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.  

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Why I have trouble with my birthdays

It's been a while since I have written anything on this blog. Indeed, as my writing has increasingly been appearing elsewhere to the point of where I have lost track of linking it here, this blog has become dormant. So as I get closer to ticking over another year in age, the time felt about ripe for a reflective piece on why it is that I seem to struggle with this birthday thing each year.

It's an old, somewhat sexist, adage that women fear ageing. Indeed, every time I do state that a birthday is creeping up on me again, that seems to be the assumption many make - I don't want to get older. Certainly, we're fed this shit socially on a daily basis with every eye cream ad, every poster for cosmetic enhancement, every article on how we're all killing ourselves by not breathing purified oxygen on a daily basis. Truth is, I revel in getting older. With each passing year I have felt more freedom and liberation and indeed, you couldn't pay me to go back to my teens or twenties with all their pressure, judgement and uncertainty. 

What's more, having now passed the halfway mark of my expected lifespan, I already know too many people who have not even made it this far. I've been to funerals for people younger than I am now who have lost their lives in a myriad of ways. I therefore have a keener sense of mortality than I did 10-15 years ago and how fleeting it can be. There are no guarantees here and I am more fortunate than many others to have made it this far even if my body doesn't work as well as it did when I was younger and is only going to continue to deteriorate over the years.

So if it's not the boring old trope of fear of ageing, what is it? Unfortunately, there are a series of events associated with this time of year that tend to lead to a heightened anxiety. It's not like I haven't tried desperately to subvert these associations over the years. Hell, last year I even booked a plane ticket overseas for the day after my birthday so that regardless of how the day itself panned out, I could reflect upon an awesome trip for a long time to come. Yet while that assisted last year, as the anniversary of my birthday has edged closer this year I've found that again, I'm having to be incredibly careful of my state of mind. The lead-in has not been good, particularly with regards to my physical condition, and therefore any subversion I achieved last year feels irrelevant.

There are so many things over the years that have happened that I negatively associate with my birthday. Of course, there are the childhood (and early adulthood) traumas of organising something with people promising they'd come along only to have almost no one show up. I think most though have probably experienced that at one point or another. Then there have been family politics. April is a really busy month in the extended family for birthdays and mine is the second last in this line. By the time it rolled around, the energy and enthusiasm for it after all these earlier events was barely a flicker. 

Beyond that, I remember one year when I made myself unavailable for an overseas work trip for a special family birthday only to have that same person turn around and say that I needed to "get the fuck over it" that they couldn't be bothered meeting me for a couple of drinks for my own birthday later on that year. I remember an argument which occurred one year across the table which had nothing to do with me but as the personal gripes of others played out, this event provided an opportunity for them to go public. I remember going to a birthday event in this long April line only to hear a racial slur from a fellow party guest go by unchallenged by all present and because of this, I left soon after.

That's all smaller stuff though. My 30th and 31st in particular remain hard to shake. On my 30th, I had spent the entire evening prior in tears because my then abusive partner had decided to go at me. It wasn't the first time he had done this around my birthday, but it was by far the worst. It was like he couldn't bear there being a date which revolved around me and happened on my terms and would therefore set about ensuring that it was sabotaged. Despite the fact that I was mentally distressed and hadn't slept, I remember painting a smile on my face and going along to the events planned for the day: dinner with some family members followed by live music at one of my favourite haunts. Said partner didn't come along to most of it. My mum knew something was off with me but didn't push it. Only a few people turned up for the bands which was disappointing but I pushed on. By the time I got home, I pretty much just collapsed in a heap.

By my 31st, I had started a new independent life but the echoes of what I had recently left remained. Mere days before it, I had been in hospital for surgery because after several months of assessment, doctors had concluded that my body wasn't following the usual natural course of action which occurs for most following a non-viable ectopic pregnancy and they decided to finally remove the afflicted Fallopian tube. So on my 31st, I was on a lot of painkillers, was mentally processing an end to many months of medical assessment, was facing my first birthday unafflicted by the manoeuvres of that ex in years and was eating Yum Cha. The food was great, the company was warm yet the entire day felt like a delicate balancing act which I was destined to lose at any moment.

