Category Archives: Opinion Essays

Nationality, Ethnicity, Heritage & Me

 

2017 is being an intense year for the Western world, marked by the rise of nationalist movements. Anyone with a basic understanding of fascism, xenophobia and white supremacy would have probably seen this coming in the last few years.

When politicians across the spectrum use migrants as a basketball ball to score points, when challenging racism becomes a bore-some activity for so called progressive/liberals, when dealing with inequality and xenophobia is seen as a matter of “overrated identity politics, when people pretend only white people are working class and suffering since the financial crisis of 2008, when the media is still unable to check their biased language, and when all of the sudden everyone wants to pretend we are all equal as if a few decades of brown and black people seen as human (debatable) erases the effects of centuries of genocide, slavery and colonisation, well…. You get this. A region in which racial supremacy and discrimination are okayed again (to be honest, were they ever not okayed?) in the name of freedom of speech.

At the same time, everyone willing to challenge this bigotry is called a “regressive leftist” by people who genuinely believe they are progressive leftists, while being moderate centrists, if anything. Neo-Nazis and conservatives might refer to them as “easily triggered snowflakes”, which is ironic since they turn purple and angry whenever you call their statements ‘racist’. “Clueless social justice warriors” is another label used often by people who still don’t know their right to freedom of speech can only be violated by governments and their agencies/bodies, not by fellow citizens counterarguing what they say.

And lastly, my personal favourite one: “entitled millennials”, a tone-deaf term used by adults who believe young people under 30 years old are all middle-class babies who had everything handed to them (working/lower class young people don’t exist anymore), were rewarded for mediocrity (seriously, where are all these awards? I didn’t get mine) and can’t live outside safe spaces (apparently young people live in protective bubbles away from the cruel real world, I can’t believe I didn’t get one!).

I’m not going to go any deeper into the political situation in the West, I’m still on an indefinite break from writing about social issues at a non-personal level. I just wanted to give a brief look at the context in which this personal article is set. The ongoing discussions about nationalism, patriotism, culture and ethnicity have made me think deeply about my own identity. How I identify and how I am identified. I struggle to determine to where I belong and to which countries/regions I should be loyal too. My national, ethnic and cultural identities are complicated to the point in which I’m uncertain I have any of these.

I was born in the Basque Country, an autonomous region in Spain. I lived there till 2012, the year I moved to England, where I currently reside. My nationality is Spanish and despite living in Britain for over four years, I still have a strong (Northern) Spanish accent. At the same time, I have adopted various British customs, such as saying “sorry” non-stop without an actual reason, eating roast on Sundays, being passive aggressive and drinking a lot of tea throughout the day (just joking!). Despite all this, I was born (and I live) in a different place to where my parents and grandparents were born. Hence, my nationality and place of residence say little to nothing about my ethnicity and heritage.

My mother was born in Equatorial Guinea, located in Central/Middle Africa. Her mother (my grandmother) is from there too, while her father (my grandfather) was originally from a West African country, either Cape Verde or São Tomé and Príncipe (I can’t confirm which one it is since I have been told different things). As you can see, simply in my mother’s side there is already a mixture of ethnicities, which would be even bigger if specific ethnic groups/tribes would be considered (which I won’t do because I don’t want to overcomplicate this article).

Although it might seem confusing, describing my maternal heritage is easy compared to my paternal heritage: my biological father  (from whom I inherited my genetic traits) differs from my legal father (who legally recognises me as his daughter). I have never met my biological father and I know little about him. Meanwhile, I was raised by my legal father and he is the only person I consider a “father” in my life. I was told that my biological father is Senegalese and Bissau-Guinean (both West African countries). My legal father is from DR Congo and his parents (my grandparents) migrated there from Angola. Both countries are in Central/Middle Africa.

I learnt most of this information about my family during the last couple of years. Growing up, I was never curious about my ethnicity and heritage. I never even tried to define them. The only things I was sure about were my race (black) and my nationality (Spanish). While I grew up immersed in Spanish culture, I never felt part of it: it wasn’t something I could claim as my heritage. While Spain is a “colourblind” country in many aspects (when I lived there, race and ethnicity were not officially recorded as in UK), racism and xenophobia are common. People always give you subtle and not-so-subtle reminders about you not being “originally” from Spain.

It was also hard for me to feel attached to my African background because I didn’t grow up with my family (except my siblings). Now and then, I did have access to my parents’ cultures, mainly during family celebrations and spiritual rituals, but these were limited. I can name some basic Congolese food dishes, some basic Equatorial Guinean food dishes. I can understand some words of Lingala (Congolese language) and Pichinglish (Creole language in Equatorial Guinea). I’m aware of some rituals and customs. But my position regarding these cultures is the one of an outsider, rather than someone actively involved in them. In addition, till no long ago, I silently rejected my African background because of the gender roles that were being forced on me in the name of it.

Moving to England and becoming a young adult triggered in me an interest to know more about my roots to define my ethnicity better. In England I saw how most black people, even if British, embraced their ethnicity a lot, not just as “African”, but as Nigerian, Ghanaian, Jamaican… Or even specific subgroups, such as Yoruba. I felt a lot of envy about this, I wished that was me. Meanwhile I realised that I would never be considered Spanish and I wondered if I wanted to live in this continent forever. In addition, when deciding what to study at university, I remember how my dad pushed me to go for something that could help people “back at home”, meaning DR Congo for him.

All this inspired me to learn more about my roots. I asked questions to my family, and I did an Ancestry DNA test to proof-check their answers. While Ancestry DNA isn’t 100% accurate, it is an indicator, and I’m hoping to do a 23andMe check soon, since it is considered more reliable. Here are my Ancestry DNA results:

(*Trace regions are regions/countries which are only possibilities and might appear in the results by chance.)

