Two weeks ago, the women’s edition of Honi Soit published a poem which misused the ‘n word’ in its original spelling, and used it along with an extended metaphor that alluded that women’s position in contemporary society is similar to the position that black slaves held in the United States. I am a woman of colour, I identify as black and I have African slave heritage. To see this word being misused by someone who has no connection to this history, and no right to reclaim the unimaginable suffering that came along with it, upsets me deeply. For someone to believe that it is analogous to anything outside the experiences of black people upsets me deeply.
Black slavery was a theft of a continent, of hundreds of cultures, of millions of people, and their common humanity. Black slavery was something that privileged women perpetrated. My sisters have not just become slaves, they were slaves only a few generations ago, and are struggling with that legacy to this day. Our African ancestry is stolen.
The poem’s inclusion reflects a deeper problem both in general society, and in activist circles. Generally in Australia, white people do not speak of race. They should. They should speak of whiteness and their privilege. They should work to acknowledge and dismantle that privilege. There is no such thing as being “colour blind”. Ideas of “cultural intolerance” and “religious intolerance” only erase the experiences of racism, based on appearance alone, that people of colour experience in Australia. And please don’t tell me that Australia doesn’t have a problem with racism, or I might have to point you to the entire history of the genocide of Australian Aboriginals and the continuing conditions that Aboriginal people and their descendants endure.
Or the history of indentured slavery of Pacific Islanders. Or the fact that the government signed out of the UN Refugee Convention a few days ago, being the first country to do so. Or the fact that Aamer Rahman gets hatred and vitriol just for calling white people, “white people”. Or the fact that no black models can get a job here (see: Ajak Deng, and notice that she is having far less trouble elsewhere). Or the fact that Mia Freedman will run to Delta Goodrem’s defense for laughing at blackface, calling those people of colour “mean” for being offended, despite not actually experiencing racism ever in her entire life. These examples all operate in the same system, upholding the same cultural ideas about race and ethnicity and reinforcing white privilege.
I think the clear problem here is that white people seem to think they know what racism is or is not, more than people of colour, which is exactly the same thing as men knowing more about sexism and misogyny than women, or cis people knowing more about transphobia than trans* people, or heterosexual people knowing what is and is not homophobic more than queer people. If you want to be intersectional, experiential knowledge is your friend. Listen to people and their stories.
Women of colour already occupy a tense position in white-dominated feminist spaces, alienated by the feeling of difference and compromise of anti-racism values. When white women in feminist circles talk about how men oppress them, it is awkward to think about the men of colour, queer, trans* and heterosexual, who have been subject to racism by white women. I want to liberate my brothers as well. White women have not always been our allies. Until it is truly intersectional, feminism shared between white women and women of colour is fraught with awkwardness.
The poem’s inclusion and the subsequent response was reflective of that. I feel I need to remind people that as Staceyann Chin said, all oppression is connected, and if you want to liberate some, you have to liberate all. I hope for better discourse and dialogue around racism and whiteness in Australia in the future.
The Women’s Officers apologise wholeheartedly for any distress caused and acknowledge that the inclusion of the poem was a very problematic oversight. We endeavour to create a safe space for all women in our Collective and have failed to do so in this instance. – Emily Rayers and Hannah Smith