Sunday, August 20, 2017

Trouble at the Intersection - speech from the Melbourne Anarchist Bookfair

Publishing by request: This is the speech I gave at the Melbourne Anarchist Bookfair on the 12/8/17, complete with adlibs and edits included on the day. I want to thank the MAB for giving me this space and to all the wonderful people who attended on the day. In solidarity - CL

Before I begin, I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the lands on which we meet today: The Wurrundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. I would like to acknowledge their ancestors and pay my respects to their elders; past, present and future. I would also like to state that the Wurrundjeri have never ceded their sovereignty and that we are on Stolen Lands for which a treaty or sovereign agreement has never been negotiated. I therefore wish to acknowledge the victims of massacres, rapes, land clearings and other such governmental policies and I call for the due acknowledgement of these atrocities and for compensation to be paid.

I also introduce myself as an Arrernte woman whose lands include Alice Springs and a good portion of the surrounding area. I come from an area of “caterpillar dreaming” and this is evident through the unique shapes of the McDonnell Ranges which surround Alice Springs, stretching out in all directions. I acknowledge my grandparents: Harold Liddle and Emily Perkins who are both kwementyaye (or no longer with us) of which my father was their 7th child. I also though acknowledge my mother’s side of the family who are non-Indigenous staunch working class people who made up some of the first mad Collingwood supporters in Melbourne. My grandfather worked for the Carlton United Brewery for around 40 years, as did many of my extended family.

Finally, I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge the news yesterday of the sad demise of the Recognise campaign. Many in the community are going to miss the partnerships with human rights abusers such as Transfield and nearly every mining company, the faulty survey results released to the media stating that 87% of Aboriginal would vote yes to be recognised in the invader constitution despite there being no decisions at that point about what we’d actually be voting on, and the fact that the government spent millions on a campaign designed to assimilate us and negate our sovereign rights while concurrently cutting half a billion dollars from our health, legal, and educational programmes and further diminishing native title. I think we should have a minute silence to remember Recognise....

So I’m not good at off-the-cuff unless I am speaking to mob and I apologise for that. The title of my talk today was deliberately provocative and there are many reasons behind it. For starters though, I wanted to point out that when I first started my blog and had my first article published by Fairfax not six weeks later, I had never heard of the term “intersectionality”. As my writing continued to be published, demand continued to rise and I suddenly seemed to gain traction though, I started seeing myself referred to as an “intersectional feminist”.

So how was it even remotely possible that I could go from not even hearing about a concept to becoming some sort of expert on it? I hate to say it, but initially it was actually a more socially-acceptable form of racism along with a simplistic narrative around class. I was intersectional merely because I ticked several boxes of oppression due to my race, sex and gender, and my class background so it was a way of naming, and at times “othering” my politics.

The thing is though, I have never had any other way to conceptualise the world. I’ve never been anything else but Aboriginal and if I had the hide to forget it at times through my own perceived knowledge and achievements, I was dutifully reminded by someone. I have never been anything except for a woman and girl and though I actively rebelled as a younger one against what I felt were the trappings of forced femininity, again society would tend to pull me back into place. And not only do I come from a working class family, but I have been independent from the time I was 18 years old and mainly funded myself through uni working and accumulating massive student loans which I only really paid back a few years ago. So my life experience is drawn from this, as are my base politics and it has been via my interactions with others as well as through my journeys in higher education where I developed the language to express these ideas and experiences.

So if I was going to be framed as an intersectional feminist, I had to work out what the hell that meant to me. It could not be as simple as being othered as a radical left voice who is also Aboriginal and a woman. It could not be as offensive as a way of further marginalising the marginalised voices in this country. But it also could not dissolve into shallow identity politics where the ultimate prize goes to the person who can identify as many groups outside the social default of white, wealthy, heterosexual, able-bodied, middle-aged men. Because it’s never a prize. It’s a radical politics of liberation based on the principle that the advancement of those on the bottom rungs of society ends up benefiting others because to do so requires the bottom-up systematic dismantling of the structures which oppress.

