Wednesday, July 4, 2012

"Miss NAIDOC" - an annual rant

EDIT: This post was republished on Fairfax's Daily Life and can be viewed here

When I was at Uni for the first time, I remember some bloke telling me on a pub crawl "You're the best-looking Aboriginal woman I've ever met". I'm not too sure, even to this day, whether he thought this unfortunate line might lead to some groping in a booth later on, but I do know what I thought of it. Back then my self-esteem with regards to my outwards appearance still seemed to fling back to year 8 when I was told by some wonderful classmates that I had been voted the ugliest girl in the class, so I did see the absurd compliment part that was intended by this bloke. Trouble was, I also saw the insult. Clearly, he thought Aboriginal women were generally unattractive; a ridiculous and completely offensive assertion. Additionally, as he thought black women sucked, my alleged attractiveness could only be judged in contrast to that, rather than on its own merits. Even back then I never paid much heed to looks so I also admit to being caught off-guard by a comment about them (hence I didn't formulate a good rebut for about a week). Yet by that simple comment he had objectified me AND subjected me to racism, and still today I think about it and wonder what in the hell he was thinking. Needless to say, if he did receive some pub booth love a bit later on, it was not from me.

The thing is, I am not the only Aboriginal woman who has been told this. There was actually a Facebook group called something like "But you're too pretty to be Aboriginal..." (seems to be defunct now) full of women detailing exactly these types of encounters. As women, our looks are already up for grabs with people, from the time we're born, thinking that they have the right to comment on them. Chuck in the "Aboriginal factor", and this imposition becomes significantly heightened with comments also on our "fairness", our "exoticness" or our attractiveness in comparison with other Aboriginal women. There also seems to be some shame attached to "looking Aboriginal" suggested with this imposition. I know that I have been told that I look Mediterranean/Maori/Native American/Spanish/etc like so many other Aboriginal women, and the inference often seems to be "anything other than Aboriginal" is good. In fact, I think that despite me being a hairy-legged, hard-core feminist, I still seem to be rather sensitive when it comes to unwelcome comments on my appearance because I have had to deflect them from all these angles for so many years, and I am sure others can relate. So I am therefore not particularly surprised that some may want to celebrate Indigenous women's youth and beauty as a way of building self-esteem, and hammering these stupid stereotypes when it comes to our looks.

Which leads me to this Miss NAIDOC business. Years ago, my issue was as simple as the fact that they were using the title "Miss" when the male winner was "Mr." and I therefore found this inherently sexist. Why on Earth were we using what should be a redundant title when referring to young women and promoting something that refers to women's inherent "underclass" status? But it seems that Miss NAIDOC has grown as a competition over the years, morphing (or re-morphing) into a full-blown beauty pageant in some regions, and therefore my issues with it have also grown.

In this article referring to the event in the NSW North Coast, it notes that "The girls will be judged on their walk, the way they present themselves and their responses on their application form as to why they should be Miss/Little Miss NAIDOC". Over in Perth, where the competition was resurrected last year after a 15 year gap, it states "The process for all finalists involves a six week training course on everything from the art of the perfect poise to public speaking". Both these competitions are open to girls between 18-30 years old, and indeed this seems to be the case across the country. Additionally, whilst the competitions have an undeniable focus on community, particularly shown here with Rockhampton region entrants requiring endorsement from Indigenous community organisations, this community focus is linked with competitions such as "Miss Photogenic" and there is special attention drawn to how "absolutely stunning" these girls looked like on the night of the NAIDOC Ball. A fashion show, or at least a great big dolling up session for the NAIDOC Ball, seems to be a big part of the programme of Miss NAIDOC across the country.

I know I am a great big spoil-sport etc and so forth, but there are so many things about this don't sit well with me, particularly if we are trying to raise self-esteem in our young women. Firstly, why does it seem that we are raising this esteem on such "colonial" terms? Why are we reiterating the importance of "poise", deportment, and the ability to be photogenic to our young women when these very things not only refer to extremely superficial attributes of women, but they also have a definite basis in colonial class structures that should not be a desirable aspiration for our community? I understand the need to celebrate our youth particularly considering that they represent the majority of our community, but why would we reinforce the notion that attractiveness has an expiry date by setting the upper limit at 30? Is that really, as a community who celebrates its elders and consists of so many proud, strong and beautiful women beyond that age bracket, a notion we wish to adhere to? Aren't there other ways that we could celebrate our dynamic young women that don't revolve around how they walk and look in a frock? 

