White Feminists: What Are You Willing To Give Up?

Feature image by Simone Cheung. 

by Laura La Rosa

In 1989, the Hawke government handed down its National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia, calling on ‘all Australians’ to embrace diversity and a shared commitment to furthering ‘national interest’. At the time, I was four years old. Yet I recall a distinct language of ‘tolerance’ that infiltrated the decade that followed.

Australia’s version of multiculturalism enabled the government to espouse ideas of ‘good’ and ‘assimilating’ citizenship in efforts to homogenise and control. This is the same government that has both orchestrated and denied an ongoing cultural genocide inflicted on First Nations people.

In their 2020 text Governance and Multiculturalism: The White Elephant of Social Construction and Cultural Identities, Catherine Koerner and Soma Pillay address nation-building as a typically discursive process. In it, they write, ‘The white Australian discourses about identity and the nation continue to disavow Indigenous sovereignty and maintain white privilege.’

Certainly, the Australian government’s nationalist agenda — be it under the guise of ‘protection’ acts or multiculturalism — merely functions as part of the broader colonial project.

With that in mind, while conversations on a representational level have begun to shift for the better in recent times, the late twentieth-century intimation of ‘tolerance’ has arguably transpired into a contemporary and equally problematic language of ‘inclusiveness’.

It is undeniable that we are beginning to foster richer ways of respectfully engaging with the differing intersections of our lived experiences. White allies have made efforts to adopt intersectional practices derived from the theoretical framework coined by civil rights activist Kimberlé Crenshaw.

However, despite these improvements, campaigning for change reveals a burgeoning intertwining of social impact with corporate interest. With this, the same corporate sectors that have long operated as fundamentally patriarchal are now capitalising off movements which were once primarily grassroots and self-determining.

This is the same white supremacist system that thrives on labour exploitation, increased privatisation, and an ideological focus on the consuming self as a means of diverting the collective away from a public agenda. And corporate white feminism is not exempt from this — rather, it continues to benefit from its proximity to such.

Similarly, profiting off inequity through brands and business models centred on the consumer self flies in the face of proven and powerful collective movements which historically have sought to disrupt capitalism. This applies especially to self-proclaimed ‘faces of’ movements who leverage their platforms, cashing in on the violence inflicted on communities they claim to support, but of which they know little about.

We see this time and again: prominent white feminists who are unwilling to reflect on the harmful implications of the space(s) they occupy. Similarly, feminist commentators who — rather than develop their work and understanding of cultural texts with integrity and generosity — cultivate personal brands through the capitalisation of consumer culture, often combined with lazy and performative acts of solidarity.

Of course, I don’t speak for other communities, but I can promise you that these shiny, palatable approaches to social impact don’t even begin to reach the Blak women in my family — let alone those who have been erased and forgotten. How does a glossy magazine campaign that homogenises our political approaches speak to us and with us at a community level? And why is there still so much mediocre media about us being lapped up by the white gaze without deeper consideration?

Profiting off inequity through brands and business models centred on the consumer self flies in the face of a proven and powerful collective which seeks to disrupt capitalism.

It remains a paradox: the dominance of the neoliberal capitalist system we currently live under cannot co-exist with the effective disruption of it. Radical change and the successive foundations afforded to us by our unyielding predecessors did not come from an adherence to patriarchal capitalism, nor an apathetic acceptance of white nationalist institutionalism.

And so it goes without saying that I reject the commonly held belief that critics like myself ought to shy away from holding corporate-centric movements accountable. This includes the white feminists who operate in a patriarchal fashion within patriarchal spaces.

‘Stop tearing other women down’ is a favourite of mine — an epithet often lobbed at critics for expressing these views. But I am more interested in whether or not white feminists are willing to quietly serve Blak grassroots movements and initiatives without putting their names and faces to them. If white women are genuinely dedicated to dismantling patriarchal structures; if they’re inclined to ask men to ‘stop taking up space’, will they shuffle over too?

Are self-proclaimed allies willing to hand over their platforms to Blak grassroots voices? Are you willing to have your profit disrupted? Your social and cultural capital jeopardised? These are not new, nor particularly radical ideas; instead, they make up many possible paradigms of what practices of feminist solidarity might begin to look like.

Radical change and the successive foundations afforded to us by our unyielding predecessors did not come from an adherence to patriarchal capitalism, nor an apathetic national adherence to white institutionalism.

As Goenpul woman and academic Aileen Moreton-Robinson has suggested in her essay collection Talkin’ Up to the White Woman (2000), a critical interrogation of the white middle class feminist subject is sorely needed. In 2006, Moreton-Robinson published a follow-up text, Whiteness Matters: Implications of Talkin’ Up to the White Woman, which dissected the numerous responses from white critics who reviewed the preceding text

Here, Moreton-Robinson addresses the white defensiveness projected in these reviews, which ironically only served to reinforce the book’s premise. She writes, ‘Indigenous women writers are often positioned as writing aggressively when what we are saying is not palatable. We are often accused of bashing white women up in the text as though we are innately aggressive. […] Playing chicken at the intersection is always fraught with danger, particularly if your understanding of how power works is limited to subjective and individual choices about being ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Whiteness opens up and forecloses certain ways of reading the Indigenous Other because racial codes are always present in whatever we do and think.’

As an emerging Blak writer and critic, it pains me that these sentiments remain pervasive to date. What strikes me about the published response to Talkin’ Up to the White Woman is just how literally white critics engaged with her work at the time — albeit poorly in many instances. In contrast, the exhibitory nature of contemporary new media reveals similar patterns and biases from white feminists, albeit harboured more cautiously.

In 2018 I wrote about the problems that come with grassroots movements being appropriated by white corporate feminists. Not long after the article was published, I was deemed ‘angry’, accused of harnessing my energies in the wrong direction by some of Australia’s loudest feminist voices. It took two white journalists and the eventual unveiling of an explosive Buzzfeed report before the broader feminist community gave any real attention to the co-opting of #MeToo, a grassroots movement founded by civil rights activist Tarana Burke.

From the lens of the perpetually unchallenged white gaze, First Nations critics remain situated as the ‘Other’. This is in spite of our sovereignty, which cannot be slotted into a white agenda. Your afterthought is our resistance. Your perceptions and imposed essentialism is our existence. Amongst us, there are diverse and complex ways of being that cannot be contextualised through whiteness.

If white women are genuinely dedicated to dismantling patriarchal structures; if they’re inclined to ask men to ‘stop taking up space’, will they shuffle over too?

We owe a great deal to those who struggled before us. The ones who wrote the texts and sang the chants. Who tore at and reimagined the system — who put their bodies and livelihoods on the line for decades.

In today’s political and social climate, many of us are increasingly operating in environments where the boundaries between advocacy, existence and community work are ambiguous. Cultural and self-preservation is as vital now than ever before.

And so the question is not so much how we guard the intersections of our beliefs. It is a matter of asking the white feminists willing to self-interrogate and stand with us: what are you willing to give up?

Laura La Rosa is a proud Darug woman, published writer, emerging critic and graphic designer. She has been heavily involved in a number of grassroots activist initiatives, including the original Sydney Women’s March, the AACTAs ‘Sausage Party protest’, and numerous ongoing projects that seek to deconstruct issues spanning white feminism.

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