No, it hasn't always been a bad day. There has been some wonderful things happen and some great nights had. But there has also been an ongoing pattern of pushing through while having no energy or emotional reserves. Of being made to feel irrelevant or worthless within this date, or beyond it, despite it supposedly being a celebration of of life. It's been noted by others that I do start counting down my birthday each year quite early. While this has been laughed at by some who assume it's just me serving reminders, a large part of it actually relates to my own mental preparation around that date. What am I in for this year? What exactly is going to go down? Will I again be required to paint smiles on while the agendas of others play out? Will I again feel worthless on the day?

I've made a real effort to try and turn this around the past few years. It has mostly worked, with a few exceptions. Wonderful friends have additionally tried to help me get past all this by doing what they can to encourage and support. I haven't, unfortunately, completely gotten through these birthdays without something happening though in the main, they've been improvements on past events. I'm beginning to wonder if I ever will successfully break these associations. Perhaps as I continue to get older, it will continue to be a day of reflection. The real positive here is that I've passed another milestone and I'm still here with more achievements under the belt than I had this time last year. Perhaps the celebration of life, in my case, needs to be decentralised because if I am honest about it, 38 has been a year of challenges and triumphs and reflecting on those is probably more important.

That being said, I am glad I am celebrating my 39th. I'm even gladder that the organising of it was taken out of my hands so I didn't get caught dwelling on all of the exponentials of what could go wrong. Thank you to those wonderful union sisters who did that for me. Here's to another year ticking over and to life in general.



Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Politics of Miscarriage

The other day, I was reading an article around the topic of miscarriage and the fact that working women stay silent on it. To a degree, it resonated with me. Despite about a fifth of pregnancies ending in miscarriage (a conservative estimate), it is still very much a taboo topic. We don't talk about it openly, women going through it rarely discuss it at work and simply put, despite how common it is, it's very much a "secret".

However, that was about where my identification with the article ended. Why? Because if it is taboo to talk about miscarriage in general, it is even more taboo to talk about it in a way which does not involve grief and failure. If women are going to talk about this issue at all, the only acceptable dialogue is one which is framed around their pain of not becoming a mother, of losing a potential child, of having an "angel baby". You don't believe me? A simple Google search quickly shows that while there are endless memes about grief around miscarriage, there are none saying anything else about the complex experiences a woman can have at this time, if she has them at all.

Nearly 8 years ago, I miscarried. Far from feeling grief, I was actually relieved and strangely thankful. I had just, only three weeks earlier, left an abusive partner and doing so had taken almost everything out of me. I took the morning after pill straight away after leaving him because, as is such a common story for so many women, immediately before his actions turned horrible, he had been loving and attentive. So when my boobs started hurting a couple of weeks later, I started to panic. When I took a test and saw the two blue lines, I dissolved into a puddle on the bathroom floor. The thought that someone who I had just left under such circumstances could be in my life forever was just unbearable. When, just three days after taking that test, I started to bleed, I only felt a sense of relief. On going for an ultrasound and being told it looked like I'd had a complete miscarriage, I felt like I was able to close that chapter of my life and move on.

Alas, it was not to be. Just a few weeks after that ultrasound, I started presenting with extreme pain. A second ultrasound revealed that my miscarriage had in fact been incomplete, and my pain was due to a non-viable ectopic pregnancy. For several months, I entered a holding pattern. Doctors were convinced that this ectopic would be absorbed by my body and things would go back to normal. They never did and eventually, I was booked in for surgery to remove the afflicted Fallopian tube.

I recount all this not for sympathy. I don't want sympathy. Sitting in a hospital waiting room for several months feeling utterly helpless and stressed was enough sorrow. I recount this because I wanted to state plainly that there is not a day that goes by where I look on my past miscarriage with devastation at what could have been. I have never done this. I did not pick a date nine months down the track as a potential birth date to grieve on. In fact, the only thing I do wonder is whether I would have successfully left that ex if a medical emergency had not forced me to focus my attention on myself for the first time in years. God knows, I'd taken him back before. But that time, when he came begging for forgiveness and promising to try harder, I had no capacity left for him and his feelings. I had to work through my own.

