where the complexities of race and gender were manifest.
This week I will have the opportunity to return to this type of setting at the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) Black Feminisms Forum in Bahia, Brazil. The historic convening is a preconference to AWID’s 13th International Forum focused on building solidarity for rights and justice. At the Black Feminisms Forum, black and Afro-descendant feminists from all over the world will come together to create a safe space to discuss, strategize, and share practices for both healing from and combating racism, sexism, classism, and other intersecting forms of oppression.
Spaces where black women are able to reflect and deconstruct the unique experiences we face are few and far between, but we need to cultivate these settings. This is necessary not only for our own well- being but for the growth and advancement of the international women’s movement. We cannot achieve the full freedom and realization of women’s rights if we fail to recognize how our movement clings on to practices that perpetuate racism, classism, ableism, and transphobia, among others. Without centering the feminist movement on black women, we risk leaving behind the most marginalized in our strides toward liberation.
For example, rather than solely focusing on securing safe and legal abortion, feminist activists need to go further in pushing for an end to racial discrimination against women by health professionals. Similarly, we need to acknowledge that it is primarily black and low-income women in Brazil who are most at risk of contracting the Zika virus and will be the most likely to seek and die from an unsafe abortion.
Of course, racial discrimination affects women and mothers in a range of ways, not limited to their maternal or their sexual and reproductive health. Black mothers across the Americas carry the emotional burden of raising children while fearing that their children could be taken from them as victims of police violence.
The theme of AWID’s Forum is building collective power, and it is my hope that we black feminists emerge with the strength and the affirmation to advance our respective movements and to shape the women’s movement writ large. We need to fully acknowledge our differences and explore in a more nuanced way what justice and power looks like for the most vulnerable and marginalized women.
In the words of Audre Lorde, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”