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.”

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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!

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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

~ Angela Davis

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.