My reaction to this data was a mixture of confirmation and surprise. I suspected most of my ethnicity would be African. I knew I had some European ancestry because my maternal grandfather was creole/mulatto. I thought I would get a small percentage for Native American (defined by Ancestry as indigenous groups from North to South America) because I was told my maternal great-grandmother has an Indigenous Cuban ancestor (the ancestor might be too distant to appear). I definitely have Afro-Cuban ancestry, something common in my mother’s home country, yet it isn’t reflected on the test since Afro-Cubans, as other Afro-Latinos, are direct descendants of black African slaves sent to the Americas.

I was surprised by the percentage for the Middle East, and although it is just a chance, it might be true due to extensive presence of Middle-Easterns in Africa, particularly in countries that make up my ethnicity. Regardless of this, I’m happy with being just black African, that’s how I have always identified. (Black) Afro-Hispanic is a label that wouldn’t bother me either, since linguistically speaking, I’m indeed Hispanic, which is not the same as Latino by the way (though I do have Latino [and Caribbean] heritage since I have Cuban ancestry and I grew up quite influenced by it).

When comes to individual countries, I already knew I had Senegalese roots, though I didn’t think it would be my biggest percentage. Conversely, I knew I had Bantu background, since my maternal grandmother’s ethnic group is Bubi, a Bantu subgroup, but I didn’t think the percentage would be so small. I was dazed by the rest of African countries and for the lack of mention of Equatorial Guinea, Cape Verde or/and São Tomé and Príncipe, in the list. However, a small look at African history helped me to make sense of this.

Cape Verde and São Tomé and Príncipe were supposedly uninhabited islands when the Portuguese arrived to colonise them. They were populated mainly through European settlers and slaves from continental Africa. That’s probably why countries like Congo and Benin appear in my Ancestry DNA: many slaves were taken from there. A similar logic can apply to Equatorial Guinea: that country was inhabited prior to Portuguese and Spanish colonisation (by ethnic groups like the Bubis), but there was a lot of migration from neighbouring areas afterwards.

Except for two, all the African countries/regions in my results are in West & Central Africa. Considering how European-made national borders in Africa don’t respect ethnic groups and tribes, the variety in my ethnicity makes more sense: the ethnic groups I belong to could be found in various countries in the area. Nationality might not be the greatest indicator for ethnicity in Africa. It is also important to keep in mind I don’t have full access to knowledge about my biological father’s family background. And, as I mentioned earlier, Ancestry DNA isn’t 100% accurate, although my results look more right than wrong.

As you can see, my ethnicity and heritage are heterogeneous. My mother, my legal father and my biological father are all from separate places, even different to their own parents. It is important to mention that while I didn’t inherit genetic traits from my legal father, his heritage and ethnicity still influence my cultural identity. Now, add my nationality (Spanish) and my place of residence (England). To which country in the world am I supposed to be loyal? To which country in the world am I supposed to show patriotism? I identify as black African normally, but I’m aware I’m legally Spanish and I’m a citizen of England.

Having a transnational, multicultural and mixed background is supposed to make me richer in knowledge and experiences, which is not untrue. Yet, it doesn’t make you richer in company. It can be very isolating. You belong to so many places that you end up belonging to nowhere. And more nowadays, when nationalism and ethno-supremacy are such a trend worldwide. It is easy to force nationalism upon people when you haven’t been rejected by your country of birth, when the country where you live doesn’t hate you and when you don’t have a transnational family.

My nationality is culturally and ethnically meaningless. Living in England matters to me, but the current war on immigrants and Brexit make things harder. While I’m trying to learn more about the countries that compose my African background, I still don’t feel attached to them. That’s the main reason why I can’t get behind any person or idea that doesn’t consider that who I am comes from more than one country or region, and tries to shame me for not being nationalistic. I simply have a borderless identity not confined to a single culture or place. And I wish people understood this, just as I respect their right to be patriotic. Hopefully one day, people like me will be considered during political discussions about culture, ethnicity and nationalism. Hopefully.

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#Brexit: So, Now What?

On Friday I woke up to chaos in social media. After months of campaigns, debates, articles and nothing but claims, United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union (EU). Even though this decision affects me severely, since legally I’m an EU migrant living in UK, I would be lying if I said that I was very concerned about the referendum. Not because I didn’t care, but because I have learnt to not panic about things I can’t control or have a say in. Moreover, there wasn’t (still isn’t) any factual information on what was (is) going to happen to EU migrants in UK if Leave was chosen by the majority, and I’m not a fan of baseless assumptions.

I moved to United Kingdom from Spain in summer 2012 due to family circumstances. From the beginning, my plan was to settle here indefinitely. Although my time in college was far from great, I adapted to English life and I ended up liking it more than my old Spanish one. For the first time , going to university was a real option for me. I became involved in many volunteering and social action opportunities (NCS, Team v Leader, Red Cross), something I never had the chance to do before but I enjoy doing it a lot. I met inspirational people, widened my professional networks, and while not many, I made great friendships I want to keep forever. At present, I’m studying in a university I love, living independently, doing a great course, with a nice job and having opportunities to do things such as attending summer schools in South East Asia (I will be off to Singapore on Wednesday if my current poor health allows it!).

Of course, life in UK isn’t perfect, and since last year, it has been harder. I would say it all began with the general election campaigning although it was probably there before. As many already know, there has been an increase in nationalist and far right parties/groups across UK. Anti-immigration discourse dominated the political sphere before the elections, and it revived with the EU referendum. While I didn’t follow the campaigning for the EU referendum thoroughly, I noticed that the Leave side used nationalist and xenophobic rhetoric while the Remain side wrapped themselves in classicism and fear mongering. I also read complaints regarding the poor quality of TV debates and the use of this decision to further personal interests inside British political parties.

