• "This whiteout of an Aboriginal word is so symbolic of white feminism on black country...it hurts." (Twitter/@1KarenWyld)Source: Twitter/@1KarenWyld
OPINION: Writer, Karen Wyld explores exclusionary publishing and black reactions.
Karen Wyld

6 Jun 2018 - 3:18 PM  UPDATED 6 Jun 2018 - 4:29 PM

Meanjin’s winter edition cover stirred up a different type of conversation than what the editor had hoped for. Meanjin literary journal has known the origins of the Aboriginal word they use for their title since 1940, so a cover design which scribbles it out to make way for contemporary pop culture was rather thoughtless.

'Meanjin' is the Turrbal name for the section of Turrbal Country that Brisbane was built on. Whilst protocol dictates any comment on the use of Turrbal language be provided by Turrbal peoples themselves, the unintended symbology of this cover had a wide impact.

Responses to the cover included conversations around the cultural incompetence of the design, but mostly focused on the erasure of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, the co-opting of the black grassroots #MeToo movement, and ongoing frustrations with exclusionary feminism.

There have been misrepresentations of the incident, such as the Daily Telegraph’s mockery, calling the debate the ‘the Great Australian Woke War’, but in reality there was no ‘panic erupting’.

Instead, I observed educative, seasoned responses from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people because —after all— this type of incident is all too common in Australia. We aren’t poised, ready to strike at the next incident of racism or cultural insensitivity in mainstream media or on social media. Some incidents sometimes need discussing to generate change.

And these types of conversations occur beyond social media. Zachary Penrith-Puchalski, whose work features in Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, discussed the cover with his mother, Karen Penrith. Her response was, “My disinterest is because of the frequency of this kinda shit. Not because I don’t care.” This is sentiment is echoed by many. 

“My disinterest is because of the frequency of this kinda shit. Not because I don’t care.”

Meanjin’s cover featured a dramatic alteration of an Aboriginal word, in an edition that highlighted the #MeToo movement and gave space to non-Indigenous women’s voices. Not only is this culturally insensitive but the exclusionary message this cover portrayed should have been identified well before publication.

Amy McQuire, PhD candidate and reporter, was the first to comment,

Given the destruction of land, cultures and language is fundamentally tied to violence against Aboriginal women….it feels weird to see Meanjin crossed out in the way.

Amy’s thesis is on media representation of violence against Aboriginal women, and has previously written about racism within mainstream feminism. So this type of incident is anything but unfamiliar to her.

In fairness, Jonathon Green, editor of Meanjin and the person responsible for the cover, responded swiftly and respectfully to Amy’s comment saying, “there’s a carelessness there that I didn’t intend.” He later published a full response to Amy’s reaction.    

However, this is not the first time that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have spoken up about their struggles to own space within the #MeToo movement. This push back is not new. Marginalised women have been criticising the lack of intersectionality within feminist movements for a long time.

#MeToo was created long before pink pussy hats or TIME magazine’s ‘The Silence Breakers’ cover. In 2006 Tarana Burke, an African American civil rights activist, developed the campaign as a grassroots movement to aid sexual assault survivors in underprivileged communities.

In black communities in the US, for every African American woman who reports sexual violence, at least 15 do not report theirs. Racism in the criminal justice system and in society at large is at the heart of Burke’s #MeToo movement, as it recognises the barriers and challenges women of colour face in the scope of sexual violence. It should also be recognised that Native American women are twice as likely to experience rape and sexual assault compared to any other race in the US.

In Australia, Indigenous women are three times more likely to experience an incident of sexual violence compared to non-Indigenous women.  

The co-opt of this movement by white women is just one example of how black women’s voices are silenced in the name of feminism.

Marlene Longbottom, a PhD candidate working on a thesis that brings together themes of Aboriginal women, violence and trauma, intersectionality and critical race theory, said that as a historically oppressed group, Aboriginal women have been further marginalised by the Meanjin debacle.

"Feminists question why it is that we don’t buy into their movements or align ourselves with such movements, and it is because of issues like this where we are erased, and the white women speak without even thinking about the ramifications that could possibly come of it."

Marlene also said that Aboriginal women 'have no time to be comforting the white feelings and tears’. The concept of white women centring themselves when criticised for exclusionary or racist behaviour is not new. Chelsea Bond and Ruby Hamad have both recently written pieces on this.

It is not a left:right battle when Aboriginal and women of colour speak out on their issues. Instead, it’s a reminder that all social movements, including feminism, need to be inclusive and just.

Responding to white privilege often wastes time and energy best placed elsewhere. Such as supporting grassroots solutions and Indigenous-controlled programs to address family violence or inequities in health, justice, education, housing, and rights.

So far media reporting on the Meanjin cover have been written by non-Indigenous people, and mostly by women. Our issues are yet again being led by non-Indigenous women.

This does not mean that productive conversations shouldn’t continue, but who is leading the conversations is important. So far media reporting on the Meanjin cover have been written by non-Indigenous people, and mostly by women. Our issues are yet again being led by non-Indigenous women. Even when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women ask not to be silenced, the reactive articles continue the silencing. What part of ‘hand over the microphone/pen’ do so many women struggle to understand?

And by not giving adequate spaces for our voices, there is potential for us to be misrepresented. My original tweet in response to the cover was probably misunderstood.

I am a writer, so I use words to evoke a deeper response, and to make a point. ‘Hurt’ was carefully chosen to do just that. This word does not refer to my feelings, but to broader issues in the cover’s symbology. Such as the impact of settler-colonisation on First Peoples, exclusionary practices within feminism, cultural appropriation, whiteness and cultural bias.

Despite posting that tweet, I did not intend to get swept up in this conversation. Feminism is not an area that I feel qualified to speak of. As a published writer and ex-bookshop owner, I am more comfortable talking about the lack of diversity within Australian media, literary and publishing sectors. Or to offer suggestions to break down the systemic barriers that some writers experience.

There are signs of change, as writers’ centres, magazines, publishers and funding bodies are working together to ensure a wider diversity of voices are published. And organisations such as First Nations Australia Writers Network are supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers and promoting their works.

Meanjin is also providing spaces for diverse voices, including publishing works by First Nations writers. Along with their quick response to the cover incident, I’d like to believe they have taken on board the comments they received from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Everyone deserves a chance to grow from their mistakes, and to implement change.

Giving more opportunities for Indigenous people to be heard is a positive step forward. This year’s NAIDOC theme is Because of Her, We Can. I challenge every Australian literary magazine and news outlet to centre the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women during NAIDOC Week.

And I challenge feminist movements to make real spaces for Indigenous women, and organisations to fund initiatives designed and led by Indigenous women. And remember, we don’t need saviours: just listen, amplify and make space.

And don’t stop when that week is over. Let’s all continue to create and maintain inclusive spaces.


Karen Wyld is a freelance writer, author and consultant of Martu ancestry. Follow Karen @1KarenWyld

NAIDOC Week runs 8 - 15 July.