The Australian Women’s Movement and White Privilege

We need to talk about the Australian women’s movement and white privilege.

[As published on Medium]

Let me first clarify that I am a white woman and regardless of my upbringing, personal struggles or history, I am unequivocally white in a society that accepts white as the norm. I am passionate about equality and because of this, I get into a lot of conversations about feminism, equal rights and racism in Australia.

I recently got into a discussion with another white woman; Stacy*, and a woman of colour; Kiara*, about how it feels when people ask ‘where do you come from?’

Kiara was explaining that, as someone who is frequently asked the question, she doesn’t mind having a conversation about ‘where she comes from’ because it gives her the opportunity to have an open discussion about a topic that is often painful and misrepresented by the media. Mid-way through speaking she was interrupted by Stacy who vehemently stated that Kiara shouldn’t be okay with having her nationality questioned. Her point, which she made by speaking over Kiara, was that it shouldn’t be a minority’s responsibility to accommodate white privilege.

Interrupting someone mid-conversation is just plain rude, but there was another layer to this. Not only was Kiara being interrupted, but she was being told by someone else what her personal response and experience should be. Wasn’t this white privilege in action?

How often have I, as a well-meaning white woman championing equal rights, spoken on behalf of someone else when I know very little about their lived experience?

I am used to seeing men interrupt women, speak over women, dismiss women and speak on their behalf. These are the reasons many of us speak out about women’s rights and equality in a modern setting. I hadn’t realised was that there was a deeper level to this power inequality that directly affects women who are not white.

Acclaimed author and Wiradjuri woman Dr Anita Heiss captured it perfectly when she tweeted: “White people telling us what’s not racist is like men telling women what’s not sexist.”

I’ve noticed a tendency within the women’s movement to speak on behalf of other women. Yes, there are particular issues that affect us all, but as white Australians we don’t understand the half of what it means to be a person of colour in Australia and that needs to be acknowledged in the dialogue.

Dr. Robin Di Angelo is an American professor who speaks and writes about racism and white privilege. She says, ‘in the line of work that I do, it’s a breakthrough to get white people to acknowledge that our race privileges us in this society’. She says that by pigeon-holing racists as bad people we also validate the concept that if you aren’t racist you are a good person. She describes this as the Good/Bad Binary and we see it in the media all the time.

If you are racist you are; ignorant, prejudiced, bigoted and mean spirited.

If you aren’t racist you are; educated, progressive, open minded and well intentioned.

Di Angelo says, ‘this is the construct that keeps racism today in place and makes it almost impossible to talk to white people about racism. The defensiveness we have comes from this binary, what we hear [when someone calls us racist] is “you just said I was a bad person”. This binary sets it up to be mutually exclusive, you cannot be a good person and be complicit with racism.’

This is where white privilege becomes difficult to talk about as a white person. Having grown up in a society that accepts me and my relationship with race, I am not always aware when I am being insensitive or when my ‘well-meaning’ intentions are actually a form of prejudice. I am not alone.

In the quest to push for change and shared respect in the women’s movement we need to be aware of ‘white-washing’ what it means to be a woman in today’s Australia. An Australia that is still hostile to non-white and non-Christian migrants, still refers to refugees as ‘illegal immigrants’ and generally dismisses the rights and concerns of indigenous Australians.

As a white person growing up in a society where ‘white is regular’ and any other race is ‘other’ we need to be aware that we navigate the world from a privileged perspective.

This doesn’t mean that white Australian’s are all healthier or being paid more, but it does mean that as women we are not penalised because of our race and our gender.

In the last two years the discourse about domestic violence has bought much needed focus and funding to the issue and yet Indigenous women are still facing additional barriers to reporting incidents to police. Indigenous women are 34 times more likely to be hospitalised as a result of domestic violence than their non-Indigenous counterparts.

We live in a country where skin coloured underwear and foundation are primarily beige, yet according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics over 20% of our population identify as non Caucasian. Interestingly, the 2017 census has identified the average Australian as a 38-year-old white woman.

Recently, I attended a dinner party where I was in the minority. It made me acutely aware of how infrequently this has happened to me in Australia, even in my social circle. In this setting my understanding and experience of Australian life was vastly different to the women around me. Things I considered universal such as; navigating our medical system, applying for jobs or finding appropriate contraceptive methods.

In the past I have passionately discussed my opinions on women’s health care in remote Indigenous communities and yet, I’m the first to admit I haven’t actually spoken to these women, or spent time in communities living alongside them. That is white privilege. Feeling comfortable to share my opinion, however well meaning it might be, and thinking it is just as valid as the experiences of the people I am talking about.

I’m just beginning to understand what this privilege is and how it has shaped not just my reality but the daily lives of the women I thought, until recently, shared my experience as a woman in Australia.

It’s time we started learning about white privilege.

Instead of speaking on behalf of other women, we can advocate for more voices to join the conversation. We can widen our reading to include more people of colour so we can broaden our understanding of what it means to be a woman in Australia today.

We can make a conscious decision to not speak for or interrupt people (whose experiences we know nothing about) and we can remember that as Di Angelo says; ‘today I understand that I move through the world always, and most particularly as a white person with a white frame of reference.’

If you’d like to learn more, you can watch Dr. Di Angelo’s video about Deconstructing White Privilege.

*Names have been changed.