Southall Black Sisters

Cliodhna Cunningham’s art piece reflects on migrant experiences during 70s Britain. It pays homage to Southall Black Sisters, a group dedicated to improving the lives of BME women. Read about what inspired this art below. For TWSS Issue #16. 

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The immediate ‘crackdown’ on physical borderlands is a populist narrative that is sweeping global politics. Unfortunately, this scaremongering is not a new phenomenon. In light of this, I would like to draw attention to the treacherous process of assimilation that migrants face after crossing the national borderland. As a society, we rarely discuss this experience or the insidious and psychological borderlands that migrants must traverse where multiple cultures meet and overlap. From a lack of social support to blatant colourism, the multiple layers of selfhood that migrants are forced to assume simply to live is in itself a confusing task.

My specific focus for this piece is to draw attention to a women’s collective that helped to relieve migrants from the denigration of cultural borderlands in 70s Britain: Southall Black Sisters. The ‘swamped by immigrants’ narrative certainly benefited Thatcher’s government , but it had insidious effects for immigrants – the consequences of which are still notable today.

Asians, Caribbeans and other minority groups were homogenised as a collective immigrant ‘other’. Yet, awareness of Thatcher’s rhetoric caused groups like the Southall Black Sisters to organise themselves in response. Southall Black Sisters reclaimed this ‘otherness’ and powerfully forged a collective identity under the term ‘Black’, crafting a politics that stood for collective cross-racial action, not skin colour. The Southall Black Sisters are remarkable because they created a space of unity for all women of colour who were suffering in an increasingly polarised Britain. They were at the forefront, pushing for women’s human rights and domestic abuse support. SBS also offered support in various languages, a beacon of hope for migrant women that might face hostility in traditional health centres for their inability to speak English.

When it comes to race relations it is paramount to acknowledge the invisible borderlands that migrants grapple with every day. The Southall Black Sisters’ hyper-awareness of these unstable borderlands in such a confusing time allowed them to pioneer BME women’s human rights in street protests, outside detention centres and in the courts.

The fact that SBS is still running today is a testament to the amazing work they have done and continue to do.

Words and art by Cliodhna Cunningham. 


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