Which brings me back to miscarriage. As stated, in the moment, I felt relief. I didn't tell work at the time because I was on leave, but as the rest of my saga became apparent, I was left with no choice but to tell them. I required post-operative sick leave after all. Perhaps I felt relief due to my circumstances, but considering that these circumstances were in the confines of a heterosexual relationship, and considering that this relationship had gone the way whereby I ended up a victim of violence, how is this narrative not valid in the discussion of miscarriage?

The ONLY acceptable dialogue around miscarriage, where there is dialogue at all, is the one about the loving mother who lost her baby. Not the teenager who chanced it one night with a boy, got unlucky and then lucky. Not the abused woman who got a second chance at an independent life. Not the woman who just thought she was having a particularly heavy period that month and did not know she was pregnant in the first place. Just the sad grieving mother who wanted so badly to hold her child in her arms. Women who experience miscarriage in any other way clearly lack humanity and do not possess that deep womanly need to nurture another life. And again we are told what our roles in society are supposed to be and how we fail them.

And don't even start me on the claims that miscarriage "hurts men just as much". It doesn't. Men may grieve a miscarriage, sure, but they will never experience that physical pain attached to it. They will never be on a gynaecological table with their feet in stirrups while an internal ultrasound machine probes away inside of them until it eventually hits an angle, impacts on an ectopic and reduces the patient to agony and tears. The narrative of them as the nurturer just is not there so they will not be seen as a failure if a pregnancy does not come to pass. More assistance with handling the emotional grief is needed, but the belittling of women's experience around this because men suffer too is not. 

I wish we saw miscarriage exactly how it is. I wish it was seen as a medical condition as common and unremarkable as a cold because considering how many pregnancies end in it, it's a reasonably realistic take. We shouldn't feel we cannot discuss it at work because the sheer idea of miscarrying is taboo. I wish that better emotional support services were available for those who experience a miscarriage and grieve it, whether this is through mental health services, workplaces or society at large. I wish that we could have open and honest discussions about the various physiological symptoms of miscarriage so that women could not only gain better knowledge of the warning signs, but also might develop some knowledge of the complications and recovery times as these can actually go on for months. It's not as simple as someone bleeding then normal biological function resumes. I really could have done with a lot more knowledge about the complications of miscarriage, that's for sure. This is so damn important.

I also wish though that like everything else, we can recognise that women experience miscarriage in many different ways and this is okay. Because at the moment, I feel silenced by the grief narrative and I cannot imagine how many other women might feel the same. And like me, some of those women may have been leaving similar circumstances when they went through this. Miscarriage is our experience too. Ignoring those stories because the patriarchal society demands we fit into the roles of nurturer and life-giver harms us all. We need to open this conversation right up in the process of demystification.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Preemptive news coverage on tomorrow's protest against Don Dale and brutality in other prisons

I've noticed a trend when it comes to the reporting of rallies to do with matters of race. For example, an incredibly peaceful "Black Lives Matter" rally in Melbourne a couple of weeks ago which was attended by thousands was reported according to its massive and completely unnecessary police presence pretending that they kept things under control. Likewise, a handful of racists who heckled from the sidelines were focused on as if they were ever a threat to the peaceful assembly. Similarly, just a couple of weeks before that, when the True Blue Crew and the UPF decided to stage an absurd flag march, the media again focused on the cops and a couple of isolated altercations between the racists and some anti-racism activists. The fact that the protest and counter-protest groups didn't actually encounter each other for the main part seemed to escape the notice of the reporters.

It seems that the media cannot report peaceful action against racism without inflating and manipulating facts to make out that a race riot occurred. They also cannot report anti-racism actions without deflating the numbers to make it appear that less people care about these issues than they actually do. Peaceful assemblies do not sell subscriptions. Fuelling bigotry does, even as more and more turn out to stand against said bigotry. With that in mind, here is my preemptive article on tomorrow's rally in Melbourne against the (mainly Aboriginal) children tortured in the Don Dale juvenile justice centre as well as other prisons. These rallies are also running across the country and hope to also draw attention to the exorbitant rates of incarceration of Aboriginal people. If the media wishes to use my preemptive report, they are welcome to do so but I expect credit. I also expect any proceeds to be donated to prison rehabilitation programs for Aboriginal children. I am certain what I write below will fit in with their usual angle when it comes to rallies addressing racism in this country...
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About a hundred gathered in Melbourne today to protest the alleged brutality shown by prison officers in the Don Dale juvenile justice centre towards the young inmates following a 4 Corners report earlier this week. 