It also strikes me, however, that many mainstream beauty pageants in this country ceased to run 10-15 years ago (except in the adult industry). This was after years of feminist campaign about the objectification of women. As I mentioned before, I feel that Aboriginal women are already objectified more than the mainstream: for their looks as members of "class women", and for their race. For this reason I have to ask if the reinvigoration of pageants for our young women, in light of the fact that mainstream pageants no longer have a place, is ever going to be a good thing? It seems we are aware of how our women are objectified and are instead reinforcing that objectification through Indigenous pageants rather than giving young people the tools to fight it. As a member of the Indigenous left, it also strikes me that on one hand we resist assimilation when it comes to culture, but on the other hand we are supposed to celebrate it when it comes to colonist notions of "womanhood" and "beauty". I just don't think this makes a whole lot of sense.

I am proud of these young women. I am proud that they are self-determined young black women who are standing up to represent their community. I am proud that they are already engaged in their communities and that they aspire to make change. I understand that they may enter this competition with open eyes and may walk away from the experience completely empowered. I just wish that there were better ways in which these amazing young women could be celebrated in the context of our national week. Perhaps a young Indigenous women's forum during NAIDOC where they can discuss the issues affecting them as a group and walk away empowered by leadership workshops and sisterhood bonds? I don't pretend to have the answer here, but I don't really think that the answer lies in "Miss NAIDOC".

19 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks Sandy! I was nervous publishing this one, but at the end of the day I want our young women to have a legacy that is so much more rounded than how they present. I think it is so important.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Oh that is beautifully put. I confess as I was reading this, I was sorry your voice was absent from a long-awaited book (that has been struggling to find a publisher) that I put a chapter into, called Indigenous Women's Standpoints. It's a funny text, in a lot of ways, because it aims to create traction around some of these issues... why it's hard to find a publisher for the editors, I think. But, that your voice was absent from a never-published text, is all the more reason that i hope it continues to be present in these very published areas. I am beyond thrilled to see the words Aboriginal and Feminist being used by anyone... I even stopped doing it a while ago because it was annoying me how much I would get pulled up by one or the other (wait, they are exclusive?)... and so, solidarity, but also diversity in it. Anyway, rant, rant... your reply here is gorgeous... and spot on. That's it, we do need young women to have a legacy, too, of 'presenting' in a variety of ways and without the need for competition and success measured in a way that is nearly impossible to achieve... and once achieved, means very little. Thanks again. Hope heaps of people read this.

    ReplyDelete
  4. God, I hope that gets published one day. It would be well worth a read! What about Spinifex Press? http://www.spinifexpress.com.au/

    ReplyDelete
  5. Hi there,

    I'm the Editor of Daily Life (www.dailylife.com.au)I would love to get in touch with you. My email is soakes@fairfaxmedia.com.au

    Sarah

    ReplyDelete
  6. Celeste - I can't believe I have never read your blog before!! Amazing and reposting this one in particular - I love it.

    The other one I've heard a lot is that 'full-blood' Aboriginal women can never be as beautiful as those with 'mixed-blood' ('half-caste', 'quarter-caste', etc). IT MAKES ME SO ANGRY!!

    One thing I love about the model Samantha Harris is that I feel she looks very Aboriginal rather than non-Aboriginal/'white' features with dark skin that the fashion industry usually go for.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I love this post. While I am not Aboriginal, when I was younger I often got similarly offensive "compliments " when I told people I was Samoan based on very offensive (and incorrect) stereotypes . They ranged from the sceptical "You don't look Samoan" to the even more charming "But you're not fat". And if you seemed more inclined to swat someone rather than swoon over that type of statement, you were made to feel ungracious! After all it was meant as a compliment!

    I've always had this reservation about all beauty pageants, I've just never articulated it as well as you have here. It's not about not appreciating or celebrating young women, or wanting to take away their choice to enter such events, and feel empowered by them, it's just believing that they should be celebrated for so much more.

    ReplyDelete
  8. While I actually agree with most of the complaints in this post, and I also agree the guy was an idiot, to label that particularly poor line from the bar as racism is really going like 4 steps too far. People of different races look different and frequently, because of that, they don't find members of other races as attractive. (I'm ignoring the possibility that I will get yelled at for playing into the "artificial" construct of race, I've never read this blog before, who knows what landmines I'm stepping on.)

