Category Archives: Feminism

Are You Still a Slave? Liberating the Black Female Body

“I just want you to think critically about what we do with the Black female body; why we imagine some things and not others.”

– bell hooks, during her introduction to ‘Are You Still a Slave? Liberating the Black Female Body.’

 

It seems appropriate to post this talk, to continue on a theme 😉 I recently re-watched this 2014 panel discussion hosted by The New School (NYU) titled ‘Are You Still a Slave? Liberating the Black Female Body’, and featuring bell hooks, author Marci Blackman (Tradition), film director Shola Lynch (Free Angela and All Political Prisoners), and author and activist Janet Mock (Redefining Realness). bell’s knowledge and provocations are great as always.

Some thoughts:

  • I understand Janet Mock’s perspective that there is power for her in using glamour to affirm herself in the world, particularly as a Black trans* woman. But I am completely skeptical about her assertion that this is not done for “the male gaze” (when so much about the aesthetics of heterosexual femininity is about that. If heterosexual men and women found some flamboyant body adornment truly off putting, for example, I am skeptical that Janet and other women into feminine glamour would embrace it; we should acknowledge this). It should also be noted that in the past before publicly coming out as trans*, Janet was rarely read as a trans* woman unless she disclosed that she is; so adhering to the “standards” of cisgender femininity was also about safety, comfort, “passing”.
  • I’d like to point out how stupid it is to not have a dark-skinned woman in this conversation; without it the conversation is skewed and incomplete.
  • The Beyoncé TIME ‘Most Influential’ cover discussion – wow. The first time I watched this, I admit my reaction to bell’s use of the term “terrorist” to describe the images Bey puts out into mass culture was to immediately dismiss the hyperbole. But the context here is important; bell was talking about the impact on young girls (and their relationship to their own bodies). There is no doubt, for example, that Beyoncé benefits from colourism and her cultivated physical proximity to whiteness. What impact does this have on Black girls, experiencing racism in the overall culture and colourism in their own communities?
  • bell’s point that the major assaults on feminism and women come from image making and visual media is TRUE. I appreciate her call for genuinely liberating image making (I am going to be hated for this, considering how problematic this person is, but Lena Dunham’s representation of her own body in HBO’s ‘Girls’ is liberating for a great many girls and young women because it is unheard of for a woman with her body type to be centred on a television show. She shows herself naked, she shows herself struggling to run, she shows herself compulsively snacking, she shows herself dancing, she shows herself having sex, she shows herself being loved by others… imperfect and real as she is. And she cops grief for it – see how much hateful and vitriolic abuse she gets for daring to be seen at all. She is a white woman and yet I find her representations 100 times more liberating than Beyoncé’s – even though I enjoy Beyoncé). 
  • I LOVE this from Shola Lynch, which I will just loosely transcribe, because it nails everything that I want to do:

“There’s a term that I discovered in college that is so relevant these days, it’s a feminist term for media studies, called ‘symbolic annihilation’. It is two things: one, not seeing yourself, and two, only seeing yourself denigrated, victimised, et cetera, and what that does to you. And I think that we can talk about all the things that denigrate us, but I’d rather shift the camera, shift my gaze, and look for the images and the people and places that feed me. The more we create our culture – cultural images, the books you write, the films we make, the alternatives – these are artefacts that live, and they speak to people whether we are there or not. Bodies of work, that’s critical. [Shola tells a story of her young daughter, obsessed with blonde princesses and battling her naturally big hair, becoming proud of her “Angela Davis hair” after repeat viewings of her Angela Davis film]. So the more we create the alternative universe… which then creates the universe…” [end of comment]

  • bell hooks talks about how the journey to freedom is also the journey of imagination; the capacity to imagine yourself differently… counter-hegemonically. Creativity and the uses of the imagination is what led each of the panellists to freedom and a self-defined life path; I love that.
  • I love what Janet says about imagining she is worthy in a world that tells her she is unworthy; imagining that she deserves to have a book published, to be heard and seen, to take up as much space as she wants and to share a stage with bell hooks! Creating a foundation of self love and esteem in the face of adverse circumstances is both healing work AND a creative act. If you have to create a larger persona that you will eventually grow into, that is absolutely a creative act (I’m thinking of an interview I saw with Sampa the Great, an anti-hegemonic force if I ever saw one, who said her stage name was something she gave herself to grow into. She’s so dope.)

Last word from bell hooks:

“the incredible power of images. Image changes something. Little girls read ‘happy to be nappy’ and it changes something. We have to be about that work of creating the counter-hegemonic image in order for that transformation to take place.”

Embracing the Black body (beyond the western aesthetic)

This short post follows on from my previous one, ‘ANTI-BLACKNESS/BLACK *BODIES* & THE ‘TOO PRETTY TO BE ABORIGINAL’ TALK.’

In that post, I identified anti-Blackness, anti-Black and non-mixed bodies, as the basis of the offensive, back-handed compliment “too pretty to be Aboriginal” and the superficial favour many people of colour who approximate whiteness (due to mixed ancestry, European ancestry) experience.

Sasha Sarago and Nayuka Gorrie had compelling presentations, Nayuka in particular (by that I mean many of her thoughts on the topic discussed applied to people of colour and the choices we make). Still, I could not help but think about Celeste Liddle‘s broad feminist critique of the ideas and assumptions that underpin the creation of things like Indigenous beauty pageants and modelling in general. If you don’t know who she is, look up her ‘Rantings of an Aboriginal Feminist’ blog and her public writing.

If I was curating the event, I would have loved the Q&A session at the end of the two talks to be conducted by Celeste – for her to ask a few provocative questions herself, and then throw it open to the audience to put forth their questions. Celeste looks at things structurally and critiques the very notion of wanting to be pretty in the eyes of white and colonised folk – a really important idea that to me represents the next level of “wokeness” and decolonisation.

Here’s a quote of hers from this blog post: ‘I am very much of the “Audre Lorde” school of thought here whereby “The Master’s tools will never dismantle the Master’s house”. Buying into coloniser notions of blackness, as well as patriarchal notions of beauty is not going to change anything for the better in the long term.’

I enjoy beautiful (as defined within this culture) representations of people of colour, and appreciate how *individually* economically/self esteem empowering it can be for women of colour to capitalise on being able to conform to western standards of beauty or be attractive to/within the dominant culture. That said, Celeste is fucking right – *collectively* it doesn’t advance either people of colour or women generally. We can partake in the politics of western-defined beauty, and use it to empower ourselves as individuals, feel more confident and comfortable, et cetera. But we should not kid ourselves that this is liberation.