Long story short: the campaigning for the EU referendum was messy. To be honest, I can’t blame anyone for this, since it was and still is uncertain what could happen if (when) UK leaves the EU. Making claims and promises is fine, as long as you have evidence, facts and willingness to back them up. Anyways: UK voted to leave the EU. And my first thought after finding this out was, “So, now what?”.  As a development undergraduate, I’m concerned about what will happen to the poorest and most disadvantaged in UK and the EU. As legally an EU migrant, I’m concerned about what will happen to EU migrants in UK. And as an individual, I’m concerned about my academic, professional and personal plans, which seem ruined and uncertain right now.

I have never liked politics. Due to my career aspirations, I have been more involved in them since last year. But it has rarely been a pleasurable activity for me. I hate politics. I hate parliaments. I hate governments. I hate political parties. Not only at an ideological level, but at a personal too. I’m from a low (sometimes zero) income background. I’m a daughter of immigrants, granddaughter of immigrants. I’m black, a minority in Europe. I’m a care leaver, I was under social services care from when I was seven years old to when I was nearly sixteen. Due to all this, I’m quite socially disadvantaged, and the reason has a lot to do with politics.

As a poor child in care who didn’t choose to be born or having a dysfunctional family, hearing people talk so carelessly about destroying the welfare state that ensured my survival isn’t nice. As a black child who is not to blame for the horror of colonialism and slavery, hearing stories about family members not being hired because of their skin colour isn’t nice. As a Spanish child born in a country that she considered her home, being told “go back to your country! You are ruining our culture and values!” isn’t nice. I always try to respect political ideologies across the spectrum. Freedom of speech and all that. But when my identity becomes dehumanised, limits with my tolerance and patience are reached. And this happens constantly within political spheres in Europe, from Spain to UK.

Last year, I tried to get involved in politics a lot. I followed the general election campaigning in UK and researched policy proposals. At some points, I felt motivated and even thought about joining a party. I felt like a democratic citizen. However, this changed drastically on summer, when the refugee/migrant crisis in the Mediterranean Sea erupted. While sections of European society and some states tried to help and follow international law, the reaction by many politicians, media outlets and the public was more than disheartening. European fascism and racism rose dramatically. Or better said: Europe showed its true colours.

You may think this shouldn’t affect me personally. After all, I was born in Spain, Europe. I have Spanish nationality and an EU passport. But it does. Because I’m black. When someone looks at you dirty or directs racist abuse at you on the streets, they do it because of your physical appearance (sometimes accent/language) and they don’t ask for your documentation. And despite of where I was born, I’m African (mainly West African, too many countries to mention). I can’t pretend that xenophobia towards African migrants doesn’t hurt me. The majority of adults in my family are migrants who moved to Europe to study, live and/or work. And I don’t feel good when people hint or pretend that “I’m okay” but African migrants demonised 24/7 aren’t, just because of a piece of paper and an accent. I’m not even proud of being assimilated into European culture and I wish I grew up in an environment in which I learnt about my roots.

For months, I have struggled to say “I’m Spanish” when people ask about my accent. I just say “I was born in Spain”. At the same time, I’m not close at all to my African ethnicities, so I can’t claim them much. My parents are from a variety of countries in the continent. It is difficult to pick one or two for my cultural identity since I don’t know much about any of them. Fortunately, I can always learn, yet I feel uneasy claiming cultures I wasn’t born or raised into. I’m just an outsider wherever I am and wherever I go: a cultureless outsider. I don’t want to join the Spanish society in my university, but I don’t feel comfortable joining the African-Caribbean one, in which everyone seems so confident and strong about their cultural heritage.

UK voting to leave the EU has led to many reflections about “shared European identity and culture”. While reading them, I have been wondering many things. What do people mean when they say “European”? What is being European? Who is considered European? I have always felt indifferent about my nationality and European citizenship, I’m everything but patriotic and more taking into account the not-so-great relationship between Europe, my race and Africa. Now I can certainly say I don’t feel culturally Spanish or European anymore, whatever that means. I know that these essays talking about European identity and culture have racial implications, both intentionally and unintentionally. And I don’t care enough to reclaim my nationality and continental citizenship. I’m ~fine~ not having a cultural identity and identifying ethnically as just black African.

However, there are real implications for my life when comes to Brexit and trouble within the EU. My right to work and live in this country is uncertain. While I think no one is going to be forced to leave, working rights, welfare, healthcare and education are likely to worsen for EU migrants (some of these were already becoming worsening). I feel privileged and shallow for complaining about this, after all that’s what non-EU migrants go through, as well as many others around the globe. I believe that it is unfair that people have more privilege than others just for being born in a country when both contribute to it. I’m firmly against the mistreatment of asylum seekers and refugees also, together several of the new policies introduced by the Home Office to restrict the rights of non-EU migrants in UK.

However, I still complain about Brexit because as a normal human in this world, I had plans. I like my university, and it ranked first in the world for my subject when I started my course last year (second now). I wanted to stay and do a masters, but the fees for non-EU migrants (which probably EU migrants will get unless agreements with the EU states are made) are too high and I don’t even know if I could get a postgraduate loan. The scholarships that my university offer are not enough. I have currently no financial support from my family or anyone other than the university, the student finance company and my job. And I don’t know if I will be willing to stay in a country in which working and living could become a hassle.

