The tragic and preventable injustices suffered by Indigenous Australian woman Ms Dhu deserves urgent international attention.
Earlier this week, the West Australian Coroner found that the death in custody of 22-year old Indigenous woman Ms Dhu was preventable. She was imprisoned for petty fines that White Australians are not jailed for, let alone ultimately die over. The police abuse, which included denying Ms Dhu medical attention as she lay dying and dragging her body “like a dead kangaroo,” was found to be cruel and unprofessional.
Ms Dhu died of respiratory complications due to infection. Ms Dhu was a victim of domestic violence, and like many Indigenous Australians, did not have adequate access to services and support for this trauma and her ongoing health issues.
This is the story of my blog, and why blogging became a strategy to make sense of my career and my life as an Other – a woman of colour, the “non-academic” sociologist.
I started my blog in September 2011. This inauspicious date is not coincidentally aligned with the 10 year anniversary of the September 2001 attacks in the USA. Back in 2001, I was just beginning my PhD and had been trying to recruit Turkish-Australian women for my dissertation, with little success. I wanted to extend my Honours thesis, which focused on heterosexual Latin American women in Australia. A small aspect of that study had lingered, with respect to otherness: the Latin women, who had experienced much racism, expressed high support for multiculturalism. They had many friends from various backgrounds, and some had boyfriends of diverse origins (though Latin American men were a preference). One group they would not date was Muslim men, and many referenced Turkish men specifically due to negative gender stereotypes surrounding Turkish men in the Western suburbs of Melbourne, where most of the women lived.
Given the Latin women’s experiences of racism by Anglo-Australians, this intrigued me, as it suggested what I came to term as hierarchies of otherness.
Sociologists Candace West and Don Zimmerman popularised the theory of “doing gender.” This theory sees that gender identity is something we do – itis a performance and an achievement that people put a lot of work into, rather than some innate biological state of being. People do gender by the way they dress, the way they talk, the way they move their bodies, the types of leisure activities they engage in their spare time, through their division of labour at home, at work and in every other context. Doing gender takes work: you need to learn what’s expected of you as a “man” or as a “woman.”
Early knowledge on doing gender comes from childhood socialisation. Subsequent life experiences teach us, often through trial and error, what the norms and expectations are for masculinity and femininity in different social settings, such as at work.
West and Zimmerman argued that, since gender is something we learn to do, and doing gender leads to inequality, it is possible to undo gender inequality, by doing gender in alternative ways that do not punish femininities. The doing/undoing of gender has been an ongoing focus of gender studies, most recently focused on transgender people. I will discuss recent scholarship about how transgender people do gender at work, with a focus on the experiences of transgender women. Social scientists are preoccupied with the idea that transgender people are in a special position to “undo” gender. I want to explore why viewing transgender experiences in this way contributes to the Othering of transgender people, by amplifying their difference as a solution to gender inequality. Society can absolutely undo gender, but part of this means addressing the inequalities transgender people experience. This is something that mainstream feminism has yet to fully embrace.
While people rush to defend Taylor Swift’s racist appropriation of Black female bodies in her latest video, Shake it Off, because it’s presented as “fun,” it’s worth remembering that “satire” is no excuse for whitewashing of racism. First, satire requires cultural context to be clever; it matters who is delivering the joke to whom, when, and for what purpose. Second, racism is not simply about interpersonal insults. Racism describes a system of domination where White people benefit directly and indirectly from the status quo.
Taylor Swift has positioned herself publicly as a feminist, though her enactment of these ideals was already not without problems. This video shows she has little understanding of the history of feminism and the cultural struggles faced by women of colour. Not coincidentally, White feminism is still largely resistant to racial issues. As sociologist Jessie Daniels notes, it matters that White women are at the centre of both pop culture and the feminist movement:
White feminism, without attention to racial justice, makes an easy partnership with White supremacy.
From Miley Cyrus to Iggy Azalea who profit from brandishing certain aspects of Black culture, to Lily Allen who similarly used Black women in a video to critique White women pop stars, Swift has added her name to an ever-growing list of rich White women in pop music who use the exploitation of women of colour to make “feminist” statements. This stands in contrast, but along a similar continuum, of White pop stars such as Gwen Stefani, Katy Perry, Avril Lavigne who commodify the culture and sexuality of “Asian” women. Asian femininity is sexy in a “cute,” clean and submissive way; while Black and Brown women’s sexuality is dangerous, dirty and untamed. Either way, White women’s cultural appropriation of minority cultures conforms to familiar tropes where White champions dominate the uncivilised Other.
The fact that White celebrities do not set out to be “intentionally racist” is beside the point. Racism does not require your intent, as racial bias often goes unexamined. In fact, the way Whiteness works is to place White people at the centre of culture so that they are protected from the everyday consequences of race relations. (And no, there is no such thing as reverse racism.) Not recognising how racism works, such as failing to understand how and why cultural appropriation and stereotypes are damaging, is an outcome of White privilege.
“No one can take away who we are. No one can take away our identity”. Prominent Australian writer and intellectual Anita Heiss recently made this comment on the program Living Black. She was speaking about her lawsuit win over Andrew Bolt, who was found guilty of racial vilification. In 2004, Bolt engaged in a series of racist comments attacking high-profile Indigenous Australians, essentially arguing they weren’t “black enough”, as Heiss puts it in her latest book. The Living Black video (below), recounts some of Bolt’s insidious comments, such as “Meet the white face of a new black race. The Political Aborigine… I certainly don’t accuse them of opportunism, even if full-blood Aborigines may wonder how such fair people can claim to be one of them and in some cases take black jobs”.
Bolt is a conservative commentator and notorious bigot who tries his hardest to single-handedly dismantle multicultural harmony via his newspaper column and TV appearances. Bolt glowers over Indigenous Australian leaders, patronising his readership about how he images Indigenous Australians might feel about “light-skinned” Aboriginals, without awareness of his white male privilege and the ongoing history of racist paternalism which dominate Indigenous affairs at the national level. Bolt casually makes reference to “full-blood Aborigines”, which is a socially constructed colonial concept used to institutionalise racist practices. The categorisation of “half-caste”, “full-blood” and other variations, has been used since European settlement to deny Indigenous Australians access to their human rights, social welfare and land ownership. As Heiss’ book argues, her court case win over Bolt was a symbolic triumph. The court rule in favour of racial vilification took away the power of identity labelling from white Westerners who impose racial categories upon Indigenous Australians. While this is only one case involving one infamous media personality, Heiss says that the future implications of this court case are likely to be profound: Continue reading Reframing “Black” Identity Politics in Australia