What I Missed on Gendered Violence: More on Border Politics, Race and Feminism

by calendulate

[This article is a long way of saying that my previous piece on race and gendered violence had missed some important issues and that Celeste Liddle’s recent article does a much better job of discussing those intersections. If you only have time to read the one thing, it would probably be smart to make it hers.]

Gendered and domestic violence has been in the news a lot lately. Activist group GetUp has released a statement celebrating their victory in a campaign to have pop singer Chris Brown denied a visa to Australia on the basis of his history of intimate partner violence. Newly appointed Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has announced a $100 million package targeting domestic violence, commenting that “real men don’t hit women” (you can read Shakira Hussein’s critique of this posturing here). Yet more horrifying news has emerged about rapes on Nauru. Barnaby Joyce ventured his own marvellous notions on how to solve violence against women on Q&A. Online campaign group Destroy the Joint (with others) have announced their own ‘deny a visa’ campaign – this time against hardline anti-abortion campaigner Troy Newman. A man punched a woman in the crowd at an AFL match in Fremantle to a racist internet response. And on the other side of the country, a brave young woman wept as she recalled her own story of experiencing abuse in her home to a Palm Island court.

… And Miranda Devine wrote an opinion piece. After my own blog post was published – critiquing the racism and tactical failure of GetUp’s campaign – a few people commented that the piece paid inadequate attention to the intersection of race and gender (these three tweets were helpful to me) in relation to gendered and domestic violence. Other pieces were published that did not rectify my mistake: despite the fact that one even contained the heading “Intersections of Race and Gender” it did not, in fact, contain any analysis that could have been termed intersectional. This was a significant failure on all of our parts, in particular because one of the most seminal feminist texts to introduce intersectionality as a notion – Kimberlé Crenshaw’s 1991 Stanford Law Review articleMapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color’ – explicitly deals with the issue of violence against women as it relates to intersectionality. So it sat uncomfortably with me. But it wasn’t until Devine’s truly exemplary racism that I felt that I had to write about this issue again.

Writing about GetUp’s Chris Brown campaign – and about earlier, similar campaigns by purportedly feminist group Collective Shout against boxer Floyd Mayweather and rapper Tyler, the Creator – I missed a very important point. I wrote:

Let there be no mistake about it: these are racist campaigns. The discourse of the gentle white Australia as needing ‘protection’ from these men is racist; the fact that it is only black men who work in industries coded as ‘thuggish’ who attract this kind of attention is racist; and the reification of the border as the mechanism by which we might ‘send a message’ against misogyny is racist.

All of these things are true. But what I didn’t say, and what I really should have said, is that these campaigns are also racist because they posit a feminism that is exclusionary of and actively harmful to women of colour. The racist construction of men of colour as especially violent makes the women who partner them frightened of using police to protect themselves in incidences of violence for fear of police brutality. The reification of the border likewise puts undocumented women or women in relationships with undocumented partners in a terrible position with regards to access to services to escape or protect themselves from violence. A ‘law and order’ type approach to domestic and gendered violence always disproportionately impacts on communities of colour: leaving women of colour to cope without financial and other parenting support. This story that has just emerged from Palm Island – in which a young woman was told to expect no support from police if she experienced violence from her partner, in retaliation for her perceived support for protests against the death in custody of a man from her community – is a particularly chilling example of how racism directly impacts on the experience of family violence for Aboriginal women.

What is also important to point out – which is what Devine’s piece illustrates so extraordinarily well – is that the racism (and incidentally, the classism, which I have made no moves to adequately address here) of these ways of constructing violence against women always ends up rebounding on the affected women themselves. Devine’s piece, for example, begins by diagnosing ‘poverty’ – that ‘desperate chaos of the underclass’ – as the ‘cause’ of domestic violence (no, she is not troubled by the plethora of evidence to the contrary); limiting its impact to ‘dysfunctional remote indigenous communities and public housing estates’. Having begun by maligning the poor men and men of colour whom she has characterised as uniquely abusive among men, however, she immediately turns her vitriol to the women who partner (and reproduce with) them: the ‘unsuitable women’ now of Twitter fame. The implication is clear. Men who abuse are ‘feckless’: irresponsible, flighty. The women who experience their abuse are unsuitable – a much more profound and vicious condemnation.

Writing in Daily Life, commentator Celeste Liddle (of Black Feminist Ranter renown – I’ve written about my admiration for her work on this blog before) addresses Devine’s sanguine cretinism with thoughtful and well-researched clarity. Liddle achieves an infinitely more subtle account of the intersection of poverty, race and domestic violence: acknowledging the ways in which disadvantage can function as an exacerbating factor whilst also noting the coexistence of family violence and affluence. She writes:

Rates of violence may be higher in rural and impoverished areas but they clearly do not negate the fact that fourteen women per week are running for their lives in the midst of leafy privilege.

In this sense, using the high rates of domestic violence experienced by impoverished Aboriginal women as a way to dismiss the far-reaching nature of the crime is reprehensible. I additionally resent the insinuation that remote Aboriginal women, being more likely to be impoverished, are perhaps the most “unsuitable women” of all, particularly in light of how often bureaucracies have attempted to control the reproductive capacity of Aboriginal women over the years.

As Liddle points out, racist constructions of gendered violence lead directly to misogynist attacks on the reproductive rights of the women who, according to Devine, ‘keep having children to a string of feckless men’ and are thus characterised as promiscuous and reproductively irresponsible as well as responsible for their abuse. The racist and misogynist control of the reproductive capacity of Aboriginal women has a long and ugly history in Australian governmental history (and not only Australian: I found this book by Native American scholar Andrea Smith particularly useful in learning to understand the intersections of race and reproductive rights). Thus an unintersecional accounting of family violence against fits seamlessly into the racist discourses that facilitate state violence against women of colour. It’s also worth noticing that intimate or domestic forms of violence – in both this the other examples of reproductive violence I cited in my previous article, as well as the incident mentioned above in which activist Lex Wotton’s daughter was terrorised by armed police in a bedroom in her family home – does not have to come from within the family.

It’s for this reason that the existence of pro-border campaigns against international visits by white misogynists (Julien Blanc, Dan Bilzerian, Troy Newman) do not defend these campaigns from the critiques I outlined in my original article. ‘Feminist’ work that benefits only privileged white women (as I argued, only putatively in this case) is not just ‘not inclusive’. It is profoundly damaging. Feminist scholar bell hooks once wrote that she prefers to say that she ‘advocates feminism’ than to declare herself a feminist. If feminism is a quest for the liberation of women then one cannot advocate for it through channels that actively hurt women. As I write this news has just broken that Newman’s visa has been revoked, presumably under recourse to Section 116 (i) of the Migration Act that protects against risks to ‘the health, safety or good order of the Australian community or a segment of the Australian community’. Let us please not read a victory for women into anything that comes out of this sinister document, not least its positing of an ‘Australian community’ that is both constructed and delineated by violence.

With warm thanks to all those who helped me to see the limitations of my earlier article, not all of whom wish to be named.