'We must constantly question what our own agenda might be'

I began interning at HarperCollins when I was at university. I became increasingly political throughout my undergraduate degree. I started to conduct performances that interrogated my race and found myself more and more tokenised in majority white theatre spaces as “the Black girl”, making “Black work”. This drove me to start running events and thinking of different ways of curating content: creating politicised, diverse and challenging platforms that I would have liked to work in, rather than constantly problematising the spaces I had.

I became a part of Hysteria, a radical feminist collective, after I graduated. I got my first taste of actually editing the articles of academics, activists, artists and poets from around the world. I learnt on the job, with direction from the editor-in-chief and the rest of the editorial team, drawing on my experience at HarperCollins and as a writer. I needed to be a part of the move to change the increasingly Islamaphobic, racist and homophobic narratives churned out by the right-wing media, and self-publishing felt like one of the most liberating ways to do that. We relied on Kickstarter fundraising rather than Arts Council grants, meaning that we only had to prove ourselves to our readership and the international feminist community. In October last year, I was elected co-editor-in-chief of our biannual periodical, which is distributed internationally.

Hysteria was begun by a group of SOAS, University of London graduates who were intersectionality-minded but not particularly intersectional in and of themselves. Along with my fellow co-editor-in-chief, we spent a great amount of energy with the collective working to diversify our body of editors in terms of race, disability and gender identification. Like so many unfunded creative areas of profession, those of us from immigrant or otherwise marginalised communities are often not granted the luxury of working for free, and Hysteria remained an unpaid project.

As soon as I became co-editor-in-chief, and in part because of my performance background, I suddenly became “the face of the collective”. Being a mixed-race face, the collective was suddenly run by “a woman of colour” and therefore must be a “Black collective”. Once again, I found myself speaking about feminism in majority-white spaces, and all of the questions directed at me were about race. Because I am light-skinned and well spoken, I became a very palatable sort of Black person, and eventually found myself having to insist that I would not speak on panels on which I was the darkest participant. More than this, other queer women of colour in my community made assumptions about the demographic of the collective based on my position as co-editor-in-chief.

Being a spokesperson in any industry— especially one such as publishing, where you are deciding whose voices are (and are not) heard within an already oppressed and marginal space, such as self-publishing— is a dangerous responsibility; my race could become a mascot for diversity rather than a frictious point of intersection. I felt subconsciously tokenised within my own collective, and more deliberately so in the outside world.

Producing a semi-academic journal that was full of so many white bodies rubbed up against my politics, even though we had a very diverse submissions body and published poets and activists from all over the world, somehow it was the white bodies that stood out to me. I realised that, being a woman of colour in publishing, I didn’t have to only publish “Black work”, but I did have to constantly challenge my position as what Malorie Blackman has called “a gatekeeper”: those that can stop you getting through, or who can swing the door wide open for you.

While diversifying publishing is essential—I now do my best to avoid working in all-white spaces at all—as Black and brown editors, we must also be aware of how we are being used for other people’s agendas and constantly question what our own agenda might be, and for whom we are swinging the door wide open.

Ama Josephine Budge is a writer, editor and curator.

Picture: Zachary Maxwell Stertz