It is difficult to pinpoint a time when I began to associate race politics with gender politics personally, but I do know that it was quite early on in my life. As an Aboriginal child who was born in Canberra, the nation’s capital, my immersion into politics began at a very young age. I spent my formative years surrounded by politicians, protest movements and several key figures just a few years after the Tent Embassy (semi-permanent structure erected in Canberra to protest for Aboriginal rights) began and the push for Land Rights and a Treaty was at its strongest. One of my first memories was of being over at Freedom Rider Charlie Perkins’s place, the home of my grandmother’s cousin, and witnessing the discussions and political debates happening around that table. I didn’t understand much of it, but I recognised the passion and the fact that those around me were driving for change. Those instances, combined with my mother’s deep social consciousness, led to a questioning mind and a knowledge that the world is much bigger than ourselves.
The place that I occupied in the world made itself apparent very early. The first time I experienced direct racism was in my first year of primary school when a fellow pupil called me a “black bum” and I got in trouble for pushing her. Many incidents followed that point, throughout the schooling years. Some were blatant, but others were more subtle, such as a teacher informing my mother that I must have been “drawing attention” to myself when I’d complained about being bullied. I simultaneously encountered gendered comments that would make me feel uncomfortable. I knew that I wasn’t supposed to be as strong and boisterous as the boys. I was supposed to like playing with Barbies and My Little Ponies, and enjoying the ballet classes I was enrolled in despite my other inclinations. In short, I felt continually limited and ridiculed by virtue of my race and sex and therefore considered the oppressions interconnected and to be contested together.
That’s how I continue to see it now. My responses to issues of gender are very much informed by my experience of race, and vice versa. My experience of structural forms of oppression was heightened due to these intersecting forms of oppression, and are particularly acute due to being of a working class background. Therefore, when it comes to Aboriginal feminism, I very much see our questions and tactics occupying the more “radical” end of the feminist spectrum. By radical, I am referring to streams such as socialist/marxist feminism, anarcha-feminism and radical feminism. I feel personally that the issue of race keeps me focussed on community rather than individual advancement, and therefore my feminism reflects this. Additionally, I seek self-determination as both an Aboriginal person and a woman, and therefore need to challenge the structures that negate this freedom. To borrow a quote from the Combahee River Collective Statement: “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”. In an Australian context this carries a slightly different resonance due to the experiences of colonisation, but to decolonise from both a race and gender perspective is imperative.
I strongly believe that as Aboriginal women, whilst our fights are related to ongoing feminist struggles within other racially marginalised groups, they are not the same. By virtue of the fact that we are first peoples who have suffered under the process of colonisation within our own homelands, our struggles can be quite unique. Recently, for example, I was engaged in a markedly frustrating discussion on the concept of “fair skin privilege” as someone of a migrant background took issue to how I was utilising the term “black”. Fair skin privilege of course exists to an extent in an Aboriginal context, however the “Stolen Generations”, for example, highlight how limited this privilege has historically been. Additionally, migrant populations, whilst suffering marginalisation in Australia, also benefit from the displacement of Aboriginal people. Therefore there is a need to tell our own stories, and expand our own theories rather than simply drawing upon the experiences of others.
When I am highlighting why I feel a specific Aboriginal feminism is necessary, I tend to point to three formative elements that structure this need: the white patriarchy, the black patriarchy and “mainstream” feminism. As a point of oppression, the white patriarchy is self explanatory given its continuing historical legacy and political privilege. Aboriginal women feeling excluded by mainstream feminism is a topic that has been covered many times, most recently in an article by Kelly Briggs, which poignantly proposed that arguments regarding the lack of racial diversity in parliament are sorely lacking from mainstream feminism. Yet how the patriarchy operates within the Aboriginal community is not something that is discussed as often. It does have impact, even if the politics of race bind us. I am seeking to define how these elements play out in our communities more and more, because through better understandings we can build better and more inclusive movements that don’t leave the most vulnerable behind.
Many Aboriginal feminists have been rightly critical of mainstream feminisms in the past, due to lack of collaboration that centralized the individual over the communal, or the imposition of privileged viewpoints as if these were a universal experience for women. In addition, an “Orientalist” understanding that misread Aboriginal culture has sometimes been applied by feminists to cultural issues and practices that are ours to challenge. This is not because we necessarily perceive these things differently but rather, we need the space to interpret and challenge these things in our own communities. One example I like to highlight is the constant questions I receive from non-Aboriginal feminists regarding whether women should be allowed to play the didgeridoo, an Aboriginal wind instrument typically played by men. Considering the multitude of pressing issues that Aboriginal women face in Australia, a question such as this is not a defining Aboriginal feminist question, and the questioning of this cultural practice by non-Aboriginal women simply comes across as another act of imperialism. There is nothing to be gained for the feminist movement as a whole by non-Aboriginal feminists challenging these cultural practices; rather it just negates our rights of self-determination and indeed cultural ownership.
