We can’t dismantle systems of violence unless we centre Aboriginal women

26 Nov 2018

When we talk about eliminating violence against Aboriginal women, we aren’t just talking about individual acts, or solely interpersonal violence.

Earlier this year, I was on a teleconference with three non-Indigenous women who all worked in the area of violence prevention, albeit in various capacities. We were critiquing the media’s coverage of family violence, while also looking for excellent examples of sensitive and ethical reporting.

While there has been a growing awareness of the media’s role in perpetuating myths about domestic violence, there are still silences in which the most vulnerable remain marked as disposable and the violence perpetrated against them is seen as inevitable. And the most vulnerable people in this country are, and have always been, Aboriginal women.

To acknowledge this, I cut into the conversation and expressed my disappointment. I was disappointed, I said, that there were so few stories that specifically centred the unique experiences of Aboriginal women and all those who did not fit the mould of ‘white and middle class’.  I have noticed that Aboriginal women, when mentioned in news articles, are usually confined to one sentence and painted in statistics– that we are 32 times more likely to be hospitalised due to family violence.

The sentence is usually an afterthought in stories – an attempt to cover the bases in articles that are written to prioritise the concerns of white, middle class women.

But when I raised these concerns on the phone, I was met with another silence. It was brief, because they had not taken long to construct their defences.

In strong, offended tones, they said they saw no problem in this.

Apparently, this obvious erasure of black women was fine and appropriate because ‘white middle-class women’ represented the greater portion of the population. Apparently, the media had already reported on ‘black violence’ before, with one citing a white journalist who had won awards by pathologising black communities as violent outposts where Aboriginal women need saving. It seemed the job was already done.

I retreated into the silence that so many of my Aboriginal sisters have become accustomed to. I had raised my voice first to identify this silence, one I saw as oppressive and contributing to the reproduction of violence against Aboriginal women, but then had utilised it myself as a resistance tool against the continual apathy shown by those who claim to campaign for ALL women.

I didn’t bother contributing anything else, because the refusal to centre Aboriginal women renders any conversation about eliminating family violence completely meaningless.  This is why.

Apparently, this obvious erasure of black women was fine and appropriate because ‘white middle-class women’ represented the greater portion of the population.

Last year, critical race scholar Kimberle Crenshaw, the academic who first coined the concept of ‘intersectionality’ raised concerns about the ‘gentrification’ of the term.

It struck a chord with many First Nations feminists over here because we have seen the co-option of intersectionality by white liberal feminists, who view differing oppressions based on race, class, sex, gender identity, sexuality and disability, as ‘additional’ to their own fight. That’s how they can proclaim their intersectionality credentials, while simultaneously centring themselves.

Intersectionality is not that, of course. It is not about simply acknowledging difference, but instead a tool to illuminate how multiple forms of violence – whether it is racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia – result in different experiences of oppressions for those at the intersections. We use this tool to not only to make this visible, but also strategise and design solutions.

Critical Race Theory scholar Patricia Hill Collins refers to violence as the ‘conceptual glue that both structures the forms that violence takes within distinctive systems of power and… facilitates their smooth interactions”.

In Australia, violence was not just used as a tool of patriarchy – it was and is used as a tool of colonialism.

When we talk about eliminating violence against Aboriginal women, we aren’t just talking about individual acts, or solely interpersonal violence. Sexual violence was and is used as a strategy to mark our bodies as acceptable for violation, not just by individuals, but by the forces of the state. The abuse of our women shows how colonialism is not just a vestige of the past, but still alive in the institutions that normalise the violence inflicted upon us – most notably in the justice, health and child protection systems.

Centring the experiences of white, middle class women obscures these different forms of violence by preserving power relations in which these same women benefit.  Whiteness literally washes over the nature of this violence. It erases it. It makes it invisible. It silences it.

And it is inherently violent in itself because, by doing this, it makes state sanctioned violence normal and routine, and aids in reproducing it.

Because this violence is accepted, the victims of it are seen as unworthy of attention, even unworthy of value.

They are seen as deserving of this violence, because it is legitimated by the state – the state that white liberal feminists turn to as a solution for family violence.

In Australia, violence was not just used as a tool of patriarchy – it was and is used as a tool of colonialism.

Recently I attended the Sisters Inside conference in Brisbane which focuses on the theme: ‘Imagining Abolition’.

I listened to a Maori sister tell her story of violence. It stretched from childhood to the justice system and was not just one event by one perpetrator but instead a lifetime of violence all intersecting and reproducing, and I was reminded again of the strength and resistance of Indigenous women.

Most crucially, I was reminded of the power of testimony – the power of breaking this silence that the non-Indigenous women on the phone to me that day, so desperately wanted to preserve.

I went into the Sisters Inside Facebook group, and viewed photos of the day.

The photos framed the faces of speakers and those in the audience (primarily Aboriginal women, members of the LGBTI community, women with lived experiences of prison, and women of colour).

As she told her story, her power was reflected in the eyes of all those who were listening. She had a visible impact on all of us, all from her position in the centre of the room, all from her lone voice emanating across the silence, which she had been denied for years and years while incarcerated.

Right now, during the United Nations’ 16 Days of Activism to eliminate violence against women, we have an opportunity to seriously consider how a dangerously limited focus of reporting on domestic violence is actually hurting all women.

Liberal feminism is still focused on the criminal justice system as a ‘solution’, and we as Aboriginal women know this to be the opposite. A large majority of Aboriginal women who are sitting in jails right now, are victims of family violence. And yet where is the mainstream coverage of this?

The reason is, in the words of Nayuka Gorrie and Witt Church in the Guardian: it is “how the system is designed to work”.

We cannot eliminate violence by entrenching a violent system.

We have to look at demolishing it – and to do that, we have to listen to the women who are at the intersections. If we do that, we will not look to ‘prison’ or the ‘justice system’ as a solution to violence, but will instead see it for what it is, an inherently violent institution intent on harming those who have already been harmed in order to entrench domination over those who are deemed as ‘other’ and ‘unworthy’.

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