The Violence of Austerity collects the voices of campaigners and academics to show that rather than stimulating economic growth, austerity policies have dismantled the social systems that operated as a buffer against economic hardship, exposing austerity to be a form of systematic violence.
This article, by Akwugo Emejulu and Leah Bassel, highlights the political action undertaken by women of colour who, in spite of their adverse suffering at the hands of the Conservative government, have organised and fought against austerity policies.
Sisters Uncut, the feminist collective fighting against budget cuts to domestic and sexual violence organisations and services in Britain, succinctly and powerfully captures the violence that austerity wreaks on women of colour with protest slogans like ‘Austerity is state violence against women’ and ‘They cut, we bleed’. Here we discuss how austerity, as both a political frame for this time of economic uncertainty and as a programme of asymmetrical and devastating cuts to social welfare provision, represents a form of epistemic violence that women of colour activists are compelled to confront and resist. By ‘epistemic violence’ we follow Kristie Dotson and refer to the ‘persistent epistemic exclusion that hinders one’s contribution to knowledge production’. We argue that this exclusion from knowledge production is a kind of violence that renders the Other, and in our case, women of colour and their experiences, invisible and inaudible to both policy-makers and ostensible social movement ‘allies’. We argue that there is little attention paid or action to combat women of colour’s poverty and inequality because there is a widespread assumption that poverty is an endemic feature of the experience of the racialised Other and can thus be ignored. Rather than treating austerity as a ‘new’ phenomenon, we argue that the concept of austerity is but the latest example of violently erasing women of colour’s persistent, institutionalised but unremarkable economic and social inequalities. What is ‘new’ under Britain’s austerity regime is the further undermining of women of colour’s economic security through the unprecedented roll back of the welfare state and its social protections. Thus, the epistemic violence of austerity represents both a discursive and material challenge to the agency and dignity of women of colour.
However, women of colour are not passive objects at the mercy of Britain’s austerity regime. They are undertaking creative resistance to austerity in order to advance intersectional social justice claims derived from their race, class, gender and legal status. In the first half of this chapter, we offer a snapshot of austerity debate in Britain and how it misrecognises women of colour and their precarity. We then discuss the ways in which women of colour are resisting the epistemic violence of austerity through counter-hegemonic knowledge production and activism derived from their lived experiences, perspectives and agency.
The asymmetrical, racialised, gendered and classed effects of austerity are devastating – especially for women of colour. However, starting our analysis with austerity measures introduced by the 2010 Conservative-Liberal Democratic Coalition government is, in fact, very misleading. Charting the deterioration of women of colour’s economic security using the frame of austerity actually misrecognises the nature of women of colour’s experiences of poverty and economic inequality. Well before the 2008 crisis, women of colour, on the whole, were already living in an almost permanent state of austerity. As the All Party Parliamentary Group for Race and Community4 noted in its inquiry into the labour market experiences of Black, Pakistani and Bangladeshi women in Britain: ‘For all groups except for Indian men, ethnic minority unemployment has consistently remained higher than the rate for white people since records began.’ African and Caribbean women have an unemployment rate of 17.7 per cent, for Pakistani and Bangladeshi women it is 20.5 per cent, compared to 6.8 per cent for white women. Women of colour who are employed are more likely to be concentrated in low skilled, low paid and temporary work – regardless of their educational qualifications. These unequal experiences in the labour market, unsurprisingly, translate into high levels of household poverty with poverty rates for minority groups at 40 per cent – double the rate of the white population in 2007.6 These shockingly high levels of poverty and unemployment, which predate the crisis and have persisted throughout it, however, do not feature in popular or policy discussions about the crisis. We ask: whose crisis counts and whose crisis is being named and legitimated?
Austerity causes further immiseration due to its uneven effects. Because women of colour are more likely to be employed in the public sector in feminised professions such as teaching, nursing and social work; because women of colour and migrant women in particular are more likely to be subcontracted to the state via private sector organisations in low skilled, low paid and temporary work as carers, cleaners and caterers; and because women of colour are more likely to use public services because they are typically the primary care givers of children and/or older adults, austerity measures clearly increase women of colour’s unemployment while simultaneously reducing the scope, coverage and access to public services. We ask: why doesn’t austerity’s asymmetrical impacts on women of colour feature in the dominant understandings of austerity?