In Celeste’s blog post quoted from above, she also defends herself from (incorrect) accusations that by pointing out the flawed thinking behind beauty pageants she was committing “lateral violence”. I highly recommend reading it here.

BLACK BEAUTY, OR ‘BLACK™’ WESTERNISED BEAUTY?

One more thing… something that I thought about as Sasha and Nayuka discussed the gorgeous Black Aboriginal model from Yirrkala in North East Arnhem, Magnolia Maymuru; and representations of Aboriginal people/people of colour in media, magazines, and modelling shoots (including Sasha’s wonderful Ascension Magazine… read Magnolia’s extended interview in Ascension HERE). I wanted to ask them about it on the day but didn’t quite know how to phrase it concisely; I still don’t, so I’ll just put it here as an incomplete thought.

I enjoy consuming western-based ‘Black media’ – magazines, films, television, radio, podcasts, vloggers, and so forth. When it comes to ‘beauty’, I prefer (aesthetically and politically) natural Black hair and holistically focused Black media makers. My favourite Black beauty vlogger uses all natural and ethically sourced ingredients in her hair and body remedies, and though not against make-up, she does not wear it on a day-to-day basis (beating your face is fun, but time consuming and expensive). I find her work affirming and healthy – she emphasises health, feeling good from the inside but also embracing ones Black body as it is; that feels very Pro-Black (and Pro-Woman) to me. I also enjoy watching vloggers with physical differences (scars, physical conditions) who use make-up to empower themselves, and vloggers who use make-up to transform themselves into characters. It is fun, it is inspiring, it is art.

Scanning western BLACK™ media though, there are patterns of representation that, whilst presented as proudly Black, actually discourage and attempt to hide things that are, by genetics, hella Black: afro-kinky hair texture, skin tone, certain types of noses and facial features. I have seen so many tutorials made by and for Black women instructing how to use contour to make your nose appear more European like, westernised (it is never phrased in this way, but that is essentially what is being done). “How to make your nose look slimmer” tutorials. I have lost count of the number of tutorials in which Black women use a shade of foundation that is obviously lighter than their actual skin tone.

I watch and enjoy all of this (often playful) transformation, truly. But I also feel grossed out by some of it. I firmly believe in the power and importance of representation – and in particular, self representation – but it seems to me that even in self representations of Black people, particularly in more prominent magazines and on film, we shun physical Blackness in favour of Blackness™, a version of blackness that has “tamed” hair, evened out (with make-up or bleach or simply mixed genetics) skin tone, “prettier” (closer to white) noses. And I wonder whether we (in the West, particularly third culture Black kids) will get to a place where the bulk of our self representations as Black people will reject the projections of the coloniser regarding the genetically gifted traits that white supremacy and colourism denigrate and stigmatise… and fully embrace physical Blackness.

Spotted on t-shirt website (click on image to go there)

Spotted on t-shirt website (click on image to go there)

ANTI-BLACKNESS/BLACK *BODIES* & THE ‘TOO PRETTY TO BE ABORIGINAL’ TALK.

So last week I attended this talk by Sasha Sarago (Editor/Founder of Ascension Mag) and Nayuka Gorrie (activist and writer) – ‘Beauty & the Beast: Indigenous beauty decolonised’. This was the blurb for it:

“You’re too pretty to be Aboriginal. This is the abhorrent statement Aboriginal women are confronted with by everyday Australians. Where did this demoralising statement originate? How do Aboriginal women feel about this statement? This talk explores the objectification of Indigenous beauty via Australia’s colonial history. How beauty is viewed by Indigenous women and the rise of decolonisation – a global movement to reclaim the beauty inherent in Indigenous values and traditions, revived through contemporary mediums.”

I went along to the talk for two reasons in particular:

1) I have a mental crush on Nayuka and truly admire Sasha; and

2) I wanted to see if either speakers would identify anti-Blacknessanti-non-mixed black bodies, specifically – as the actual origin of the backhanded and offensive phrase “too pretty to be Aboriginal’.

Because I have been reading about and hearing the views of people of mixed heritage on this topic – COLOURISM – for a long time. And, sometimes, the conversation stays focused on the person of mixed heritage’s feelings regarding having their identity questioned, whilst the bodies being denigrated by such comments – the bodies of non-mixed Black/Indigenous people, women in particular – are not represented in the conversation at all.

As first speaker, Sasha Sarago gave an amazing breakdown of the complex, often traumatic historical reasons why many Aboriginal people are of mixed heritage today. The former model then spoke about being called, many times, “too pretty to be Aboriginal”. She explained how it feels to be on the receiving end of such ignorant comments; her explanation understandably focused on how such comments deny or question her proud Indigenous heritage.

However, it was odd to me that no connection was made between that offensive back-handed “compliment” and the other group of people being denigrated by such comments: non-mixed Aboriginal people’s bodies. Bodies that look as far from whiteness and the standards of western ‘beauty’ as possible. The “too pretty to be…” comment exists because Black bodies/features are stigmatised and devalued. It reflects the privileging of bodies that approximate PHYSICAL whiteness (or non-Aboriginality) more than the bodies that don’t; to not mention anti-Blackness in these conversations is therefore to miss the point.

Thankfully though, Nayuka did mention this, and made the connection. As second speaker, she discussed her experiences and interactions on dating App Tinder; she shared anecdotes about having her Aboriginality fetishised by (white) non-Aboriginal men. She talked about being complimented for her brown skin, green eyes, and other mixed features; crucially, though, Nayuka talked about how it is actually her “proximity to whiteness” as an Aboriginal woman of mixed heritage that these kinds of men are attracted to.

In essence, it is COLOURISM; a toxic physical offshoot of WHITE SUPREMACY.

Being the superstar that she is, Nayuka went on to explain how WHITE SUPREMACIST COLOURISM is deeply embedded not just in white people, but in Aboriginal people (and many colonised Black and Brown people in general, I would argue) too. The first time Nayuka heard the “too pretty to be Aboriginal” line, for example, was depressingly from a young Aboriginal man.

