intersectional is more than a three-letter country

As Australians, as non-white people who aren’t from the USA, as activists, we have got to talk about the USA dominance of the internet, and our social justice conversations.

Over at North Coast Musings, there’s a quick snapshot of some of the terrible things that @ebswearspink, @stringstory and @upulie had to deal with over the weekend, some of it from African American activists, including claims that Indigenous Australians only have a voice because of African American culture.





Many years ago, darling wonderful Chally wrote Dear USians on the Internet (yes, it’s on Feministe), about US centricity in social justice and how problematic is. Literally the first comment is a complaint about this letter!

Because we can’t ever have social justice that isn’t informed by the USA, I guess.

The thing is this:

Our Australian injustices cannot be righted through a paradigm that fits the USA.

The injustices that plague the USA do not necessarily translate outside of the USA.

We can exchange thoughts and techniques but we cannot

we cannot

match perfectly, or even imperfectly.

Liz has her own reasons for being my partner in yelling here on No Award, but this was my moment:

An act called the Jackson Jive performed on Hey Hey It’s Saturday. They performed in blackface, and it was bullshit. There was debate whether it was intentionally racist or just clueless, and one theory was from the name: that their name was ‘Jackson Jive’, it was postulated, was an intentional reference to shucking and jiving, an element of minstrelsy, and therefore intentionally racist. I was decried by a USAmerican person when I pointed out our history of blackface didn’t include quite so much minstrelsy, and the shucking and jiving thing isn’t as known here. Australia’s Blak history is different from any other country’s. Just like our experiences of colonialism, racism, and imperialism are different.

[Liz notes: Minstrelsy in Australia started out with US minstrel acts touring Australia, and then Australian performers began to mimic them.  I could make a remark about Iggy Azalea, but I haven’t had nearly enough tea.]

[Liz’s moment was the controversy about the KFC ad in which a lone Australian white guy finds himself surrounded by Indians at the cricket, and makes friends by sharing his KFC.  Racist in the sense of playing on fears of brown people?  Yes, although obviously there is also the fear of being surrounded by supporters of a rival team.  Playing into stereotypes about African Americans and fried chicken?  Uh, no.]

But apparently we can’t have racial experiences that are different from those experienced in the USA.

To make something about someone else’s racial history is to ignore our own very real issues, and means the discussions we have are limited and restricted. If I’m going to educate anybody, it’s going to be the people in communities here in Australia. We shouldn’t need to expend our energy fighting those who are supposed to be our community, our allies in oppression, whose experiences are similar but not the same.

Indigenous Australians may be light-skinned, and if they are it is often a product of the imperialism and genocide of our Australian history. But sure, let’s call an Indigenous Australian white, like that’s not loaded, like A.O. Neville, “Protector of Aborigines” from 1936 – 1940, didn’t endorse “biological absorption” of Aboriginal Australians, like we don’t have the Stolen Generation.

And we know light-skinned privilege exists, I live it (as a light-skinned Azn), but ugh, gross. Gross.  The entire concept of “white passing” is dangerous and hurtful in the context of Indigenous Australians.  That’s what the whole Eatock v Bolt case was about.

This is not to deny that often the language and work done by USAcentric and USA-based activists doesn’t assist us in our work and in our activism and in our fights. There are lots of great USA-based voices that help out.  But that doesn’t mean their concepts are universally applicable.

When our language is different from theirs and they yell at us for it, don’t lose hope.

And when our frame of reference is different from theirs and they call us wrong, and racist, and too white, yell back.

Come here to No Award, if you have to. I will always yell with you.

Maybe what we need is a primer for well-meaning USAmericans. It’ll be about Indigenous Australians being classed as fauna, The White Australia Policy, slavery in Queensland, and I’m tired just thinking about it. Bags not me.

Here read some things: Luke Pearson on ‘When It’s OK to be ‘Part Aboriginal‘; Defining Aboriginality in Australia; Anita Heiss’ book Am I Black Enough For You?  (If African-American – and other POC – people knew they were doing what Andrew Bolt has done to Indigenous Australians, would that disgust them? I hope so.)

And on the Invasion Day weekend! Ugh.

15 thoughts on “intersectional is more than a three-letter country

  1. Lori in Tas

    As an American & an Australian, I try to weigh in on the differences, as much as I understand them. But yeah, it’s a huge difference in how Blackness is defined, esp when it negates that Australians Aborigines are both the Natives & the Blacks. The Natives, because well, duh. But also the Blacks because England defined itself “cultured/superior” to all the “savage” dark or Black People it had conquered and enslaved. And they brought that full- fleshed racism with them from day one. Australia became the furness where the English used every tool they had forged elsewhere, every bit of well practiced cruelty, to try and reduce the Aborigines out of existence. White Australians are still engaged in this. I love my two counties, and find that over-all they are both full of generous people. But we’ve all barely escaped 17C thinking on race and colonialism.

  2. I have so many thoughts about this, and I’m hungry, which means my head hurts with how much I rail against the idea that people living in another country can decide exactly what racism is like in ours, and I’m not able to articulate that very well.