To understand why women of colour are so often omitted from dominant constructions of austerity requires an understanding of how epistemic violence operates. The very real state violence experienced by women of colour through austerity is made possible by and necessitates the misrecognition of women of colour’s experiences of poverty and inequality. Austerity is a kind of knowledge production that generates policy attention and social movement action on the deteriorating economic prospects of white middle class and working class groups. Austerity functions as an exclusive category that only names and legitimises some groups’ experiences, while subjugating others. The knowledge produced by austerity is not inconsequential but rather reinforces common sense understandings of economic inequality which assume a racialised social order of white supremacy. In other words, there is little attention or action to combat women of colour’s poverty and inequality because there is a widespread assumption that poverty is a central feature of the racialised Other and can thus be ignored.
However, women of colour are not passive victims of the epistemic violence of austerity. Centering women of colour’s institutionalised crises can help us legitimise and make visible the particularities of their inequalities and help to authorise their resistances. It is to this issue that we now turn.
To recognise women of colour as political agents and authors of their lives requires critical considerations of how British policymakers and many social movement allies uphold the racialised social order. To counter the epistemic violence of austerity requires a commitment to dismantling the identities, ideologies and social relations that legitimise and reproduce women of colour’s erasure and exclusion.
There is an urgent need to highlight and take seriously women of colour’s knowledge production about the diverse, contradictory and competing notions of what justice and equality might mean. There is an urgent need, therefore, for epistemic justice about austerity which centres the lived experiences of women of colour. By ‘epistemic justice’ we mean the ability of women of colour to ‘participate in knowledge production’ in an ‘ecology of knowledges’ engaged in debate. There is a need for dialogue: speaking with and listening to women of colour – especially for those women who are too often deliberately silenced and unheard – in order to develop knowledge and actions for rethinking equality, freedom and solidarity. There is also a need for recognising the lived experiences of women of colour. By ‘lived experience’ we mean the knowledge acquired and produced through living life and the collective understandings and resistance that arise from being constructed as a subordinate and alien Other. As Patricia Hill Collins argues:
Living life as Black women requires wisdom because knowledge about the dynamics of intersecting oppressions has been essential to … Black women’s survival … Black women cannot afford to be fools of any type for our objectification as the Other denies us protections that white skin, maleness and wealth confer.
Centring the lived experiences of women of colour is radical politics because these experiences, as we have demonstrated, are denied and erased in austerity politics. Focusing on lived experience makes women of colour visible political actors in a context that asserts their passivity, absence and/or subordination. Epistemic justice can be achieved under austerity when women of colour produce counter-hegemonic knowledge for and about themselves.
As we have documented elsewhere, women of colour anti-austerity activists are organising and mobilising in creative ways for epistemic justice that challenges white supremacy. As one of our research participants, a British Asian woman activist in Edinburgh, argues, a crucial part of activism is listening and collectively imagining a different world with women of colour:
The pressures are higher on women to get out of the welfare system… I think they are talking to each other a lot more about how they’re managing financially or managing their goals and ambitions … it’s about ways of supporting [each other] and surviving, … So I think when they speak to each other they are beginning to dream a little bit more, have a lot more ambition and finding ways of working together.
It is only when women of colour assert control over how they are defined, what their experiences mean to them and how they might collectively imagine radical new futures – beyond the constraints of the British austerity regime – that epistemic justice can be achieved. It is through collective understandings and resistance learned through lived experiences and critical dialogue that we might problematise and subvert the dominant ways of knowing and resisting austerity in Britain.
Here we have examined how austerity measures violently erase the experiences of women of colour in Britain. Ironically, even though women of colour are more likely to live precarious lives and are disproportionately disadvantaged by austerity measures, their experiences and perspectives are silenced in the dominant understandings of austerity. We name this erasure as a form of epistemic violence. Counteracting this violence necessitates taking women of colour seriously by centring their institutionalised crises and resistance. Epistemic justice for women of colour is possible under austerity through women of colour’s counter-hegemonic knowledge production that informs their activism for social justice.
Leah Bassel is Associate Professor in Sociology at the University of Leicester. She is author of Refugee Women: Beyond Gender versus Culture (2012), The Politics of Listening: Possibilities and Challenges for Democratic Life (forthcoming) and Minority Women and Austerity: Survival and Resistance in France and Britain (with Akwugo Emejulu).
Akwugo Emejulu is Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick. Her research interests include the political sociology of race, gender and the grassroots activism of women of colour in Europe and America. She is author of Community Development as Micropolitics: Comparing Theories, Policies and Politics in America and Britain (2015) and Minority Women and Austerity: Survival and Resistance in France and Britain (with Leah Bassel).
The Violence of Austerity is edited by Vickie Cooper and David Whyte and is available from Pluto Press.
Akwugo Emejulu and Leah Bassel contributed the chapter Women of Colour’s Anti-Austerity Activism.