For we are on Indigenous land.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Speech from NOWSA 2010

Before I begin, I would like to acknowledge the owners of the land we are meeting on, the Pambalong people. This is stolen land whose sovereignty was never ceded, and I pay my respects to their elders past, present, and future, and to any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here today.

I’d also like to thank the organisers for giving me the opportunity to speak today. It’s a real honour to have been asked and I hope what I have to say is valuable to you.

Just a little about myself, before I start. I’m studying at Sydney University, where I’m involved in the postgraduate association, SUPRA. From October 2008 to June 2009 I was sole president, then from July 2009 to June this year I was co-president. I’ve also been involved in feminist and anti-racist organising in Sydney.

I’ve been asked to speak about the herstory of the Women of Colour Network to the conference, and how it relates to the themes of intersections and autonomy. I’ll include some personal stories along the way in relating this herstory, and go on to talk about how it relates to other activism that I’ve been involved in.

Herstory of the Women of Colour Network

The Women of Colour Network was an idea born in the minds of two women in 2007 - myself and a friend who was then University of Melbourne Student Union’s Co-Women’s Officer. I had begun to become interested in radical women of colour politics, and had freshly read This Bridge Called My Back. Meeting another radical woman of colour feminist was incredibly inspiring, and we were in a mood to try to reach for big things. We spoke to the organising collective about having an autonomous space for women of colour, and of establishing an autonomous caucus. Both of these requests were granted, and we eagerly prepared for the caucus, and to establish a network.

NOWSA is an intensely political space, and it can be marked by a number of tensions, conflicts, and challenges that aren’t always comfortable to negotiate. Autonomous spaces within the broader NOWSA conference offer a temporary reprieve of some of those tensions, and let us reconfigure them in new ways. I can’t claim to speak for all participants in the caucus, but I certainly felt that the caucus space was the highlight of the conference. Where, in most other spaces, the experiences of women of colour are marginalised, the caucus was driven by the political energy coming from our experiences.

It is important to acknowledge that the Women of Colour Caucus came about after NOWSA had gone through a history of racism. In 1989, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women from the First International Indigenous Women’s Conference walked out of the NOWSA conference in Adelaide. In 1999, Aboriginal poet Lisa Bellear was booed when she addressed racial issues in a plenary, and there have been major tensions between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women participating in the NOWSA conference in the past. Lisa Bellear wrote a list of suggested protocols in the Melbourne University Student Union’s publication Judy’s Punch, which was circulated at the 2006 NOWSA conference. Many of these protocols were incorporated by the 2007 organising collective.

With this history within Australian feminism, it is important that there is formal recognition of women of colour within feminist organising. Including an autonomous caucus in the NOWSA conference will hopefully ensure a continued space for women of colour to raise our concerns within student feminism.

We wanted to create something sustainable for the future as well. The student movement is characterised by constant change and people moving on. You can’t always be there to see your own projects through, so you have to leave strong institutional legacies to make sure that equity is addressed in the movement. Most of the founding members of the Women of Colour Caucus have graduated and moved on. Knowing that the caucus continued last year at NOWSA without the participation of any of the founding members was really inspiring, and I hope that the caucus will continue after we all (eventually) graduate.

With the bane of VSU blighting the numbers, the engagement, the energy, and the capacity of our student organisations, we can’t ensure that NOWSA will always be well-populated or that the variety of student feminists will be well-represented. In particular, it seems that funding constraints often mean that only a few women from each campus, at times only Women’s Officers, are able to attend. This tends to disadvantage women of colour, particularly those who can’t take time away from work. Hopefully the continuity of the Women of Colour Caucus will ensure that women of colour have a strong presence and contribution to NOWSA far into the future.


NT Intervention

Shortly before the 2007 NOWSA conference, the Northern Territory Intervention was announced.

From the earliest days, the rhetoric around the intervention has been about the protection of women and children from domestic violence, issues which have been front and centre in feminist campaigning. Disappointingly, however, feminist organising hasn’t really developed much around the Intervention. Instead, the political right has co-opted feminist language to justify the economic coercion, dispossession and cultural genocide enacted under the Intervention. For instance, the National Plan Of Action to Reduce Violence Against Women and Children, which was called for by many women’s groups, affirms the Intervention as the most appropriate response to domestic violence in Aboriginal communities.