This toxin runs deep. It is the internalised white supremacy that PEOPLE OF COLOUR *ourselves* need to uproot and reckon with. In order to do this, physical anti-Blackness (anti-Black bodies, features, hair textures, skin tones and body shapes) needs to be IDENTIFIED and COUNTERED, always.

Correctly identifying physical anti-Blackness in the statement “too pretty to be a…” is part of that.

Nayuka discussed some ways she is doing the work of unlearning colourism and decolonising the way she sees Black bodies; they involve privileging BLACKNESS in her online and offline life. Surrounding yourself with images of Black & Indigenous people, consuming Black & Indigenous media, participating in Black & Indigenous culture, socialising with and loving Black & Indigenous people… is all a part of ridding oneself of the anti-Black conditioning of immersion in a white culture. Within which Black bodies are marginalised, tokenised, fetishised, stigmatised or simply erased.

And it is all so important. Truly. This may sound like a conversation about superficial beauty, but it is actually a conversation about UNLEARNING UNCONSCIOUS (and conscious) WHITE SUPREMACIST BIAS against Black and indigenous bodies – a bias many Black and Brown people also have.

So CENTERING BLACK AND BROWN BODIES – those bodies that do not approximate whiteness – is a way of countering the dehumanisation and denigration of non-white, non-mixed bodies. For decolonising Black and Brown people, it is affirming, empowering, anti-colourism, anti-racism work. We are not merely our bodies, and our identities need not even be related to our bodies… but the fact remains that bodies further away from whiteness are treated and regarded differently than others. The “unlearning” bias and colourism work is about shifting that paradigm and ensuring we are not replicating that toxic bias with what we create, and the choices we make.

That said, there were two counter-arguments that weren’t covered in the talk (or the ensuing Q&A session) that I will get into in my next post: the idea that collective empowerment of women of colour cannot come through beauty pageants and modelling, as Celeste Liddle has argued in the past (I basically agree); and that sometimes representations of Black and Brown beauty created by Black and Brown people can also be fairly conformist and “colonised”, aesthetically speaking (two really basic examples: the use of contour to make noses look thinner, and hair straightening and lightening for those of us with naturally afro-kinky hair.) To be continued soon 🙂

READ NEXT POST: Embracing the Black body (beyond the western aesthetic)

READ ADDITIONAL FOLLOW UP POST: Filed under ‘this is why we have to acknowledge anti-*Blackness* in Australia’

RELATED POST: Are You Still a Slave? Liberating the Black Female Body

My Women of the World Festival Melbourne Opening Talk: ‘3 Priorities’

I had a ball tonight delivering this little speech at Women of the World Festival Melbourne Opening (invite only). Was honoured to present alongside MzRizk, Katrina Sedgwick, Aseel Tayah, Inez Martorell, and Heather Horrocks. We were each asked to respond to this in 5 minutes: “As a woman of the world what are your top 3 priorities?” And end with “as a woman of the world, my dream for our future is…”. I love how different our responses were from each other! And that in delivering my own, I actually found a whole new group of comrades who vibed with what I said 🙂

Much thanks to Tammy Anderson for being our charismatic MC for the evening, Karen Jackson for a beautiful Acknowledgement of Country, the West Papuan Black Sistaz for bringing the music, and to Producer Alia Gabres for inviting me to share my thoughts!

 

.

SO. When I received the brief for this talk today, it sounded pretty simple … until I remembered how HUGE and complex the world is, how MANY women there are in it, and how diverse our world views and lived experiences are.

Because of this, I feel the need to preface my 3 priorities by stating clearly that I am a Black Pacific Islander, immigrant citizen of a white settler colony. THAT IS THE LENS through which I see the world.

When I think of diversity feminism, because of the hugeness of the world, I tend to focus on what I know and what I can shape – and that is the societies of white settler colonies like Australia, New Zealand, Canada, United States.

These nation-states have similar histories in terms of genocidal settler violence against indigenous peoples, slavery or coerced labour, waves of white migration, waves of persistent opposition to NON-white migration, and internal histories of struggle to extend civil and human rights to various groups within them – struggles that continue today.

Bearing this in mind, here are my 3 priorities as a woman of the world.

.

Priority Number One. Think Globally.

I had the good fortune this year of meeting my hero, scholar, activist and feminist Angela Davis. One of many things I admire about Angela, is her ability to see the connections between social justice and environmental struggles in different parts of the globe; and how they ALL connect to the global economic system, and the decadence of the industrialised world. Corporatism. The profit motive.

Fundamentally, I know that this is CRUCIAL to understand. So my NUMBER ONE lifelong priority is to educate myself, and then others, on these global interconnections. That understanding enables cross border solidarity, strategizing, and collective action, for the liberation of humankind including womankind.

.

Priority Number Two. Act intersectionally, locally.

This one is actually a little bit easier for me to get than most; mainly because my own lived experience is extremely intersectional. I’m Black. I’m a Black Woman. I’m a Black disabled woman who lives with a mental illness. And I am on a very low income.

On a weekly basis, I come up against the intersections of various types of marginalization I experience because of structural discrimination against me.

There are a range of structural -isms and phobias built into our colonies’ foundations that INTERSECT to make some people’s lives much harder than they should be. Whilst most women will face sexism and misogyny, focusing only on those issues fails to take into account those other systemic barriers that people who are not part of the power structure, also face: racism, colorism, homophobia, transphobia, heterosexism, classism, ageism, to name a few.

Then there is the fact that indigenous Australians – like indigenous peoples in other white settler colonies whose sovereignty has never been ceded – contend with pervasive and deep rooted racism, the intergenerational effects of genocidal actions taken by colonisers over centuries, and present day settler violence against indigenous communities and bodies.

Add to that the plight of the truly vulnerable stateless people, asylum seekers and refugees, who are dealt appalling carceral punishments for committing the supposed crime of seeking asylum and a future on our imperfect but safer shores.

For any woman of the world truly concerned with social justice and liberation, prioritizing the ability to think INTERSECTIONALLY and align our social justice organizing with that vision, is essential.

.

Priority Number Three. Make ethical consumer and political choices.

We live in a country that is one of the beneficiaries of the global capitalist system, which relies on the exploitation of whole countries and regions, people, natural resources and animals to create products that all of us who have forgotten how to live in harmony with nature, choose to consume. Those choices maintain demand for products. None of us, therefore, are untainted by the injustice built into the system that we are born into. My phone, for example, was created in part with elements exploitatively mined from the Congo and made by workers under indefensible conditions in China.

