The Museum of Freedom and Tolerance aims to publish occasional thought pieces to stimulate important conversations on human rights, race, inclusion, belonging and diversity by change-makers and commentators working in the field around Australia. This first thought piece is contributed by our CEO, Shaheen Hughes. 

Shaheen Hughes is the CEO of the Museum of Freedom and Tolerance,  and a passionate advocate of diversity, inclusion and social justice.

Shaheen was born in Bombay and raised in multiple countries and on a ship in the Indian Ocean. She studied English Literature and Art History at the University of Leeds and has a Master of Arts in International Communications. Shaheen also founded Spice Mama, a multi-dimensional culinary storytelling project.

The views expressed in this thought piece are personal, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Museum of Freedom and Tolerance. 

 

The atmosphere in the room is electric with anticipation, fuelled by two days of hungry conversation between progressives across the environmental and social justice sectors.  I am at Progress 2019, a large gathering of more than a thousand campaigners, advocates and change-makers coming together in the aftermath of the Australian federal election to contemplate what went wrong and find collective strength and solace in each other.

We have all been through some powerful sessions together by this stage, inspired by speakers like the incredible Yassmin Abdel Magied, writer and commentator Bruce Pascoe and Amnesty’s Secretary General Kumi Naidoo, who speaks to the need for new and more narratives that enable us to reach beyond the converted, break up our silos and be cross-cutting and interdisciplinary in our quests for change.

We are all together on a journey, and we can feel real change coming.  By mid afternoon, we are all scrambling to get a seat in what’s shaping up to be one of the key sessions of the day.  It’s called Dismantling Progressive White Supremacy, and it’s what we all very much want to do.

Despite the venue being changed at the last minute to accommodate the anticipated surge towards this session, too many people are here.  There are not enough seats.  The presenters ask, in the spirit of the many conversations that have happened throughout the day, for white people to step aside and create space for more ‘blackfellas and people of colour’ to participate.

The sudden, momentary awkwardness that transpires is quickly managed by many, too many very accommodating white people leaving the room.  Now, there are empty chairs.  Blackfellas and people of colour call for some of the white people to come back. It’s OK; there are seats for you! We’re in this together! Hands genuinely reach for each other. The awkwardness is managed, but it has spoken volumes.

We may be all together on this journey, but we have not arrived.  And whose journey is this anyway?  Who gets to sit down and stay for the ride?

I am personally delighted to be attending a conference session progressive enough to be called Dismantling Progressive White Supremacy. As a woman of colour, I am looking forward immensely to a panel populated by five beautiful and incredibly talented women of colour: Yassmin Abdel Magied, Nayuka Gorrie, Tarneen Onus-Williams, Dhakshayini Sooriyakumaran and Roxanne Moore.  I am looking forward to seeing myself. I cannot overstate my hunger for the company of strong women that look like me.

The panel conversation is sad, angry, and also deeply funny and slightly irreverent.  I am delighted, relieved and energised to be able to laugh at stories of white supremacy so personally relevant that they could have (and have) happened to me.  I am delighted that I am with people schooled in my literature: steeped in the voices of women that inspire us, Kimberle Crenshaw, Audre Lorde, Bell Hooks.

The afternoon speaks of the deep need for space, for people of colour to be, to breathe the oxygen that is so often in limited supply in a dominant white society.  To feel angry about our lived experiences with discrimination and racism, but not called an angry black woman, to dress, and talk, and laugh as we would like to, to have our voices centred, and heard and not flattened into stereotypes we must constantly ‘manage’, to indulge in our own ‘diversity’ without having to explain constantly how diversity should ‘work’.

The conference has catered for this need, with an important First Nations only session and a slightly more hurried session for people of colour squashed into a lunch break.  But the conversation we are having this afternoon is for everyone.

In a conversation for everyone, my belonging shouldn’t be at the expense of your leaving.  My delight should not be your loss.  I am not playing a zero sum game, because I can’t live permanently in an echo chamber of my own making (although I’m hardly alone in wishing I sometimes could). If this truly is a conversation for everyone, everyone should be offered a seat.

In an increasingly polarising society, we have become awkward with each other across our own identities, online and in real life, with a propensity towards intolerance.  We cannot continue down this path, else we fall victim to the dehumanising narratives of fascism, perpetuated daily in many mainstream media and to support divisive political rhetoric.

Whilst we need our caucuses to heal, strengthen and liberate us, we also need our shared spaces to bring us together, to create a whole larger than the sum of our diverse parts. Shared spaces include the diverse families we share, the communities we live in, the schools we attend, the sporting fields we play on, the conference rooms we inhabit, and the parliaments that represent us.

The American poet goddess Claudia Rankine told an anecdote recently in her essay for New York Times Magazine in July 2019 called “I Wanted to Know What White Men Thought About Their Privilege. So I Asked”, about a “shared longing to exist in less segregated spaces”as she wrote about a slightly awkward but essentially enjoyable conversation she once had with a white man on a plane.

