Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Last week I was accused of lateral violence...

Bet the Indigenous right-wing are happy to hear that they are not the only ones who cop that accusation. But before they go pointing their fingers in glee about how the left are the true evil perpetrators, I should state that there was no way in the world that the accusation had any merit at all. You see, I was accused because I was questioning Indigenous Beauty Pageants again following reading an article on the recent crowning of Miss NAIDOC in Perth. I wrote on this very topic last year and my piece ended up being republished. My basic argument was thus: how can an Indigenous beauty pageant ever be a truly empowering event for women whilst Indigenous people are still so fetishised and scrutinised, and when the broader notion of "beauty" is incredibly problematic on the basis of it reducing women to their arbitrary physical features. I also stated that individual empowerment through taking part in an event did not mean that the event itself was empowering as it reinforced social structures that are, in my estimation, oppressive. Not exactly an inconsistent opinion from me. 

Back when I wrote that article I received a reasonably respectful, though dissenting, email through from one of the NAIDOC Committees. Their concerns with what I had written gave me the opportunity to better explain my views. I wrote at one point that regardless of anything I had to state on the topic of Indigenous beauty pageants, I was reasonably certain that they would get even more applicants for their pageant this year, and I argued that this was because the same oppressive social structures exist. From what I could tell, this has been the case and the event has been bigger and better than previous years. On viewing the Facebook page on the Miss NAIDOC event and reading the comments people had left there, I was reasonably convinced that my point was somewhat proven though with regards to the oppressive structures I had referred to still being the case. Women are judged and praised for their looks regardless of what other attributes they may have, and black women are even more so. It just seems to be the way it is. 

So my structural analysis on beauty and blackness led to a baseless accusation of lateral violence when I again questioned how black pageants are actually empowering in another forum. On looking back over that discussion I have to wonder whether the accuser was looking for a reason to have a go at me over something because they had not engaged with the previous posted material or my original article at all; it was a very focussed accusation. But this accusation did make me think how an accusation of lateral violence can be a silencing tactic. Never a good thing in a community when there are many informed debates to be had on so many issues. 

To sum up lateral violence in a nutshell, I will draw on this quote from a consulting organisation in Canada where a lot of the theory and research has come from:

"Lateral Violence occurs within marginalized groups where members strike out at each other as a result of being oppressed. The oppressed become the oppressors of themselves and each other. Common behaviours that prevent positive change from occurring include gossiping, bullying, finger-pointing, backstabbing and shunning."

There is a lot more literature out there, but it is a big issue and needs tackling. A lot of the early research on lateral violence came from the nursing profession and was therefore focussed on women. It is poignant to note this  because as I stated, my original reasons for writing the first article, and indeed my reasons for this post are to investigate structures of oppression. And that is what I did. The patriarchy was called into question for reducing women to objects and then building an entire commercial industry around it. Whiteness was called into question for objectifying blackness and creating a situation where people are forced to assert their identities in the face of scrutiny, eroticisation and erasure. 

What's more, although a lot of my posts allow for individual choice to be a factor, the individual reasons for those personal choices are not of huge concern to me. That's part of the live and let live deal. What is of concern is the contexts in which choices are made, why those choices have come to exist in the first place, and how empowerment can be a long-term and extensively beneficial state, rather than a fleeting and individual experience. I have said that I am certain that women who participate in Miss NAIDOC pageants DO find them to be empowering experiences, but why is this so? Could it be that in a world were the appearance of women is scrutinised AND where black women are subjected to the additional level of cultural scrutiny, that the very notion of being seen and having your appearance validated would be experienced as an empowering thing? If this is the case then do we promote Indigenous beauty and buy into the problematic world of centralising women's outward appearance or do we try and deconstruct the lot of it? 

I am very much of the "Audre Lorde" school of thought here whereby "The Master's tools will never dismantle the Master's house". Buying into coloniser notions of blackness, as well as patriarchal notions of beauty is not going to change anything for the better in the long term. Others disagree with me, and you know what, that's fantastic! Why? Because we need to have the ability to debate issues within our community. We're a diverse community and the more we do engage in debate, the more able we become to cover all of our needs. I would like to see a hell of a lot more debate out there in the www because there is not nearly enough, and our debate is generally not covered by Australian news sources. 

Dissenting view, you bet your life. But lateral violence? Not even remotely. I wish all the young women involved in the pageants the very best and I said this when I first raised the topic for discussion nearly a year ago. I hope they thoroughly enjoy their experiences and I hope that the community supports them 100%. I also hope that their involvement in these competitions propels them on to bigger and better things. But I really do hope for a world in which our women aren't made to feel like they have to be physically appealing; where they are seen as human beings of equal status and treated constantly with respect. Where their culture is also respected and is not continually misrepresented by the mainstream or just blatantly ignored. I want extensive and inclusive empowerment. 

One final note. As mentioned, lateral violence is a real issue. It exists BECAUSE racism and sexism exist* and it is therefore important to analyse those structural forms of oppression in order to combat it. It is a daily experience for members of our community and more awareness of it and the forms it takes are needed so people can check themselves and move from an oppressive to a supportive framework. Audre Lorde works here too: becoming an oppressor does not remove oppression. It only creates the "divide and conquer" paradigm. So call it out when you see it and work toward positive change. Don't use it as a tool to silence others wrongfully because essentially, that's just buying into it.

PS Through work, we conducted a members' survey on racism, discrimination and lateral violence in the workplace, and approximately 2/3 of the respondents indicated that they had encountered this issue. The full report is available here

* It exists in other forms of oppression but for the purposes of this piece, these are the types we're focussed on here


  1. Thank you for a very thoughtful and clearly put article. It's very hard to explain these issues which can seem complex until explained properly. I have had trouble and have had to take it step by step with my daughter because talking about these things can feel as though you want young women to just look "boring" or you can make them think you're fearful of their sexuality or that they "have to be careful" in case they give men "the wrong impression" - it's very very tricky! So thank you !

    1. Thank you, Jan. Am glad you found it useful and appreciate your words

  2. I don't think lateral violence is a label that applies to you. My reading of your posts on facebook as well as this blog site doesn't tell me that. Anyways, thinking people understand that lateral violence is the language of colonisers and it is a form of violence that manifests in both so called casual racism, covert and overt racism as we have witnessed in recent events in Sydney and Melbourne. It is for these reasons I refuse to become part of the cacophony of populist rhetoric in the Australian 'tradition' of 'bagging' someone out because of perceived and/or real differences between me and another. My particular journey is now more in tune with "Dadirri" a language word I believe comes from Nauiyu [formerly Daly River Mission in the Top End of the Northern Territory] meaning 'quiet listening', as I come to understand to mean deep learning with your eyes and ears and not your mouth as in the practice of the western tradition of learning hence Dadirri is a form of higher order thinking, if you are using 'Dadirri' [ I am sure there are other language words out there] then lateral violence does not come into your thinking.

    1. Thank you for your insight here, Numbul Davis. Definitely some worthwhile food-for-thought and I appreciate it.