I am a writer and also a person with a disability; I need technology to work and live, so giving up the phone is not a choice I can make anytime soon. But there are myriad choices we as consumers living in the West make all the time, particularly if you have disposable income.

So my priority going forward is to make sure that my choices, as much as possible, are made consciously. By that I mean, I want to know where my stuff was made, who made it and under what conditions, and what it was made out of. As much as possible, I want to make ethical and educated choices.

And speaking of that, I haven’t yet mentioned the democratic system. Here again, choices must be made, not only at elections, but at all times between them. I want to choose to stay engaged with what is happening in politics on all levels, to remain ACTIVE and support the people and political collectives who champion the values I hold dear, and policies I know to be best for the implementation of those values. If Trump’s ascension to the presidency has taught us anything, it is to stay awake, engaged, and ACTIVE — over 90 million people eligible to vote did not do so, in the recent U.S election.

~~~

To conclude, as a woman of the world, my dream for our future is that we start recognising that DIVERSITY IS REALITY, globally and locally. And that we work hard together to create a world where diverse peoples, diverse women, can live free of structural exploitation, oppression and marginalization.

Thank you.

INTERSECTIONAL FEMINISM IN PRACTICE.

Please do watch the following TEDWomen2016 presentation by scholar/activist Kimberlé Crenshaw. It’s called ‘The urgency of intersectionality’.

Now more than ever, it’s important to look boldly at the reality of race and gender bias — and understand how the two can combine to create even more harm. Kimberlé Crenshaw uses the term “intersectionality” to describe this phenomenon; as she says, if you’re standing in the path of multiple forms of exclusion, you’re likely to get hit by both. In this moving talk, she calls on us to bear witness to this reality and speak up for victims of prejudice.

Watch here:

 http://www.ted.com/talks/kimberle_crenshaw_the_urgency_of_intersectionality?language=en

Here’s a quote from this 18 minutes talk:

“Now, you might ask, why does a frame matter? I mean, after all, an issue that affects black people and an issue that affects women, wouldn’t that necessarily include black people who are women and women who are black people? Well, the simple answer is that this is a trickle-down approach to social justice,and many times it just doesn’t work. Without frames that allow us to see how social problems impact all the members of a targeted group, many will fall through the cracks of our movements, left to suffer in virtual isolation. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

~~~

INTERSECTIONAL FEMINISM IN PRACTICE.

I move and involve myself in spaces that are mostly for people of colour; yet I have to regularly do “call in” (and sometimes call out) complaints about physical ABLEISM, which continues to be rife even in spaces created by folks who are supposed to be for social justice. Organisations and collectives that are sometimes populated by people who self identify as super woke “intersectional feminists”.

Do not get me wrong – I understand we are all learning, myself included. But you’ll forgive me for being – after 10 years of physically disabled life, daily physical and cultural discrimination and associated depression -exceedingly weary with people who wear “intersectional feminist” t-shirts yet persistently create “inclusive” spaces and events that are profoundly ableist (not to mention classist. But I’ll save that discussion for another time).

So here’s what I propose; the most basic of remedies. If you really are about that life, here are the basic forms of systemic oppression/marginalisation that you/we should keep in mind and try to address when trying to create “inclusive” spaces, or analysing an issue (because ultimately I see intersectionality as a tool of analysis; a way to get to a more complete or holistic understanding, and therefore better policy and activist practice):

ABLEISM (can manifest in many ways as there are many different kinds of disability, but physically inaccessibility for people with mobility issues is far too common)

RACISM (anti-Blackness, the specific racism Indigenous people face, the specific racism immigrants of colour face, anti-semitism, Islamophobia as a racialised identity, and so forth).

COLORISM (obviously intertwined with racism; anti-Blackness and it’s intersection with sexism especially. This is not just about skin tone but also features, physical build and hair texture; proximity to whiteness is privileged).

CLASSISM

SEXISM

HETEROSEXISM

CISSEXISM

QUEERPHOBIA

AGEISM

XENOPHOBIA, & WESTERN SUPREMACISM (including hatred of folks from ‘Othered’ religious backgrounds, asylum seekers, and cultural diversity in general)

I think it’s also extremely important to think about CITIZENSHIP PRIVILEGE and the precarious and dangerous marginalisation that stateless and undocumented people – people who don’t have the protections of citizenship, particularly in western nations – face in society.

I would also add LOOKISM; yes, lookism. In addition to things like race, colorism, gender, ability, etc. people with other pronounced physical differences like ‘deformities‘, disfigurement and skin conditions like Ichthyosis experience constant harassment, persecution, physical and social marginalisation; and often have poorer life outcomes because of that discrimination. This absolutely needs to change. If you think “normal” women have a lot to deal with in terms of beauty standards and discrimination on the basis of looks, spare a thought for the intensity of what these folks contend with. (And studies suggest that white women who fit a dominant aesthetic have a significant advantage in the workplace and in life over white women who don’t; lookism has an economic impact as well as a social one. Add other intersecting physical identities to that experience, and life gets even more difficult). FATPHOBIA is a manifestation of Lookism.

I’ll end this post with this: “When you can’t see a problem, you can’t solve it”, Kimberlé said in her presentation. I wholeheartedly agree. It is important for all who identify as “intersectional feminists” to keep learning to SEE the barriers and violence that others (who are not us) in society face. It is important for us to keep listening to, amplifying and learning from the most marginalised voices. It is important and necessary to recognise some people really do have it tougher than others, and centre their experiences. AND, MOST IMPORTANTLY, IT IS VITAL THAT WE CONSISTENTLY WORK ON TRANSLATING THE KNOWLEDGE GAINED FROM EXPERIENCES OF MARGINALISATION GENEROUSLY SHARED, INTO TANGIBLE ACTION FOR INCLUSION & HUMAN RIGHTS.