    He was voicing something that he should have kept in his head, but it wasn't racism. At least he didn't tell you that you smell weird, or taste bad, etc. because of your race -- which is something that I've heard from lots of people behind closed doors (and I've noticed these differences as well when hooking up with non-white people). It's a stupid comment, but not racist. That word shouldn't get thrown around so easily.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Others would agree with you, straightwhiteguy, but when it boils down to it, I found that comment racist because of the very inference that Aboriginal women are allegedly unattractive and therefore I could be an anomaly amongst them (ie: stereotypes were at play here). That to me is racism and plenty of others would (and did) agree. The fact that this issue remains unchecked so very often and is even validated by comments like you make above with "People of different races look different and frequently, because of that, they don't find members of other races as attractive" allows it to continue on in earnest. I don't agree that should be the case.

    As Aboriginal people, we are told all too frequently what is, or is not, racist without any regard of how we interpret things. No wonder things go round and round and we are still facing the same issues now that we faced years ago. When you dehumanise someone on the basis of their race, you are being racist. That should not be dismissed so easily.


    Teine Samoa, thank you so much for sharing your take on this! Really appreciate it

    ReplyDelete
  10. Thanks for mansplaining racism to a WOC straightwhiteguy. How about next time you just listen when a POC tells you of their own lived experiences of racism.

    Utopiana, your article on Daily Life was one of their best ever. I am Tongan Australian and much of what you said resonated with me. I have also received racist back-handed 'compliments'. Once I was told, while enjoying an indie song, that I was the 'whitest Tongan girl they knew'. Glad I found your blog, looking forward to reading more of your writing.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I have to say that I consider that is actually it is the complete opposite straight white guy- in Australia we are too slow to name behavior for what it really is, to call a spade, a spade. There is a significant amount of people who say or do things that are blatantly racist, but recoil in shock and horror, when you call it what it actually is. It is unfortunate that we live in a society where it is more socially acceptable to be a racist, then to (accurately) call someone a racist.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Cognitus Interruptis, thanks for writing.

    One of the best things I have taken away from having this piece go "National" has been the notion of shared experience. I've had a couple of my brotherboys contact me and tell me about their similar experiences and those of their sisters. I've now had you and Teine Samoa contact me on here sharing stories from a Tongan and Samoan perspective of similar experiences. On the article page, there are comments from other Aboriginal people, a Eurasian person, and a couple of others again sharing similar experiences. The idea of "otherness" is definitely still alive, and very very well, isn't it?

    Thanks so much folks!

    ReplyDelete
  13. Cognitus Interruptis here. Loved this article so much that I decided to finally start blogging myself, after years of reading blogs. I too love the sharing of experiences especially from other PoC. Being othered can be an alienating experience, but sharing them creates a sense of community for me.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Sarah, thank you so much for your kind words, and great to meet you! I am really glad you liked this one. And I agree completely about sharing experiences. Such an empowering thing to do! Good on you for starting to write your own blog, can't wait to have a look

    ReplyDelete
  15. Oh and I am a little slow, Sarah (tired as hell!). I should have said "great to meet you again"!

    ReplyDelete
  16. Lol tired too, didn't notice. Good to meet/meet again you too.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Its not just the whites, in fact, the colored ones like the Chinese, Indians, Africans, etc. are equal culprits in this regard. I have had Indian friends who say that not a single Chinese or Aboriginal woman is pretty. These are people who immediately take offense if a white person told something similar about them.

    I am of Indian origin, I find women of every race attractive and some women not so attractive. It depends on a person's body type and my preference, but nothing to do with race.

    ReplyDelete
  18. There are plenty of other young intelligent women who would be interested in both beauty and self development workshops for Naidoc Week. These are young women who don't define their beauty by a pagent or by what a magazine or the media says but they still have an interest in health, fitness, makeup and hair. These women may not have a 'photogenic face' but they are beautiful inside and out. They should be celebrated. They should have Naidoc events catered to them as well. Beauty workshops could be a fun and bonding experience. However, workshops focusing on matters such as personal development would be great to have in the same forum. Don't make 'beauty' unattainable, make it an opportunity for all women to experiment with in a safe environment. Congratulations to the ladies entering pagents, it's great to see women with drive following their dreams - I'm proud of them. However, I detest seeing young women suffer crippling self esteem issues due to so called beauty. It breaks my heart, I see it everyday where I live. I really like what you have written. It's empowering and true. I know I don't have the answers but I'm in my mid twenties and I have dealt with similar comments. I simply am sharing an idea that I think is fair because it includes all ladies. Besides not all confident and dynamic women would feel comfortable parading for a pagent.

    ReplyDelete