Now, here comes my biggest problem: I can’t go back to Spain. For me, it is not easy as packing and going back to “my country”, as some are suggesting. What I dislike most about politics is that the consequences of decisions and policies are always analysed at a macro-level, without looking at the individual. Not all EU migrants will be affected in the same way by this decision. I don’t have a home anymore in Spain. I don’t have family there anymore with whom I have a good close relationship (to be fair I don’t have a good close relationship with 95% of my relatives). I have friends, but our relationship is not the same as when I left four years ago. And the most important part: I don’t have a future there. It isn’t because of the recession or because of the high unemployment rates. I never did.

While moving to England was a shock in my life, it was for the best. When I was young, I always knew that I couldn’t stay in Spain forever. I always saw it as a country in which non-white immigrants and their descendants couldn’t progress. Casual racism in Spain is very high, I never realised till I went back for the summer after living in England two years. However, systematic racism is even worse. I was raised in a country in which I never or very rarely saw non-white people in the media or adverts, except for foreign celebrities and TV shows. Always saw non-white people working in just low-skilled / service sector jobs. Noticed how non-white people in my city were marginalised into the most isolated/poor neighbourhoods.

Many of my adult family members have talked to me about their experiences with racism and employment in Spain. From my graduate uncle not being hired in a bank because he would be a “bad image”, to one aunt ringing up for a job, showing up for interview an hours later and being told there was never a job available there (my relatives with Spanish names and Spanish accents have had this type of issue as lot). My dad has worked in the same factory since I was born, and he has endured a lot of racist taunts just to provide for his family and survive. There is a reason why the majority of my adult relatives have ended up leaving Spain for other European countries or their home countries in Africa. Employment as black person is extremely limited. And this becomes frustrating. My dad has admitted a lot of times that if he didn’t have kids in Spain, he would have gone back to his home country long ago.

I know that UK is far from perfect when comes to racial equality and discrimination, but it is better than Spain. Much better. This can be something hard to understand if you have lived all your life in Britain and endured racism here. However, I have lived in both places and experienced both realities. I didn’t even move to multicultural London when I came to this country, but the differences were still big when comes to media, legislation and politics, as well as employment and education. There is a reason for it: when UK was receiving its big wave of migration from Asia and Africa in the 1950s and 1960s, Spain was in a fascist dictatorship that didn’t end till 1975. Immigration to the country only became significant after the 1990s, mainly during the 2000s and now.

Basically, Spain has  a lot of progress to do regarding racial equality. A lot. And I’m not sure if it will ever happen, and less now, when fascism and nationalism are on the rise again across Europe. I’m not interested in finding it out neither: I know that many things have changed in Spain since I left in 2012, but as I mentioned above, I have no nostalgic connection towards the country. My most significant personal and emotional growth happened after I arrived to England: I feel more connected to British society than the Spanish one. I even know more about its legislation, politics, and history.

Another big reason why going back to Spain is not an option for me is that I can’t pursue my desired career there. Things such as volunteering, social action and international development are not as prevalent in Spanish society and academic institutions as in English ones, and in most cases, this type of work is carried out by religious organisations. In addition, grants, scholarships, opportunities and affordable programmes to study, work and volunteer abroad are not common neither (ERASMUS being one of the few).

My future right now is very uncertain and as a realistic person, I see it grey. Dark dark grey. At some point, I believed that I would break the low-income/low-skilled employment cycle in my close family. I believed that I would finish my degree, do a master, get experience and maybe do a PhD to be a researcher. I believed that I would have a comfortable life and finally be happier. Now, I’m not so sure about it. In this neoliberal and meritocratic world, people always say that hard-work pays off. Yet, the recipe for success isn’t so easy for those at bottom of the power and supremacy pyramid. I don’t think that social mobility is a myth, but for a black girl from a care leaver, immigrant and working class background it is a big challenge.

I don’t want to suffer so much all my life: I don’t want to be forced into marrying someone to survive and I don’t want to be forced to get a permanent job I won’t like. I have seen too many people living with that sort of life and turning into bitter, hurting and depressed humans. That’s why I’m not conforming to the expectations society has about me. Nonetheless, the only big step I have made is attending university  and this wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t have the privilege of being an EU migrant in UK (which is about to vanish). Of course, I can always move to mainland Europe and do a master in a country like Sweden or Norway. Yet, UK is the country with the best opportunities for me and my career in Europe.

However, I must admit that since the refugee/migrant crisis in the Mediterranean erupted and European fascism “reappeared”, I have been thinking about leaving the continent once I finish my studies. Racism and xenophobia have become normalised, and life in this continent is becoming scary. And this goes beyond my own identity. I have been very concerned as well about the treatment of Asian migrants and asylum seekers, growing Islamophobia and the attacks towards brown communities in Europe. This is not the type of environment in which I want to live, it is very toxic and my mental health is too fragile to become a full-time activist and challenge it. I know that other regions and continents in the world aren’t any or much better, but feeling this unwelcome and being so hated in the place in which I was born and which should be my home is not great.

In addition, going to Africa, reconnecting with my roots, and contributing with my skills and knowledge while cooperating with others is something I’m becoming fonder of doing with time, although it is a hard process. Even if I have African background, I’m still Western and my presence there can be patronising/more damaging than good. I also want to travel and live in other countries to enrich my knowledge and education regarding development, environmental and social issues, because I don’t want to have an Eurocentric perspective on them. I have discovered many South Asian, Arab, Caribbean and Latin American theorists and non-fiction authors whilst in my first year of university (African as well), and I would like to explore the context in which they wrote their works more deeply. I hoped I could do this whilst being primarily based in United Kingdom, but now I don’t know what will happen.

