Feminista Jones in conversation
As part of the Women of the World festival at the Southbank Centre 2015, Saturday 7th March.
It’s a beautiful day. People are humming around the Southbank. Vitamin D soaks through the skin to generate feelings of optimism, hope and joy. Today is how every day should be; we are celebrating the work or a diverse group of powerful, intelligent women.
The sun spills through the Weston Roof Pavilion as women, and a few handfuls of men, take their seats. Feminista Jones, a beautifully self-possessed and powerful presence, jokingly takes a selfie from the sidelines with the packed room. Everyone beams in anticipation of her talk ‘designed to make you blush, cry, laugh and shout all at once’.
She takes to the stage. Her warmth is immediate and embracing. Then she tells us how to change the world.
Feminista Jones (FJ): Number 1: You have to believe you are worthy. This ends today. You are woman enough to handle anything that comes your way. You are enough as the woman you are. You are worthy of love, respect, admiration and you deserve liberation.
The audience nod in agreement; Ms Jones notices the quiet appreciation and jibes us for being well-mannered Brits. “Are you with me?” she demands. A spatter of yeses. “I said are you with me?” “YES!” cry the audience.
FJ: Number 2: We must share our stories. You never know when your stories will affect others. This is the key to healing and empowerment, sharing your truth with others. Number 3: We have to work together. Start small. Collect stories, even if they’re anonymous- it’s part of helping others to speak out about education, police brutality, immigration – these are all feminist issues that affect us and others. Take small steps to change the rights of girls and women.
Resounding applause. I have goose bumps. Hannah Pool, journalist, author and curator, steps in to lead a Q&A.
HP: Are you ever asked to pick a side – between being black and being a woman?
FJ: Everyday. Inside the community, certain black men think feminism destroys it. I used to put black first and focus on race and culture. Being a woman in my community was tough.
HP: You mention police brutality…
FJ: Black people are being picked off day by day, this has happened for centuries. We need to change the community and treat blacks differently. As a mother, I am conscious that what young men and women are learning effects how they act in the future, particularly with women. Feminism is needed.
HP: Do you ever feel disassociated from the mainstream feminist movement?
FJ: I am the mainstream feminist movement! [Big round of applause] It’s not just for white women. Social media is a tool to change this.
HP: Like hashtags, for example, and how they can be used to navigate the conversations that are happening online.
FJ: Exactly. I spoke at Hollaback, a non-profit movement working to end street harassment, and started the hashtag #YouOkSis. The response and conversations online were very strong, particularly with this issue, where women of colour are not being seen as victims of street harassment. There is a huge importance of centring black women in this conversation.
HP: You are also very open about sex and sexual abuse. Your novel, Push the button, is an erotic fiction about a black couple.
FJ: I wanted to write from a black angle about BDSM and kink. The novel is a romance about a couple who are exploring the lifestyle. It started out as a blog post, a short story, but people wanted more. I think this is because kink is typically a white space. Look at 50 Shades, another colonizing white man! In the novel, I have an antagonist who is abusive and perpetrates domestic violence. This is very separate from BDSM and it’s crucial to make that distinction in a sexual space.
HP: Have you experienced any backlash from the novel and your work?
FJ: Mostly from men, but I’ve also had questions from them about sex, like ‘How do I do it? How do I please women?’ I get the usual ‘you’re a ho’ or ‘you’re a slut’, but I deconstruct the words people are using negatively and just say fuck you. Men tell me I’m wrong and I’m tired of that. There’s this misrepresentation of feminism from men and it’s making the movement look bad. Last time I checked, it was feminism, not meninism. When women own their sexual agency and the right to say no, it’s threatening to men.
HP: You freely talk about your experience with depression and sexual abuse- issues that are rarely discussed publicly.
FJ: I grew up in the Black Church, capital B, capital C. It was a very specific way to negotiate the world. It works for some people, but it didn’t work for me. Particularly as sex could be a punishable offence! I found it oppressive in terms of mental health, the ‘pray and it’ll go away’ attitude discourages people from getting professional help. The attitude was ‘only white people have therapists. You have the devil in you!’ These barricades to mental health have a racial implication – black men are twice as likely to get diagnosed with schizophrenia as white men who exhibit the same symptoms. There’s less social housing allocated to people of colour with mental health issues and often this leads to homelessness. There need to be more help out there.
