Why Australia's Women of Colour need to be at the forefront of International Women's Day

OPINION: As Australia marks International Women’s Day, one writer explores why Women of Colour and the topic of race can’t be left out of conversations about women’s rights.

We Are The Mainstream

Attendees at a 'We Are The Mainstream' event in Sydney. Source: Puha & Porkbones Radio Show

I am a Woman of Colour. That term can look odd. 

What does ‘of colour’ mean anyway? And considering it exists in contradistinction to white women, one has to ask: isn’t white a colour?  

I moved to Australia in my 20s, but I am a brown, Indian woman from Southeast Asia. Why does that matter?  

It matters because of how much of an outsider I feel among women in Australia due to a simple, glaring factor: my race. When I appear on panels to talk about women’s issues, I find myself looking at a sea of white women, both on the stage and in the audience. 

The things we talk about - such as the gender pay gap or women’s representation - are usually couched entirely in terms of what white women are missing out on in comparison to men, despite the fact women from migrant backgrounds are more than 11 per cent less likely to be employed than white women in Australia. 

International Women’s Day will be marked in Australia on Sunday, and while events such as Sydney’s All About Women feature a diverse line-up of speakers including several Women of Colour, previous local events have included barely any or none at all. 

A white woman I once met at one of these events told me racism does not exist anymore in Australia because Waleed Aly and Miranda Tapsell are so famous. She followed that up by saying that sexism is the only real problem we have left.  

Experiences like that make me question whether Women of Colour have stories or concerns that never get heard in the mainstream. It makes me wonder why womanhood feels as though it is defined as white. Aren’t our issues also women’s issues? 

It also makes me admit that it is women themselves who are leaving us out of the conversation. And it is happening around the world. 

Only last month, Indian-American writer Saira Rao talked about how she had once been approached by a group of white women to create a feminist website that allowed women to opt-out of issues that don’t matter to them. When asked for an example of what those issues might be, the answer was “Black Lives Matter”. 

It is disheartening to see that some white women do not consider our issues to be theirs and it is painful to realise that some consider the only valid women’s concerns to be matters that impact them alone.  

There has been some progress. In the US, writer Rao hosts dinners for white women looking to have a frank discussion about racism. And in Australia, Sisters Inside advocates for the rights of incarcerated Indigenous women who are disproportionately imprisoned compared to the much larger population of white women. In Melbourne, Loving Feminist Literature is a collective that comes together to read feminist texts by Women of Colour. 

But I have had white women call me the N-word and send me long abusive messages for speaking out about racism or writing commentary about how white I believe mainstream feminism to be.  

Writer and racial equity consultant Sangeetha Thanapal.
Source: Supplied

Nilmini Fernando is an academic and the founder of Loving Feminist Literature. “Black, Indigenous and other Women of Colour are often used to ornamentalise white feminism,” she says in relation to the history of representation in women’s movements in Australia.

“Women of Colour are represented as add-ons and stir-ins to white feminism and while this seems to be an attempt at diversity, it actually ‘others’ us further.”  

Last week, an event exclusively for Black, Indigenous, Women of Colour was held in Bankstown, Sydney. 'We Are The Mainstream' hopes to celebrate and elevate minority voices and the event explored what it means to be a Woman of Colour across different industries in Australia. 

I took part in a panel discussion alongside NITV’s science and technology journalist Rae Johnston, who shared her struggles and achievements in the STEM field as a Wiradjuri woman and single mother. 

Both the speakers and audience members were people who have experienced racism and sexism together and it was the first time I had left a women’s event feeling like I had been seen and heard by people who truly understood me.  

Creating Women of Colour-only spaces might seem counter-productive, or even divisive, to some, but while we seek unity, Women of Colour need to be able to talk about the racism they experience and they need safe spaces to do so without the fear of hurting the feelings of others.  

WATM organiser Priyanka Bromhead was, like me, propelled into action after a series of events at which she was the only Woman of Colour in the room. Her wish is simple: “If we stand in solidarity together we can recover, reimagine, reclaim, rewrite and then reactivate to better fulfil our purposes as individuals and communities, outside of the white-centred narrative”. 

International Women’s Day is a reminder that Women of Colour are not a periphery in the world we live in. My racial and gender identity can not be separated. I am not a woman and a person of Indian descent; I am an Indian woman. 

Women of Colour have fundamentally altered what it means to be a feminist in recent years. We have taken an intersectional lens on women’s rights movements, adding race, disability and class as central to the discussion. 

Only when women’s liberation is accessible for everyone can we say that we have come far in gender equality. 

Sangeetha Thanapal is a freelance writer and racial equity consultant based in Melbourne. She is working on her first book about the intersections of race and other identities.

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Published 8 March 2020 at 6:46am
By Sangeetha Thanapal