My first clue about intersectional thought came not from reading massive chunks of texts about the kyriarchy or other terms which I’d also never heard of, but from two simple passages from the Combahee River Collective Statement. This statement was written by a group of radical black lesbians including the likes of Audre Lorde; a woman famous for also coining the phrase “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. The first passage is the introduction and goes as follows:

We are a collective of Black feminists who have been meeting together since 1974. [1] During that time we have been involved in the process of defining and clarifying our politics, while at the same time doing political work within our own group and in coalition with other progressive organizations and movements. The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives. As Black women we see Black feminism as the logical political movement to combat the manifold and simultaneous oppressions that all women of color face.

The second passage reads as follows and struck me in particular due to its final sentence:

In "A Black Feminist's Search for Sisterhood," Michele Wallace arrives at this conclusion:
We exists as women who are Black who are feminists, each stranded for the moment, working independently because there is not yet an environment in this society remotely congenial to our struggle—because, being on the bottom, we would have to do what no one else has done: we would have to fight the world. [2]
Wallace is pessimistic but realistic in her assessment of Black feminists' position, particularly in her allusion to the nearly classic isolation most of us face. We might use our position at the bottom, however, to make a clear leap into revolutionary action. If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.

And there I had it: the idea that true intersectionality is a revolutionary movement. That it was based in the analysis of structural rather than individual oppression. And if I was going to be labelled as an “intersectional feminist” then I damn well hoped it was the type that configured my theories in these particular ways.

There are obviously a couple of problems with taking this statement and passage as a starting point from my perspective. For starters, blackness in the context of this landmass forcibly called Australia in an act of historical erasure via the declaration of terra nullius is interwoven with Indigeneity. Yes, there are other black people in this country and their experiences of racism in this country have been abhorrent. But all beyond the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people benefit from the denial of sovereignty of First Peoples and this is the reality, regardless of how people found themselves here. Hell, as an Arrernte living on Wurrundjeri lands, I too am a beneficiary of these genocidal practices while concurrently being a victim of them elsewhere in this country and this is the core reason why I have long dedicated myself to the Indigenous struggle.

To go back a little bit though, Australia’s unique history with racism, to the point where it founded itself on a complete lie, is the bedrock which forms all racist structures in this country. From white entitlement, to current imprisonment rates to the continual moral panics which happen when a new group of asylum seekers reach these shores (if they are not sent to concentration camps first) after we have assisted in bombing the crap out of their countries. And let’s not forget the battles every single Australia Day.

I’ve additionally long argued that awful government-made policy has a long history of being trialled on Aboriginal people before it is rolled out to other populations. Would we, for example, have Manus and Nauru now if we had not had Rottnest or Palm Island or pretty much every other Aboriginal mission ever created? What’s worse is that our country has had the hide to partially inspire some of the most repugnant laws across the world (for example, apartheid) then turn around and criticise those regimes. Australians are awfully good at telling me that America is so incredibly racist because of how they treat African American people yet neglect to notice that Aboriginal people are the most incarcerated people in the world and a Royal Commission held into deaths in custody nearly 30 years ago has essentially gathered dust as none of the recommendations have been implemented and people like Ms Dhu are still dying; a domestic violence victim who the police should have been assisting but instead end up imprisoning because she parked her car wrong a few times.

Racism dialogues from other countries do not translate well here. We are pretty unique in the way we’ve approached racism. When lining up against the American experience, Aboriginal people share the dialogues of land theft, disease, massacre, colonial rape, rounding up into missions, forced sterilisation, denial of knowledges and so forth with the Native Americans. We share slavery, child theft, exorbitant criminalisation, ghettoisation and so on with African Americans. This is a simplistic and non-exhaustive list but in short I am trying to say that the Indigenous experience here is framed both by global experiences of Indigeneity and Blackness and Australia exists due to our erasure so any racism experienced subsequently by migrant groups, any entitlement felt by white people, is down to this. An intersection between blackness and indigeneity – now there’s a concept. It probably also explains why we can get twice as many people to a Black Lives Matter in solidarity with the American movement than we can to a rally on Indigenous incarceration two weeks later. Race politics ends up one rung above on the ladder if it’s not addressing the original racism here.