I’m still working through my sexual assault. It begins in sections of the community, in the street for black girls who are 10-12 years old. Up to 60% of black girls are sexually assaulted before they are 18, and it’s often somebody they know. There is a sickness in the community. Confronting the sickness challenges existence and everything we’ve known as a black community. This happens in all communities. Silence is shame – but we didn’t do something wrong. My mother told me I was wrong, that it was my fault, because it happened to me. We need to talk about it.
Hannah Pool cuts to questions from the audience. A wide show of hands.
Q: Is being a sexual predator a male thing, or does it transcend culture?
FJ: I have a degree in sociology, and I know that nothing is innate. It is learned behaviour. For example, some black males overcompensate as a group to help assert masculinity, because of patriarchy they have to work twice as hard to be masculine. They take all their daily experiences of racism and bring it home as a sexual situation.
Q: I have a burden of consciousness. I’m a reluctant feminist, because feminism is a typically white movement. Do you ever get tired? You’re being tugged from all sides, with race, sexuality, feminism. Do you ever think what is the point?
FJ: At least three times a week. Black women have been erased from the movement historically. Feminism started in cultures of colour all around the world. We have the right to claim it. It’s ours, it’s everyone’s. I don’t want to be offered a seat at the table I know I built. Intersectionality is a term thrown around a lot. We are all women- that’s it. Not hyphenated, less, or blank. The more we assert that, the perception of feminism equalling whiteness will change.
Q [from a male audience member]: How do we get more men in the room? How can I talk to my friends about issues like this?
FJ: Thank you for coming. Next time, bring your friends! And they’ll bring their friends. There has been a demonisation of the idea of feminism since the 70s. Using social media to engage is a great way to get involved and change the course of the conversation. Feminism doesn’t teach that men suck, it’s the patriarchy that sucks. Women are victims of patriarchal thinking too. If you’re friends call you out on being a feminist, call you gay or say you’re trying to get laid – whatever. None of these are bad things! And besides, who doesn’t want to get laid?
Q: How to you give yourself the self-care you need to carry on?
FJ: I drink! Being a social worker is my full time job; I spend a lot of time absorbing the trauma of others. Writing helps me to escape. It’s a way of processing thoughts, writing stuff that will never see the light of day but at least it’s out. I always tell myself ‘we’ve gotta change the world’ and that keeps me going.
Q: How do you combat street harassment? Even if you say no from the start and still get harassed.
FJ: There is an inability to accept ‘no’. You have to weigh up the risk; is me asserting my right going to get me hurt, or killed? It’s all in the environmental elements, is it light? Is it busy? Am I in a neighbourhood I know well? Sometimes you just have to absorb it and tweet through it.
She breaks off and asks the audience, “Hands up who here has been catcalled in the street?” An unfortunately large amount of hands point skyward. “And hands up who has spoken to someone about what happened afterwards?” Almost all the hands drop.
FJ: Create a space online to talk through what happened. You will get trolls, but just block them and keep going.
Q: What has having a son taught you? How have you taught him to respect women?
FJ: It’s a cliché, but it takes a village to raise a son. I’m lucky that he has a strong network of people. I tried not to gender him. Being a parent is all about understanding children’s capacity for learning. Modelling interactions with your partner or the other parents is important; this is what shapes their models for future relationships. This is what children pick up on. His father and I are divorced and we may argue, but never in front of him. To him, we’re the best of friends!
Q: Picking up on what you said about the community- I’m Nigerian, and looking back in some of my family interactions, some uncles would linger a little too long, putting their hands around your waist from a young age…
FJ: It is normalised to treat young girls this way, this makes them scared to call their family out. My mom died in 2007, I was scared to tell her what happened to me and I only did it a few months before she died.
Q: Do you think there’s racism in mental health treatment?
FJ: After centuries of psychological trauma, mental health can be passed through generations. The whole world conspired to enslave black people. Black people haven’t been given that space where, for example, Jewish people have. My depression and experience with mental health came from sexism and racism. There’s a problem of representation. Like putting images forth of men in suits and a cap and gown when they get shot. This is giving in, framing them in a certain way. Their lives are not worth less if they didn’t graduate. Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X were shot in suits. Nobody deserves violence.
Hannah Pool wraps up the questions. Applause and cheers ring out, filling the crowded, small room. Feminista Jones is humble, thankful and beaming. This is what a powerhouse looks like.