Only a few weeks ago, the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment
(Welfare Reform and Reinstatement of the Racial Discrimination Act) Bill was passed, which allows the federal government the power to apply income management to any area in the country where it deems it’s necessary. The Intervention has finally been made national, and will disproportionately apply to the most disadvantaged people in the community, predominantly women.

In an historical sense, welfare has been a central concern of feminism. Feminists have fought for fairer welfare provisions, for equal access to certain benefits, and for services from the state. At the same time, Aboriginal women particularly have suffered through the social control mechanisms of welfare. The Intervention is clearly an extension of paternalistic forms of welfare, which women of colour the world over have fought against. Although some feminists, and nearly all welfare agencies, have opposed income management, the presence of feminists in the campaign against the Intervention remains patchy. It is time to put an intersectional perspective into action and deploy our feminist politics in standing against this gross injustice.

The limited experience I had of truly intersectional organising was working with the Sydney Reclaim the Night collective in 2008, where we made the Intervention the main focus. We highlighted the role of state violence in the Intervention, and the ways that state coercion has been experienced as violence by the people affected by the Intervention. This effect has disproportionately fallen on women, but I now think that we may have underestimated the effect on Aboriginal men.

We have to understand that men of colour, too, are implicated in the white paternalism of the Intervention, and feminism has historically been terrible at addressing the oppression experienced by men of colour alongside women of colour. In some cases, de-centring sexism is the most vital thing we can do to fight against oppression of women.

International Students

This is particularly clear in the rather male-dominated field of education activism.

One of the major things I took on in my term(s) of office as president of the Sydney University Postgraduate Representative Association was campaigning for international students’ rights. It was clear to me from the outset that international students are some of the most oppressed students in the student community. Visa restrictions, exploitation in the workplace, abuse by landlords, discrimination in universities, and intimidation were the things I heard from international students on a regular basis about their experiences. The intersection of education, capitalism, race, and class shape these issues. For women international students, the huge but invisible issue seems to be sexual harassment in the workplace.

Many of these issues were only addressed in the media last year, after many years of advocacy by international students through their student organisations. Part of the reason for this was that the issue of violence was taken up as a salient point in protests, and part of it was that international media had started to pay attention.

As it became clear that many international students are prospective immigrants to Australia, the current of xenophobia in the public discourse about international students became more pronounced. International students were either hapless dupes of unscrupulous immigration and education agents, or they were ‘bad’ immigrants, opportunistically using education to jump the queue, so to speak.

Government responses to issues raised by international students has been incredibly contradictory. On the one hand, the regime of allowing onshore applications for permanent residency was initiated by the Howard government in 2001, and now that we are in an election year under a Labor government, the door is being slammed in the faces of thousands of students who have spent thousands of dollars in accessing education, employment and a livelihood in Australia.

After a lot of advocacy, the government initiated a range of inquiries. Their solution to the ‘problem’ of international students was to restrict the numbers that come to the country in the first place. The Migration Act Amendment (Visa Capping) Bill 2010 will very likely be heard in parliament in mid-August. This bill gives the Immigration Minister the power to terminate residency applications from any particular class or range of visas, which might mean discrimination on the basis of race or nationality.

But we already know that the bill will affect students trained in the least valued occupations - cooking, hairdressing, and community welfare: all gendered as traditionally feminine occupations. I don’t think this is a coincidence.

I really encourage you to find out about the convergence on Canberra happening in August when the Bill is read in parliament, and make the effort to come along in support.

Intersectional Politics in Action

My experience in the campaigns against the Northern Territory Intervention and for international students rights have involved working with people less privileged than me. I’ve learned some hard lessons in these campaigns, which I want to share with you today. Most of these lessons won’t make as much sense outside the context of the particular work being done, but I want to try to articulate what I’ve learned as my contribution to this conference. I also think it’s important to share these reflections because many of you will graduate and then go on to work in service provision, advocacy, or will continue as activists. For the activist community to mature and grow we need to share our lessons more effectively. I was never given much guidance with these issues, so I felt that it would be good to take the opportunity to share my knowledge with others, to reverse that trend.

