As with Living on Stolen Land, I don’t want to be the white woman talking about and appropriating an Indigenous woman’s words. So if you’ve been thinking about reading this book, do it! This review is intended to prod people into doing so, and in no way is a substitute for Moreton-Robinson’s own words.
I saw Aileen Moreton-Robinson at the Broadside feminist festival last year and she was intriguing. On the panel I saw, about women of colour and how they approach feminism, she was the oldest by perhaps a decade or more, and she seemed to get quite impatient by what some of the panellists were saying – and how they were saying it; she told them (in a poor paraphrase) that feminism is a white woman’s thing and they, not being white, needed to think differently – and maybe white feminism wasn’t actually what they needed. That’s a very poor paraphrase, actually, but I think it gets some of the sense of what she said – and for me, as a white feminist in the audience, it was eye-opening and kind of stunning. I am in a weird halfway place I think between second and third wave feminism; I don’t think I think that all women are sisters and experience oppression in the same way, but I’ve definitely had to work on fully manifesting intersectionality in the way that I think and act. The panellists too were intrigued by how Moreton-Robinson spoke; at one point someone (only half-jokingly) suggested the panel should be the rest of them asking Moreton-Robinson questions.
The other thing that really stuck in my mind was the fact that this book was published in 2000, and Moreton-Robinson had never before been asked to speak at a conference in Australia about it. Never. Nineteen years of a book that was the first Indigenous Australian interrogation of feminism… and conferences have ignored it, and her. That’s a disgrace. There is, at least, a 20th anniversary edition out this year, and Moreton-Robinson seems to have been on some programmes (ABC Radio, The Drum), so that’s a bit of an improvement?
So, the book. It took me quite a long time to read, partly because this year I have been struggling to read new stuff – which I think is the case for many people – and partly because it’s been a while since I read any theory; it’s not every chapter, but several deal with anthropological theory and feminist theory so I knew I needed to read it slowly to actually absorb what was being said. Rushing through would have been a disservice to the book, and I wouldn’t have really appreciated everything being discussed.
Throughout the book Moreton-Robinson talks about “the subject position middle-class white woman” which I found challenging, in some ways – because as she points out, women like that/women like me are indeed accustomed to being the default. And even when I am aware that I am those things, constantly having it pointed out (like Indigenous women, like African-American women, like… etc usually experience) is a novel experience. And an important one. And is one of the core points of the entire book: feminism – especially as it was in the late 1990s, in some corners I think it may have changed a bit in the last two decades – has been developed by white women with themselves at the centre, and while we’re busy interrogating various positions of power etc we forget to think about how, even in our gender oppression we massively benefit from (and help to support) racial oppression.
Moreton-Robinson begins my talking about how Indigenous women have presented themselves in their life-writings, pointing out the differences in those experiences compared to middle-class white women. She then tackles a massive job in looking at how various feminists have theorised ‘difference’ and ‘race’ over time and in different places – mostly white feminists, since they have been the most significant for Australian ways of thinking. And along with a whole bunch of interesting things here the main take-away for me is that white feminists haven’t considered that they are white; that they (we) have race/colour/ethnic position. And then the third chapter was perhaps the most gut-punch, from a historical point of view: she gives an overview of how white feminist anthropologists have talked about “Indigenous women” and all the ways that has been part of the colonising process, which chapter 4 also continues to interrogate.
All of the preceding stuff is incredibly important and could have stood by itself. What Moreton-Robinson then does in chapter 5 is present interviews with white feminist academics (ask me how hard it’s been to remember to put ‘white’ at the start of each nominal group… hello privilege), about how those academics think about race and present it in their courses and interact with people from different ethnic backgrounds. And this was illuminating and also for me challenging: who do I interact with and why, how do I present an anti-racist stance in my teaching and also live it in the world, and so on.
Finally, the last chapter presents a history of how Indigenous women (up to 2000, which I think is important to remember, since more will have been done and said since then) have challenged white women and their intentions and words. Which was its own version of challenging mostly because of how white women have responded to being challenged (often, badly).
This book won’t be for everyone; I know that reading theory isn’t going to be appealing for many. But the ideas and challenges that Moreton-Robinson present are vital for us middle-class white women to hear and acknowledge. If you ever get a chance to hear her, please do so. If you think you can cope with some theory, please get hold of this book and read it.