It was supposed to be an icebreaker activity in the outer suburbs of Melbourne conducted by my colleague, Amina*. At the last minute, Amina’s manager – let’s call her, Karen from Kew, decided to observe and participate in this ‘grassroots’ East African women’s empowerment session. Known as the ‘Privilege Challenge’ this exercise typically highlights the privilege differential between the haves and have nots with the end result creating a metaphor for life that is both confronting and instructive for participants about who gets ahead in life and why.
For this version of the challenge, however, Amina flipped the script. She proceeded to ask all the women to line up at one end of the room then step forward in response to every question applicable to them. The first questions asked if they no longer lived in their country of birth. The next questions, were: was there a war in your homeland; were you forced to escape; did you flee to a new country with no family to meet you; did you lose family members on the way; did you struggle to raise children in a new land; did you play the role of mother and father with your children; did you struggle to learn English; as a sole parent did you manage to get your kids to school; to university; into a job?
By the end of this exercise every single woman had stepped from the back of the room to the front. All except Karen, who was still very much at the starting line. Amina focused on these frontline women and told them, "Never think your struggles have amounted to nothing or that your efforts are invisible. Look how far you have come and what you have achieved!” Every woman was grinning widely, some in tears appreciating the gravity of their accomplishments. They had never had cause to regard these milestones as celebratory in a prevailing political climate that viewed their refugee narratives as burdensome.
In that joyous moment of self realisation, Karen announced “Well, I don’t think that was a very useful exercise. I felt left out and thought it was rather unfair because the questions didn’t apply to me”.
Then it happened. In that joyous moment of self realisation, Karen announced: “Well, I don’t think that was a very useful exercise. I felt left out and thought it was rather unfair because the questions didn’t apply to me”. And just like that, Karen managed to deflate in seconds the selfless years of emotional labour these women had endured for a brief moment of camaraderie. And why? Because Karen couldn’t get that her experience of privilege was not being centred; it wasn’t about her.
Karen’s comments reflect the lived reality of microaggressions buried in entitlement of those who feel certain their knowledge and experience is paramount. Increasingly, as women of colour, we see these microaggressions expressed as performative ally-ship from moderates who are happy for your success as long as it is not at the expense of them or their colleagues losing a platform: "You’d be great on this project. We need some colour!’ or, “Could you ask your people to attend? They just don’t turn up when we invite them” or “You’re such a great spokesperson for your community - are you on Community Radio?”.
The incessant location of the culturally diverse other outside the realm of the mainstream as a permanent extra, adjunct and afterthought because they don’t look or sound like the establishment, reeks of endemic privilege.
The incessant location of the culturally diverse other outside the realm of the mainstream as a permanent extra, adjunct and afterthought because they don’t look or sound like the establishment, reeks of endemic privilege. There are too many stories to tell from interactions I have had that remind me of the bias permeating people's thinking whenever I say something that deviates from the script they have assigned me.
In a recent television interview on the civil unrest in the US, I watched an Australian WOC journalist attempt to explain structural racism to an all-white panel of commentators who refused to concede it existed. When I remarked at the futility of a conversation on that particular channel resembling a tabloid forum, one of the panellists, let’s call her Karen, made it all about her. She sent me a scathing text message accusing me of "not a shred of integrity" and of never raising this issue (of racism) in my professional work – when in fact that is PRECISLEY WHAT I DO FOR A LIVING. The inability for Karen to see her role in keeping silent on the perils of racial discrimination in media by targeting me with a vindictive message was proof positive that I had not stayed in my nice-brown-girl lane.
We are seeing a surge in institutions being held to account for their representational ineptitude in the diversity stakes.
We are seeing a surge in institutions being held to account for their representational ineptitude in the diversity stakes. Across the board, Karens’ at the helm need to stop making it about them. Being racially womansplained to is but one example of the many microaggressions WOC endure daily. Also known as polite racism, such commentary demands scrutiny and calling out for the entitlement it is. Having to defend the ‘OC’ in ‘WOC’ to feminists who feel my specificity is disruptive to their cause is a direct fail right there; intersectional feminism isn’t feminism at all if it doesn’t centre minority voices.
*names and locations have been changed
Tasneem Chopra is an author, consultant and activist. You can find out more about her work here. You can follow her on Twitter @Taschop