Blocking off all city traffic across the grid for three hours, it was clear that the vocal and sometimes rowdy crowd were not going to move on until their message was heard. Thankfully, despite there being no evidence of violent intentions from the protesters, thousands of police guarded the protest perimeters to ensure violence was kept to a minimum.


A riot nearly broke out when a couple of proud Australians with '88' tattoos on their necks gathered near the protest stating "you do the crime, you do the time" while holding #alllivesmatter banners. Thankfully, the police were able to separate the patriots from the random dudes wearing all black and face coverings.


Speaking from the screen, Sergeant Plod stated "we are confident that we have alleviated all threats of violence here today. After forming a protective circle around patriot groups, we escorted them back to Melbourne Central Station to ensure that they were able to get their message across without being harmed by the anti-racism extremists. I commend all my fellow officers on their vigilance today".


As the protesters wound through the city chanting "justice for Don Dale children" and "not in my name", several tram services had to be cancelled or rerouted. Disgruntled football fans criticised the selfish rabble and called for an end to all protests. Lord Mayor Doyle has pledged he will work with the Victorian government to ensure such disruptions are minimised or removed in the future and that the MCG has the facilities to keep the Four & Twenties warm just in case.


Protesters finished their protest by standing around a fire and linking hands. Emergency fire service workers were on hand to ensure that the crowds did not burn the city down. 


After finishing their occupation of the CBD, the protesters dispersed quietly to grab soy lattes and vegan meals. The city was declared by officials to be safe once again for nice people with jobs.   


Friday, June 24, 2016

The neutralising of hate

Today, I listened to a Neil Mitchell interview and it pissed me off. Granted, this is not the first time listening to Neil Mitchell has pissed me off, and the time he interviewed Meriki Onus from Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance stands out in my mind. But today, he pissed me off again.

It was an interview he conducted with a Superintendent on Monday (but which I accessed today due to social media shares) about the planned "Flag March" being held this weekend by fascist/nationalist groups, along with the counter rally being organised by the Campaign Against Racism and Fascism. The interview was of course littered with the same old conservative white man observations I've heard time and time again. But it was when he stated "I blame both sides for it" when referring to the race hate on the street that my ire rose.

I've heard this claim trotted out before, and each time it angers me. Today it angered me so much that I wrote the following on my Facebook page:

No, I don't agree with the many media and social media commentators taking the "they're both as bad as one another" line when talking about the actions of nationalist and fascist groups, and those who stand against them. I'm not condoning violence here. Rather, I am stating plainly that there is something fundamentally wrong with a society which will so willingly neutralise the acts and ideologies of those who promote hate and fear based upon the race and religion of others. As this country remains willing to neutralise and tolerate such things, I believe individuals and activist groups taking stands against hate and fear is essential.

It reminded me of when I saw news reports following Coburg referring to the leftist groups as "extreme anti-racism groups". See, apparently now, being anti-racist is an extremist action. The problem here being that it actually is. Anti-racism; thanks to centuries of denying colonial invasion, decades of the White Australia Policy, years of Hansonism and Howardism, Cronulla, Islamophobia (even though the Muslim connection to this land mass predates white invasion by up to an estimated 200 years) and bipartisan practice of despicable asylum seeker policy; is considered a radical act. Racism is so very embedded in the fabric of our society and apathy towards it right now is so high that to take an active stance against it is considered terrifying by many. 

What. The. Fuck. How can so many in this country be so comfortable with this? How can so many just join in the bleating chorus by saying that standing for acceptance and collaboration is as bad as standing for fear, hate and racial purity? Is their "just as bad as one another" response really about them not questioning themselves and how comfortable they are with the existence of racism - violent racism at that - in their society? 