But these are the intersections I never hear about. Almost exclusively, when I hear talk about intersectionality, it refers only to feminism. And while feminist thought has provided most of the theoretical framework around it, it most certainly should not be a consideration which resides only within the feminist movement. Because feminism has been at the forefront of these discussions on intersectionality; going all the way back to conversations held by the Combahee River Collective or even here when arguments were breaking out between white second wave feminists about abortion rights and Aboriginal feminists countering with the fact that they were not even allowed to keep the children they had to begin with; it does do it better than most other movements. Apart from Indigenous spaces, women’s gatherings were some of the first places I started to hear acknowledgement of country as a matter of process, for example. When I first started my blog, I was pretty convinced that the only people who would read it would be other black women. I was surprised therefore that it drew a broader feminist readership so quickly and black men were reading it as well. Discovering one day that it actually also managed to have a rather large anarchist readership was another surprise, and as I’ve said before it was a penny-drop moment for me as to learning where my politics actually sat apart from left, Aboriginal and feminist.

But to return to feminism and intersectionality. Despite the fact that feminism has been the major movement to embrace and champion the concept, I honestly cannot say that I believe it is doing it particularly well. As alluded to earlier, a lot of my experience of intersectionality within feminism has been just another form of “othering” and inclusion via assimilation rather than subverting the oppressive structures, challenging the systems and shaking stuff up. In my more cynical moments, I start wondering if intersectionality is more linked to ally status for white wealthy women than it is the diversification of voices and the exploration of compounding structural analysis. And like many who reside on the broader radical side in most of my politics, I am pretty concerned by the no-platforming and silencing which seems to be inherent in shallow allegedly intersectional practice.

I want to take a recent example from my own writing as an intersectional starting point. It became known through various reports that a number of Aboriginal girls in remote areas were missing school while they were menstruating. The part which stuck out to most of the readers of this article was the fact that menstrual products in these communities can cost up to $10 which, when you’re from a severely impoverished large family, can be the equivalent of a couple of canned dinners.

So on seeing this news and reading my opinion piece on it, many sprang into action. Lots donated pads and tampons to charities currently working to provide these products to homeless people and branching out into Indigenous communities. A few people contacted schools to arrange deliveries. A Country Women’s Association branch in Queensland; who had been working in collaboration with impoverished communities in Africa; made a stack of reusable fabric pads to send to these remote communities. People were suggesting crowd-funding menstrual cups and the like. All of these efforts were wonderful to see.

Yet unfortunately, in their own way, every single one of them missed the point by virtue of merely being a bandaid solution. They could recognise the intersection between Indigenous, remoteness, poverty and so forth but the answers were merely stop-gap and unlikely to create better situations beyond a few months.

The gendered cost on menstrual products making them unaffordable for impoverished teenage girls and trans boys who menstruate is an important factor of course. Under capitalism, people have found a way to profiteer from many of our body’s natural functions and the fact that they tend to profiteer the most from creating products to deal with an occurrence that primarily effects women is bad enough. The same profit margins don’t appear to be on toilet paper or tissues and so forth. That the government sees fit to also profiteer off this occurrence by chucking a tax on top of the profit margin is even worse. That these products then have the prices jacked up further by remote delivery and limited retail competition in these areas is the icing on the highly expensive capitalist cake.

