It has been incredibly heartening of late to note the amount of Aboriginal social media groups posting up stuff about violence against women in our community. We need to do a lot more, granted. The fact though that I have seen a vast range of social media spaces make a choice to talk about an issue which affects our communities at horrific rates, particularly in the face of how the government, the police force and the mainstream society tends to use that information against us, is important. But while we're talking about it more and more, I do wish to address how we speak about it and, in particular, how we speak about Aboriginal women.
You see, a lot of the time when I have observed statements being made, the comments fall into that old trope when speaking about women: "she's someone's mother", "she's someone's wife", "she's someone's sister", "she's someone's daughter", and so forth. And I understand why people continually frame Aboriginal women (and indeed, other women) this way. They wish to try and make cases more relatable so people, when witnessing abuse or actions which excuse or allow for abuse, are more likely to take action. Yet by doing this, we continually end up framing our women by our relevance to other people, and this in itself is a problem. It means that we need to be viewed as relevant to others in order for them to see our worth and take action. It means that as individual, autonomous people who should have status, liberty and the ability to take up our rightful space in society like everyone else, we are denied this right.
And it's even more weighted than that. Sure, all of us are indeed born "someone's daughter", but this does not always remain the case. Sometimes our parents die. Sometimes our parents cannot care for us. Sometimes the government decides our parents, by virtue of their race, are unsuitable and then takes us away for the purpose of our mainstream assimilation. Culturally and politically, we are mostly always "someone's sister". Except some of us are still finding our ways home and connecting with families denied to us for generations. Definitely not all of us are mothers, though culturally some of us fill that role without giving birth and some of us who have given birth can't fill that role for whatever reason. Therefore always describing us as our relevance to other people not only erases our own identities and importance as individuals, but it might not actually be accurate or a description of our role which we are comfortable with.
To put it this way: Aboriginal men are also significantly more likely to be victims of violence than other men in this country. Yet when raising awareness of these victims, we don't refer to him in terms of his relevance to everyone else. He's not possibly "someone's dad", "someone's son", "someone's brother", "someone's husband". He is simply someone.
Unless it's the mainstream referring to the case, then he is rarely someone. And she is rarely someone. Aboriginal people are rarely anyone when referred to by the mainstream. We have our culture erased, our autonomy erased, our humanity erased, continually. And for this reason more than any other, in the face of continuing colonisation, I feel it is even more important to ensure that we are recognising our own importance and autonomy, and elevating each other.
So how do we grapple with this then, as a people for whom our connection to each other is crucial to our cultures and lands? I think it's about knowing we all have importance, we all play various roles in our communities and in broader society, and we are all survivors: the current links to the longest continuing cultures in the entire world. It's about recognising the role that we all play in this survival and continuation - women, men and children - and recognising the complexity of that role, in the face of our ongoing struggles for autonomy and self-determination against colonisation. We need to therefore ensure we are recognising the rights of all of us to this self-determination because if we don't, the struggle will never succeed. But finally though, and perhaps more bluntly, when it's framed as always about her relationship to you, then it is always about you and not her and her need to not be harmed, to not be dehumanised and to live a free life. Her right to this safety and respect in the first place is much more urgent than your right to not have your family torn apart at her loss down the track.
She is someone. She is crucial.
Thursday, November 19, 2015
Last night I had the incredible privilege of appearing in a debate at the Women's Health West annual general meeting as part of their post-meeting festivities. I was joined on the stage by Kon Karapanagiotidis and Karen Jackson (director of the Moondani Balluk Academic Unit at Vic Uni and wonderful Indigenous union rep!), who had the positive side, and my team mate on the negative side Tasneem Chopra. Our topic was that "Feminists need to unite against racism".
Well naturally, considering what I spend my life writing about, I had no idea how I was going to tackle this one! However, I gave it a go, and ended up having a bit of fun arguing seemingly against my established position. In light of this, and due to the curiosity of others, I am posting a copy of my speech below. It should be read with the humour with which it was intended. Enjoy!
My fellow comrades, dissidents, trouble-makers and parliament house shakers, as second speaker for the negative, I am here round off the argument of why feminists do not need to unite against racism. I hope to provide some clear thoughts as to why I feel this is unnecessary, why I feel it is untimely and what it is I think the feminist movement needs to focus on instead.