Before finishing this post, I would like to clarify a few things that have been bothering me about the post-Brexit climate in social media.

First, contrary to current popular belief, racism and fascism aren’t exclusive to the working class. A brief look into British history and politics is more than enough to understand this.

Second, being working class is not an excuse or reason to hold racist and fascist views. Also, stop erasing the non-white British working class. They exist.

Third, it seems as if rising fascism and racism was fine as long as it only affected non-white and non-Christian people. Little complaints I have seen before in my Facebook timeline about the awful treatment of asylum seekers, refugees and non-white migrants.

Fourth, (white) EU migrants are far from just the victims of the current climate. Fascism and neo-nazism have been raising across Europe as a whole, from Hungary to Germany. Not enough has been done to stop it, and again, few cared when refugee receptions centres were burned down and Nazi demonstrations targeting non-whites, Muslims and Jews happened.

Fifth, the Vote Leave campaign and supporters are not the only ones to blame for xenophobia and fascism. I know people who voted Leave due to economic reasons or personal interests. I personally think that getting behind a campaign that enables and empowers the far right is not good, nevertheless politics work like that. Also, Remain supporters aren’t free of responsibility when comes to racism and nationalism. There were Remainers who wanted to stay for economic and personal reasons and showed discontent about immigration.

And sixth, stop forcing a fake mask of solidarity and criticising others for ruminating. I respect the decision of the UK, but I have never felt more alienated in my life and I will react as I want. Besides, it doesn’t help if you pretend that “uniting to fight racism” will help while privilege, supremacies and power inequalities remain unaddressed. It won’t.

On conclusion: Brexit has shaken the lives of many people in and outside Britain. Mine is of them. While I’m not a fan of the EU, I think that its existence is key to moderate the rising far right nationalistic climate. Nevertheless, British people and Europeans have a right to choose what they want, and I’m not in a position to challenge it. I recently decided to remove myself from political spheres in this continent as I don’t think I belong to them and my voice isn’t valid/heard (except for inclusive grassroots efforts).

Also, I apologise if the content of this blog post makes it seem as if I’m only worried about myself when comes to Brexit: I’m not. However, I’m certain that no one else is worried about me and someone has to care. Even if there is panic about EU migrants, I don’t fit the narrative since Europe isn’t my region of origin. Current conversations and debates about nationalism and fascism are being whitewashed. I’m not here for (white) British right wingers dismissing racism as patriotism, and I’m not here for (white) lefties reducing racism to fear and calling for an unrealistic unity within the working class.

I hope that with time, uncertainty paves the way to facts and agreements, so I can make plans for my future. At the moment, all I can do is keep working and studying, try my best to succeed and achieve at least some of my goals. If I have to leave UK and/or Europe, I will. At the end of the day, migration is in my DNA. I’m a direct and not so direct descendant of migrants, even my African roots are highly mixed. If my ancestors and relatives struggled and survived, I will struggle and survive as well. I don’t know if everything will be fine and I’m not a hopeful person anymore, but I’m somehow determined. Having a name that means “hard-working” is a blessing with a life like mine one, and I’m glad it translated into my attitude and personality.

(P.S: Writing about this topic is difficult, I apologise if some of my ideas aren’t expressed clearly enough. I’m planning to write a blog post on migration and xenophobia on the future, which will be less focused on myself. Please, feel free to send your comments or messages, but abuse of any kind won’t be tolerated or approved under this post. And remember that this is my perspective and while you may have another one, you aren’t me and it might be hard to comprehend my feelings.)

#IWD2016 Women’s Empowerment and Inspiring Women

Happy International’s Women Day! This year, I decided to celebrate this festivity by writing about what women’s empowerment is for me and about women whom I find inspiring.

First, it is important to define what we mean by women’s empowerment. Empowerment is such a buzzword nowadays, and it is at risk of losing its meaning, yet it is a precious word and it should be saved. According to the Oxford Dictionary, the term empowerment can have two meanings:

  • Authority or power given to someone to do something.
  • The process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights.

Keywords to extract from those two definitions are “power”, “stronger”, “confident”, “controlling” and “rights”. These are important concepts that need to be considered and put into context within the women’s empowerment movement. Power is the ability to act and as long as it is not dominant power (based on fear, manipulation and coercion) it is a positive term that should help people to feel better about themselves and be autonomous. To have power, you need to be strong and feel confident, two concepts deeply related to a person’s SELF-respect, SELF-acceptance, SELF-worth and SELF-esteem.

Notice how I capitalised the word “self” on my last sentence. It was on purpose: before anything else, empowerment comes from within OURSELVES, meaning that we need to value ourselves and accept ourselves, see our worth and appreciate who we are, to feel truly powerful. Why? Because our emotions and thoughts are influenced by all those things. And at the same time, our emotions and thoughts will have an effect on our behaviour and actions, affecting ultimately our self-actualisation: our desire and path for self-fulfilment, which is to achieve (trying to achieve) all our realistic goals in life.

However, it is important to point out that women’s empowerment requires more than the positive relationship of a woman with herself. A good mind-set and emotional wellbeing is essential, but so is freedom: women’s empowerment has a lot to do with women making their own informed choices. And to make their own informed choices, women need more than a positive concept of themselves. Women need to have their basic needs (e.g. food, shelter) covered, they need to have the same legal rights as men, they need to have access to education and they need to be financially secure. Basically, women need to be treated as humans with free will and have their human rights respected. But we all know this doesn’t happen. Issues like poverty, inequality, lack of education and sexism hinder the ability of women to make informed choices, while affecting their development disproportionately. And this is a global matter that needs to be tackled.

