Harsha Walia Interview – Defining Border Imperialism

Highly recommend watching and absorbing the knowledge Harsha Walia shares in this – it will take just 13 and a half minutes out of your day:


The REAL problem with ‘inspiration porn’.

Another little dose of honesty here. In disability activist circles there is much talk of ‘inspiration porn‘ (the late great Stella Young had a TED talk about it that went viral) – the inspirational memes that proliferated online and in viral emails (back in the day) that feature images of disabled adults, teenagers or children doing some everyday activity or some out-of-the-ordinary thing, paired with some words that encourage the able-bodied viewer to thus believe that anything is possible, not feel sorry for themselves, and generally be inspired by the awesome attitude of the disabled individual.

Let me be clear: in an of itself, I do not think that drawing inspiration from others who clearly have some extra shit to deal with in this world, or who are amazing to us for one reason or another, is a bad thing. I really don’t. Particularly if the inspiration being taken is rooted in an understanding that this world can be a harsh and obstacle-ridden place for us disabled people.

However, there are definitely instances of ‘inspiration porn’ where the message being delivered is harmful to disabled people; they are harmful for the reason articulated perfectly in the following excerpt from this article:

“Instead of paying attention to the conditions that make disabled people’s lives difficult, inspiration porn focuses on attitudes of disabled persons as the thing that will make one’s life better or not,” Erevelles said. “[Inspiration porn] takes away from the actual issues that disabled people want folks to pay attention to – like the lack of access, like exclusion from schools and community activities, the ways in which people stare at you, the ways non-disabled people are so uncomfortable being around disabled people except for when they are a source of inspiration.”

“People are inspired by a child with disabilities coloring, but not by someone with a disability fighting for their rights, because in the former the subject is happy, while in the latter they are frustrated and angry”

Yes!

So you see, the reason ‘inspiration porn’ is a problem is because it can obscure the fact that disabled people face a lot of discrimination, oppression and marginalisation in all societies on this planet, that no amount of positive thinking and attitude adjustment (although those things are useful on an individual level) will remedy. It’s perfectly okay and humane (and human) to recognise a strong spirit or the positive inner qualities of disabled people; but it is more important for people to recognise and DO SOMETHING ABOUT the systemic barriers disabled people face to participating and contributing to society, and living full lives.


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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Mic drop on ‘all lives matter’.

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Unlearning indoctrination: a conversation with Mandela’s white Afrikaaner secretary.

“What might it take for you to change your mind? Nothing simple, like what you’re going to have for lunch, but your whole ideology? Maybe even the belief system you’ve carried with you from childhood?”

– RN Life Matters, 16 February 2016.

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Yesterday I listened to RN Life Matters’ interview with Zelda la Grange, author of the book Good Morning Mr Mandela: A Memoir. For 16 years, Zelda faithfully worked for Nelson Mandela – first as a typist in the new Mandela-led government in 1994, then as his private secretary for many years after. Her story is remarkable for many reasons, but one in particular: Zelda, born a white Afrikaaner in apartheid South Africa, was a racist by the age of 13.

In fact, when the referendum was held in 1992 to end apartheid, 21 year old Zelda voted ‘No’. The reason why, she explained on Life Matters, was white privilege:

“I voted no, because this serves my being, I am comfortable living apartheid, I am privileged, so I didn’t want this to end… I am on the receiving end of apartheid, the positive side, so I didn’t want it to end and I voted no in the referendum.”

Zelda was raised in a very conservative (read: racist) household that believed, as most white South Afrikaaners did, in the rightness of apartheid: white supremacy, racial hierarchy, the physical and political separation/control of ethnic groups. She describes how the ideology supporting the regime was reinforced through propaganda via the media, the education system, and white churches. Zelda says:

“We never questioned it, because we were on the receiving end of privilege.”

The system of apartheid involved the complete dehumanisation and brutal treatment of indigenous South Africans. Zelda mentions in her interview just two of the many manifestations of this dehumanisation: the births and deaths of Black Africans were not even officially registered; and the movements of Black Africans were restricted and brutally policed.*

She notes, though, that a weird sort of cognitive dissonance was in play, as so many white children were brought up by loving Black domestic workers; Zelda herself adored her Black caregiver. But, she says, these Black people were acceptable because they were serving white people; those beyond a white household’s Black servants were not acceptable or worthy of fond human regard.

In February 1990, after 27 years of incarceration for being a liberation activist and “terrorist” against apartheid, it was announced that Nelson Mandela would be freed from jail. Zelda recalls being in the family swimming pool when she found out; her father, who regarded Mandela as an evil Communist, came outside and said to her:

“Now we are in trouble… the terrorist [Nelson Mandela] has been released.”

