If you are a woman of colour in Australia, you can often find yourself stuck in the the Bermuda Triangle of Derailed Conversations.
Let me explain.
I am at a panel talk or having a discussion with a colleague, or online. I talk about the challenges of being a Muslim woman as a second generation migrant in Australia.
I am told by white male (or female) colleague or co-panelist or online commentator, “What about Saudi Arabia. Aren’t you lucky you don’t live in Saudi Arabia. Look at how they live? And instead of complaining about x,y,z in Australia, what are you doing about Saudi women?”
What about. What about. It's so common as to be almost routine for me.
It's the same tactic, probably unconsciously, used by Kerri-Anne Kennerley in her stoush with Yumi Stynes on Studio Ten earlier this week.
But don’t be fooled by whataboutery.
These very same people mansplaining and sidelining my experience in the guise of care for women don’t seem to see the irony of talking over me, or throwing in red herrings to derail the conversation.
That’s what whataboutery is – an attempt to humiliate, diminish, silence and deflect.
It’s as if two issues can’t exist at the same time. As if talking about an issue, precludes taking action on it and as if taking action is not a collective responsibility.
It’s a diversionary tactic that Tara Moss dubbed the ‘faux concern troll’ in her book Speaking Out. The person essentially shuts down the conversation by pointing to another situation elsewhere, a tactic that can occur in all fields and settings.
"Perhaps you should spend less time on X and more time on Y' should set off an alert that Diversion 1, AKA the Faux Concern Troll, may have been triggered,'' Moss writes.
She gives her own example of 'Maybe you should spend less time worrying about refugees and more time worrying about poor people born in your own country.'
The question should not be whether or not Kennerley's comments were racist.
The important thing is to not get caught up in the smoke and mirror rabbit hole of whataboutery, but to see it for what it is. This derailing distraction trick is what Toni Morrison has talked about in her famous quote: “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being."
Instead of tying ourselves in knots trying to painstakingly engage the whataboutery, the best way to deal with it is to call out the deflection for what it is, to interrogate it and put it back on the deflector.
The purpose of this deflection often does not stem from any concern for women. Weaponising the struggles of minority women and using this as racialised ammunition to dehumanise them in the guise of 'care' - this is as old as colonialism itself.
Egyptian-American scholar Leila Ahmed in her book Women and Gender in Islam notes how feminist language has often been used to justify imperial projects. The 19th century British colonial administrator in Egypt, Lord Cromer often used feminist language as a thin veneer to justify English dominance, lamenting the treatment of local women as justification for forcibly reforming ‘culturally inferior’ Egyptians through benevolent English intervention.
“Feminism on the home front and feminism against white men was to be resisted and suppressed, but taken abroad and directed against the cultures of colonised peoples, it could be promoted in ways that admirably served and furthered the project of the dominance of the white man,” Professor Ahmed writes.
”Colonial patriarchs…assumed their right to denounce native ways…in the name of whatever cause they claimed to be serving – civilising the society, of Christianising it or saving women from the odious culture and religion in which they had the misfortune to find themselves in."
“Whether in the hands of patriarchal men or feminists, the ideas of western feminism essentially functioned to morally justify the attack on native societies and to support the notion of the comprehensive superiority of Europe.”
(Perversely this has also morphed to be conversely used by Muslim male power brokers against Muslim women activists, who are derailed as being too western and ‘colonial’ for seeking greater autonomy and rights for women within their own communities.)
For my derailers, Saudi women were an object to be used, something to be treated as an exotic and dehumanised abstraction, to bolster their superiority and to further racialise women of colour globally as helpless victims in need of saving. But more importantly keep female activists in the west in their place.
One positive thing that resulted from this derailing though is actually connecting to Saudi women feminists, something the derailers despite their avid focus on 'action' and faux concern for women, don’t seem to ever like to do.
What I found was a thriving underground sisterhood from artists, poets and academics protesting the regime’s Handmaid’s Tale style guardianship system – and they are a far cry from the sad and faceless women projected in the western media.
It’s time to derail the derailers, sidestep and run around them, understanding their maneuvers as roadblocks that need to be driven around, but can never stop the march to progress.