If we don’t do that, well, we need to stop saying we care about intersectionality; because we clearly do not know what that means.

~~~

I was going to post a picture of AFROPUNK FESTIVAL’S “No -isms” poster below without comment, but then realised it includes fatphobia but not CLASSISM :-/ Yeah. Maybe because the tickets are expensive?

I’m going to have to write a post down the track about how pop discourse on ‘intersectionality’ (including popular content created by some prominent Black media makers I watch and enjoy) often completely overlooks class and economic disadvantage.

tumblr_inline_navvncqklm1sjnkjk

On Meeting Angela Davis!

So this happened:

wani-fabrice-toaishara-angela-yvonne-davis-pauline-joy-vetuna-25-october-2016

Pictured: My beloved friend/artist/poet/scholar Wani; the incomparable and generous Angela Davis; and me having an out of body experience.

*

I was truly blessed to be invited to attend a private dinner with the incomparable Angela Davis on Tuesday evening; an event organised by RISE Refugee in conjunction with Sisters Inside Inc, Eclipse, Morrocan Deli-cacy and Engenda.

The night featured a conversation between Angela Davis and local activists Meriki Onus (WAR), Fadak Alfayadh (RISE), Aamer Rahman, and host Eugenia Flynn.

If you’re not familiar with Angela Davis’ work, you really need to rectify this at once. Angela is an amazingly generous, holistically focused and incomparable American political activist, academic scholar, and author. Here is a list of her published written work – I highly recommend reading all of it. In addition, watch the lectures of hers that have been published on YouTube.

Highlight of this glorious evening of conscious conversation for me was when Angela came up behind my friend Wani Le Frère (who had met her twice before, two meetings and conversations Angela remembered because he is profoundly intelligent, charismatic, and asks great questions) and I, placed her hand on our shoulders and gently interrupted to introduce herself … and called me by name ❤️

What happened next was hilarious; earlier in the day I was on Twitter and saw prison abolitionist/activist Deb Kilroy tweet Angela Davis’ own selfie, taken at her public lecture at the University of Melbourne the previous day. I spotted my sistagirl Taloi Havini (artist/curator/thinker/beautiful human) behind Angela, so messaged her and asked if she was indeed in Melbourne and if that was her. Taloi later messaged Angela to tell her about the tweet thing and said that her “solid sista” Pauline would be at the dinner. Angela told me this. Yep. I talked to my intellectual hero Angela Davis about a selfie and twitter, ha!

Angela then talked with us for a while, and answered our questions about social justice work, intersectional feminism and global collective activism, before popping off to have her dinner.

I am still tingling from it all. So in awe of Angela’s energy: accessible, warm, generous and down-to-earth. No pretences or airs. Just an authentic human, soulfully committed to the collective struggle for the liberation of the planet.

I’m writing up notes about the University of Melbourne public lecture she gave, and will post them here when that’s done!

*

“We have to talk about liberating minds as well as liberating society.”

~ Angela Davis

*

Challenging ‘mainstream’ perceptions of disability (a low key rant, in full)

This is the full version of a “rant” on 3CR’s radio show ‘Intersections’ this arvo (which wasn’t delivered in full for time constraints).  I want to encourage people to unpack and examine their own assumptions about what it means to be disabled; I have to emphasise here that it’s a process I myself have had to go through. I also straight up read a previously published piece on intersectional marginalisation. I’m sick today, not feeling my best, got caught in the rain, but still enjoyed the experience 🙂 Largely because the intersectional feminists on the show are so welcoming and amazing. I’m really glad this space has been created on the airwaves.

 

.

Let me just preface this low key rant by stating I am just a regular person who also lives in a disabled body. I have no expertise in disability studies, or disability education… but I do have a load of experience – the experience of being able bodied, and the experience of being physically disabled. I also have a lot of experience going through and recovering from various manifestations of mental trauma and illness… but let’s just stick with the physical for now.

My disability experiences have caused me to radically transform the way I see myself, others, AND the world at large, many times over. I’ve learnt that attitudes, and the way we see – or rather, DON’T see – people, matters a great deal. Attitudes tend to act as a filter of what we perceive to be important. What we perceive to be important influences the agenda. So I want to take a moment to tell you about my experience, and ask you to review the way you see disability and people with disabilities.

~~~

So 18 years ago, I became a very, very incomplete quadriplegic. I sustained a spinal cord injury through illness, that affected all of my limbs, although I could still walk.

10 years ago, I became a paraplegic.

3 years after that, I started calling myself disabled.

Why is this? Why, despite having various levels of physical impairment from the age of 14 onward, did it take me so long to make peace with that 3-syllabic word?

In acquiring a disability, I discovered that I was, in fact, a closet ableist. I discovered that I had unconscious attitudes towards disability, and the disabled. I discovered that I was looking at disability through a particular lens that, I dare say, many people look at disability through.

Deep in my subconscious, becoming disabled was the worst case scenario… something I feared even more than death. And trust me, I have faced actual death more than once in my past.

This is because somehow, somewhere along the line, I, like many people, had picked up the notion that to be disabled meant to be on the outside.

It meant to be someone who was to be pitied.

It meant hardship.

It meant to be segregated from the majority of able-bodied people.

It meant to be deficient in some way, and needing extra help from society, who would benevolently bestow it upon you.

And it probably meant that people perceived your needs, your sexuality, or contribution to society as somehow “different”, abnormal, or depleted.

So when, at the age of 22, I became a permanent wheelchair-user myself, I had to face ALL of those unconscious beliefs head on. And I got to see, for the first time, those beliefs influencing how other people responded to me.

The first unconscious belief to be challenged was my perception of what people with disabilities need. After sustaining paraplegia, I spent 6 months in a rehabilitation hospital. Almost all of the other inpatients were men under the age of 25.

Prior to acquiring their disabilities, they had led active lives, and many had gained their disability in the middle of a physically challenging or dangerous activity.

They were interested in all the things that many young men are interested in – enjoying themselves, finding careers, socialising, relationships, sex… actually, mainly sex. A lot of the conversations I had with fellow patients were about concerns about this particular aspect of life.

In an adjacent assisted living facility I also met a few accident victims who had sustained serious intellectual disabilities. My heart broke into pieces one day when, sitting in the hospital courtyard, a young man from that living facility sat down next to me and proceeded to tell me, as best as he could, how desperately he wanted to get out of that place.