Another thing to talk about is the role that various identities play in the definition of “womanliness”. Too often, being a woman is portrayed in a specific way that ignores intersections within someone’s identity. Sexuality, religion, race, ethnicity and others affect how someone is perceived, and it also influences people’s perception of their gender within different societies and social groups. Black women, Muslim women, lesbian women… All these are women, still different, and that’s okay. There is no right or wrong way to be a woman. I can’t stress how important is intersectionality for women’s empowerment and it frustrates me a lot seeing it left out.

Shaming religious women who choose to wear veils is not empowering. Discriminating transsexual women to the point in which they harm themselves and/or even commit suicide is a direct attack to women’s freedom. Not taking into account someone’s race to understand their oppressive situation as a woman ignores significant aspects that will influence their ability to feel empowered. Keep this in mind when advocating for women’s empowerment, if you truly care about the issue.

All this been said, it is time to move on to the second half of this blog post: talking about women that inspire me. My choices are: Malala Yousafzai, Beyoncé Knowles and Miley Cyrus.

Malala Yousafzai

Malala is an 18 year girl who first gained the public’s attention when she was 11-12 years old, because she wrote a blog “detailing her life under Taliban occupation, their attempts to take control of the valley, and her views on promoting education for girls in the Swat Valley”. She was interviewed and celebrated by international press and even nominated for International Children’s Peace Primy7ze by South African activist Desmond Tutu. However, her activism became very notorious after she was shot in July 2012 while travelling to school. This event was considered an assassination attempt by the Talibans, who controlled the area where she lived and tried to prevent girls from getting an education. After being in a critical condition for a while, Malala survived, moving to England to get intensive rehabilitation. Now, over two years later, she is celebrated as an advocate for education for girls around the whole globe.

Malala-SATsThere are various impressive and inspirational aspects about Malala’s actions. First is her courage before and after getting shot. While she was just a kid and a teen, she fought for her right to get an education and she was brave enough to campaign for it, even knowing that her life would be in risk and her ambition was not liked by everyone. Second is her pacifist approach to her attack: instead of seeking revenge, she forgave and kept spreading love. She doesn’t believe in violence, and she thinks that education is the real cure for it, which is not far from the true. Ignorance is the root of a lot of evil in the world and educating people can make ignorance vanish.

Malala and her battle to guarantee every girl across the globe access to education is everything I aspire to be one day. I want to create change, use any platform I have to improve people’s lives without being scared of being silenced. Moreover, I’m slightly familiar with her struggle to be valued as a 1378312382000-GTY-179417801woman and being deemed worth of freedom of choice. Since I was a child, sexism has prevented me from achieving many things and it has deeply affected my self-confidence. I’m currently recovering from living in a toxic environment where I was downplayed due to my gender and I find courage in Malala’s actions and words. If she can do it, having it much worse than I ever did, I can do it too.

Beyoncé Knowles

Beyoncé is a singer and performer who is currently one of the most influential artists alive. I have always found her inspiring for many reasons, from her hard work ethic to her ability to improve and evolve over time. I remember researching about her for an essay for college and I finding out that when she was young, she had family problems, she suffered from depression, and she had self-esteem issues, just like me. I was shocked. Beyoncé seems like a very strong woman, but I guess that being strong doesn’t mean you can’t suffer. I always wonder how she overcame her fears and difficulties. Did she ever overcome them completely? I believe that some pain and insecurities never go, but you can learn to deal with them.

Although I admired her for years, it wasn’t till she released her fifth studio album, BEYONCÉ, when I saw in her (part of) the type of woman I want to be one day. Why? These videos and songs. I encourage you to watch them and share them. The words in them carry a lot of value and wisdom:

(I know Formation isn’t a song from her BEYONCÉ era but I couldn’t not include it! Her celebration of black women in this video is very motivational for me, it is important and it needs to be highlighted!)

Miley Cyrus

Miley is a singer and actress, and perhaps the public figure who has inspired me most since my childhood. Before it was because of her character in Hannah Montana as Miley Stewart, together with some of her songs as Hannah Montana such as “Just A Girl”, “Don’t Wanna Be Torn”, “The Climb”, “Every Part of Me”, “Nobody’s Perfect” and “Make Some Noise” (I find all these songs either uplifting or relatable, and they helped me go through some of my darkest times). Now things are different: Miley is no longer Miley Stewart, she doesn’t act a certain way to maintain her innocent Disney girl image.

Over the last couple of years, she has become open about her sexuality through her music, performances and photoshoots. She has also challenged some of the world’s perceptions of beauty and womanliness, sharing her own struggles with her image and her femininity (which I find very relatable). Even though her personal choices have made her happy and comfortable with her skin, the public has often condemned her nudity and sexual behaviour. Nowadays, hearing people refer to her as a bad role model is common, yet despite everything, I still find her inspiring, perhaps now more than ever. In order to show why, I picked some of my favourite quotes from her relatively recent interviews. Here are they:

miley-cyrus-happy-hippie-launch“I don’t relate to what people would say defines a girl or a boy, and I think that’s what I had to understand: Being a girl isn’t what I hate, it’s the box that I get put into.”

“Fuck that. You don’t have to wear makeup. You don’t have to have long blonde hair and big titties. That’s not what it’s about. It’s, like, personal style.’ I like that I’m associated with sexuality and the kind of punk-rock shit where we just don’t care. Like Madonna or Blondie or Joan Jett—Jett’s the one that I still get a little shaky around. She did what I did in such a crazier way. I mean, girls then weren’t supposed to wear leather pants and, like, fucking rock out. And she did.”