I wish I could say all this is a surprise to me, but it's not. My life has been framed by this experience. Aboriginal people are at the vanguard of racism in this country. Sure, plenty of other groups experience horrific racism here, but everyone who is not Aboriginal is higher up the rungs of the social ladder because they have benefited from the displacement of Aboriginal people. That's the way this country works. The fact that it's 2016 and we're still calling for "treaty" and acknowledgement of sovereignty shows just how reluctant the Australian "powers that be" have been to rectify the situation. Hell, it's still controversial to point out that the Australian flag; a piece of cloth which celebrates invasion while erasing Indigenous existence through its very structure; might be a wee bit racist

An additional point on this: for a while, when it comes to the discussion on the topic of Constitutional Recognition, I have been staunch in highlighting that while the Expert Panel noted in its recommendations an Indigenous community want to remove the racist elements within the Constitution, this is not actually an "Aboriginal issue". It's an anti-racism issue and Aboriginal people would be but one beneficiary group. So why is it that these racist provisions are tied solely to the topic of Indigenous CR and have never been floated separately as a broader anti-racism campaign for a country which wants to move forward on race relations? Why wasn't this a campaign held during the "multiculturalism era" spanned approximately from the time of Malcolm Fraser to Paul Keating? Why was it okay to welcome refugees from Asian countries finally after the last parts of the White Australia Policy had been stripped away without actually dealing with the very racist fabric of our number one legal document?

Perhaps, at the very heart of it, this country is keen to continue the denial. The throwaway comments of "I don't mind as long as they speak English/assimilate/accept our laws" I hear so often here speak to that denial. So do things such as "everyone is entitled to an opinion" because it paints these hate groups essentially as neutral elements every bit as valid and welcome as those who preach peace and acceptance. In Slackbastard's blog, I was introduced to the Bon Scotts who felt the need to write a song celebrating their apathy. I find it utterly disgraceful that anyone can be so comfortable with the existence of racism in this country that they would attempt to neutralise its messengers through a ditty. Yet they're not alone. As long as racism is not a part of their lived experience, most Australians are incredibly comfortable with it continuing on around them knowing that they will not suffer.

Except they do suffer. The racism which permeates this society is poison. It disconnects people from the oldest living cultures in the world purposefully. It promotes monoculturalism, monolingualism and insularity. It reinforces white supremacy despite sovereignty never being ceded and therefore also reinforces disparity. It kills people. Being tolerant of fear and hate groups validates their mission. Through your apathy, you allow them to exist and their poisonous message to gather ground. You become complicit in the fear and hatred.

So if taking an anti-racism stand is a radical act nowadays, then yes, I am a proud radical. I stand for peace, collaboration and understanding. Why the hell don't you? 

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Women of Letters - A letter to my security blanket

Today, the 17th of April, I took part in Women of Letters at the Thornbury Theatre. Before an audience of about 400 people, I read out the following letter to my identified "security blanket". I am publishing my letter, complete with links, for those folks interested. 


To my fellow world traveller,

They say silence is golden. My world is rarely completely silent yet when it is, I’ve grown to fear it. For silence means something is wrong. Silence physically is a sign of my fallibility. My entire life has been spent on this precipice, knowing that a common cold can mean significant hearing loss for weeks. Knowing that the refined nature of my voice is the product of speech therapy as a child whose recurrent inner ear infections left her with comprehension issues. Knowing that with each passing year, my hearing dulls and should I be lucky enough to make it to a ripe old age, there is no way I will do so without operations and aids.

Yet this is nothing. For I’d take physical silence over emotional silence any day. Emotional silence means isolation. It means rejection and mind games. It means walking on egg shells waiting for the inevitable shattering. It means being taken for granted. It means nothingness. It’s the battles I’ve fought my entire life, which I’ve survived and which I never want to have to fight again.