And I realised – really and truly understood – that people with disabilities, whether that disability is acquired or congenital, physical or intellectual, have the same basic human needs as able-bodied people. Like anybody else, we want to be loved, be accepted in society, pursue education, a career, call the shots in our own lives and be independent.

~~~

After my paraplegia I went through the same difficulties in coming to terms with my new reality as the young men did.

There’s a lot more public discussion around heterosexual male sexuality and disability in the mainstream, but I tend to see less coverage about heterosexual women or queer folk and disability. But believe me, it was on mind: I wondered how my relationships would change and even though I had no interest in having children at that point, I immediately started to fret I wouldn’t be able to have them (which, by the way, is absolutely not true).

In rehab, I luckily had a young lady sexual health counsellor to help me cut through the fears about the future I was grappling with.

Apart from the physical realities of having a disability and dealing with our structural institutional exclusion, one of the strangest things you have to face when you acquire a disability, is the reality that many people will now see you differently, and treat you accordingly.

Whether this is a good or bad thing is debatable. But, inevitably, it can have an impact on how you see yourself and your self-esteem, which will impact on your social self and your ability to pursue opportunities in life. And all of this nonsense comes from OTHER PEOPLE.

Facing the reactions and perceptions of others about my self, my life, and what I was capable of, led me to review some of my own attitudes towards people with disabilities.

I had always considered myself progressive in this regard, BUT, like so many, I realised that I had been operating with the same tendency towards pity for or over-admiration of people with disabilities.

~~~

That is not to say that disabled people should not be admired, or given props for negotiating a messed up planet that does not really want US in it.

But that mindset too often leads to the objectification and disempowerment of people with disabilities. You are either seen as a brave and tragic victim or must aspire to some “super-crip” disabled iron woman ideal so you can feature in some “inspirational” meme that shames able bodied people about everything they are not doing with their privilege. 

Becoming disabled myself forced me to move from that mindset, which I now regard as damaging to the wellbeing of disabled people, to a place of RESPECT and empathy.

But… REAL empathy; not empathy based on ignorance and faulty assumptions of the supposed tragedy of disability.

Those unconscious ableist assumptions need to be unpacked and expunged first.

The best way to do that, other than googling the “social model of disability”, is to LISTEN to what a variety of disabled people have to say about their own realities.

It is only then that you may be able to even begin to imagine, let alone understand, what it is like to be disabled in an ableist world.

And an exercise in true empathy will inevitably lead to the thought: “If I were that person, what would I want? Would I want to be pitied or patronized? Would I want to feel pressured into being some kind of super hero disabled figure in order to be noticed or respected? Would I want to be segregated in “special” spaces?”

Or would I just want to live my friggin life the way I see fit, be independent,  access all public spaces like able bodied people do without a worry everyday, have the same educational opportunities, and live a life free of discrimination and marginalization?

I’ll let you think about that.

Liberal feminism’s blind spot: material & structural oppression

“How would training women to ask for higher pay help her, as someone who earns a set award wage and has very little power to negotiate anything? How would professional mentoring empower her? How would her life be improved by quotas for women on boards?”

– Eleanor Robertson in her Meanjin essay ‘Get mad and get even’, talking about her sister, a part-time childcare worker.

.

The week before last I read Eleanor Robertson’s critique of hyper-individualistic liberal feminism – and pop feminism – in the current edition Meanjin Quarterly. It is a thoughtful essay; you can read it HERE. Robertson challenges the popular discourse around empowering women in the workplace and society at large; “solutions” that focus on individual actions (of a particular class of women) that, she argues, only benefit the individuals themselves. Robertson asks: “Shouldn’t our demands be for universal changes to the structure of society that will help all women?”

For example, Robertson argues that Sheryl Sandberg’s self-help philosophy, ‘Lean In’, is the manifestation of liberal feminism’s Enlightenment values of individual choice, meritocracy, and “acceptance of the basic structures of capitalist social organisation.” She points out that Sandberg’s idea – and by extension, liberal feminism – completely fails to acknowledge or address an array of structural barriers that prevent many women from realising the liberal feminist dream. [This is a point I emphasised in section 3 of my post ‘Diversity Feminism’].

Robertson writes:

“This mythology is only available to women who share most of Sandberg’s own social positions: middle- or upper-class, white, educated, heterosexual, able, employed. It doesn’t really attempt to engage in analysis of material or structural factors that circumscribe women’s freedom. Few modern liberal feminists are pro-Sandberg, but her views are the logical distillation of liberalism applied to women. The concepts it excludes from its analysis—solidarity, collective action, bottom-up democracy—are the ones most essential to the project of emancipating women as a class.[emphasis mine]

A valid and sharply made point. Robertson’s critique of the pursuit of entertainment diversity, however, is less so. Whilst I do agree that equating diversity in marketing and entertainment products with broadscale empowerment is misguided and naive, the cultural products that surround us do shape (not merely mirror or distract) our consciousness; only someone who is accustomed to being in the historically oppressive ethnic majority (and educated, heterosexual, able bodied, employed, cisgender – as the author appears to be), or simply detached from society, would dimiss the idea that diversity in culture (including visual culture and storytelling) has value at all.

That being said, Robertson highlights the inefficacy of the so-called “offense model of feminism” in regards to protecting women’s human and civil rights, which in places like The United States are under persistant and increasing attack from reactionaries. Moreover, all this focus on individual action and choice, she argues, is funnelling time and resources away from “sites of real struggle” – and preventing us from seeing the need for collective action organised around a vision for a world that is fairer and healthier than the one we currently have.

A world where “being poor, being black, and being a woman didn’t mean being ground into the dirt by arbitrary power”.

You can have a read of the essay in full HERE. Though I am not 100% on board with all of Robertson’s assertions, there is a load of food for thought in this piece.

______________________________________________________________________________________

Another recent essay that captured my attention (and a great many others) was Richard Cooke’s piece for the Monthly, ‘The Boomer Supremacy’; about the demographic hoarding political power, securing their own economic advantage, imposing their cultural dominance, and crapping on younger generations at every opportunity.

Highly recommend reading it HERE

A grown-ass woman.

This is a quick post for those of us on an intuitive life path; who follow our inner compass, come what may.

My Facebook profile pic this year is the words ‘grown-ass woman’ – which I created to celebrate this painfully hard earned phase of adult life I have entered. So naturally I got excited when I stumbled across this video on youtube yesterday 🙂 Titled ‘How to be a Grown Ass Woman’, it is a WNYC panel of four public figures discussing the major moments of transition in their lives – when they knew they had each gone from (mousy) young lady to grown-ass woman.

I freaked out when I read the description and noticed comedian Sara Schaefer (whose twitter presence I enjoy) and The Daily Show’s Jessica Williams (who I am truly infatuated with) were both on the panel. I related to Jessica’s story, about having to be tough and doing what needs to be done to protect others and ourselves.

