When racism becomes a white person's issue

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Recently, I wrote an article on Daily Life about race representation in fashion, using it as a launching pad to delve into a discussion of how Western society regards the bodies of people of colour. Fashion, like other forms of pop culture, may well be regarded as somewhat silly and shallow, but it is there that our values are reflected right back at us.

To my surprise, my article drew strong criticism on Twitter from some prominent white feminists who were incensed that I would waste time and space writing about fashion when there were More Important Issues to deal with.

Race representation in popular culture may not be a blip on the radar of middle class white feminists - because it does not affect them - but for Women of Colour (WoC) who rarely see themselves reflected in magazines, it matters. A lot. Failing to consider this makes feminism dangerously irrelevant to many WoC. So much so, in fact, that many black women in the US have given up on the label altogether, preferring the term “womanist”.

In the early '90s, Elizabeth Spelman published Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought, in which she argued that feminism was marginalising WoC due to its tendency to ignore how race, class and ethnicity react with sexism to affect non-white women.

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Spelman wrote that for feminism to be inclusive, it had to acknowledge the unique experiences of WoC and allow them space to give their own accounts of their lives. She argued that feminism confuses “the condition of one group of women with the condition of all”. In other words it is extremely marginalising for white feminists, who occupy a position of relative privilege, to lecture WoC on which issues should be important to them.

There seems to be a prevailing view that a step forward for one is a step for all. The furor over Girls, Lena Dunham's breakthrough TV show, demonstrates how WoC are expected to “take one for the team”, even as they are excluded from the benefits of a supposed feminist victory.

Dunham's extraordinary success has been rightly hailed but, as criticism of the show's lack of characters from non-white, non-privileged backgrounds shows, it is a victory for some women only.

Although Dunham has tried to address this criticism, many white feminists seized on Dunham's words that she was simply writing about “people she knows”. But would feminists accept this as a valid excuse from men who leave women out of films? Is it ever OK for privileged men to only “write what they know"?

Caitlin Moran, when asked if she planned to discuss Girls' lack of racial diversity in an interview with Dunham responded, “Nope. I literally couldn't give a shit about it.”

Moran, one of feminism's major voices, and one which informed us  How to be a Woman , literally couldn't give a shit about the ongoing exclusion of non-white women in the public space. Clearly, Moran is unfamiliar with the words of African-American feminist Barbara Smith: “Feminism is the political theory and practice that struggles to free all women: women of colour, working-class women, poor women, disabled women, Jewish women, lesbians, old women – as well as white, economically privileged heterosexual women. Anything less than this vision of total freedom is not feminism, but merely female self-aggrandisement.”

As a woman of Arab-Muslim background I cannot divorce my experiences of being female from that of my race and religious background. While I am certainly pleased for Dunham at her success, I am also painfully aware that as a WoC - and a Muslim to boot - I cannot benefit in any meaningful way from it because it is a limited success that still actively excludes women like me.

As a writer I am fortunate to be given a public platform to express my views. Nonetheless, I find that whenever I write on issues of race and religion, I face such a strong backlash; it leaves me wondering if my work would attract the same hostility had a white woman penned it.

In one article, I criticised Israel's treatment of black Ethiopian Jews, only to have readers dismiss me as “biased” and “pushing another agenda” on the basis of my surname. As if an Arab is intrinsically incapable of objective, critical thought.

When I wrote about the blatant, and much-criticised , whitewashing in the film The Impossible, I was accused of “playing the race card” and having “an ulterior motive”.

Most recently, I lamented the direction of excessively patriotic Anzac Day commemorations, and was beset by furious readers who informed me that as a “foreigner” I had no right to talk about the Anzacs. Many wanted to know why I “even came here”. For what it's worth, I was two when my parents fled the Lebanese Civil War. I am now in my 30s and have been a citizen since the age of seven. I have never considered myself a foreigner in this my country.

It seems to me there will always be a portion of the population that will regard me with suspicion. To them, I will always be the "other". In this I am reminded of the powerful words of black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde: “I cannot afford the luxury of fighting one form of oppression only. I cannot believe that freedom from intolerance is the right of only one particular group. And I cannot afford to choose between the front upon which I must battle these forces of discrimination, wherever they appear to destroy me. And when they appear to destroy me, it will not be long before they appear to destroy you.”

