The Feminine Critique: Diversity Part 22 October 2016
The Black Lives Matter rally that took place in Melbourne earlier in July didn’t just demonstrate the global concerns surrounding systemic racism and police brutality. A large majority of protesters that raised their fists in support of peace and racial justice were in fact women; grandmothers, mothers and daughters marching together, demanding their voices be heard, signifying the enduring power of women to inspire, create and lead change. The rally served as a reminder of the importance of diversity in feminism.
Bess Zewdie, an Ethopian Australian and Local Talks Manger at SYN Radio, was a supporter at the rally who noticed that the protest against racial-fuelled violence was complemented by a focus on the rights and representation of women of colour.
“I was so impressed that a group of young women organised the march, managed to stop traffic and draw up to 4,000 protesters,” Zewdie says. “The event supported people of colour but more importantly, it gave voice to women of colour. It gave voice to the young female organisers to stand up for their rights and the rights of other women.”
The Black Lives Matter movement started in 2012 in America with three African-American community organisers, Alice Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, in response to the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Since then, their activism has gone global. This year marks the first time the protest was organised in Australia, though it wasn’t long before an opposition to the protests grew.
“Those who opposed the protest argued that ‘all lives matter’ or ‘police lives matter’. Yes, that’s true but we’re focusing on the rights of a particular group,” Zewdie says. “It’s urgent that we focus on the rights and representation of people of colour.”
This representation is especially vital in raising awareness of the importance of diversity within feminism. The concept of All Lives Matter parallels an issue in feminism in which the voices of the majority, namely White, western women, dominate the movement.
It’s not simply a matter of empathising with women of colour in order to achieve diversity and respect in the feminist movement. According to Dr Odette Kelada, a lecturer in Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne, the study of Kimberle Crenshaw’s Intersectional Feminist theory (the overlapping of discrimination in the forms of gender, race, class, ability or sexual difference) goes beyond that of acknowledging diversity.
“When people come to understand feminism and learn about women of colour, it’s still in the framework of learning about an ‘other’,” explains Dr Kelada. “Feminists, particularly White feminists, critique power, voice and agency but often don’t turn the lens around on themselves.”
What Kelada is referring to is ultimately an act of self-reflection in its most disciplined form. It’s an investigation of your own upbringing, ideas and principles and how they influence your beliefs and position in the world.
The All Lives Matter counter-trend is, ironically, an attempt to display a more cohesive movement. According to Dr Kelada though, ignoring intersectional differences for the sake of performing a unified movement is stifling the feminist movement.
“To describe feminism as a ‘sisterhood’ erases history,” Dr Kelada says. “The fights and struggles of women of colour have not been the same to other women.”
This is particularly evident when we look at Indigenous Australian women. It’s why Kirsten Bonds, an Indigenous Student Support Officer at Murrup Barak, found the Black Lives Matter rally in Melbourne vital to modern feminism in Australia.
“Women of colour are the movers and shakers of our generation,” Bond says. “Although people of colour were the focus of the rally that day, the support from the wider public created a perfect display of diversity and acceptance.”
Bond is an Indigenous Australian and African-American woman who also participated in the Black Lives Matter rally. During her experience, she found that amongst all the issues of diversity within feminism and racism in our society, the rally was the best example of cultures and backgrounds coming together to support each other. She left me with one piece of advice:
“People of colour don’t want a pity party. Don’t tick a box and help,” explains Bonds. “Show up to a rally and show your support but most importantly, do it for yourself.”
This piece of advice is invaluable. After producing eight articles about feminism, I’ve found myself lost, misunderstood and angry. Feminism is complex; it’s filled with women (and sometimes men) from different cultures and backgrounds with varying ideas and perspectives. The voices of these women are limited by each other and issues of representation, cultural appropriation and intersectionality cause them to break away from one another. There are times when you doubt feminism and its ability to unite women and effect change. But there is also hope. Although women identify with certain brands of feminism – ‘Intersectional’, ‘Black’, ‘Eco’ or ‘Radical’ – they fight, share and dream of achieving the same end goal: equality.