Last night I had the incredible privilege of appearing in a debate at the Women's Health West annual general meeting as part of their post-meeting festivities. I was joined on the stage by Kon Karapanagiotidis and Karen Jackson (director of the Moondani Balluk Academic Unit at Vic Uni and wonderful Indigenous union rep!), who had the positive side, and my team mate on the negative side Tasneem Chopra. Our topic was that "Feminists need to unite against racism".
Well naturally, considering what I spend my life writing about, I had no idea how I was going to tackle this one! However, I gave it a go, and ended up having a bit of fun arguing seemingly against my established position. In light of this, and due to the curiosity of others, I am posting a copy of my speech below. It should be read with the humour with which it was intended. Enjoy!
My fellow comrades, dissidents, trouble-makers and parliament house shakers, as second speaker for the negative, I am here round off the argument of why feminists do not need to unite against racism. I hope to provide some clear thoughts as to why I feel this is unnecessary, why I feel it is untimely and what it is I think the feminist movement needs to focus on instead.
To begin with though, as it stands right now, the feminist movement is not even united on its own goal yet. Granted, the feminist movement has the broader banner of overcoming discrimination based upon gender suffered by more than half the population, but that’s where the similarities end. You have the liberal feminists fighting within the system which they don’t necessarily feel is inherently corrupt. Indeed, they argue that recognition and more access to the system is how women are going to gain equality. You have the radical feminists stating that the key system which oppresses us all is the rule of the patriarchy which plays out in every system existing and therefore it is integral to completely dismantle all forms of male rule and start again. You have the Marxist feminists locating the feminist struggle within the class system and battling away to dismantle that whilst also ensuring that men are not the only beneficiaries come the revolution. You have the anarchist feminists stating that rulers always emerge whether within capitalist or communist systems and therefore anything which is not a liberated system ensuring women have complete autonomy is a waste of time. You have the pop star feminists stating that women already run the world, and that swinging naked on a wrecking ball is a statement.
And paradoxically, therein lies the benefit. For while the feminist movement remains a space of contestation, it remains a space of vibrancy and discussion where it can be challenged by alternate theories. An autonomous feminist movement, while presenting a more united front, would lose this nuance and would therefore be less likely to be able to react adequately in times of change.
This is what concerns me about the idea that feminists must unite against racism. It makes the assumption that the experiences of people oppressed by race are homogenous. That there is an oppositional stand that feminists can take to remove it from their space. While racially marginalised groups share the fact that they are oppressed by virtue of their race in a society which preferences members of the dominant culture, again this is where the similarities end. Racism exists because a culture dominates and therefore anyone who doesn’t fit into that dominant culture is marginalised. It doesn’t exist because racially marginalised groups are similar. Therefore to suggest feminism must unite against racism firstly assumes that feminists are mainly members of the dominant culture and secondly that what they need to unite against is racism rather than their own experiences of privilege as members of the dominant culture.
Skin colour is often a site where racism comes into play. Yet not all racially-marginalised groups are black or brown or red or yellow. Indeed, there are Indigenous groups who are white yet who experience racism by virtue of their indigeneity. Even within the groups that are traditionally “of colour”, you have individuals who are not physically visible yet who fight to be proud of their identity in a world which tells them they shouldn’t be. Additionally, not all experiences of people identified as black or brown are the same, depending on where they come from and what their unique experiences with the dominant culture are. Aboriginal people don’t have the exact same experiences as Torres Strait Islander people despite both being labelled “Indigenous Australians”. Immigrant populations trying to make new lives here while dealing with racist policies and xenophobic populations don’t have the same experiences as Original Peoples who have been displaced from their lands. The intersection of religion and race plays out in interesting ways in Australia now. The same group of racially-marginalised people will be treated differently by the dominant culture depending on whether they are Muslims or not. Meanwhile “Muslim” itself has become a racialised category in the Australian dialogue by simple fact that it is seen as a religion practiced by people of colour in a way Christianity is not, regardless of how inaccurate this statement is.
The answer here is that these experiences cannot, and should not, be unified in a feminist space. They should be allowed to be expressed within a feminist space but feminists should never expect one scenario to unite against. The fact that experiences of racism are nuanced; that Aboriginal feminists fight different battles to Asian feminists, who are fighting different battles to African feminists; is incredibly important and gives unique insights into how structures of oppression operate. And for things to change for the better, for the systems of oppression to be dismantled and for feminists to ultimately be victorious in overthrowing the patriarchy, they need to understand this. They need to understand that experiences of the patriarchy are not universal, though they are always gendered. And to go back to my initial point about the various streams within the feminist movement, I feel that there is the capacity for feminism to engage with nuance. It already does internally.
Finally though, the most important reason why feminists do not need to unite against racism: mortgages. I’m 37 and I don’t have one yet. You see, as a grumpy feminist who lives alone, is Aboriginal and who spends a lot of time telling feminist gatherings they need to be more cognisant of race, I occasionally get paid to do so. The sooner feminists completely get it and unite fully against racism, the sooner my gigs dry up. As a woman, I am already facing a gendered pay gap in this country of nearly 19% so am on the back foot here to begin with. I also have not made it to Berlin yet, which is my dream destination for hanging with artists and drinking coffee. So feminists uniting against racism diminishes my capacity to reach financial maturity even as I remain immature in other ways, and denies me the free autonomous movement to other parts of the world. And that’s not very feminist now, is it?