And it is precisely this that leads me to write about issues such as race representation in fashion and the erasing of people of colour in film. Because it is this marginalisation that allows criticism of me based on nothing but my skin colour and my last name to flourish. Is it so surprising people don't trust Arabs given that, on those rare occasions when we do make it to the screen, it is overwhelmingly as terrorists or religious fanatics?

Without an understanding of how various forms of oppression intersect, feminism is meaningless. Success for some women is not a success for feminism because if feminism benefits only some women, some of the time, then that feminism is no feminism at all.

Ruby Hamad is a contributing author to the anthology 'Defiant Daughters: 21 Women on Art, Activism, Animals, and The Sexual Politics of Meat', which she will be launching 7pm Monday May 20th at The Surry Hills Community Centre.

 

47 comments

  • I love your work. Very inspiring, even for a male like me.

    Commenter
    JJ
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    May 17, 2013, 5:38AM
    • Completely inspirational article! Thank you for brining common sense along with your passion.

      Commenter
      Pamplemousse
      Date and time
      May 17, 2013, 8:41AM
      • Love your article. About time these massive contradictions are exposed to the light of day.
        While there is no denying that racism in mainstream Australian society is an issue yet to be tackled properly, moving into 'progressive' Australian circles has greatly disappointed me. In many ways there isn't much difference between mainstream and progressive circles with regards to racism.
        The level of antagonism towards persons of colour is incredible. Within progressive circles, the level of discrimination and distrust lessens if one speaks with an Australian accent. No hope for me because I arrive as a 22 year old. People's willingness to see one negatively is extremely strong and once a white person says something bad about you, your personality is tarnished. No opportunity to redeem yourself in their eyes.
        Isolates a whole sections from Australian society. While I am able to analyse what is happening to me, I see others may not.

        Commenter
        marc
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        May 17, 2013, 8:54AM
        • Spot on. I hope you get support for you views. In my minority of single fathers victimised by the Whitlam era throw backs, Gaia worshipping counter culture there is very little support for our views that families are worth protecting above the rights of individuals to seek "happiness" outside the marriage. White feminists would rather die than admit that the normalisation of divorce and broken families has come at a huge social cost that this country will never recover from. Or that the "cougar" phenomenon should be ridiculed and criticised. Think of the resources freed if more services was given to keeping families viable compared with the blow out of social welfare to broken families, the impact on the legal system and community health. generally. Imagine a sitcom about that?

          Commenter
          tor61
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          May 17, 2013, 9:05AM
          • Tor61, I think you missed the point of this very good article. Besides how is 'divorce' the fault of post-whitlam era women.
            I am a man, a married one at that, and can clearly see it takes 2 to tango. You blame women far too easily. Ease up man.

            Commenter
            marc
            Location
            Sydney
            Date and time
            May 17, 2013, 9:38AM
        • Wholeheartedly agree, you are tops bananas.

          Commenter
          Lea
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          May 17, 2013, 9:06AM
          • Very informative and indeed inspiring even for a MoC. There is much for us all to learn and thank you for this article, which I will be keeping a copy handy.

            Commenter
            Akari
            Location
            Canberra
            Date and time
            May 17, 2013, 9:09AM
            • Excellent article Ruby. Sometimes the suspicision with which our opinions are treated, often forces us to view all things multi-dimenshionally. I'm richer for it. By "our", I mean people with brown skin or the offspring of non-European immigrants.

              Commenter
              Arun
              Location
              Sydney
              Date and time
              May 17, 2013, 9:19AM
              • Great article, love the Audre Lorde quote!

                Commenter
                fml
                Date and time
                May 17, 2013, 9:22AM
                • An alternative reading of the Durham "Girls" controversy is that having established a bulkhead for an honest portrayal of a group of misrepresented women (white, young, middle class New Yorkers - I didn't say they were underprivileged or under represented) that raised many interesting issues about their representation, Women of Colour jumped in and decided to make it all about themselves. That is what Moran was referring to, not a general dismissal of the unique issues that Woman of Colour face in the media and society in general.

                  Commenter
                  StBob
                  Date and time
                  May 17, 2013, 9:31AM

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