Identity and its influence upon the extent to which we can attain liberation and live liberated lives is an integral part of politics.
Movement is one medium through which we feel the effects of our identity, the experiences of migrants & asylum seekers exemplifying this. 
SISTAH zine explored these ideas below.

Hostile Environments

Maya Goodfellow is a writer & academic, and the author of ‘Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Became Scapegoats.’ Her work to problematize the border and reframe the narratives around migrants and asylum seekers, is liberatory work. SISTAH zine was thrilled to be able to discuss these ideas with her.

SISTAH: A key idea that you’ve put forward in your writing is that the ‘problem’ is borders, not the people trying to cross them. Could you speak a little more on that idea? How would reframing the narrative to acknowledge the true site of the ‘problem’ be liberatory for migrants/asylum seekers?

MAYA: I think it’s a really good question. I suppose a lot of what I think about is related to the UK context. If you look back at the history of how immigration has been understood in the UK, or maybe more broadly how movement has been understood, there is this consistent problematisation of the figure of ‘the migrant’ and that figure is obviously gendered and racialised. 

I spent a lot of time looking at the history of the UK’s immigration debate and there is a really rich literature on this. After years of doing that, I realised there is a problem in simply thinking about this figure of ‘the migrant.’ Whilst we want to deconstruct these narratives and show how they are racialised and gendered, I think we need to focus on the things doing the harm. That is the border and the process of bordering. This is taken for granted in the political realm. There is this idea that borders are given and necessary for safety. If we think more about the border, we should think “who is the border protecting and who is it endangering?’



I think too often we just think the border demarcates the nation state but really what we know, particularly with the hostile environment in the UK,  is that borders are far more expansive and insidious. They are within our country, demarcating our access to public services. If we spoke more about that, we would be able to have a more expansive understanding of what we want to change and then what we want to achieve. By problematizing ‘the border’, it allows us to think about the border itself, who is controlling it and who is being harmed by it and work from there. 


The question I often come to is “why do we want to organise our world like this?” Who is it benefitting and who is it harming? So, coming to your point about a liberatory politics, by thinking this way, we would think about how the immigration system itself is inherently exclusionary and how the process of bordering is built on exclusion. If we shift that framing, it might allow a more expansive understanding of what we want to achieve with our politics.

Images courtesy of Max Brucker

SZ: What would a government policy that prioritises the humanity of migrants/asylum seekers over the “business model” of border controls look like? 

 How far away from that ‘ideal’ are we now and how optimistic are you about whether we would reach it in the near future?

M: There are a number of policy changes that could and should happen: reducing fees, making sure there is legal aid, making the system less bureaucratic. But that doesn’t really get to the heart of your question. Those policies speak to a more reformist agenda and although we should not sneer at that, as it does create real change for the people subject to those policies, we should spend more time reimagining this altogether. Maybe because I’ve been reading a lot of Stuart Hall recently, I think we do need to consider the vision. So, we need to imagine what that world that contains an ideal immigration policy would look like and how we articulate it to one another. Then, there would be policy steps to take us there. That work needs to be done.


There needs to be more work pushing back on the ‘common sense narratives’ on bordering. These are the narratives, totally taken for granted, that say borders are right, fair and there to protect. I don’t have the answer to the narrative that would replace that but more work needs to be done to develop that alternative narrative, as a long-term project. Stuart Hall writes about the narratives about culture and presenting visions of the world that people can relate to. I want to think about this more and I think this is something that people are thinking about too.  


In one sense, I feel really pessimistic. The right has a very clear and successful narrative on immigration. It does a lot of damage and produces harm and death. We can’t ignore this. But, there are people all around the world rejecting these narratives and organising against them.

Images courtesy of Max Brucker

One thing that simultaneously gives me hope and fear the narrative around key workers at the height of the UK lockdown. For example, many workers previously dismissed as low-skilled were revealed as key workers. This was not just doctors and nurses, but supermarket workers and many more. In that moment of public outpouring of support for key workers, there was also a recognition that many of them were migrants. 


One of the ways this manifested itself was the agitation about the NHS surcharge. The government did succumb to that anger, removing the surcharge for some workers. However, many migrants still pay it. So, even that reform was caviated in so many ways. That shows us the limits of the reformist approach. It shows how a narrative can shift, but also shows that if you aren’t imaginative enough to create alternative narratives, the wins are too small.  This was also the same for the Windrush scandal. Unless you have a politics that says everyone’s rights matter, you still reproduce the structures you are trying to critique. 