But it was Katja Blichfeld, co-creator of web series (and TV show) ‘High Maintenance’ (which friends have raved about but I still haven’t watched) whose ‘transition’ story resonated with me the most… completely, actually. She essentially articulated why I feel like a grown-ass woman today.

Katja tells her tale from 23:39 to 29:54. The quote below is the heart of it, though – what made her realise she was already a ‘grown-ass woman’. 

When deciding to turn down solid career opportunities to pursue a “side weekend project” she had little experience in (High Maintenance) she looked back at her other life experiences and noticed something: that despite the constant objections and judgments of multiple people in her life about Katja letting her inner compass direct her choices (rather than just going with the stable salary, the rational path) Katja had done so anyway – and discovered her intuition was a BOSS:

“I started surveying my life before that, and thinking about just how I had ended up where I was. And it was a series of decisions based on gut intuition, over and over again. 

A lot of those decisions, I realised, were similar, in that they did not make a whole lot of sense on the page, and I realised ‘Oh, I’ve kind of lived my whole life in defense mode, having to explain myself or why I am doing these things that don’t make a lot of sense, but I feel the pull towards doing these things’. 

I kind of just had a realisation, like, ‘Oh, I have wisdom! I’ve collected some wisdom and I’m in my thirties and I know some things, and I can look back over my life and see how me following my intuition has yielded these incredible results, time and time again, even when those said decisions didn’t make a lot of sense in the moment. 

And I think that’s kind of when I felt like ‘I’m a grown woman’, because I can sort of look and see that I’ve accumulated these experiences and that they’ve yielded wisdom and that this wisdom is worth listening to, and my intuition is worthwhile and worth listening to… and I’m just going to trust in that and do it. 

And I did, and obviously it’s worked out pretty great… that was my growing up moment, realising I have wisdom, that I know what’s best for me, and other people don’t know what’s best for me. 

And that’s that.”

YES 🙂

I will keep listening to my BOSS. My day-to-day mind may be hopeless, nervous, sometimes unsure of itself… but the Boss knows what’s good.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________

You can check out the full easygoing panel discussion right here. NY Magazine writer Heather Hasvrilesky is the fourth woman. This is what she said about being in her forties:  “I’m the happiest I’ve been, for sure. but I’m still insane.”

Diversity Feminism.

I have both a spiritual and justice agenda in life. Simply put, it is the empowerment of the Feminine and the healing/balancing of the Masculine – in my country of citizenship, in my country of birth, in the Pacific/Oceania region, and globally.

The text below has been sitting in my hard drive for eight months. I wrote it one evening, for myself, in the midst of one of those frustrating public discussions that occasionally arises regarding what feminism is and isn’t, who is and isn’t a good feminist, and why some women distance themselves from the term altogether.

It was inspired by innumerable disagreements I have observed on social media, about ‘white feminism’ and the bizarrely controversial term ‘intersectionality’; and my frustration with how essential conversations about the diversity (different realities) of women are often handled in this public sphere by otherwise intelligent, brilliant people.

And it was my first ‘stream of consciousness’ attempt to articulate my personal feminist framework in my 31st year of life – specific to my experience as a citizen of a ‘settler society’ (Australia) and the barriers that exist in this context. It takes into account the diverse lived experiences of women here (the experiences I am aware of), and how some women face additional barriers due to the intersection of gender discrimination with class, race, et cetera. 

Specifically, barriers to what liberal feminists would regard as the goals of feminism: equality in the public sphere and individual self determination. I did not consult any feminist theories whilst writing this document – my views expressed below evolved over time, shaped by diverse texts, debates, public intellectuals, and lived experience.

 .

So here it is. what I will refer to as my version of ‘Diversity Feminism’.

It:

1) Is focused on settler societies, and their diverse populations.

The locus of my Diversity Feminism is within ‘settler societies’ such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States – countries broadly built upon the displacement of Indigenous peoples by European colonisation, racist population and border control, and waves of migration. Some of these countries have historically also accommodated forced migration – various forms of slave labour. Australia included

Justice necessitates a full acknowledgement of these histories and policies, and the legacies they produced in terms of persistent intergenerational trauma and cultural, systemic inequalities – which adversely affect some groups in society whilst privileging others. Diversity Feminism seeks to understand – through history and other disciplines, the sciences, the humanities, and the arts  – the root causes of group disadvantage, and discord.

It seeks this multi-faceted understanding, in order to find holistic and innovative solutions to these disadvantages themselves, and create a more just society.

2) Is committed to reconciliation and respect for Indigenous peoples.

Full acknowledgment of history – in particular Indigenous history, both prior to and after white colonisation – is an essential condition of reconciliation, equality, and social cohension. 

The seismic injustice and wounding that occured at the time of the foundation of settler societies, and the destruction that policies governing Indigenous communities wrought over centuries and upon generations of people, must be acknowledged – as a precursor to a healthy society, the wellbeing of Indigenous peoples and, in particular, Indigenous women and girls.

Diversity Feminism upholds that justice requires SELF DETERMINATION for Indigenous communities, and recognises the esssential leadership role Indigenous women play in this self determination. These communities are diverse – geographically and otherwise. Their histories, needs and preferences will differ. The aim of government policies should be to work with communities in order to design and tailor programs to suit them and uphold human rights.

A committment to long-term funding and a ‘self determination’ approach is crucial – communities, Indigenous women and girls, have suffered tremendously as a result of myopic funding cuts and frequent policy changes. In many cases, successful, self determination oriented policies formulated with or indeed by community leaders have been attacked and shelved as a result of the ideological biases of politicians, bureaucrats, and activists. 

Top-down, radically assimilationist policies have in many cases caused much harm. Knee-jerk resistance to “paternalistic measures” required to interrupt cycles of dysfunction can also be harmful. Again, the specific conditions and needs of each community, and the vision and wishes of each community, should determine the policies designed for them.

Finally, policy makers, the broader society, and certainly diversity feminists must acknowledge the deep racism that lingers towards the Indigenous peoples within our countries. This is undeniable – reflected in shameful statistical disparities and documented lived experiences of Aboriginal people. To deny these disparities in 2015 is, in and of itself, an act of racism. And will continue to be until those disparities are fully eliminated.