Yet we could solve the problem of cost and provision through government subsidies tomorrow and the rest of it wouldn’t go away. Why are people in these communities so severely impoverished in the first place? If we start with land theft – there has not been any compensation for these stolen lands and barely any agreements on land usage which, considering property owners of this country contribute land tax when they purchase a house is pretty telling. The time to pay some rent is well overdue, folks. Then we go on to forced labour and unequal pay for Aboriginal workers which in some cases lasted until the mid-1980s. That’s if people were paid at all and of course we still have the fight right now for the return of stolen wages which mysteriously disappeared into government trusts never to be seen again. But hey, at least some of my ancestors got some flour and tea for a hard day's work.

So you take the inherited poverty and then add programmes such as welfare quarantining due to the NT Intervention, for example. Now an already woefully small financial entitlement via our social safety net is untouchable unless it is being used to purchase certain items in certain shops which have already jacked up their prices. It’s easy to see why a $10 packet of tampons might not be as high on the list for purchase as a $10 carton of milk. But then, we also have the disgraceful “Community Development Programme” or the special blackfella work for the dole. Suddenly, the people who are supposed to be undertaking 25hrs per week of unpaid labour with no workplace protections such as workcover, sick leave and so on for everything from local councils to private enterprises are being cut off from their welfare payments at a rate around 80% higher than everyone else for alleged infringements which could be as simple as “arrived late”. I mean, can we really trust private enterprises profiteering off free labour to not be abusive? So when half the community is cut off from payments and is suffering from hunger or malnutrition, and the other half is having to prop up their extended family, exactly who is going to be able to cobble some change together to buy some pads?

Then we come to the question of facilities. It was noted in the reports that some of the schools these kids are not going to while menstruating don’t even have functioning toilet facilities with doors that lock for privacy considerations. This is despite building works promised by the government under the NT Intervention. Additionally, it is not uncommon for communities to be without running water at all, and this is something I myself wrote about a couple of years ago where an entire community was without running water for four months. Access to washing machines or facilities to rinse menstrual cups or soak reusable pads is also not a given considering that we are, in a lot of circumstances, talking about communities running on groundwater and mineral deposits regularly render taps unusable. What’s more, the communities are not allowed to just go down to Bunnings and fix the problems because their entire lives are being sanctioned and so they can wait for several months for a tap to be fixed and the cost of this ends up being in the hundreds for a simple repair.

I haven’t even gotten to cultural issues yet. There are taboos around menstruation and partly this is inherited from white missionaries and their teachings of the uncleanliness of such activities. Partly it’s ancient taboos around gendered business. One of the most condescending things I think I saw when I wrote this article was a claim that white people don’t have social issues around menstruation. My response was pretty much “well why do you call menstrual items ‘feminine hygiene’ or ‘sanitary protection’ then?” Other taboos exist in some Indigenous communities on top of this and while education and community support may assist in some circumstances, not much can be done without having the facilities and means to be able to work in more positive ways in the first place.

So there you have it. It started with tampons, went to capitalism then racism and gender politics and all of this is geared around the denial of autonomy and self-determination. A shipment of pads is not going to assist this. A smashing of systems of oppression to ensure that Aboriginal girls (and trans boys who menstruate) are not penalised for their gender and sex, their location, their race and just in general is where we are left at the end of the day. Analysing all of these elements at the same time to see how these girls have less access than impoverished people in the cities who have less access than mainly women but also transmen and non-binary people in cities who are additionally wealthy but who are financially penalised compared to wealthy white blokes and ensuring that liberation occurs at that critical end first is precisely what intersectionality should be.

This is all a roundabout way for me to get down to why I think intersectionality ends up being shallow. This is controversial but for me, intersectionality has utterly nothing to do with being a good ally. When a woman of colour from a community which practices FGM is trying to talk about the cultural imperatives behind this and is ends up being silenced because someone decides to talk about the fundraiser they’re running to raise money for women in some region nearby, this is not being intersectional. Including a couple of black women on a panel then referring to them only for “special comments” while assuming that they couldn’t possibly have anything else to say, such as what happened to myself and Roxane Gay on a panel a couple of years ago at what is supposed to be one of the premiere feminist festivals, is not being remotely intersectional. No-platforming is not being intersectional either. Protesting is great and should be actively encouraged. But when you’re an ally and you’re trying to convince a person from a marginalised background that someone else should not be listened to or have a voice when that marginalised person has had to fight tooth and nail to gain any traction in the first place, it’s rarely going to work. The answer is to instead promote the voices of the oppressed.