    Basically, so much YES with all that you have said here. Yes, yes, yes.

    Now I’m going to eat something.

  3. Minkie

    spell check – “Australia’s Blak history is different from any other country’s”. Although I’m not well read, so possibly Blak has special meaning. Also – as always, an interesting and thought provoking read. I generally agree with you, but even when I don’t, you make your points well.

  4. pfctdayelise

    I am about to go and read those links, thanks.

    I would love to read something one day that addressed the idea “it’s not racist because we’re not the US” more generally. E.g.this was said of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. Sometimes obviously it is legit but sometimes it feels like a convenient cover. I think I need some better skills to determine which is which.

    1. Yeah, I realise it can be an awkward line to tread because you don’t want to be all NUH-UH WE’RE NOT RACIST. I got called out for being ‘polite racist’ yesterday, a thing Australia is well known for. Which we are. But I think there’s a difference between saying your thing that is racist for you has different connotations for us, and being polite racist, but it can be easy to use it as a weapon and cover and yes. Sometimes, especially externally, it can be difficult to determine them.

  5. Tom

    Looking at some of the tweets directed at @Ebswearspink and others, I struggle to interpret them purely as an angry reaction of well-meaning activists misled by the US-Australia culture gap.

    Turf wars and energetic group boundary setting are a feature of SJ communities online, and of many other forms of progressive political activism … in this case I’m not sure it’s worth skirting around some severely unpleasant abuse to find an answer in plural meanings.

      1. Oh, sure, but I’m really interested and invested in the culture gap and what it means for us as Australians trying to work out our own problems. The rest of it…tbh as Australians on the internet I feel like we’re used to it.

  6. Muna Warsame

    Perhaps if your friend Ebony thinks black American race theory is beneath her, she should stop being so obsessed with it and appropriating it?

    It is very disingenuous to co-opt a black American hashtag, claim it “I started it”, then post antagonistic tweets towards black african women in the HT and not expect retaliation. And then to go on a misleading tangent about “American imperialism” which itself is deliberately erasing the experiences of black Americans.

    1. Hi Muna. I’m sorry that this has come across as erasing the experiences of black Americans. That certainly wasn’t my intent. I can’t really comment on Ebs’ experiences, and I won’t, because the hashtag stuff was already well and truly entrenched by the time I came along – I really was using it to jump off to the bigger issue, which is about US-American imperialism in social justice spheres. (And I apologise to any Black Americans who have been erased, or felt erased, by my use of the tag, which I did briefly over the weekend) I don’t think that’s disingenuous for Australians to talk about – as I state in the post, in much of racial social justice discussions, the framework we follow is that established by Black Americans. And they’ve done a lot of work that we can use as discussions for our own racial issues in Australia – but to totally correspond to them really limits us in dealing with specifically Australian issues.

      And regardless of how antagonistic Ebs was to anyone, I don’t think it’s beyond me to point out that within an Australian framework, and within Australian history, to claim she’s not indigenous because of American racial rules (blood quantum, and being too light, both of which were claimed) is seriously messed up. We don’t engage in blood rules in Australia. We can’t, because of our history.

      I don’t want to use this post to talk about what started it – I want to talk about how American race theory, and often black American race theory, is forced upon Australians when we try to talk about race in Australia. It’s been suggested by a friend of mine (Malaysian) that I do another post where I talk about specific examples beyond the anecdotes and the AO Pooface example I’ve used here, specific words and examples that are specific to Australia, but are often erased by a USAmerican racial paradigm when we try to talk about them.

      And I do want to mention, if I make that post, that I don’t necessarily mean to single out American activists – because of the extent to which it’s permeated the social justice sphere, people from non-US countries use this paradigm as well. It’s more about creating a space where Australians can talk about racial issues.

      Thanks for your comment. I do note your thoughts about the hashtag use.

  7. John

    I certainly agree that applying external racial standards onto others and using those standards to speculate or question another’s racial identity could be interpreted as a form of erasure.

    But there’s also a belief that ‘white-passing’ (which I agree is a problematic term) people who identify as people of colour is in itself a form of erasing non-white-passing people of colour’s racial identity.

    This isn’t to say any of the behavior or treatment by those referenced in this post of someone who identifies as Indigenous is excusable, but perhaps it provides some explanation or context for their perspective.

    Also, in differentiating the Australian racial experience from the American experience we shouldn’t also universalise the Australian racial experience. That is to say we should acknowledge the existence of kinship systems and skin groups in traditional Aboriginal culture, and that many in remote traditional Indigenous groups do view fairer-skinned people in Australia not practicing traditional culture as “white”. This may well be considered “lateral violence” by some, but I felt there was an inaccurate suggestion creeping into the discussion that these attitudes only emanate from places like America and don’t exist in Australia.

    1. Sorry for the delay in approving your comment! I do want to engage with what you’ve said, and you’ve definitely mentioned some things that I want to talk about and think about and that are important, but I’m still afk, so don’t think I’m ignoring you.

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