In the past, complaints have been made regarding Alisha Aitken-Radburn’s misappropriation of African-American culture by using “Lasqueesha” as a nickname on her ACCESS Card for the University of Sydney Union (USU), and subsequently for using “SWAG” as the name for an Honi Soit ticket she was involved in orchestrating.
Historically, Black Vernacular (AAVE or Ebonics) is derived from the African-American community exercising agency and creating their own Black identities following their exclusion by White people. However, when black phraseology is taken on, misused, and reduced to a joke, as in the case of “Lasqueesha”, it leads to misappropriation and ridicule of Black people for being ‘different’ and culturally and socioeconomically inferior. Her use of such language was inappropriate, and reflected a blatant disregard of this.
I did not know Alisha in any other context, and had never spoken to her in any way prior to these incidents. Whilst she may not have realized or intended to be offensive, the fact remains that this was not the first, or the last time Alisha has engaged in cultural misappropriation and casual racism. And this is concerning.
Early on this semester, I came across a public post on Facebook containing comments by Alisha. Black women who were upset about it alerted me to the post.
The picture in the post was of two young white women in “mud masks”, dark faces in stark contrast to pallid necks, grinning into the camera. Some of the comments protested that this was blackface and, even if it was not intended to be blackface, the re-sharing and denial of Black women’s critiques was incredibly offensive for many Black people. Alisha called the above commenters “ridiculous”, told them to “settle the fuck down”, and said it was “also pretty upsetting to be accused of racism when you’re a progressive women [sic]”, implying that experiencing racism was less aggravating than being called out on racism. She also stated that nobody had been offended by the photo, despite the fact that many on that thread had stated their outrage.
Although all I knew of her was that she was a USU Board Director, I could not believe someone in her position, who is meant to act as a representative of the student body and a public figure, would have the insensitivity, or the lack of careful consideration, to say such things.
I posted about this in the Wom*n’s Collective page. Soon after, Alisha herself commented on my post saying she would not be apologising for any racism and that I was contributing to making Wom*n’s Collective “inaccessible”. I was flabbergasted. Inaccessible to whom? People who defend their racist behaviour?
As a consequence, a grievance meeting was held with me, Alisha, and one of the Wom*n’s Collective officers. Alisha cried, claimed “[she was] a good person!”, and went on various tangents about following Marxist politics and arguing with the officer that she did not agree with the philosophy of Wom*n’s Collective despite being a member. Nevertheless, she agreed to write a formal apology for her behaviour, and separately write an article in Honi about the negative effects of blackface, as well as how intention does not matter when engaging in racist behaviour, due five weeks from that day.
That was on April 1. More than two months have passed and I am still waiting for Alisha to deliver on her promise. The Wom*n’s Collective officers have messaged her multiple times, only to be met with silence. I have contacted Tara Waniganayaka, President of the USU, but no action seems to have been taken other than a promise to talk to Alisha.
Recently I was referred to an Honi Soit article that proclaimed Alisha likely to become the next president of the USU. I still have the same questions as I did when I found out she was on the USU Board. Why does she actively participate in ignoring the opinions of Black people or other people of colour who are upset, but still feel comfortable enough to appropriate part of their culture? Why did she think she had the right to deflect responsibility for the offense she had caused, especially as a person who has never experienced racism? Why would she promise something and not bother carrying it out?
I am sure being president of the USU is a difficult job, laden with promises to keep and principles to uphold. Surely one of these principles should be a commitment to support students of Color and an acknowledgement that racism is alive and well in our community, and often continued by actions such as those outlined above. If Alisha fails to acknowledge even the basics of this commitment, how can she carry it out as the head of this student organisation?
Trivialising concern about blackface is a poor way of “representing” Black students, and completely ignoring past promises to an organisation and to an individual at this University is, I believe, reflective of Alisha’s accountability. Alisha’s failure to rise to her own personal betterment says to me that Alisha did not learn anything at all from our interaction, and perhaps the tears she cried were crocodile tears. For this reason I feel that despite Alisha’s claims to be progressive, she has demonstrated that she is not, and I question her candidacy for USU president for the way she seemingly wrote off a mistake she made, as well as all those who will support her in the position, regardless of whether they agree with her politics or not.
Sarah (Seunghwa) Shin
When contacted for comment, Aitken-Radburn drew Honi‘s attention to a post she made in the Wom*n’s Collective facebook group, following the events: