Across science and the arts, the first people to achieve something new–first to discover new countries, first flight, first on the moon–are overwhelmingly male. Not only that, but they are overwhelmingly white, straight, cisgender and of a relatively high social and economic standing. In the hierarchy of human achievement, there’s no question of who is at the front of the line.
This is to be expected (though by no means accepted) within a whitewashed, heteronormative society that largely rewards the rich and punishes the poor. However, this pecking order of progression is sadly not confined to the progression of what human beings are capable of. It’s also very visible within the fight for equal rights.
“A white woman had to go first for a BAME woman to be able to also progress.”
When the Suffragettes claimed victory in the UK in 1918, it was a win–a win for wealthy, white, married women. It would be another ten years before women in general (over the age of 21) were able to vote. I don’t want to diminish the work the women of the Suffragette movement did. I am eternally grateful for the sacrifices they made, and the hardships they endured in order to push forward with gender equality and women’s rights. But I can be grateful, because I am a white woman. They fought for me. Their fight paved the way for minority women to fight their own fight, sure, but all this proves is that a white woman had to go first for a BAME woman to be able to also progress.
This year, many Pride celebrations were centered around the 50-year anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Which is a great thing to commemorate… except it’s not quite accurate. 2017 year marks 50 years since it became legal for two men to be in a relationship, but they could still not marry (legalised in 2013), adopt children (2002) or even join the armed forces (2000). All of these things would still be illegal for another three decades or so, and again, the first step on the ladder of progress for equal rights is awarded to men. Let’s also not forget that in 2017, in the first world, transgender people are still having to fight for their right to use the appropriate restroom and not be murdered in the street.
“When we hear of the achievements of women, of people of colour, of LGBTQ+ people, they are not lauded as the first but the first of their ‘label’.”
So often when we hear of the achievements of women, of people of colour, of LGBTQ+ people, they are not lauded as the first but the first of their ‘label’–the first black woman to do this, the first openly gay man to do that, the first trans woman to do the other. But when a white cishet man achieves something, they are lauded as the first ‘person’ to do so. To my knowledge, there has never been a ‘First White Man to Discover…’ headline.
It seems to me that there’s a clear picture of how minorities progress, and that there are definitely cases of minorities within minorities being left behind–for example, many LGBTQ+ communities and organisations will frequently forget the ‘T’ in their acronym, leaving transgender people out in the cold when it comes to representation. BAME men may see some movement in how they are treated, but BAME women are left behind. And white feminists will applaud the achievements and progression of other white feminists, even if those achievements are at the expense of non-white, trans or disabled women.
“Why, when we take a step forward, can we not take a step forward together?”
In a perfect world, all demographics would advance as one. Hell, in a perfect world there would be no need for advancement at all; equality would be a given and feminism wouldn’t exist out of necessity. But our world is far from perfect. As a member of a marginalised group, it’s so easy to blind yourself to the plight of other minorities that you’re not a part of. But why, when we take a step forward, can we not take a step forward together?
It would be unrealistic (not to mention impossible) to expect all people to fight for all causes, at all times. Everyone is problematic in their own way, and we can’t eternally condemn people trying their best to advance equal rights for slipping up sometimes. But it is vital to recognise this pattern in how minorities progress, and consider those further down the line when pushing for progression. We do this by reaching out to the minorities within minorities, by using the privileges we do have to amplify the voices of those without them, and by making our language inclusive when we call for change.
As Tanya Moodie so rightfully said at the Woman’s March on London in January 2017…
“It is better for one hundred people to advance one single step together, than for one person to advance one hundred steps and leave others behind.”
Amen, Tanya. Amen.