#WOKEness as Life-Blood
Reflections on ‘Being’, ‘Living’ and ‘Doing’ Intersectionality
Recently I was fortunate to participate in the Prevalent and Preventable Conference in Tandanya (aka Adelaide), Australia.
Thank you to the Kaurna people for allowing me to be on your land, the place of the red kangaroo. From my ancestors, elders, and young ones…to yours, from my people to your people…blessings and gratitude. I am particularly grateful to Auntie Georgina Williams for the Welcome to Country, Auntie’s welcome allowed me to sit, stand and walk on that land and be present. It also allowed me to speak from the place of connection.
It was a gift to have been able to reflect, hear, speak and connect at this conference. My heart soared and broke and soared and broke. Sometimes this is the thing that happens when space is created for us to ‘show up’ as we are, in our truths. I can’t thank everyone who touched my heart over those days, but Antoinette Braybrook, you made me weep and I love you for speaking your truths. Dorinda Cox and Tracey Currie, my Black, feminist Sistahs, I heard you, and I am still hearing you (on repeat) in my heart and soul. Hajeh Maha Abdo, thank you for the quiet storm that you are. Loren Days, #NoWords, you are softly and wonderfully amazing. Huge thanks to all the women from Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health, you so rocked!
Ancestral blessings and soul gratitude to Leonie Pihama and Betty Sió for the korero before I got on the plane to Australia. The grounding was healing and necessary. I was reminded, once again, that connecting across time and space is essential to our collective liberation. While colonisation created borders, it also has had no limits, and proactive decolonisation work must move beyond the walls and boxes created by colonisation; walls which were designed to feed distrust between us and keep us small, parochial and afraid. As long as we think that the only struggle is this one over here with us — the change we need will not come. Connecting across time and space is not always easy, but it is necessary. Connecting does not weaken or dilute who we are, it strengthens and enriches us and it reinforces our place in this journey.
Big thanks to Julie Oberin and Lara Fergus for inviting me to join the conversation there in Australia. It was great to connect with ‘new’ women and [re]connect with others. It was great to be offered the opportunity to truly speak.
It was clear in so many ways, that although like any event, the conference had gaps, women had worked hard to make the event participatory and challenging. Thank you to those women for working hard to bring integrity and rhythm to a process that was harder — but clearly richer. It was great to note the points where power was disrupted e.g. in the intersectionality stream. Thank you to AWAVA and Our Watch — I know it was not easy work.
The conference was exhilarating and exhausting, and I am still processing, and that in itself has had me reflect. One of the things I keep thinking about is how we now try to ensure that workers who are offering direct support to women and children are able to access some form of clinical supervision, but I am so clear that we need to ensure that activists, advocates also have healing spaces. Speaking from our bellies takes something. It really does. As Black feminists living and breathing feminist decolonisation work which requires smashing ALL patriarchies (including the white supremacist ones that destroy our lands, steal our children and define us as savages) we are required to speak. Whether we speak softly or rip through the silences with our words, it takes something each time. Being ‘strong’ takes something. Being vulnerable takes something. #StayingWoke takes something. Every ounce of energy spent speaking truth to power, takes something. There were moments over those days that made me silent with wonder and love, and there were others where I trembled with hurt and rage. There were moments when I spoke, and although it was necessary, it took so much to speak.
I look around me. I know who my Sistahs are. They are working relentlessly, intersectionally, because they have to, we have to, and we are tired. Sometimes we actually don’t want to speak but the silence reverberating around the room reminds us that we have to speak, or the unspeakable will remain unsaid, YET AGAIN. I want those that are interested and willing to be allies, to challenge each other, to manage your defensiveness, to avoid sinking into helplessness and despair, because that very wringing of hands is only possible because you have the privilege of wringing your hands. My hands are too busy for such a luxury. I want those that want to be allies to fight for Black women’s work to be resourced appropriately, not as add-ons or crumbs, but partly as reparation, as payment of ancestral debt. Truly, even if we asked for only the interest on what is owed to us for the profit-making damage that has been done to us it would create a shift.
