Because of Her We Can
The UN’s global theme for International Women’s Day is ‘Time is Now: Rural and Urban Activists Transforming Women’s Lives’ which as Arrernte writer, Celeste Little, remarked in her SBS column complements the 2018 National Aborigines Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) Week theme, ‘Because of Her We Can’. As the NAIDOC Week 2018 website notes:
‘As pillars of our society, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have played – and continue to play – active and significant roles at the community, local, state and national levels. As leaders, trailblazers, politicians, activists and social change advocates, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women fought and continue to fight, for justice, equal rights, our rights to country, for law and justice, access to education, employment and to maintain and celebrate our culture, language, music and art. They continue to influence as doctors, lawyers, teachers, electricians, chefs, nurses, architects, rangers, emergency and defence personnel, writers, volunteers, chief executive officers, actors, singer songwriters, journalists, entrepreneurs, media personalities, board members, accountants, academics, sporting icons and Olympians, the list goes on. They are our mothers, our elders, our grandmothers, our aunties, our sisters and our daughters.’
As a group of Critical Race and Whiteness Studies scholars, ACRAWSA stands on the shoulders of the Black, First Nations, and majority world feminists scholars who have gone before us. In Australia, there are many First Nations women and women of colour trailblazing intersectional feminism. Writers like Liddle, Amy McQuire and Nayuka Gorrie to name but a few echo the themes taken up by ACRAWSA founder, Aileen Moreton-Robinson who, in 2000, wrote incisively on the maternalism of white feminism in Talkin’ up to the white woman: Aboriginal women and feminism.
While Black women, First Nations women and Women of Colour have long been attentive to ‘struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression’ grounded in an ‘integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking’, as the authors of the Combahee River Statement put it in 1974, white feminism often remains mired in a false universalism that obscures these struggles and practices.
The recent debate between Cambridge academics, Mary Beard and Priyamvada Gopal, following Beard’s tweet on the issue of the Oxfam sexual abuse scandal in Haiti, showed that white feminists often appeal to abstract ideas of universal sisterhood that ignore the ways in which they have participated in the oppression of women of colour. Beard’s tears, posted in a picture on her blog, and her decrying of ‘the torrent of abuse’ she received in response to her tweet were exemplary of the ways in which white feminists often weaponise a femininity which Black women have been denied; far from evoking sympathy, emotion expressed by women of colour is often interpreted as ‘misplaced’ anger.
As Munanjali and South Sea Islander sociologist, Chelsea Bond wrote recently for Indigenous X and the The Guardian, Black women’s anger has often been seen as unhelpful:
‘The tone-policing of black women functions to maintain their position on the ladder, ensuring that we don’t get ahead of ourselves or them.’
However in reality, she writes, ‘being angry is the only thing that has got black people anything, either locally or globally.’ Chelsea Bond’s article took as a starting point a recent conference on institutional racism where, despite the nod to Hamilton and Ture’s Black Power, Black scholars and blackfellas in particular were almost entirely absent from the keynotes and plenaries. As she noted, it was particularly galling to be told by a white presenter, in response to her suggestion of ‘anger as an effective anti-racism strategy’, that anger is ‘too tiring’ and that antiracism needs more ‘hope’.
The paternalism (maternalism) of this response not only has the intended effect of delegitimizing the efficiency of anger, but also communicates the idea that First Nations people are not those best placed to formulate responses to Australian racism and white supremacy. Indeed, the dominance of white definitions of racism in general have served to minimize the structural conditions imposed by race while an antiracism that centres white ‘bystanders’ arguably does little to make inroads into transforming the ‘coloniality of power’ as it operates in Australia. This mirrors the criticisms of white feminist approaches that focus on gender parity without taking account of the deep stratification among women at both local and global levels.
Often, when First Nations women are recognized they are reduced to their perceived ‘issues’. As Amy McQuire notes, this usually means references to ‘domestic violence and sexual assault’ that do not take into account the tireless work of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in this space. As McQuire writes,
‘The “silence” is not the issue. It is that no one listens unless it is spoken in a way that bypasses the role of white Australia, and places blame right back onto Aboriginal people themselves.’
This is often because the root of violence and its persistence today lies with the state. The fact that First Nations children are being removed from families at a higher rate than during the ‘Stolen Generations’ is alarming but it doesn’t sit well with a liberal feminism focused on inclusion and a ‘place at the table’ rather than a refusal to be coopted. The extraordinary work of Grandmothers Against Removals is one example of First Nations women demanding government accountability and the right for communities to have autonomy over decisions that affect women, children and men.
As we reinvigorate the work of ACRAWSA, we want to make a space for scholarly anger, as inspired by our intellectual foremothers. While International Women’s Day has in many ways been overtaken by corporate messaging and feel good celebrations, we use this day to remind us of the enormity of the legacy bequeathed us. We hope that we can make a space on our website and at our events to amplify the voices of angry Black (and white) women and men and those that resist the gender binary. Please hold us to account.
Alana Lentin is president of the Australian Critical Race and Whiteness Studies Association and co-editor of the Rowman and Littlefield International Challenging Migration Studies series.
This article originally featured on the website of the Australian Critical Race and Whiteness Studies Association.