“I don’t put pressure on myself to be a role model, other than hopefully inspiring people to be good and to treat people w1401x788-Screen-Shot-2015-05-18-at-10.57.17-AMell. I’m going to be what I want, and I’m going to do what I want. When people are suffocated, that’s when they end up falling off.”

“I still don’t think we’re there 100 percent. I mean, guy rappers grab their crotch all fucking day and have hos around them, but no one talks about it. But if I grab my crotch and I have hot model bitches around me, I’m degrading women? I’m a woman—I should be able to have girls around me! But I’m part of the evolution of that. I hope.”

“I don’t want, in my life ever, some prince dude to come save me. I don’t need to be saved. I’m my own person. I’m strong.”

Miley-being-Miley-e1433898215356She told Out, that she was “frustrated” by being a girl when she was younger because of the, “stereotype of weakness, and the vulnerability,” that came with it. But said, “As you get older I think I just started to celebrate it, because I learned more about what women really are. Being a woman, that’s everything to me. Without women there is no life. I’m empowered as well, because I really feel like I hold something that’s the secret in all of life and the power of it. But, it took me a while to get like that.”’

“When you look at retouched, perfect photos, you feel like shit. They lighten black girls’ skin. They smooth out wrinkles,” Cyrus told Marie Claire. “Even when I get stuck on Instagram wondering, ‘Why don’t I look like that?’ It’s a total bummer. It’s crazy what people have decided we’re all supposed to be.”

On conclusion, these are three women that had (and still have) a significant impact on my development and growth as a woman. None of them are perfect, some of them have more flaws than others, but I don’t strive for perfection and that’s fine. All of them are self-proclaimed feminists and use their platform/career to advocate for gender equality, even though if it is in different ways and in different levels. Their feminism is also quite different from each other, since they are women with different identities (religion, race, ethnicity, sexuality…) and issues they care about (education, motherhood, sexual liberation, gender roles…).

Before I end this post, I must say that there are many other women whom I consider inspirational, these are just three of them. In fact, lately I have been discovering the activist, artistic and/or academic work of many women who have been always unknown for me (mainly women of colour, many of them African), and I’m loving it. This means that if you ask me in a few months’ time, the women who inspire me the most may be different to these three I just talked about.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In 2045, Social Change Is The New Buzzword

The year is 2045. I’m working in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya, as the manager of a community centre. I graduated from university twenty-six years ago and, after carrying out a master in social anthropology, I decided to travel to different countries to implement and manage projects to help the most disadvantaged.

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(Slum in Nairobi, Kenya. Source: http://www.citiesalliance.org/nairobi)

Many things have changed in the last three decades. Over time, development became more privatised: governments became less involved in providing public services, due to the increased presence of businesses. The push for neoliberalism by Western states forced developing countries to integrate into the international market economy, as capitalism was seen as a system totally connected with democracy (Berthoud, 2010).

As the economies of developing countries improved, dependency on bilateral and multilateral aid decreased. Official agencies like the World Bank became less important. Various countries decided to cut or diminish the amount of money donated or lent to other nations. At present, the economical differences between Northern countries and Southern countries keep decreasing. Terms like “developing” and “developed” are barely used anymore: “development” is no longer a buzzword.

However, the excessive focus on economic growth overshadowed human development. Income inequality is a huge problem. The upper class members of society keep getting richer while working class individuals experience more hardship every day. Capitalist methods like microfinance failed to help the poorest and just helped those who were already above the poverty line: with more income, more risks in form of investments are taken, which tend to lead to more income flow, but with less income, micro-loans are merely used to protect basic needs for survival (Karnani, 2007).

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(Cartoon showing income inequality in USA. Source: http://articles.latimes.com/2013/mar/13/nation/la-na-tt-income-inequality-20130312)

Another big issue that was left unaddressed was climate change. Many nations failed to cut down their CO2 emissions after global consensus was not reached. This could be attributed to the failure to alter the economic system and to businesses that saw meaningful action against climate change as a threat, instead of an investment (Newell, 2011). Moreover, the lack of food security is a concern for many, particularly in poor rural regions in the Global South, where unstable rainfall patters affect agriculture negatively, as it was already expected years ago (The Companion to Development Studies, 2014).

Due to the laisse faire attitude adopted by governments and the privatisation of basic services such as healthcare and education, non-state actors like NGOs and charities now play the key role of meeting the needs of the poorest in society. At the same time, social movements comprising protests and boycotts have become the norm in many countries, in response to austerity, insecure employment and the lack public services. This has often led to unrest and political instability, including violent conflicts and terrorism in some places.

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(Example of a social movement. Source: http://www.esdaw.eu/social-movement.html)

To sum up: development is not a finished project, even if many pretend it is. This quote is relevant nowadays: “a society in which everybody had a right to basic security would address inequality directly. But in the globalisation era, so far, there has been a drift to a charity perspective, not a rights-based one” (Standing, 2010).  The inability of elites to create a sustainable and green economic system that prioritises human rights over economics is making life harder every day for millions and is ruining the environment. Yet, there is hope. If social movements keep strengthening and terrorism is avoided as a political tool, real transformations could happen in the next few years. Calls for development have just been replaced by calls for justice and equality. In 2045, social change is the new buzzword.

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Bibliography

  1. Berthoud, G. (2010). The Development Dictionary: Market. 2nd New York, USA: Zed Books.
  2. Karnani, A. (20087). Microfinance Misses Its Mark (SSIR). Available at: http://ssir.org/articles/entry/microfinance_misses_its_mark (Accessed: 07/12/2015)
  3. Newell, P. (2011) ‘Climate change’ in R. Devetak, A. Burke and J. George (eds) An Introduction to International Relations. Cambridge: CUP.
  4. Standing, G. (2007). ‘Social Protection’ in Cornwall, Eade (ed.) Buzzwords and fuzzwords: deconstructing development discourse. Dunsmore: Practical Action Publishing Ltd, pp. 65.
  5. Vandana, D. Potter, R. The Companion to Development Studies. 3rd Oxon: Routledge.