Not knowing who he was, Zelda was unperturbed by the news and continued relaxing in the swimming pool. Her father, fully aware of both the karmic debt accrued by centuries of brutal oppression by whites of Black Africans, and Mandela’s status as a resistance leader, feared the retaliation – and the possibility of Mandela leading it.

Zelda explained the white fear:

“Retaliation, because of centuries of oppression and discrimination, and I think understanding it now that we really feared that if Black people had the opportunity, they would retaliate.”

In 1994, despite having voted against the ending of apartheid in the 1992 referendum, Zelda took a job working as a typist for Nelson Mandela’s secretary, in the newly elected Mandela government. Psychologically it was a tense time for the white oppressors, even as it was a time of hope and liberation for all who worked to end apartheid (and of course, all who were oppressed by it).

At some point during her two years as a typist, Zelda nearly bumped into President Mandela and his security detail in a corridor. The chance meeting was an unexpectedly emotional, life-changing experience for her. Not only did Mandela stop and extend his hand to greet Zelda first, but he spoke to her in Afrikaans – her language. The language of those who had violently oppressed his people for centuries and incarcerated him for nearly three decades.

This excerpt from Zelda’s book describes the meeting:

“One doesn’t really know what to do at that point except cry, which I did. It was all too much. I was sobbing. He then spoke to me, but I didn’t understand him and was completely in shock. I had to say, ‘excuse me Mr President’, for him to repeat what he had just said to me, and after gathering my thoughts, I realised he was addressing me in Afrikaans – my home language. The language of the oppressor.”

The significance of Mandela addressing her in this language was profound; Mandela had said that when you speak to a man in his language, you speak to his heart. It was a great gesture of respect, afforded to a young privileged Afrikaaner woman who had voted to keep apartheid, yet went on to be on the payroll of the new Mandela-led government.

Zelda’s tears were tears of guilt. The realisation hit her instantaneously; the warmth and gentle kindness Mandela radiated deepened the sense of guilt she felt. Zelda could not fathom why he stopped to meet her, a low ranking staffer – and an Afrikaaner one at that. Seeing her emotional distress, Mandela put his hand on her shoulder and attempted to calm her down.

Thus began the unlearning of Zelda’s lifelong indoctrination. 

It is remarkable that the charisma and calming moral leadership of one person was able to trigger in many the undoing of what remains a huge problem for humanity – learned and deliberately taught supremacist thinking. Zelda’s transformation mirrored that which other whites were going through at the time; she recalls witnessing others having the same reaction to Mandela, the same experience of guilt realisation.

Because as Zelda’s father’s reaction to Mandela’s release had demonstrated, the white fear was retaliation – coupled with the desire to maintain privileges, it basically ensured racial hostility against the oppressed population for all eternity. But Mandela subverted their expectations. Zelda told Life Matters:

“It would have been justifiable for him to have resentment, and yet he did exactly the opposite.”

Mandela’s choice of forgiveness, negotiation, and conscious peace made her and many other whites feel grateful, disabled their fear-based defense mechanisms, and enabled them to finally see the horror of what they had inflicted upon Blacks and people of colour.

Some time later, Zelda had the opportunity to see President Mandela speak at an official lunch; in attendance were representatives of the ‘rainbow coalition’ of the new South Africa. Mandela calmly (and almost fondly) shared experiences of his incarceration. Here, Zelda realised the gravity of what had been taken from him – that he had been imprisoned longer than she had been alive, for fighting against injustice.

In the interview, Zelda again describes the “awful” shame that overcame her; but it was mixed with the realisation that Mandela was not interested in white shame, but reconciliation and progress. It has to be said, though, that Zelda’s shame – really the dissolution of the ego that blinds those who benefit from systemic oppression to the evil of it – was (and is) essential to both reconciliation and progress.

On a personal level, guilt and the emotion of shame – which accompanies true empathy with the oppressed – is necessary in order for the unlearning of indoctrination to occur. 

This enables reconciliation on a societal level, too: genuine recognition of wrongdoing against an oppressed population by those who benefited from that oppression occurs when enough individuals in the oppressor group have become aware of and subdued what I call “the collective oppressor ego” (its hallmarks: defensiveness, sense of entitlement, centering of the oppressor’s worldview/history, and resentment of the oppressed group).

On the other “side”, an oppressed group’s refusal to retaliate after being empowered, and a willingness to transform the pain of oppression through forgiveness of former oppressors, is also necessary for reconciliation to occur – and facilitates the unravelling of indoctrination. Mandela understood this – though some liberation activists criticised him for giving up too much in negotiations with the apartheid government, he knew his approach was necessary in order to placate an indoctrinated, fearful and violent white minority… a privileged population who perceived equalilty as a loss.

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*The current wikipedia entry for Apartheid is actually a good introduction – read it here.

You can listen to Zelda la Grange’s full Life Matters interview here.


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.

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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.

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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