Slow learning white girl

Australian Greens

Decolonisation is everyone’s work – especially those of us least affected by it. Former national co-convenor Rebecca Galdies examines what she can do to dismantle oppressive colonial structures and why it’s so important.

By Rebecca Galdies

I have been incredibly fortunate coming into this party in that I not only found my political home, but a group of people with whom I feel comfortable to be myself, largely without judgement. In fact, I could say I feel as though I found my people. I’m not suggesting the party is perfect or that the people representing us are without flaws. Indeed, I doubt I’d come close to fitting in if I felt that. But I can confidently say that I am proud to call myself a member and I happily recruit new members to the party when I get the chance.

If I were to describe myself to you honestly, I’d have to say that I have been moved by concepts of social justice since I can remember. I don’t say this as a mark of pride, but rather as the mark of someone that may now confess to being an incredibly slow learner.

It has taken me until now to realise that my application of social justice – and indeed the other pillars of the Greens – has largely focused through a lens of my own world view. Some might suggest that this is inevitable, but I would say it’s lazy of someone with my degree of privilege.

The politics of privilege

What is this lens I speak of? It is the lens of a privileged white woman from a multicultural background raised by two loving parents and two older siblings. I rebelled at the age of 16 from regular church-going (I suspect that happens earlier for most folks).

I have been brought up in a country where I am allowed (if not encouraged) to express myself politically and without fear of recourse, or indeed, of being vilified by my peers. I can kiss my partner in public without being shamed because I am a cis female and he is a cis male (actually they both are, but I won’t dwell on my decision to live in ethical non-monogamy; polyamory is not what this article is about). I can ride my bike to work and most of the time function and in fact probably thrive within the ‘system’.

But upon examination I have realised that what I have thought is the result of luck is also the result of a complicity in a system so insidious that it is invisible to many, if not most of us – myself included – at least to a degree. For a while now, I’ve been saying that I find it frustrating when people bemoan the political system but then don’t actively participate in it beyond voting (and in some cases, they don’t even do that). I find it particularly frustrating when people tell me it’s because they’re not interested in politics, they find it boring or they don’t think it has anything to do with them.

Over many years of being deeply involved in progressive politics, it has become increasingly apparent to me that this approach can only be sustained by people that live with a degree of privilege. For that reason, I am grateful that my parents struggled to make ends meet, and that their parents did before them. Because if we had been materially wealthy as well as being white, and in my generation’s case at least, English speaking, I might have been so sunk in privilege that I couldn’t tell my head from other parts of my anatomy.

‘Feminist’ was a title I shied away from in my university days, for similar reasons that the anti-feminist movement does today: because I thought the ‘fight’ was over. It didn’t occur to me that while I had a pretty good deal in terms of my freedom and privilege, there are literally millions of women living under pathologically patriarchal regimes around the world who don’t. When it finally did occur to me that therefore feminism was still relevant, I became somewhat evangelical in my approach. I saw that, in fact, as a white woman of privilege, a large part of the work ought still to be taken on by me. Perhaps not as big as the part of the work that is needed to be done by men, but again, that is not the point of this article.

Complicity and responsibility

So by now you might be wondering what is the point of this piece of writing? Recently, I have had a penny-dropping type of moment – one that helped me realise that the same arguments that are foundational in feminism – and the reasons people of all genders will be better off when we rid the world of toxic masculinity – also work when it comes to deconstructing systemic racism, that most white people see as ‘not my job’.

I know: that might raise the hackles on some members of this party who will possibly be thinking ‘I’m not that wealthy though, so surely that doesn’t include me’. Or, ‘I’ve always worked in the NGO sector or been philanthropic in my support for First Peoples in this country and given generously to Oxfam/UNICEF/insert other charity here, therefore that clearly doesn’t apply to me. Therefore, I’m not a racist’.

If this is your reaction, I’m not here to judge you. This has without a doubt been my response at different times in my life as well. Included in my justification for not recognising my own complicity has been the fact that I come from a multicultural family. Indeed, I have two Aboriginal aunties and many cousins, nieces and nephews scattered around the country, some of whom I’m better at keeping in touch with than others.

There’s no doubt in my mind that they’re as precious to me as any of my blood relatives, despite the lack of shared DNA. But that doesn’t excuse me from doing the work of decolonising my country. At the risk of repeating myself (as I no doubt will over the course of the next few articles), decolonisation is absolutely the work of every single person living in this country – but most especially, those of us that are least negatively affected by the structures.

Getting to work

Dismantling oppressive systems brought about by colonisation (ie. decolonisation) is not about taking away the rights of white people, or diminishing any person’s experience of life. Systemic oppression of the majority by the few is not set in stone, but if we don’t address it systemically it may just solidify. I am increasingly conscious that the most oppressive systems are those that impact most heavily on First Peoples, in this country and around the world. So what? What can I do about it? Why should I do anything about it? I’m a white woman from Adelaide – surely it’s not my responsibility?

Slowly – ever so damn slowly – I am finally coming to the realisation that there are very few places in this country, to which the traditional custodians are inherently connected, and to which the rest of us are relatively recently arrived lucky interlopers, that are culturally, in some cases physically safe to be. And yes, I mean be. Be themselves. Live their lives. Spend time with their friends and family.

The veil of ignorance is creeping at a snail’s pace past my eyes to reveal the sheer amount of emotional labour put on every Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander person that I have ever met, because they’re constantly asked to relive the trauma that they and their families have suffered. My own relatives are only known to me because of the Stolen Generations, which allowed my blood relatives the joy of inviting two beautiful young women to become part of our family, but at the expense of their siblings and parents for many years. This was not done with even a hint of malevolence on the part of my grandparents. But I cannot even imagine the impact of the generational trauma that is part of their DNA, and that I was spared because I was born to white immigrants in this country.

So I have spent a bit of time reading and thinking and talking with my colleagues, friends and family about these concepts and am realising that this is the work that not only do I need to be central in everything – yes, literally everything – that I do, but I want it to be to. Because if I leave behind my First Nations brothers and sisters, I am leaving behind a central part of my cultural DNA and a big part of my heart. I cannot be a part of a progressive movement that only pays homage to the traditional custodians of the land but does not work doggedly to dismantle oppressive colonial structures. So, who’s ready to get to work with me?

This is part one of a series of articles. Part two will be on demystifying decolonisation and will be co-authored by Becc’s colleague Adam Frogley. Article three will be Becc’s hot take on the role of the union movement in the work that needs to be done around decolonisation, and in the final piece Becc will attempt to draw everything she has talked about into what she thinks a Green New Deal could look like.

Rebecca Galdies is the former co-convenor of the Australian Greens.

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