“Racism is one that all women in the women’s movement must start to come to terms with. There is no doubt in my mind that racism is expressed by women in the movement. Its roots are many and they go deep.” – Pat O’Shane
Those words were written by former magistrate, First Nations woman Pat O’Shane more than two decades ago and yet still represent an uncomfortable truth for mainstream feminism. Similar criticisms have also been made by First Nations women like Jackie Huggins, Judy Atkinson and Aileen Morton-Robinson and are revived and re-spoken by younger feminists like Larissa Behrendt, Celeste Liddle, Nayuka Gorrie and many more who continue the fight to hold mainstream feminism to account.
The roots of racism within mainstream feminism are still there, under the soil. But that’s not to say there haven’t been changes in the mainstream feminist movement. Rather than outright denial on racism and how race impacts gender, an even more damaging phenomenon has taken hold: co-option.
Intersectionality, grounded in critical race theory, is now used by many white feminists but has been watered down to a buzzword: a superficial display of “inclusiveness” whereby it is used to deflect rather than interrogate the way race impacts the lived experience of gender, class, gender identity, sexual orientation and disability. An example of this, is the way Aboriginal women are consigned to a footnote with no context in articles about domestic violence, aligning the staggering statistics with the continuing colonial portrayal of the Aboriginal ‘other’ as inherently violent.
Much like International Women’s Day, which has become a day for corporates and fancy breakfasts that few women outside of the upper and middle classes can attend – the term has been re-purposed to fit into a limited type of white feminist thought.
Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time being angry at the failings of white liberal feminism, largely because it is the type of feminism that finds the loudest voice in mainstream media. Because it has this voice it has become synonymous with ‘feminism’, despite the movement itself being a broad church. I even questioned whether to continue calling myself a feminist.
I have realised that as an Aboriginal feminist, I don’t have to continue reacting to these failures. There is already a foundation built by brilliant black women which allows us to continue developing an Aboriginal feminism. And the reason this is so important is because the unique experiences of Aboriginal people, the way racism impacts our lived experiences as women, brotherboys, sistergirls and non-binary peoples, is a matter of life and death.
While the national conversation around domestic violence and sexual assault is undoubtedly important, often Aboriginal voices are bypassed altogether. An example of this was the recent Our Watch media awards, where a white male journalist was given an accolade for reporting on “the violence no one talks about”. Aboriginal women have been talking about violence for decades – the ‘silence’ is not the issue. It is that no one listens unless it is spoken in a way that bypasses the role of white Australia, and places blame right back onto Aboriginal people themselves.
That is why arguments about Aboriginal culture being inherently violent are so appealing. There may have been instances of violence in pre-colonial Aboriginal society – but from my perspective, if Aboriginal people were participating in the level of violence we see now in many communities, we would not have survived for tens of thousands of years, and we would not have developed a sophisticated system of land management, astronomy and science that intertwined with our spirituality.
But the cultural arguments around Aboriginal violence find an audience in a white Australia that denies its continuing role in the current circumstances affecting our people. And white feminists can often be complicit in the perpetuation of the myth, particularly when it comes to ‘saving black women and children’ from the hands of Aboriginal men. The fact is, Aboriginal communities are not inhuman – we care deeply about violence and the impact on our people, particularly our children. But the conversation has become dangerous due to the centring of white outrage and the appetite for black pathology which borders on pornographic.
Meanwhile, Aboriginal women are painted as depraved for this perceived silence. Like the colonial images that rendered Aboriginal women as uncaring ‘infanticidal cannibals’ who did not love their children, we are again caricatured as powerless and unconcerned about our children. This is the real silence: the silencing of the strong Aboriginal women all across the country who have worked day in and day out on this problem in the face of continual slander.
One of these women is Aboriginal early childhood development expert Dr Janet Hammill, who talks about ‘biological genocide’, whereby foetal programming began as early as 50 years after the initial invasion into Aboriginal lands.
Dr Hammill has been writing on violence against Aboriginal women for decades, particularly in the context of trauma and foetal alcohol syndrome, and the impact it has on the developing brain.