That being said, there are a lot of people doing important campaigning work that I really don't want to invisibilise. A friend said to me “the seeds of change are being planted now.” We should be realistic but travel hopefully. If we aren’t hopeful for the possibility of change, it is simply debilitating. 

SZ: SISTAH zine wants to create a platform that demonstrates where women are creating spaces for liberation whilst also highlighting where barriers to liberation still exist.

So, considering specifically women & femmes now, how does the political situation with regard to migration affect them specifically and their ability to be liberated?     


M: This is a major issue and has been so historically. Immigration policies in the UK have been formed on the basis of hugely gendered relations. For example, when men came from countries like India, it was considered okay for women to come and join them so that these men didn't marry white women. In this way and others, South-Asian women have been used as pawns. The most horrendous example of this in the UK was the virginity-testing of South-Asian women. Virginity tests would take place to ensure the women were coming to marry the men as they were claiming. One of the worst examples of this today is the way migrant women who are experiencing domestic violence have been treated by the state, particularly minority migrant women - those who are undocumented, with no recourse to public funds (NRPF). Access to refuge from violence has been made so difficult because of things like NRPF. Living in a country so hostile to immigration has a particularly gendered outcome here. It means that you are scared to seek access to services or speak to public bodies. It makes it so difficult to escape an abusive situation. 


There is an organisation doing great work in Manchester called Safety4Sisters, and Sandy Scharmer, one of their founders, has spoken extensively about this. Some women are reliant on their partner for their VISA. This is a barrier to escaping the abusive relationship: the very real fear of deportation. The government might cite certain routes that these women can apply for in these circumstances that do not necessarily lead to deportation. Access to these, however, is so difficult and this, summed with the ever present potential for deportation, is a barrier to leaving the abusive relationship. 


When we talk about liberatory politics, this so clearly highlights the problem. When we are thinking about a liberatory politics, we need to think of the most marginalised - in this case, undocumented women. When people advocate for change, it is far too often just for the “good migrant”, rather than the most marginalised. A liberatory politics requires the most marginalised to be at the centre of the discourse. 


As an example, the discourse about the Domestic Abuse Bill, which recently passed, was so problematic. It was extolled as an example of how Parliament should work, how cross-party collaboration can work and, in this case, produce results that protect and empower women. And yes, the Bill will do some important things for some women, but it actively excludes women on the basis of immigration status. That undermines exactly what the Bill is claiming to achieve, the protection of vulnerable women, as the most vulnerable women are left in greater danger.


Images courtesy of Max Brucker

SZ: To young people that are involved with activism or are politically active, what would you say on how we best work to support the liberation of migrants and asylum seekers when the political situation created by borders isn’t conducive to this liberation? 


M: I think it’s a really good question and is one that needs to be continually reassessed. 


Part of the answer is looking at what already exists. There are really great organisations doing important work that are really overburdened. Support can be lent there. Many of these organisations are thinking about liberatory politics & doing things like service provision too. Sometimes, it’s about responding to government policy and supporting people in the moment; sometimes it’s about creating space to think about long-term changes and doing that reimagination we’ve discussed.


We can also think about existing movements that young people have championed, like the climate strikes movement. When I attended one of those protests, it was exciting to see young people refuse to box in or capitulate their demands as the government and media tried to make them do. I think there are young people creating this energy right now for anti-racism, but maybe more of that is needed in the context of the politics of migration. That is to say, the kind of mass coalescence & stubbornness of demands around the climate movement is something young people can bring to this context. 


The climate strikes have also formed connections across borders. We have to think globally. Though we don’t wish to model ourselves on the right, they are good at creating these connections globally. I know people are doing this work in climate change and anti-racism on a global scale, but maybe regarding migration and xenophobia, we need more of that. 


Having said all of that, I think you probably know better. You either know or you will be on the way to figuring it out. 


Experiencing through Blackness: Identity in Japan

Jaime Smith is the vice-chair of BLM Tokyo, having migrated from the USA to Japan in 2017. The work of BLM Tokyo to address anti-black racism in Japan speaks directly to our theme of liberation. We were humbled by the opportunity to have this conversation with Jaime to learn about the work of BLM Tokyo and discuss black identity & misogynoir in Japan.

SISTAH: Could you speak a little about the relationship Japan, as a country, has with anti-black racism and the movements, like your own, that seek to dismantle racism? 