Over time, Aboriginal feminists (for example, Aileen Morton-Robinson in “Talkin’ Up to the White Woman”, 2000) have continued to highlight additional hurdles that they face due to the intersection of race and gender. Aboriginal women experience the issues that non-Aboriginal women experience due to the process of colonisation, but often there are additional complexities. For example, whilst equal pay is important for all of us, for many years Aboriginal people were historically not paid for their labour at all, and this acutely affected Aboriginal women working as domestic servants. Our wages were, in a lot of cases, held in trusts by the governments and therefore our “stolen wages” claims are ongoing many years later. “Victim blame” is something we face often, and indeed, a number of the Indigenous movements’ more conservative commentators tend to replicate these viewpoints. When we experience victim blaming as women, it is compounded by race to the point where Aboriginal women dying from domestic homicide at a rate ten times that of other women in Australia barely rates a mention. We tend to be subjected to the same issues of body shame and arbitrary and commercialised notions of beauty, but we are also judged on our skin tone and whether or not we possess certain features deemed to be tellingly “Aboriginal” (eg: a wide nose, deep-set eyes, etc). We can also experience fetishisation on the basis of our skin tones despite being mainly socially excluded because of them. In short, our experiences can add layers to feminist understandings and there are many ways in which a notion of a universalised women’s experience can exclude us or only tell part of the tale.
When it comes to the notion of a “black patriarchy”, I see this being perpetuated on two fronts. The first is through the patriarchal structures that we inherit through the process of colonisation by the mainstream culture, and the second manifests itself in our own community-based forms, through our traditional practices and how we view and deploy gender roles. To start with our internal patriarchy, it is always interesting to me when members of the Indigenous community argue that traditional societies had gender equality due to our understandings of gender complementarity, which presumes that the separate and set roles of men and women had equal importance in communities. This is not necessarily the case. From one side of this vast country to the other, different practices existed in different clan groups and therefore the experiences of “equality” for women via a notion of gender complementarity would have differed. If we state otherwise, then as black people we run the risk of universalising our own experiences similar to what mainstream feminism has been accused of doing. Secondly, gender complementarity has not been known to equal gender equality in many regions of the world. We have practices such as polygynous marriage that are arranged from birth, alongside norms such as specific forms of governance and punishment for women. At times, due to the fact that we (as Aboriginal people) are protecting family and culture in the face of ongoing colonialism, we lose the ability to critically examine our own practices because we are worried that anything perceived as negative will be used to further discredit us as peoples.
The patriarchy we inherited and in some ways continue to perpetuate from the dominant culture tends to manifest itself when we adopt external cultural practices and use them in ways that may enhance pride in Aboriginality but reinforce gender disparities. Examples of this are events such as the Miss NAIDOC pageants, which are based upon the idea that we need to celebrate the “beauty” of Aboriginal women. Beauty, as a concept, may be harmful to women as it often centralises the appearance of a woman as being her most important attribute. One of the points I made back when I first examined this in the above linked article was that we actually come from a culture that values age and wisdom, assigning great value to our older women. When it comes to beauty however, older women are almost completely excluded. Additionally, our women have been achieving highly in a number of fields for a long time; we have been obtaining tertiary education qualifications at a rate nearly double that of Aboriginal men. So why do we consider it important to celebrate the “beauty” of Aboriginal women whilst barely mentioning these wonderful achievements? The idea that something becomes empowering if it is community organised and run fails to examine what it is that we are instituting from the cultures of those we have been oppressed by, and if these are indeed worthwhile things to adopt. Without such questioning, we run the risk of merely contributing to the subjugation of our own rather than enacting true positive change.
It continues to be imperative to challenge the prevailing structures of power on the dual fronts of race and gender, both internally and externally. Australia, despite the rhetoric to the contrary, continues to privilege a very white and patriarchal culture in which exclusionary legacies, rather than being a source of shame, tend to be celebrated. I would even go so far as to argue that due to our complex history and culture wars, begun in the early 1990s then reinforced by the Howard government, we have gone backwards when it comes to being a space inclusive of race and gender. During the Howard years, Aboriginal people were continually rebuked for “focussing on the negative” when telling the true stories of what we have faced under centuries of colonisation. Women were told that fights for gender equality were “political correctness gone mad,” or otherwise not essential. Australia reflects this perspective today. Australia Day, which was of little importance to most of the population only a couple of decades ago, is now a day to drape flags across your shoulders and be “proud” at the cost of any acknowledgement of the true history of this day and what it has meant to Aboriginal peoples. ANZAC Day, which was also criticised because feminists drew attention to victims of war and rape as a tactic of war in particular, is again focussing on the “brave people who served our country” in the various conflicts. There is a need to challenge Australian historical narratives on a number of fronts, and Aboriginal feminists have an incredibly important role to play in this.
I strongly feel that Aboriginal feminism is going to continue to grow and develop. We have a number of incredibly strong Aboriginal women who are moving to the forefront of public discourse. A lot of them are unapologetic about their race and their gender, are highly educated, and ensure that they use these knowledges to continue educating and inspiring others. Through social media and online platforms such as blogging, their bodies of work continue to grow and circulate. The Internet offers a wonderful opportunity for those that have been traditionally denied a voice to claim a space. And claim it, we shall!
- In an Australian context, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are considered the “black Australians” and have been since the arrival of the colonisers. It has been a term we have subsequently adopted politically. For more information please see “Why I prefer ‘black’” and “Fair skin privilege? I’m sorry but things are much more complicated than that”
- For further information, please see footnote 1.