There’s nothing which can fix all that is broken, physically or mentally. There’s mainly just the mechanisms for getting through it and ploughing on. Yet placing you on my head has, at times, been what has gotten me out the front door and into the world where I belong. When I’m being driven mad by my incessant tinnitus to the point of where I simply cannot focus on what anyone is saying to me, you’ve been like salve on my frayed nerves, drowning out the ringing. When I’ve been dragging my feet on those unbearable cold winter’s mornings I whinge endlessly about, you have, at times, moved me to a rhythmic strut. When I’ve been healing you have reminded me I’m a continual survivor through some simple notes. You’ve told me that while life is not always easy, my strength lies in the way I continue to live it without limitations and apology. When I was sitting there with whiplash following a high speed, head on car crash, you were telling me I was getting away with it all messed up. When I was ferociously hungover after a night at the pub with the comrades, I was comfortably numb. When I was surrounded by white dude hipsters explaining all my politics to me, you were calling them star-belly sneetches. When I was on my way to a rally, I wasn’t tolerating this so my children won’t be next. When I was in a pile, trying to put the pieces back together bit by bit and wondering why I was continually expected to do this and smile about it for everyone else’s benefit as I am an Aboriginal woman in a world which says we don’t belong, I was doll parts

You’ve delivered, direct from my ears to my very essence, time and time again.

I like the way you engulf my head. Not only do you ensure that sound surrounds me and is unbroken but you have, at times, kept my ears warm. I have been told time and time again that as I woman, I am not supposed to wear you at night, as this is apparently an invitation for men to attack me. If anything though, your presence has made me less fearful of walking around alone, for all it takes is a few strains and I’m relaxed and striding confidently. I remember those angsty and horrible teenage days where I had two parents and three younger siblings to block out in order to get through my homework and move on to uni. You were always there, propelling me toward my inner grunge goddess or confessed 70s throwback. Your presence has comforted me in a crowd when I’m dealing with my consummate introversion and personal space issues. Writers may be extroverts on the page, but we tend to mainly be introverts in real life and you totally get that quandary. I may not wish to talk to, or be touched by, anyone there but a simple hug around the back of my neck reminds me you’re not far away should I wish to cut them out. I’ve been busted on more than one occasion singing along to what is silence in other people’s worlds, or even busting some moves because my feet just cannot stop. Though this must look awfully strange to those people, your ability to get me out of my ever-questioning head where I will show such a lack of inhibition is truly a gift, for there’s few humans in this world that manage that feat.

It’s more than this though. Through your function, you have conveyed the worlds of others to me, showing their beauty, their fallibility, their strength and their extraordinary talent. You’ve shown me that the most astoundingly talented lyricists also seem to be the most tortured souls; wrestling with their demons in ways I know too well. I’ve witnessed a lifelong love journey conveyed via the plucking of just a few strings. They’ve included me and made me proud to be a fellow weirdo, for their journey is aligned with mine. Their anger, conveyed with such beauty and integrity moves my own anger and anguish to a better place. It shows me time and time again that out there, there are some extraordinarily talented and passionate people whom I share the planet with. Who give, so that the rest of us feel a little less isolated, a little more coherent and capable, a little more worthy. Thank you for conveying their messages to me.

My fellow traveller in life; my wonderful stereo headphones; I thank you. I thank you for putting a spring in a step, for comforting me, for creating a safety bubble when I have needed it. I thank you for getting me out of my head on occasion and through some grim times. I thank you for the peace you’ve given me when my ears remind me that their time will be up someday. But most of all, I thank you for breaking the silence. For silence is never golden. Silence is fear, submission, isolation and pain. And when you’re around, silence need not haunt me in the complex ways which it manages to.

I cannot wait to break into a fine stride with you on the footpaths of Berlin in ten days’ time. I only hope that in our exuberance, on our long awaited journey, we remember to stick to the right hand side of the footpath while there. For breaking silence via an angry German person whom I’ve just collided with is not my ideal scenario…

Sincerely, your faithful companion,

Celeste.




Monday, March 28, 2016

Two pictures which do NOT violate Facebook's "Community Standards"

I visited my folks today. My dad was on Facebook and was most perturbed about an image he had seen on a group he's a member of. I showed him how to report it. This was the image:




This image, according to the report Dad got back, did not violate Facebook's "community standards".

While I was helping dad, I scrolled further through the group where he saw that picture and found this image which I also reported:



This image is also perfectly fine according to Facebook's ruling.

So blatant racism and sexism is awesome, yet an Aboriginal woman posting a feminist speech which is accompanied by a picture of women undertaking culture is not. Nor is it okay for a feminist woman to answer online abuse she has received (ping Clementine Ford).

Just for everybody's interest...