While International Women’s Day has been busy pressing for progress, various organisations who run IWD events have yet again pushed women of colour into a corner: a corner of non-existence.
The UN’s Women Facebook page applauded the support from several organisations for their International Women’s Day Campaign. Nonetheless, many events and panels failed to include any women of colour.
The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), for example, gave a fine example exclusionary feminism with its IWD event: its ‘Women in Leadership’ discussion did not feature even one woman of colour.
Diana Sayed, a human rights lawyer, currently based in Melbourne, was shocked on seeing the panel’s featured speakers. She immediately emailed NGV questioning the lack of diversity.
‘The event is described as leading women who will share their stories of resilience and making change. This is all good and well, however rather astoundingly tone-deaf and a complete perpetuation of white feminism to the exclusion of any other women of colour, most importantly our Indigenous women who never ceded land on where the NGV is located.’
The event, she said, was as an example of structural racism in 2018.
‘Thank you for reminding us that we still do not in fact have a seat at the table for a meaningful platform in a post-colonial world.’
The NGV replied, citing organisational issues as an explanation for the event’s all-white turn out.
‘Unfortunately two speakers withdrew from the Women in Leadership panel at short notice due to personal circumstances, as happens on occasion, and our panel will now include a different range of experiences,’ the NGV said.
After receiving the NGV’s response, Diana emailed Human Rights Law Centre’s (HRLC). Diana recommended a push for greater diversity in the panel, the inclusion of at least a ‘token’ woman of colour or the complete cancellation of the event.
Diana received a response about the organisers’ reluctance and an inability to find anyone.
This seems at best short sighted and a possibly a resistance at including diverse people as there are countless speakers that could have been invited. If organisations do not make an effort, they sends a message to their audience that they do not care about diversity and inclusion.
Sadly there are other examples of all-white speaker events held on International Women’s Day.
Others events included the Rotary Club of Glen Waverly’s ‘International Women’s Day Dinner’ featuring Susan Alberti, City of Melton’s ‘International Women’s Day Panel’, Melbourne Fashion Festival’s ‘An Evening With Women in Media’ and Digital Women’s Network’s ‘International Women’s Day Luncheon with Carolyn Burns-McCrave’.
Not a single woman of colour gave a speech, participated in a panel or even facilitated a panel in any of these events.
There are other inbuilt exclusionary factors that prevent women of colour from joining these events.
A lot of these events are influenced by eurocentric and Anglo-Saxon behavioural norms. These can fail to take into account social barriers that may prevent others from participating. When ‘morning teas’, ‘corporate breakfasts’ and ‘evening drinks’ are organised there is limited thought about those that absent because of time, financial and social constraints. Working mothers cannot make corporate breakfasts because they need to find a carer for their young children.
Many International Women’s Day events focused exclusively on women’s achievements. These events failed to applaud women’s successes in relation to culture.
Other events focus heavily on career. Many women of colour cannot gain employment because of language and education barriers, visa restrictions or those that (through choice or circumstance) play the primary caretaking role.
Events such as ‘Engineers in Australia International Women’s Day Lunch’, ‘Changing the Game for Women in STEM—Panel Discussion’ by Sisters in Science and ‘AHRI International Women’s Day Breakfast featuring Zelda La Grange’ spoke to an audiences that already had highly specialised jobs.
These events may be useful to those already employed as they celebrate women who are already successful in their careers. Yet they also erase the voices of those that have struggled to gain employment, keep employment and even promoted for their work.
‘It’s really crucial to have events about structural and institutional barriers to employment’ post-colonial feminist scholar and educator, Nilmini Fernando said.
Exorbitantly ticketed events prevent marginalised women of colour from accessing industry circles.
Melbourne Fashion Festival hosted ‘An Evening With: Women in Media’ at the Melbourne Immigration Museum. It promised an evening of a conversation that tackled ‘career progression, industry developments, social media impacts, and the current challenges in the media landscape’. Tickets were $89 per head.
Similarly, the ‘International Women’s Day Luncheon with Carolyn Burns McCrave’ hosted by the Digital Women’s Network priced their tickets at $70 per head. On the event page, they stated their reasons for the price: ‘part of the fee for lunch will go to helping women get into the workforce’ and a ‘glass of sparkling on arrival’. On the event page, the organisation did not clarify the methods they use to get women into the workforce.
To access the elite circles of their chosen industry, marginalised people (including those of colour) have to pay a steep price to get ahead in their career. Events like these claim to be removing barriers to participation but in fact create more barriers and end up excluding people along racial and class lines through their marketing and management.
Some events included a racially diverse participant but this is only the tip of the iceberg on the issue of diversity. This can look like tokenism if not backup by other diverse participants and attendees.
Tokenism is problematic because a single person of colour cannot encapsulate the struggles and oppression that other people of colour face. One cannot speak for all.
‘I think people of colour are expected to find themselves in token symbols; in celebrated variations of themselves,’ artist and writer, Madison Griffiths said.
Organisers do not seem to realise that diversity can exist inside a culture. For example, a person is not simply Indian. There are a variety of ethnic minorities that have mixed, matched and transformed inside the subcontinent of India. The diverse identities inside a culture should also be represented and unpacked.
‘Women of colour are expected to be the monolithic voice of all things superficial about their culture,’ said Madison.
Despite the absence of diversity in many mainstream events, there are a couple of events that made it a top priority.
Events such as ‘Her Words: International Women’s Day Panel’, ‘WIRE Women’s Information presents International Women’s Day: Where To For Feminism 2018’ and ‘International Women’s Day Rally and March 2018’ really stepped up their game.
The ‘Her Words’ event sold out emphasising the demand for diverse voices and experiences.
Elizabeth Thorne, the spokesperson for International Women’s Day March and Rally said that they had consciously chosen five out of the eight speakers to be women of colour.
‘It is paramount for women of colour to not only be represented, but to be centred within the feminist movement given the multiple oppressions they face. As it stands, women of colour are either ignored or exoticised, and this has grave implications for the treatment of them,’ she said.
Women of colour need to see themselves in social events because it provides reassurance and validation to their existence and continued oppression.
‘When I’m around scholars in an academic setting for example, I get very depressed at the depth of Whiteness, class, money, privilege and the ignorance it sanctions. When I am in a postcolonial and Black feminist setting, I’m totally energised—it’s so amazing’ said Nilmini.
Editor and publisher Hella Ibrahim provided the easiest solution to combat the absence of diversity.
‘We exist, and we’re doing tremendous work, you just need to look further than your own nose to see it,’ she said.
Women of colour need to be organisers, speakers, facilitators and attendees of events and panels. Varied representation helps all women #pressforprogress together.
Devana Senanayake is currently based in Melbourne, Victoria. She is a content specialist and multimedia journalist. She focuses on race, feminism, colonisation and food. She is interested in the exposure and celebration of the diverse voices, experiences and projects run by people of colour. She can be found on her website: https://devanasenanayake.wordpress.com/ and on Twitter: @dsenanayake16