We do strength-based work, but the strength rests in our resilience, our survival and everything that we know ourselves to be vs. the ways we have been defined by others. Of course we don’t always get it right. Who does? Actually we shouldn’t even have to always get it right. Everyone else seems to have permission to absolutely mess it up, and still not be scrutinised, labelled and dismissed. We do not all get along, and why should we? Does every white feminist agree with each other? Erm…no! Does every other equality activist agree with each other? Erm….no! So some Black feminists disagree…well boohoo!!!!
I want those that want to be allies to do the work with each other so that I can use more of my labour working with my people, instead of always having to fight for our autonomy, for our right to have self-determination, for our right to speak out truths, for our right to heal, for our right to name our wounds and choose our medicines, for our right to sit and walk with each other in our ancestral and chosen spaces, and even for our very right to exist. I sometimes feels like I have spent too much emotional and psychic labour toiling in fields of whiteness, with very little evidence to show that anything has changed. It is often overwhelming and exhausting. I want to stop doing this, but how can I when the people that should be doing the work with themselves refuse to do the work? I want to spend my energy working with ‘US’, but how do we do that when we are fighting for resources and always from a place of resource deficit?
I work at Imkaan, an organisation of diverse Black women. It is wonderful to work there. Where else would I be? BUT it is also difficult work. Our messages cannot be delivered in shorthand and in soundbites. We cannot ignore the nuance. We cannot simply speak about being women without speaking from the place of our diverse experiences of our Blackness. We cannot speak about domestic violence without speaking about sexual violence. We cannot speak about criminal justice pathways and ignore criminal justice failings. We cannot speak about today or tomorrow without [re]calling yesterday. We cannot ignore the [ongoing] violence of colonisation. We cannot, in a feminist conversation, speak about our liberation in ways that assume that gender equality comes in a single shade. We cannot always move quickly because there are too few of us are doing too much. We are not always included, because we do not fit, and the speaking of our truths makes other uncomfortable. We have very few allies because not that many people care to do the work that is needed to be our allies — work which requires actually sharing power and being willing to give stuff up. We work intersectionally, but not because we feel like it. Not every woman of colour will choose to work and live this way, but for many of us, including the women at Imkaan, there is simply no other way we can work or be. This work is not fixed. When we think we have gained ground, new or reconfigured challenges emerge. This work is ever growing, pushing and evolving, but the core of who so many of us are demands that we live and breathe this struggle because we know our lives depend on it.
People often ask me about being allies…these are usually ‘good’ white women, who want to ‘do the right thing’. These are even women that I love and care about. What is interesting for me though is that many of those women only want to be allies if it doesn’t really involve giving anything up in terms of power, resources, status etc. I understand this. I understand that when it feels like you have very little, it becomes harder to share…but that’s part of being an ally…being willing to disrupt your own place of power and privilege even when you are not feeling hugely powerful. The thing is, I was raised in the mountains, where no one was allowed to go hungry…where people shared even when they had very little…because everyone should be able to eat. In so many places I have visited, Black/Indigenous led community organisations use a version of this very same philosophy. It means we often have no reserves, or surpluses. It means we sometimes don’t appear to be ‘business’ minded enough. It means we risk our own survival in the interest of the collective. But for many of us, it is impossible to stand to one side and watch others go without…and that is therefore part of our ‘business’. People that give only when it costs them nothing to give have not unsettled their own privilege, they have simply passed on their surpluses whether that’s a seat at the table, or a bit of extra money, or a space in a building etc…which is, of course, sometimes gratefully received when you have little or nothing. BUT those that give, share, move over when it costs something to self, when it involves losing something, giving something up etc. when it means feeling less powerful, or less secure, those are the ones, in my mind, that are really interested in being allies.