In many ways, intersectionality is a bit of a buzzword in radical politics, but most organising still takes place along single-issue lines. It’s difficult to address multiple oppressions at the same time, especially in activism that’s focused on transforming particular institutions. Working on more than one institution at once is incredibly difficult, and requires a lot of dedication and commitment. Too often, intersectionality has remained a theoretical understanding of domination only, and hasn’t been deployed in feminist praxis.

Feminism has historically fetishised particular forms of sexism at the expense of recognising forms of domination that intersect with sexism and exacerbate violence against particularly vulnerable women. In those cases, it may be the case that we need to de-centre sexism in order to address the nature of oppression affecting particular women. At the same time, a hegemonic womanhood is usually addressed by campaigns and issues which term themselves ‘feminist’. Feminist campaigns such as reproductive rights and equal pay still centre white women. Although reproductive health care and working rights are enormous issues for women of colour, they are experienced differently from white women.

One of the key elements of intersectional politics we need to understand is to act in solidarity with others who may experience oppressions that we don’t. Most often, this solidarity work is called “being an ally”. I think this term, and this way of looking at it, is really problematic.

Being an ‘ally’

In all my activist work, seeing myself as an “ally” really limited how effective I could be. The notion of “allies” presupposes that the political self-identification of someone as an “ally” means that the person is being effective, regardless of whether they actually are. It militates against the person being held accountable by the group they are supposedly “allied” with. That lack of accountability is based on privilege; so in many ways, the notion of being an “ally” reinforces privilege.

One of the biggest mistakes I made was imposing my own vision of liberation onto a community I was working in solidarity with; and I’ve seen this done time and again by student activists. While you might have a great theoretical understanding of a particular kind of oppression, even one that’s related to the oppression that affects you, only the people experiencing it can determine the appropriate response to it.

What’s important to remember about the nature of oppression is that it undermines the autonomy of the people it affects. And opposing oppression means upholding the autonomy of oppressed peoples, even if that autonomy might sometimes mean engaging with the so-called oppressor. Imposing a rigid vision of liberation onto people can be just as oppressive as historical and traditional forms of oppression. Part of ending oppression is creating the space for oppressed peoples to engage with things that have been deployed oppressively on their own terms.

It’s also important to remember that not all of the people within an oppressed community will have the same response to their oppression, and there can be some very sensitive tensions within a community around political differences in relation to domination. It’s important to respect those tensions, since they’re often the result of a history that affects a lot of people. You can get drawn into a situation where you’re benefiting from tension and infighting. Those circumstances are always really difficult to negotiate.

It was really counter-intuitive for me to understand this, but at times, the best thing you can do in solidarity with a community is to go against the wishes of someone you are working with. That can especially be the case when they’re doing something abusive and unethical. It’s important to get rid of the notion that we sometimes have of people in oppressed communities as helpless victims. This vision erases the agency that oppressed people have, and the real harm they can do to other oppressed people. Part of an intersectional perspective is understanding that oppression and privilege can be contextual, and can work together to benefit or harm certain people. A perspective informed by privilege and guilt can cause you to be harmfully negligent when abuse is happening. And, of course, the key to unpacking this privilege is to begin with how it affects your own community, and may uphold oppressive practices within feminist spaces.

Ultimately, there’s no field manual for solidarity work. Your judgement is the only tool you have to make a decision about how to approach a situation. In most instances, you will be held accountable, and you need to be open to being held accountable, for mistakes you make. There is no source of information that can give you all the answers and negate your accountability for your own actions. All we have is the opportunity to learn from others, and the wisdom of our own experiences.

On that note, I’d like to leave a question for the conference delegates not participating in the Women of Colour Caucus. I’d like to ask how you think we can better build mechanisms of accountability to women facing a variety of oppressions into feminist organising spaces.

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