I’ve read some hardcore stuff in my time written by radical feminists. Some of it has been actively racist, other has been transphobic. Likewise, I have read hard leftist theory that has been orientalist, or downright sexist. I’ve read radical Indigenous rights theory which has been separatist, has been sexist and has been devoid of class analysis. Yet despite all of this, what I learnt from every single one of these was the art of structural analysis and that is not something I have ever been able to gain from liberal analysis which to me reads like choice politics and the art of assimilation.

Yet as I said, intersectionality often seems to be the sole preserve of the feminist movement and this shouldn’t be the case. My “other life” as people know is the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Organiser of the National Tertiary Education Union. I additionally serve on the Women’s Action Committee of the NTEU as it was pretty much a hard ask to keep me off it, if I’m honest. And I feel exceptionally privileged to work for this union because it is one of the few which has driven a strong Indigenous sovereignty agenda. It has also been at the frontline of many women’s rights at work struggles and was one of the first to introduce domestic violence leave as part of enterprise bargaining. It also has a commitment to academic freedom and is not affiliated with the ALP and that independence and respect for discussion has created an environment which has seen my external voice supported in ways it wouldn’t be elsewhere.

I do love a good solidarity protest and it’s a rare occasion that I don’t make it out to actions being taken by other unions. Yet at times, I realise when in this environment just how much cotton wool I am wrapped in. There’s nothing quite like hearing a male official from another union blame domestic violence on the capitalists because they’ve cut their workers’ wages which leads to stressed and angry blokes. There’s nothing quite like hearing another official claim that they are going to “fuck the bosses up the arse” while addressing a picket line.

I also cannot tell you, as a unionist and Arrernte sovereignty activist, just how much a campaign about saving “Aussie jobs” or keeping “Aussie jobs for Aussie workers” does not appeal to me, particularly off the back of unsavoury union support for the White Australia Policy and their blind eye to exploitation of Indigenous labour for so long. Perhaps I’m also too internationalist to be able to deal with hearing workers on a couple of dollars a day being talked about as if they are competition rather than heavily exploited comrades. Oh, and if I hear about “the lads on the line” or about “Smitho’s missus who was crucial to our campaign” but who apparently does not even have a first name, I think I will scream. Male-dominated unions are still seen as the real workers which we are all supposed to support yet getting them to actually mark International Working Women’s Day on the 8th of March by walking in solidarity is continually like pulling teeth.

Yes, the union movement could be a hell of a lot more intersectional in its approach. As could the left, including the radical left. There will be no workers’ revolution in a society where women are still secondary and are expected to pick up all the caring responsibilities. We will not be overthrowing any class system if we are willing to turn a blind eye to the exploitation of non-white labour, both here and internationally – often for our own capitalist benefit and sense of entitlement. There is nothing inherently revolutionary in covering up rape culture, or treating women like crap, or fostering racist environments. It’s just the destruction of the class system and the collectivisation of self-managed labour for the privileged few.

Finally, and I have left this one until last because it is the most difficult to talk about in a country which was built on the racist bedrock mentioned earlier, but Aboriginal rights needs to get more intersectional as well. It’s a difficult discussion to have additionally because in this country we are continually having to defend our culture because it has been under attack since 1770. It’s a friggin tough spot to be in.