To begin with though, as it stands right now, the feminist movement is not even united on its own goal yet. Granted, the feminist movement has the broader banner of overcoming discrimination based upon gender suffered by more than half the population, but that’s where the similarities end. You have the liberal feminists fighting within the system which they don’t necessarily feel is inherently corrupt. Indeed, they argue that recognition and more access to the system is how women are going to gain equality. You have the radical feminists stating that the key system which oppresses us all is the rule of the patriarchy which plays out in every system existing and therefore it is integral to completely dismantle all forms of male rule and start again. You have the Marxist feminists locating the feminist struggle within the class system and battling away to dismantle that whilst also ensuring that men are not the only beneficiaries come the revolution. You have the anarchist feminists stating that rulers always emerge whether within capitalist or communist systems and therefore anything which is not a liberated system ensuring women have complete autonomy is a waste of time. You have the pop star feminists stating that women already run the world, and that swinging naked on a wrecking ball is a statement.
And paradoxically, therein lies the benefit. For while the feminist movement remains a space of contestation, it remains a space of vibrancy and discussion where it can be challenged by alternate theories. An autonomous feminist movement, while presenting a more united front, would lose this nuance and would therefore be less likely to be able to react adequately in times of change.
This is what concerns me about the idea that feminists must unite against racism. It makes the assumption that the experiences of people oppressed by race are homogenous. That there is an oppositional stand that feminists can take to remove it from their space. While racially marginalised groups share the fact that they are oppressed by virtue of their race in a society which preferences members of the dominant culture, again this is where the similarities end. Racism exists because a culture dominates and therefore anyone who doesn’t fit into that dominant culture is marginalised. It doesn’t exist because racially marginalised groups are similar. Therefore to suggest feminism must unite against racism firstly assumes that feminists are mainly members of the dominant culture and secondly that what they need to unite against is racism rather than their own experiences of privilege as members of the dominant culture.
Skin colour is often a site where racism comes into play. Yet not all racially-marginalised groups are black or brown or red or yellow. Indeed, there are Indigenous groups who are white yet who experience racism by virtue of their indigeneity. Even within the groups that are traditionally “of colour”, you have individuals who are not physically visible yet who fight to be proud of their identity in a world which tells them they shouldn’t be. Additionally, not all experiences of people identified as black or brown are the same, depending on where they come from and what their unique experiences with the dominant culture are. Aboriginal people don’t have the exact same experiences as Torres Strait Islander people despite both being labelled “Indigenous Australians”. Immigrant populations trying to make new lives here while dealing with racist policies and xenophobic populations don’t have the same experiences as Original Peoples who have been displaced from their lands. The intersection of religion and race plays out in interesting ways in Australia now. The same group of racially-marginalised people will be treated differently by the dominant culture depending on whether they are Muslims or not. Meanwhile “Muslim” itself has become a racialised category in the Australian dialogue by simple fact that it is seen as a religion practiced by people of colour in a way Christianity is not, regardless of how inaccurate this statement is.
The answer here is that these experiences cannot, and should not, be unified in a feminist space. They should be allowed to be expressed within a feminist space but feminists should never expect one scenario to unite against. The fact that experiences of racism are nuanced; that Aboriginal feminists fight different battles to Asian feminists, who are fighting different battles to African feminists; is incredibly important and gives unique insights into how structures of oppression operate. And for things to change for the better, for the systems of oppression to be dismantled and for feminists to ultimately be victorious in overthrowing the patriarchy, they need to understand this. They need to understand that experiences of the patriarchy are not universal, though they are always gendered. And to go back to my initial point about the various streams within the feminist movement, I feel that there is the capacity for feminism to engage with nuance. It already does internally.
Finally though, the most important reason why feminists do not need to unite against racism: mortgages. I’m 37 and I don’t have one yet. You see, as a grumpy feminist who lives alone, is Aboriginal and who spends a lot of time telling feminist gatherings they need to be more cognisant of race, I occasionally get paid to do so. The sooner feminists completely get it and unite fully against racism, the sooner my gigs dry up. As a woman, I am already facing a gendered pay gap in this country of nearly 19% so am on the back foot here to begin with. I also have not made it to Berlin yet, which is my dream destination for hanging with artists and drinking coffee. So feminists uniting against racism diminishes my capacity to reach financial maturity even as I remain immature in other ways, and denies me the free autonomous movement to other parts of the world. And that’s not very feminist now, is it?