Adapted from a speech to the Everything is Connected conference in Canberra, 27 October 2017
As always, I want to start by acknowledging the traditional owners of this land — the Ngunnawal people of the land where I originally gave this speech and the Wurundjeri clan of the land where I’m typing now. I want to acknowledge their elders, past present and emerging and acknowledge that their clans maintain connection to country and that sovereignty was never ceded.
I also want to acknowledge the privileges that I enjoy as a descendent of refugees who settled on this stolen land and I and all of us who are not indigenous benefit from continuing settler-colonialism.
I originally gave this speech at a Green Institute conference in Canberra, in Old Parliament House. The panel concerned Systemic Approaches to Racism and Prejudice. I spoke after the inspiring Lidia Thorpe, then candidate for and now MP for Northcote; the always passionate Tim Lo Surdo of Democracy in Colour; and the eloquent Rachael Jacobs, educator and dancer.
The privilege of passing
I’ve got passing privilege.
The aspects of our privilege or marginalisation are axes. Some of those axes are more oppressed in our societies than others. Some are more visible. Being a person of colour is one of the aspects that is constantly visible, it’s on you at all times. The intersections of those privileges and oppressions are part of what make up our complex and interacting identities. The intersection is not a doubling; it’s a layering, and the impacts of that layering are exponential.
I’m standing here as a person who is white-passing, straight-passing, cis-passing, neurotypical-passing. You can’t tell, looking at me, that I identify as pansexual and gender-fluid. You can’t tell, looking at me, that I’m Jewish — well, some of you can, the Jews can. You can’t tell looking at me that I’ve got ADHD and you can’t tell that I’ve got ASD. You can’t tell, looking at me, any of that.
A while back I found a wheel of privileges on the Internet, adapted from Kathryn Pauly Morgan’s 1996 book Describing the Emperor’s New Clothes: Three Myths of. Educational (In-)Equity but it didn’t quite cover everything I felt it needed to cover. So, I crowd-sourced improvements and we came up with the following wheel of privileges and oppressions.
Above the big horizontal line here are your privileges. Below that are your oppressions. Some of you are going to say, well, I grew up poor. Yes, working class is definitely one of those things on the oppression side of it. Again, consider the layering. When we talk about white straight men — those are all on the privileged side of the line. But a white straight man who’s disabled and working-class still deals with a society that wasn’t built precisely for him. That doesn’t erase his privilege however. The layers of that is what’s important here.
There’s a risk of falling into oppression olympics, people trying to claim that they are more oppressed, perhaps because they don’t really experience oppression and so they don’t understand. The practical advice is check your privilege. Look at that list and seriously think, am I more oppressed than someone who’s having their “colour scratched off” by their friends, as Rachael Jacobs described. And I think the answer is pretty obvious when you ask it like that. On that list, parent and childlessness are on an axis but I think when you think about it and check your privilege, it’s pretty clear that while it’s hard being infertile and wandering around and looking at people with kids, people don’t walk up to you in the supermarket and harass you for being childless. People don’t walk up to you at a train station and punch you for being childless (as happened to Tim Lo Surdo effectively for existing while Asian).
When our selves intersect
Intersectional is not my word. I’m an inheritor of a word created by Kimberlé Crenshaw, who is an African-American woman and academic. One of the things that she explores is the ways that race, class and gender intersect, that these layers of sexism and racism are inherently connected in the life experience of women of colour. The oppression that we then experience is structural.
There is often a resistance to raising other layers — in fact, on the panel at the Everything is Connected conference, Rachael Jacobs noted the frustration that occurs when women of colour are talking about their experience “and then the Queers get up and they say, ‘hey, us too!’ and then the disabled people get up and they say, ‘hey, us too!’”
I hear that frustration, but also, if you’re black and queer and disabled, we have to acknowledge that the layers get in there.
Women of colour experience both racism and sexism. Of 25,000 abusive tweets tracked by the New Statesman in an experiment in the UK, more than half of them — think about that, 12,500 tweets — were directed at Diane Abbott, the black, female MP. This is not just a little doubling; this is an exponential experience.
Abuse directed at indigenous women is likely to be racist and sexualised. Queer refugees are at greater risk on Manus and Nauru where homosexuality was illegal until only last year. There was an email that went out only this week from All Out, where a woman who is a lesbian refugee from Tunisia says that her translator was homophobic and was mistranslating her to the intake workers and that therefore her application for refugee status in Germany was denied. This is not a simple doubling. This is an exponential layering.
When compared with non-indigenous people, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had significantly higher crude rates of physical disability in Australia, almost 15% compared to 11%. Psycho-social disability: 6.6% compared to 3.8%. Intellectual disability: 5.9% compared to 2.5%. And higher rates of head injury, stroke and acquired brain injury: double that of non-indigenous people in this country. Again, the emotional impact of racism, sexism and ableism is exponential.
The personal is the political
My Judaism very much informs my ethics. One of the quotes we often get from Hillel is “If not me, who? If not now, when?”