In fact, naturally we are forced to do intersectionality to an extent anyway due to being a severe minority so I do find some aspects of diversity which are more readily embraced in an Indigenous context than other fights, but we still have some ways to go. I think, for example, we tend to account for disability better than other rights fights, but when elders are the senior people in your movement and when you have significantly higher rates of disability and health issues than other communities, necessity drives this more than revolutionary politics. I think we have also been more accepting of sexuality and gender diversity to an extent, though when I am having to refute statements made by conservative Christian Aboriginal groups against Marriage Equality, I have to wonder if I am correct on this matter.

Then there is the celebration of the creation of the "Aboriginal middle class" by some of our moderate and conservative commentators - as if this is something to be proud of and not just assimilation while leaving our most vulnerable behind.

Gender politics comes up often though, and it’s a battle I see playing out in so many ways. From traditional ideas of gender equivalence meaning gender equality or arguments of matriarchal societies; which exist in some cases but in others what is meant is that there were strong women in patriarchal societies along with matrilineal inheritance structures. As we keep trying to tell white people, we are not a homogeneous cultural group and differences exist from one end of the land mass to the other. Then we have contemporary sexisms. I mean, according to the theories of intersectionality, an Aboriginal man has at least one less structure of oppression holding him down than an Aboriginal woman. While we are seeing this play out constantly in white society where the “Aboriginal voice” has been dominated by conservative black men because they are the least threatening to the status quo, we also see it play out in our communities.

I will never, for example, forget seeing that statement put out by the Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance last year, I believe. In it, they pointed out to the many people who had been contacting them to stop referring to them as “brus” or asking if you “brothers needed any assistance” because they were a collective of mainly young Aboriginal women. These young women had been shutting down Melbourne for months, they had put their bodies on the line, they had dealt with the police yet somehow, despite them being so visible, a disconnect happened with many community members where it was assumed that such revolutionary actors had to be men.

Worse still was recently when Sam Thaiday made a concurrently racist and sexist comment on the Footy Show where he was asked about his preference for women and he claimed that he liked “jungle fever” when he was younger but “white was right” now. I have utterly no interest in the sportsball whatsoever which is my key failing as an Aboriginal person, apart from my vegetarianism and my loathing of country music, of course. But naturally, there was a strong community reaction to this with many expressing their disgust with Thaiday’s comments and making statements in support of Aboriginal women.

This community reaction was wonderful to see except for one small detail: so many of these comments ended up replacing Thaiday’s sexist comments with more socially-acceptable sexist comments. As a single Aboriginal woman who is not a mother, I don’t want to hear about how I am the life-giver of our community. I don’t want to hear how I’m behind some man giving him strength. I am not a nurturer and as someone with a fucked back, I’m also no one’s backbone. Yet continually, we saw these comments and we’re supposed to be thankful for continually being cast as the support act in the community, even though we’re leading protests, we’re challenging systems, we’re contributing thought and we are basically doing a lot more things than what we are given credit for. And we’re doing so while experiencing violence at rates 38 times higher than any other women. While we’re dying and the alleged justice system cannot even be bothered charging our killers.

So after all that, I guess I had better get to some closing points. I believe that the politics of intersectionality is inherently revolutionary and indeed, I feel that within movements such as anarchism, where autonomy and collaboration based upon mutual aid and respect are core values create a natural fit for intersectional politics. I certainly believe this is why I see so many revolutionary Aboriginal people self-identifying their political leanings as anarchism and it’s why I feel that I myself seemed to just fall into that barrel without meaning to. Though let’s be honest, there’s little chance of an Aboriginal person trusting the system anyway…

But when it comes to intersectionality, we have to be incredibly careful because without that strong structural analysis, without that commitment to the rights of other human beings and the notion of equality for all, without using privilege to elevate the voices of those who have less rather than talking over them in the name of being an ally, it runs the risk of being identity politics doomed for nothing more than circular games of oppression Olympics. Our actions be driven towards the identification of the systems of oppression and the clearing of the obstacles to allow diversification of discussion. We’re doing nothing if we talk revolution but continually promote white men and their tactics as leaders. We’re just reinforcing the new status quo. Thank you.