JAIME: Speaking about the history of anti-Black racism in Japan is complicated because often, Japanese people don’t know the history themselves. Ignorance and microaggressions are thus more frequent than overt racism. Nevertheless, Blackface came to Japan in 1854 when a minstrel show was performed on the USS Powhatan to celebrate the same trade treaty that opened Japan up to the world. Nowadays though, minstrelsy is seen as a compliment by both Japanese performers and viewers alike; it's seen as an effort to represent Black people as accurately as possible. Those of us from the African Diaspora don’t agree.


The microaggressions stem from stereotypes that permeate the society. Black people are cool, scary, fashionable, poor, sporty, criminal, sexy, and undesirable all at the same time. The “good” stereotypes can get us opportunities, but cause disappointment if we don’t meet them, while the bad have contributed to difficulties ranging from estranged work relationships to difficulty securing work or housing.


The experiences of a mixed-race Black and Japanese person are unique; they are often left feeling as if they don’t belong in the country they were born and raised in. This extends to non-Black mixed Japanese people as well, but the darker skin has a compounding effect. It’s hard for me to speak on the specific issues mixed-race Japanese people face, but just imagining having to go through life explaining that ‘yes I am in fact Japanese’ sounds exhausting.


Again though, I attribute most of this to ignorance. Many foreign groups are viewed through the lens of media rather than interaction, and that media is not made by us. So, we at BLM Tokyo are providing a platform for sharing our experiences and our stories and uplifting the Black artists and activists in the Japanese community. And we’re trying to invite that community in. We want the Japanese community to enjoy the beautiful and varying Black cultures while also understanding the people that are a part of them.


Randiah_Japanese Translation.jpg

SZ: Could you tell us about the work BLM Tokyo is doing? What organising have you been doing and what projects are you working on? 


J: I think BLM Tokyo is known for the June march attended by 3,500 people. Since then we have focused on smaller, community-based events. The continuing pandemic has meant that these events must be online, but I think that allows us to reach a wider audience. Our current projects include RealTalk. a web-based educational series that aims to explore the topics surrounding racism and systemic injustice in the US, Japan and around the world, Harmonic Wavelength a community music event that promotes Black musicians and non-Black musicians aligned with our mission who live in Japan, and Koku Zine a space for Black creative voices in Japan.


SZ: What are your aims with the BLM Tokyo movement? 


J: Our mission is to strengthen our ties with the Japanese community through anti-racist action, community outreach efforts, and education of Black history and the history of racism in order to move towards a more culturally diverse and understanding environment for all.



SZ: The term “misogynoir” is applied to the misogyny directed towards black women and femmes, where both race and gender play a role in the bias. 

How does “misogynoir” affect black women & femmes in Japan?


J: I think misogynoir affects Black women (and femme nonbinary people) very similarly in Japan as it does in other parts of the world. I know Black women who have lost jobs at nurseries because the children find them scary or the parents find them intimidating. I’ve heard stories of and met men who see us as hypersexual, great for a fling, but not for marriage. I know Black women who’ve had men approach them believing that they are prostitutes, when they’re just going about their business. Our hair is not always seen as professional and we may be complimented if we straighten it. Our bodies are considered distracting and I know people who’ve been asked to wear sweaters or buy bigger clothes to hide their curves.


It’s hard for me to answer what kind of environment Japan is for BIPOC women as a whole because there are just so many different experiences. Sexism is definitely a problem in Japan, but I believe I’ve experienced more discrimination in relation to my race than my percieved gender. I honestly think being non-Japanese allows me to avoid a lot of it. I’m allowed to be different, but because I am different I will never belong. I think to live here, you do have to steel yourself, and people’s varying ability to do that affects how well they’ll do here. There are many who handle it well because it’s better than what they’ve experienced where they originated from or they just have a thick skin. Then there are plenty who are experiencing worse than where they came from, or are experiencing it for the first time, or are better equipped to handle overt racism rather than the constant picking of microaggressions.


One thing I can say pretty confidently though, is that Black trans women don’t feel like their lives are in danger and many Black women feel safer being out alone here, especially at night.


SZ: What needs to happen in Japan for BIPOC women and femmes to be liberated? How optimistic do you feel about the necessary changes taking place? 


J: First Japan needs to recognise the issue, and to do that takes education. We can’t shy away from the subject even though it’s uncomfortable and people in general like to avoid discomfort. After education comes personal responsibility. People must be willing to stand up for others, even if that means checking their friends, family, and coworkers. I think this will be the hardest part because keeping the peace is a cornerstone of Japanese society. But I also think the younger generations in Japan are more outspoken, and if older generations encourage it rather than shooting it down, they’ll be the voices of change. I’m pretty optimistic about that.