My personal experience of the rise of the right at this time is that everything is connected. As a queer person married to a queer man, the recent Australian marriage equality debate still affected us. As a queer person, as an ally and as a Green, every day, I was wearing my Yes badge, sticking my stickers on the bus stop. One sticker I stuck on the bus stop in my right-wing voting area was scrawled on with a swastika because the intersections and interconnections between queer oppression and racial purity continue to be relevant. The effect is to police my comfort as a Jew within my own neighbourhood. My daughter drew some beautiful things in rainbow chalk in the common space in front of our apartments saying Vote Yes for Marriage Equality and someone in our little block of eight complained to the body corporate.
The attacks against those of us who pass aren’t negligible. We are being policed at all times. The attacks rise with international events. We’ve achieved our marvellous borderless world but it’s not working in our favour.
Per capita attacks against Jews continue to occur significantly more frequently than attacks against Muslims and that is true in Australia as well. The evidence produced in police reports on hate crimes and studies by anti-hate organisations show that in North America, Europe and Australia, the most frequent targets of abuse and violence on account of religious affiliation continue to be Jews. That’s from Julie Nathan.
In the year to September 2016, there was a 10% increase in anti-Semitic violence in Australia. And surprise — almost all of the assailants were male. Everything is connected.
We know that men who commit domestic violence are more likely to commit public violence. Everything is connected.
We therefore also know that those people are more likely to commit racist violence. We can’t stand by.
Up to the task
Another Jewish phrase that informs my work is that it’s not your job to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it. This quote from Rabbi Tarfon says to me that my privileges that allow me to pass in this world give me a responsibility to stand up at conferences like the Everything is Connected conference and say these kinds of things to mostly privileged audiences.
I think that what happens occasionally when we say to that white straight able-bodied man “you’ve got privilege”, he thinks that we are saying, “you need to feel guilty about who you are” and then we have a terrible conversation. That’s not what check your privilege means. We’re not aiming for anyone to feel guilty and I don’t think anyone wants men to feel guilty, I don’t think anyone wants white people to feel guilty. I don’t think anyone wants able-bodied people to feel guilty. We’re not asking cisgendered people to feel guilty. That’s not what it’s about.
If all you are going to do in response to us saying, “we are in pain, the system is structurally broken” is feel guilty on an individual level then we’ve achieved nothing. What we need to do is counterbalance.
Have you seen that amazing cartoon that shows the difference between equality and justice? And equality is giving everyone a single box and the tall person still just as tall as they were and the next person up gets a little bit of help because they can now see over the fence but the short person still only has a single box and they still can’t see over the fence. That’s not justice. Justice is giving the short person two boxes, the middle person a box and the tall person no boxes — or pulling down the fence. Then they can all see!
We’ll just ignore that every version of this I’ve seen, the characters all look stereotypically male…
So the challenge is this:
- How can you acknowledge “I am able to walk around a store without the security people following me because they don’t assume I’m going to steal anything because I’m white” ?
- How are you going to take that extra little bit of mental health that you have through not being pursued and stopped by police at every moment?
- How are you going to take that little bit of extra energy that you have by not having to drag yourself through every day?
What are you going to do with that? Are you going to use that energy to feel guilty or are you going to use that energy to act?
I want you to think about that chart and where your privileges are and what that allows you to do. Where are you able to speak out where we might not be able to speak out? Where are you able to act where we cannot act?
There are more of us when you count the queers and the women of colour and the blakfellas and the disabled people and the mentally diverse — there are more of us than there are of “them”. Why are we not working together? We need solidarity. We need to learn to be excellent allies. We need to step back and speak last and let the people who have more challenges in this society speak before us.
We need to acknowledge our privileges and we need to call each other in when we make mistakes and not call each other out unless solidarity requires it so that people are safe.
But we need compassion for each other as we stumble towards solutions. There is too much lateral violence. There are anti-semitic attacks from the Muslim community and from African assailants in the list of attacks and we all know there are Jewish people who are Islamophobes. We have homophobia in our communities of colour. We have racism in our queer communities. It has to stop.
Changing the structure
If racism, sexism, homophobia and ableism are structural, then individual responses are insufficient to address them.
Intertwine held a series of co-creation sessions in 2017 and determined that there are six different areas where we think that progressive organisations can do better. We’ve come up with a charter for employment, governance, events, marketing, member relations and building and amenities if your organisation is big enough to own a building or have an influence on how that building is run.
We want people who run these organisations to make practical commitments to improve — this is not a theoretical thing: progressive organisations have meetings in inaccessible buildings; we don’t think about having quiet spaces or prayer rooms in our conferences; we don’t have pro-active speaker lists or make sure that people of colour can speak first.
We don’t listen. We don’t do the things that we need to do to address prejudice in a systemic and structural way. We ask individuals to do the work as if this is some meditation or mindfulness that will somehow magically solve the racism and discrimination that we experience. We need to go beyond anti-discrimination and towards pro-active change to welcome others.
There’s this fabulous quote from a woman named Flavia Dzodan: my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit. And I want to give that to you because as a white-passing feminist, I’m going to use my energy to back the women who are my sisters and are dealing with more than me.
I want to finish by echoing Tim Lo Surdo’s call to community: together we are magnificent, creative and connected and we can move mountains. Join us.