People lined up to have a go at Opposition Leader Tony Abbott for his recent sexist "gaffe" - but where is the same criticism for his take on Indigenous policy, asks Elly Michelle Clough.
By
Elly Michelle Clough

16 Aug 2013 - 10:16 PM  UPDATED 26 Aug 2013 - 2:01 PM

Lately, there has been justified outrage at Opposition Leader Tony Abbott's description of the candidate for Lindsay, Fiona Scott, as having 'sex appeal'.

Moments after Mr Abbott uttered the comment he was laughing, but hours later he was retreating from his choice of words. It was a "daggy Dad moment", explained the alternative Prime Minister of Australia to the nation; the kind of cringeworthy, socially awkward and out-of-touch phrase a father might wheel out at an 18th birthday party. Of course, it's not: it's the kind of casual sexism that seems to roll effortlessly and unthinkingly off the tongues of some, and must be addressed. And it was, both in mainstream media and across social media.

What was largely missed, however, was Mr Abbott's description of Indigenous women when addressing the Garma Festival last weekend. Indigenous women were “cowering in their houses or their huts”, unempowered and fearful, and unable to participate in the decision-making processes that affected themselves, their families and communities. This foul potpourri of racism, paternalism and sexism has been completely ignored by the mainstream media, with the notable exception on Louise Taylor in The Guardian.

Mr Abbott was at the Garma Festival to announce his new Indigenous advisory body. During his speech he said, "Here in the Territory, we've had a lost generation ... kids didn't go to school, adults didn't go to work. The ordinary law of the land didn't apply. Women cowering in their houses, or in their huts, in fear of what some drunken relative might do."

This statement is redolent with paternal colonialism. It demeans Indigenous women and it demonises Indigenous men.

On Tuesday, Twitter lit-up with the #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen hashtag. Women of colour were calling out all the ways white, middle class feminism ignores and misunderstands the issues they face. Mikki Kendall, who kicked off the campaign, wrote about it for The Guardian and this Storify gives a good overview of what was being said. The women tweeting are passionate, frustrated, articulate - and right.

As a white, middle class feminist, it's an uncomfortable read. The unfortunate fact is that white feminists are so busy fighting the discrimination we face, we often forget to recognise our privilege. Mr Abbott's comments about Ms Scott are the kind of thing we deal with daily. We have a vocabulary for addressing this sort of sexual harassment. We don't have to examine intersectionality to contextualise the comments.

Addressing Mr Abbott's comments about Indigenous women is more complicated. We have to examine the intersection of racism, sexism, poverty and colonisation. There is the also the genuine danger of attempting to speak for indigenous women, rather than highlighting and condemning Mr Abbott's statements without disempowering Indigenous women, who are more than capable of speaking for themselves.

I believe white feminists need to step up. We need to educate ourselves about the multifaceted-beast that is privilege and learn how to discuss these issues sensitively and with clear-eyed analysis.

We need to shut up and listen when women of colour tell us that we are shutting them out or dismissing their experiences. But if we have a voice, we need to speak out and condemn Mr Abbott's comments as the bigotry they are.

Update: In this article I have not clearly articulated that Tony Abbott's comments were brought to my attention by Louise Taylor and other Indigenous women who have been tweeting about the comments all week. In failing to acknowledge this, I've made exactly the kind of mistake I wrote about white feminists making. I'm listening and learning, and I'm sorry.

Elly Michelle Clough is a publicist and writer.