What We Are Reading: November 2022

Illustration: Nash Weerasekera, The Jacky Winter Group

Written by María Wong

Following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, conversations on race and racism dominated headlines. While this spurred a wide array of statements and pledges, tangible action was more elusive. Now, as the media moves on and an inevitable backlash rises, it is more important than ever to keep the conversation—and action—moving forward. For many, particularly Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC), this moment was not the beginning of our intersectional, anti-racist feminist work, but it was a critical push for new allies and collaborators. The hard and important work continues. 

In this month’s What We Are Reading, we highlight resources that encourage us to take further action as we work towards becoming actively anti-racist. Together, they remind us that structural racism and gender issues are deeply intertwined and indivisible, that issues of white saviourism and exclusion become a double burden for racialized women in these spaces, and that all feminist organizations should be actively interrogating race and power with a gender-focused lens. The first report takes these gender and feminist issues up explicitly, while the latter two provide helpful insights on how organizations can be more intentionally anti-racist and bring a decolonial world view. Feminism will only truly shift power in lasting and transformative ways through intersectional, anti-racist, and decolonial approaches.

COFEM is an advocacy collective of thought leaders, activists, practitioners, and academics working globally to end gender-based violence (GBV). This learning brief facilitates learning on racism and white supremacy within feminism. Often “assumed by default” to be inclusive of all women and girls, mainstream feminism has a long history of exclusion. Referred to as “White feminism” or “Western feminism,” COFEM explains that it “disregards the struggles and voices of Black, Indigenous, and Women of Colour (BIWOC), and centers the experiences of White, educated women while failing to address and acknowledge the challenges and oppression faced by their counterparts.” Intersectional feminism, on the other hand,  centres “the voices of those experiencing overlapping, concurrent forms of oppression in order to understand the depths of the inequalities and the relationships among them in any given context.”

According to COFEM, “feminist practice within the international development and humanitarian sectors, in particular within GBV prevention and response, has been led by White Western feminist ideology and practices.” Through a failure to include diverse voices, experiences, and identities, “GBV prevention and response will fail to address the unique needs of women and girls who are often left out, and undermine feminism’s core tenet to improve the status of all women.”

COFEM offers organizations practical ways of applying intersectional feminism in their work to end GBV, along with recommendations and calls to action for practitioners, researchers, advocates, allies, and funders. For funders, recommendations include: providing flexible support to women and girl-led long-term agendas and strategies for feminist movements, collaborating with locally led women’s rights organizations, and being cognizant of how your role can potentially interrupt women and girls’ decision-making processes.

Lastly, COFEM urges individuals and organizations to

challenge ourselves to question, observe, learn, and unlearn concepts that are not conducive to our growth and to better serve women and girls. We cannot oversimplify what feminism, racism, and intersectionality stand for, but we must challenge the status quo and engage in movements to critically address all forms of prejudice, discrimination, and other saturated forms of oppression that minimize the experiences of women and girls.

Bond is the UK network for international development organizations working to transform the sector. This toolkit was developed in response to sector demands for practical guidance on becoming locally-led and actively anti-racist. It begins with crucial definitions to help organizations understand and guide their work ahead, including a clear definition of anti-racism: the work of actively opposing racism by advocating for changes in political, economic, and social life.

The toolkit builds on Bond’s previous Racism, Power, and Truth (2021) report, which emphasizes that “organisations need to understand how racism manifests in their cultures, policies and work to take the first steps to becoming actively anti-racist.” This toolkit reiterates the importance of being anti-racist from the inside out. It challenges organizations to “go beyond claiming your commitment to ‘results’ or ‘locally led development’ and clearly acknowledge the racism at the root of the development challenges and the prejudices that affect decisions and approaches in the present.”

Bond identifies 9 organizational elements (such as programs and partnerships, governance and decision-making, etc) for self-evaluation through difficult but vital questions such as: 

  • Are you centring BIPOC voices in your organization?
  • How comfortable are the team in discussing the power you hold and racial equity within the team?
  • Does the risk register recognize risks around specifically not being anti-racist?

Additionally, Bond offers benchmarks to help organizations decide where they are on their journeys to becoming anti-racist and locally-led. For example, anti-racist and locally-led donor organizations provide flexible, multi-year, unrestricted funding to community-led organizations, as well as non-financial resources for building the capacity of locally-led organizations.

Peace Direct is an international charity dedicated to stopping wars and supporting local people to build long-term peace. Their 2021 report, Time to Decolonize Aid, explores how structural racism manifests itself within the humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding sectors from the perspective of practitioners, activists, and researchers from the Global South. Race, Power and Peacebuilding (2022) builds on this report and through extensive consultations dives deeper into peacebuilding issues.  

Participants emphasized feeling excluded from leadership and decision-making. They identified three areas of concern: (a) the trend towards a ‘professionalised’ industry of peacebuilders, (b) how unequal local-global power dynamics limit effective peacebuilding, and (c) the Global North’s role in geopolitics and its impact on peace efforts.

Key takeaways from this report include reminders that stereotypes stemming from the colonial era impact peacebuilding today. This includes “the narrative that there is something inherently ‘primitive’ and ‘barbaric’ within non-White, non-European populations. For conflict-affected populations who are non-White and from the Global South, such stereotypes continue to influence the ways the international community engages in conflict-affected areas.” This includes holding erroneous assumptions, including excessive fears that Global South leaders are unsuitable or corrupt (Western moral superiority), the belief Global North actors are unbiased and best placed to facilitate peace efforts (‘West knows best’), and that “White populations are in some way more ‘civilized’ and therefore necessary to help ‘less civilized’ populations address conflict that is seen as natural or normalized (the ‘White man’s burden’).” Another key issue includes concerns that the international community is more interested in stabilization rather than genuine and sustainable peace. 

The report makes a series of recommendations grouped into three categories. Taken together, they offer a possible way to decolonize and strengthen peacebuilding. Examples include: 

  1. Worldviews, Norms and Values 

Reflect on your identity. This includes asking questions such as: What privileges do your identities afford you? In what ways have you reinforced the ‘White gaze’ of the sector?

  1. Knowledge and Attitudes

Fund courageously and trust generously. Funders are encouraged to reflect on their power and how they use it, directly fund local communities, trust grantee partners to determine their own priorities, and fund flexibly. 

  1. Practice

Recruit differently. Diversifying the staff, management, and governance structures of Global North organizations, through a DEI lens and a re-evaluation of what constitutes expertise, is critical to decolonizing organizations and attitudes. 

Continue Reading

Move with Us

Support the Equality Fund’s work worldwide

Accelerate the power of women, girls, and trans people everywhere.
Donate Now