Celebrities: The Problematic Heroes in Development

In the last decades, the commitment to tackle global issues has grown in popularity. With this increase there has also been a surge in the number of non-political figures, in particular superstars and personalities, who get involved in development and social change.

Celebrity activism and philanthropy dates back to the 1960s, during the civil rights movement in United States (Richey and Ponte, 2006). Some notorious figures who got involved were the singers Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, who performed during a civil rights rally, and Marlon Brando and Burt Lancaster, actors who supported the activist Martin Luther King (Richey and Ponte, 2006).

At the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s, the first benefit concerts took place (Richey and Ponte, 2006). An example would be The Concert for Bangladesh in 1971, organised by the artist George Harrison to raise money for Bangladeshi people displaced by the civil war (Richey and Ponte, 2006). However, a key benefit concert happened a decade after: Live Aid, a fundraising event organised by the artist Bob Geldof in 1985 (Richey and Ponte, 2006). One hundred and fifty million dollars were raised to help people affected by a famine in Ethiopia (Richey and Ponte, 2006).

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(The Live Aid concert in 1985. Source: http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/history/live-aid-1985-thirty-years-9633721)

Currently, being involved in activism or/and charity work is a vital part of the celebrity persona. For instance, the actress Emma Watson has been the UN Goodwill Ambassador for Women since 2014. Moreover, some superstars have started their own initiatives. That’s the case for artists like Beyoncé Knowles, who has her own charity to engage in humanitarian action, #BeyGood. Nevertheless, while celebrity activism and philanthropy can be seen as positive at first glance, there is a dilemma surrounding this topic.

On the one hand, there are benefits, such as attention drawn to problems affecting the globe and more awareness. An initiative that helps with this is the Global Citizen Festival, which happens annually in New York. The event includes music performances and speeches by public figures, from Hollywood superstars to international activists. The aim is to promote active citizenship amongst the public.

Furthermore, celebrities are good marketing strategies for NGOs and charities to get more support and funding. One of the latest personalities to get involved in this type of philanthropy is Alicia Keys, with her movement We Are Here, through which she is supporting social and climate justice causes by endorsing organisations like The Trayvon Martin Foundation, Oxfam and 350.

In addition, celebrities have a huge platform which can be let to those who are voiceless to facilitate social change. Recording artist Miley Cyrus did this earlier this year: she teamed up with LGBT+ individuals and the social network Instagram to run #InstaPride, a series of portraits and stories about LGBT+ individuals and their hardships. The project was shared in Cyrus’s own Instagram account, followed by millions across the world.

miley

(The first post of the #InstaPride project.  Source: http://www.firstpost.com/bollywood/instapride-miley-cyrus-launches-transgender-youth-social-media-campaign-2297526.html)

On the other hand, the involvement of superstars in philanthropy and activism has drawbacks. One is over-simplification of solutions due to lack of knowledge and expertise. A clear instance would be the singer Bono and his anti-poverty approach for Africa (Dieter and Kumar, 2008). He relies on trade, aid, debt relief and education to develop the continent, when the problem is much more complex, including issues like poor governance (Dieter and Kumar, 2008).

Another weakness is how governments and inhabitants in developing countries lose power when foreign celebrities get too involved in their matters and members of the public follow their path. This quote by Goodman and Barnes (2011) explains it better: “The celebritisation of development has worked to turn ‘development’ as a wider project into one that is individualised, volunteerised, privatised and, ultimately, ‘responsibilised’ onto audiences, consumers and citizens (mainly of the North) as more celebrities take to their roles as endorsers of campaigns and causes.”

The last downside to talk about is superficiality (West, 2008). Many people tend to believe celebrities use charity campaigns to just improve their image (West, 2008). Meanwhile, their audience may not even focus on the problem being raised, concentrating more in the superstar and leading to “less substance in political processes” (West, 2008). A good illustration of this would be the controversy surrounding Angelina Jolie’s speech for the UN in April 2015. As a special envoy, she talked about the situation of Syrian refugees. However, media outlets and the public focused on the actress’s outfit, discussing whether if it was appropriate or not.

27F3237D00000578-3054094-image-m-44_1429892729753

(Angelina Jolie the day of her speech for the UN. The controversy was about her breasts being noticeable through her shirt.  Source: http://www.justjared.com/2015/04/24/angelina-jolie-briefs-un-security-council-on-syria-crisis-video/)

Taking into account both the benefits and the drawbacks, it is clear the role of superstars and personalities in development is important and influential. Yet, there is an urgent need to reform celebrity interventions from saviour PR missions to facilitating meaningful actions. NGOs and charities should be more conscious when choosing personalities to represent them, and superstars should have more understanding of the issues they are trying to tackle.

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Bibliography

  1. Dieter, H., & Kumar, R. (2008). The downside of celebrity diplomacy: the neglected complexity of development. Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations, 14(3), 259-264.
  2. Goodman, M. K., & Barnes, C. (2011). Star/poverty space: the making of the ‘development celebrity’. Celebrity studies, 2(1), 69-85.
  3. Richey, L. A., & Ponte, S. (2006). Better (RED) than dead: ‘brand aid’, celebrities and the new frontier of development assistance. Danish Institute for International Studies working paper no 2006/26. Copenhagen: DIIS.
  4. West, D. M. (2008). Angelina, Mia, and Bono: Celebrities and international development. Global development, 2, 74-84.