What can we do to create shared space, for these spaces to truly work, to strengthen the bridges between us in order to enjoy our togetherness?  Here are a few starting thoughts.

  • We must recognise that not all shared spaces are created equal (even if they have enough seats). In settler societies, these spaces are invariably created within the system of dominant white power. Work to consciously recreate what the idea of a more inclusive space might look like.
  • Please leave your power and privilege at the door, and try to unpack the contents of that invisible knapsack. Your humanity is all you need in a shared space.
  • Make more space for voices and truths not easily heard. People at the centre can step aside from their power without the fear of losing space; shared spaces only grow in size and power when more voices are heard.
  • Listen deeply to the stories you are told, with empathy and compassion. Acknowledge and respect the equivalent humanity inherent in the stories we share, even if narratives are ambiguous, and unfamiliar, and make us uncomfortable.
  • Use language that is mutually understood, considerate, non-discriminatory and tolerant, (and this applies on social media and in real life).
  • Uphold your own personal commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and other relevant global standards at all times.

The end result should be a space where we are all prepared to experience discomfort as well as joy, as we renegotiate the multidimensionality, fragility, anger, privilege and power of both white and black identities with empathy, deep listening and grace.

This work is not always, or at all, comfortable, not always linear, not always binary, as colonial systems demand.  This conference is teaching us that. But its not all doom and gloom either, sometimes this work can be joyous and liberating, the sharing of power truly restorative. Comedians Kate McCartney and Kate McLennan did a superb job of showing us this in the last episode of the Get Krack!n 2019 season on ABC TV, creating the space for the brilliant Miranda Tapsell and Nakkiah Lui to take the stage as two of the angriest, funniest, most compassionate and beautiful black women alive.

Emotions like empathy and compassion will always be the frontline of resistance in the battle to challenge a dominant order. George Orwell knew this, when he wrote these chilling lines in 1984: “the party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command”. More chilling was Australian Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton’s echo of this command in 2018, when he urged Australians to “guard against compassion towards refugees”held on Manus Island.  Don’t look, don’t see, and don’t feel. If nothing else, the prerequisite for any shared space must be flagrant disregard for Peter Dutton’s prescription.  More than ever, seek to look, see and feel each other’s lived experiences.

Claudia Rankine tells another anecdote about a long distance ride she shared with a Trump-supporting cab driver. As the women drove, they talked, and they inevitably learned more about each other’s lives.  “How can I say this so we can stay in this car together – and still say what needs to be said”, she concludes.  How do we stay in this car together, and still move forward? It’s a question for all of us.

Megan Rapidoe, co-captain of the US women’s football team and new hero for many, extends this analogy to her team, speaking joyously of their resilience, humour and general badass-ness. “We’re chilling, we got tea-sipping, we got celebration. We got pink hair and purple hair. We got tattoos and dreadlocks.  We got white girls and black girls and everything in between.  We got straight girls and gay girls.”

Her call out to the world is straightforward.  “We have to be better, we have to love more, hate less, listen more and talk less, we have to know that this is everybody’s responsibility.  Do what you can, do what you have to do.  Step outside yourself, be more, be better, be bigger than you have ever seen before.”

Towards the end of the Progress conference I speak to some lovely young women, nice, and ridden with guilt from Dismantling Progressive White Supremacy. They must ‘do something about it’, even if it means putting their own needs aside.

The magic trick of white supremacy is the idea that in erasing its insidious presence you have to put your own needs aside, that you will somehow lose.  This is simply not true. While some more than others enjoy power and privilege in a white dominant society, increasing numbers of us, black and white alike, recognise the unashamed inequity of the system.

Systemic forces create divisions according to race, gender, sexuality, class and ability, just to name a few.  Systemic injustice marginalises and damages all of us, as well as the environment in which we live.  The winners are few, not many, despite all the convincing otherwise.

We have to believe that foundationally most of us want the same things, economic security, home and family, happiness, equality of rights – to believe that we can sit in the same room and be on the opposing side of an anachronistic system designed to perpetuate division and injustice. And we have to extend this conversation beyond our echo chambers, to include those that ‘don’t think like us.’

In creating new, more equal shared spaces, we allow ourselves new possibilities.  Our diversity is a powerful asset, it’s the most beautiful thing in the world, and the systems that separate us from each other need to be dismantled.

Decolonising our systems leaves us open to consider new, innovative, creative, and mutually beneficial alliances, to realise the value and joy of marginalised knowledges, narratives, languages, geographies, histories and poetries, to free our imaginations and celebrate and amplify the ideas that diversity can bring. Decolonising our systems will enable us to work cross-culturally to find lateral solutions to the complex problems of this world.

Dismantling White Supremacy is a room where everyone should have a seat, the more the merrier.  In the words of the infinitely wise Bruce Pascoe, ‘what would happen if we all just had a better conversation’?