The impact of alcohol, drugs, malnutrition and childhood trauma and stress on a developing brain can result in epigenetic changes that affects not just this generation, but the health and wellbeing of future generations.
This is where the arguments around ‘responsibility’ fall flat and why blaming both Aboriginal men for violence, and Aboriginal women for parental neglect, is not just unhelpful, but dangerous.
In an environment centred on demonising our men, the voices of Aboriginal women who want to speak out against violence also become conflicted. Our experiences as women become secondary to defending our men – because we have seen, particularly in the case of the NT Intervention, how moral panics around the safety of women and children can lead to policies that perpetuate violence.
The NT Intervention, which stripped rights away from Aboriginal communities, did not solve the issue of child abuse, as we have seen most recently. It also led to increases in suicide and self-harm rates, and also jailing rates. It is well known that the justice system is violent, and that Aboriginal men who are incarcerated for violent, and even non-violent crimes often come out not healed but traumatised, resulting in anger and rage. This often manifests in further violence, wrought on the self, or on the most vulnerable – Aboriginal women, children and the elderly.
One of the most common critiques of white liberal feminism is how, when talking about violence, it rests heavily on solutions through the justice system and police. For many Aboriginal women, the justice system is structurally violent, and the police are aggravators rather than protectors.
This is not an unfounded fear. We have seen in the case of Ms Dhu and Ms Maher, how our women, who are the fastest growing incarcerated group in the country, are killed, injured and traumatised within its walls. In the case of Ms Dhu, we also see the structural violence of the health system, where nurses and doctors ignored her pain as she slowly lost her life to septicaemia. Ms Dhu’s Aboriginality impacted on the way WA police and the health system viewed her as a woman. She was vulnerable, and hurt, and she needed help, not punishment.
In Tumut, two hours from Canberra, 27-year-old Aboriginal woman Naomi Williams, who was six months pregnant, died after being turned away from the local hospital. The Guardian reported that rather than take her pain seriously, staff referred her to drug and alcohol and mental health workers. Just like Ms Dhu, who was referred to as a ‘fucking junkie’, Naomi’s life and the life of her unborn child were endangered by racist and sexist assumptions.
Race and gender also play a part in the way Aboriginal victims are viewed by the police, the DPP and the courts. If the victim is an Aboriginal woman her humanity is stripped away, regardless of the race of the perpetrator. This is true in the cases of Lynette Daley, Therese Binge, Karen Williams, Petronella Albert, Kwementyaye Green and so many others.
Closer to my home, the injustice surrounding the 1991 murder of an Aboriginal woman named Lynda on the banks of the Fitzroy River was influenced by her Aboriginality. The arresting officer at trial admitted that he had wanted to get “a black for a black”, and so after they had accused one Aboriginal man, they closed all other lines of investigation. The result was a continuing injustice, an open wound on the community: the man they convicted is innocent and is still locked up in the Rockhampton jail.
Another Aboriginal woman who died a similar death on the banks of the same river in 1975 was dehumanised in the media, and again in the justice system. The non-Indigenous man who was with her before she died, and who left her severely injured by the river because he couldn’t be bothered to get an ambulance, had his charges of murder dropped. The case was never reopened.
These women did not inspire national protests and marches through capital cities. Their lives were devalued due to their Aboriginality, both in life and in death.
I write these names down to show that these are not individual incidents. The deaths of these women were due to the structural violence within our institutions that impacted them throughout their lives.
Their lives were devalued by Australia’s refusal to provide the rights of citizenship that so many women in this country take for granted. It impacted their families, and their children, and entire communities who remain mourning under dark clouds of injustice. And it impacted them due to their experiences as Aboriginal women in a society founded on white supremacy, on the theft of black lands and the killing and dispossession of our peoples.
That means that our struggles are often drastically different from those of the white feminist movement, and so we must continue developing our own Aboriginal feminism.
One of the strong black women I look up to, Larissa Behrendt put it beautifully: “Black women will have to fight their own battles; after all, we have been doing so all along…. Black women have created a separate political movement. Our political future will continue to be one that is propelled by the strength of black women. “
Amy McQuire is a Darumbal and South Islander writer.