Much progress towards reconciliation has been made, and this is to be acknowledged and celebrated. But both systemic racism and incidences of personal racism towards Indigenous peoples remain ubiquitous. Respectfully understanding the histories of our nations – not just the relatively recent white settler histories, but Indigenous histories – and how they have shaped our national consciousness, is essential to understanding why.

We cannot truly close the empathy gap and support the empowerment of all Indigenous women and girls without this understanding.

3) Asserts that diversity is reality.

My Diversity Feminism obviously recognises areas of “universal” concern for women and girls in settler societies: legal equality for women; healthcare and family planning services; equal access to education, jobs, and public spaces; equal pay for equal work; progressive restructuring of education and work institutions to accomodate and value caring duties and child rearing responsibilities; freedom for girls and women from violence, abuse and harassment in all its forms.

However, by putting the locus solely on “universal” concerns, many western iterations of feminism within ‘settler societies’ fail to acknowledge or address a vast array of specific, complex obstacles that inhibit marginalised or “Othered” women within them – and prevent such women from enjoying the rights, freedoms, and equal participation in society enjoyed by the more privileged – i.e. white, able bodied, middle class women.

[This has always been the case. An historic legal example: “women” in general were not granted the right to vote in Australian Commonwealth elections in 1902; white women were. Indigenous women had to wait until 1962. In 1920 British subjects were granted ‘all political and other rights’, but South Sea Islanders were still ineligible to vote despite being British subjects. Natives of British India living in Australia were allowed to vote in 1925.]

To remedy this, Diversity Feminism centres its focus on the diverse realities of:

  • First Nations women
  • Ethnically diverse women, and linguistically diverse women
  • Women living with neurological differences, chronic illnesses and disabled women
  • Women living with psychiatric conditions
  • Elderly women
  • Transgender women
  • Single mothers
  • Women carers
  • Women who struggle with English literacy
  • Women stuck on a low income (the working poor, and welfare supported women)
  • Women trapped in abusive and/or violent relationships
  • Homeless women and women who require public housing
  • Women in remote, rural or underserviced communities
  • Same-sex attracted women
  • Women sex workers
  • Exploited workers (including non-citizens & forced/coerced labourers)
  • Women in the prison system
  • Women who have sought asylum in our countries.

These women may in theory share some of the aforementioned “universal” concerns and seek the same gender equity that white, middle class, able-bodied women do – but they face additional external barriers to the realisation of full empowerment due to factors like location, class, “race”, cultural background, literacy/language competency, and disability that can prevent them from doing so.

Diversity Feminism therefore centres the experiences of these women and seeks to examine these barriers, to understand how they intersect (“intersectionality”) with gender – in order to find multi-disciplinary, holistic policy solutions for them. Diversity Feminism is committed to ensuring all women are valued, supported, and empowered to live safe, meaningful, productive, and self determining lives.

4) Upholds and supports individual human rights, both in mainstream national culture and for women within culturally diverse communities (First Nations women included).

For the purposes of this document, cultural patriarchy is defined as: cultures in which the desires, drives and demands of men carry more weight that the desires, drives and demands of women; within which women are restricted to defined gender roles, mores of behaviour, and life paths; and within which women are prevented from ascending to leadership positions due to their sex.

Diversity Feminism supports progressive cultural change away from rigid cultural patriarchy, towards equal opportunity and rights for all women and girls – within both the broad national culture AND within its various cultural communities.

Diversity Feminism also understands that sustainable cultural change comes from within – in this case, led by women and men inside the communities in which change must occur. It therefore seeks to offer firm support to women and girls in culturally diverse communities – and their allies – to instigate progressive change within those communities.

In doing so, Diversity Feminism aims to both respect the unique identities of various cultural communities that are important to many women, AND augment such cultural communities to include recognition of human rights for women and girls. Diversity Feminism affirms those who seek to be agents of change from within.

Fundamentally, Diversity Feminism recognises the reality that many feminists successfully mediate between different cultural identities, in ways that affirm and empower them – and that cultures can change. It therefore aims to foster progressive change across all cultures towards the recognition of human rights for ALL women and girls – and more broadly, all people.

5) Upholds and supports individual human rights for women globally.

Supporting ‘change from within’ is a principle applied in relation to women and girls in other countries too. It is expressed through supporting grass roots initiatives in other countries – and between countries – to secure the rights and empowerment of women and girls around the globe. In particular, the voices and leadership of women in the “Global South”, and conflict zones, should be elevated and affirmed. Overseas movements of men for progressive cultural and legal change – the empowerment of the women in their countries – should also be supported. 

6) Understands that the nation states we live in exist within a bigger picture – a global economic system, that entrenches inequality and relies upon exploitation. 

My Diversity Feminism recognises that Western nations enjoy the level of development they do in large part as a result of centuries of mass human and resource exploitation in the “Global South”. Western colonial projects also planted the seeds of many conflicts and territorial disputes. The international relations objectives and foreign policy of countries (notably the United States) since the development of the nation-state system, have created both immense wealth for some and immense suffering for millions of others globally. Obviously, women and girls are amongst those affected. 

And Diversity Feminism recognises that the material wealth and many of the products we rely upon/enjoy are stained with the suffering of unseen, unheard, exploited workers throughout the world – many of whom are women and girls, or the family members of women and girls.

Diversity Feminism therefore supports progressive government/legislative regulations at a regional, national and international level that protect ALL people, fauna and ecosystems from:

  • human and labour rights abuses
  • unsafe and unethical business practices in all markets (including practices harmful to animals)
  • unsafe and unethical supply chains in production of goods and services
  • unsafe and unethical resource extraction and/or processing

On a personal level, my Diversity Feminism compels me to try, as much as possible, to approach consumption with a sense of responsibility to both the wellbeing of workers and responsible resource extraction in mind – supporting businesses operating ethically in accordance with regulatory measures, or of their own volition [e.g. B Corps]. 

When exercising ones political, legal and consumer freedoms, the Diversity Feminist should endeavour to make choices that align with any or all of the above.

.

And… that was it. First attempt to articulate my approach to feminism as a citizen of Australia, a lady with roots in the Global South, a disabled woman. The idealist in me actually believes settler societies have the potential to be the freest, healthiest, and most harmoniously diverse societies on Earth, if they examine their national souls and do the necessary progressive justice work; my diversity feminism is very much about getting us there. I will continue to refine the vision.

© 2016 Pauline Vetuna, All Rights Reserved.

%d bloggers like this: