Saturday, June 16, 2018

Suffrage and settler colonialism: a tauiwi Chinese feminist perspective

This year is the 125th anniversary of New Zealand achieving women’s suffrage, celebrations and events are happening around the country to commemorate this progress in women’s rights. “We are the first country in the world to give women the vote” is a statement that gets repeated to elicit a sense of national pride, to provide evidence of how progressive New Zealand is as a nation, ahead of everyone else. When I learn about the struggles of suffragettes and the signatures on the petition being held at the National Library with Te Tiriti o Waitangi and He Whakaputanga (The Declaration of Independence), I can’t help but feel conflicted.

I want to respect and acknowledge all the women, and especially Māori women who participated in the struggle for women to be able to vote. They often don't get as much recognition as the Pākehā leaders. Kate Sheppard is on the $10 notes but we don't see Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia memorialised in the same way. It didn’t sound like an easy journey but one that was full of sacrifices and it was significant as a basis for fighting for gender equality.

The suffragette movement is a sobering reminder of how patriarchy and misogyny were largely colonial impositions in Aotearoa. But 125 years later, there is still a long way to go for gender equality and social justice, particularly for non-Pākehā women in Aotearoa and I think the issues of racism and connections with colonisation need to be highlighted more.

Firstly, let’s think about the often unspoken erasure of the racist history of the settler colonial political system, of which voting is a part of. Settler colonialism is a form of colonialism that takes control over land and people through mass settlement of the colonisers’ people to form the majority of the population, which is what has happened/still happening in New Zealand, Australia, US and Canada. The system of politics that dominate and hold the most power is a settler colonial government - a major breach of Te Tiriti o Waitangi which only allowed for 'kawanatanga' for Pākehā to govern themselves but not over Māori.

Initially, when the British set up a government in 1853 the criteria for who could vote were:
  1. Male,
  2. British subject,
  3. Be at least 21 years old,
  4. An owner of land worth at least £50, or payer of a certain amount in yearly rental (£10 for farmland or a city house, or £5 for a rural house); and,
  5. Not be serving a criminal sentence for treason, for a felony, or for another serious offence.
The fourth point excluded many Māori men who did not hold individual titles to land from voting. However in 1867, the four Māori seats were established, which meant Māori men could vote regardless of their relationship to land ownership, but only for the representatives in the four Māori seats. This was not even proportionate to the population at the time. If democracy works by majority rule, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that this was a form of tokenism to restrict Māori representation.

This is settler colonial democracy in action. Until 1976, Māori could only vote for the representatives on the Māōri seats. There were four Māori seats and it was set up in 1867 as part of the Māori Representation Act, but think about it, four seats - and how many seats are there in parliament? How can Māori have any equal decision-making power?

Even today, in theory, all citizens and permanent residents have the right to vote in the NZ elections. However, prisoners cannot vote. No matter the length of your sentence, if you are in prison at the time of an election, you cannot vote. And who makes up the prison populations? Disproportionately, it’s Māori - 51% in men’s prisons, 58% in women’s prisons. We should all know enough about institutional colonial racism by now to know that this is not a coincidence, nor is it because Māori commit crimes at higher rates than other groups. The police have already admitted to their “unconscious bias” and the courts give longer sentences to Māori compared to non-Māori.

There is still no universal suffrage.

From 1893, the majority of women were able to vote, but Chinese people (of all genders) were not allowed to vote in New Zealand until 1952, because of their “alien” status. This is almost 60 years after the suffragettes achieved voting rights for Pākehā and Māori women. Chinese people weren’t allowed to vote because they weren’t allowed to become citizens of New Zealand between 1908-1952, this is over 100 years after the first Chinese person arrived. The structural racism in the New Zealand immigration system has denied the rights accorded to people based on this Pākehā idea of citizenship, or “naturalisation” as they called it. This is often omitted in accounts of how “we” were the first country to achieve women’s suffrage.

For a long time, the unofficial white New Zealand policy was a way of keeping non-white people out and bringing in white settlers, thus cementing the settler colonial regime. If the government boasts a progressive system of democracy, where the majority rule, you can manufacture that majority through mass white immigration. Nowadays, it’s still much easier for white people to migrate and meet the immigration requirements than people of colour.

At the end of the day, these voting rights only allows us to choose representatives to an illegitimate colonial government. Never in the history of democracies, are you given the option to vote away the government. Having women’s suffrage, while gaining some legal recognition of a form of gender equality, the equality gained is the participation in a settler colonial democracy. Yet these changes have also been hard won.

We often hear “New Zealand is the first country to give women the vote” stated to evoke nationalism. These kinds of nationalism are always problematic and dangerous. To use women’s rights and feminism, to present a progressive image of this country, masks the ongoing injustices of gendered violence and structural inequalities against non-Pākehā women in particular. Having been part of the migrant anti-domestic violence movement, I can name so many life-destroying decisions by the Family Court and comments by judges that will prevent you from sleeping at night. Under the colonial immigration system, a migrant woman was deported back to her country while she was in a coma due to injuries suffered at the hands of a Pākehā man with NZ citizenship. Racist and misogynist violence is still rife and it is institutionalised in NZ’s policing, prison, legal and court systems.

Being born in China, where nobody has the vote, and when the last time students and workers called for democracy ended in bloodshed, I want to acknowledge how hard achieving suffrage for women was. I mean, voting rights is definitely a step up from having no political power or living under a dictatorship. At the same time, we can't ignore how it also plays a part in maintaining gendered and racialised concentrations of wealth and power, and the ongoing structural racism related to suffrage such as the disenfranchisement of prisoners.

If voting rights is a measurement for a recognition of humanity - it is still not universal. The dominant narratives of the Suffragette movement often ignores the histories of those deemed outside the imagination of the nation-state. This is a challenge to think outside of the square, question how much power voting actually gives people, and how this system can still be manipulated to maintain systems of oppression through 'majority rule'. We need to ruminate going forward, is participation in this settler colonial democracy really going to bring about liberation for all women?

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Not just about inclusion: the white and liberal feminist co-option of intersectionality

In recent years, the popularisation and semi-mainstreaming of the concept of “intersectionality” in Aotearoa feminist movements has given opportunities for different conversations and voices. However, I’ve also been noticing a dangerous tendency of throwing the term “intersectional feminist” and “intersectional feminism” around without much substance. Some of these "intersectional" feminists don't even acknowledge of the roots of the concept as originating from black feminist struggles or as coming from an analysis of violence against women of colour (see Kimberle Crenshaw’s work). 

I’ve seen white feminists talk about intersectionality the way they talk about diversity, paying lip service, but no real consideration of the way they relate and operate with women of colour. I’ve seen it be a lumping together of all marginalised Others who might actually have quite different issues. 

I’ve seen intersectionality co-opted by liberal feminists of colour who use it for their own career advancement without any critical analysis of the systemic roots of oppression. The capitalist narratives of “You can be a CEO too” (and get rich off the backs of workers). “You can also reach success under capitalism if you work hard enough” (or if you come from a privileged middle-upper class background). You know, the lean-in style of being “successful” by prevailing capitalist definitions of gaining higher status/power or greater wealth than others. 

These narratives that support our current economic system does nothing for majority of women of colour around the world who are exploited for their labour or for the single mothers (majority non-Pākehā) still having their benefits sanctioned if they refuse to name their children’s sperm donor. Yes representation and leadership are important, but individual “success” does not mean collective success. We need to be able to distinguish between those types of “leaders” who are neoliberal climbers whose goal is to get to the top for themselves and those who are leaders working to uplift their community and involved in doing all the grunt work to make some serious changes. 

I rarely see these liberal “intersectional feminists” work on issues of colonisation, or talk about collective liberation, or the fact that capitalism is a fundamentally oppressive economic system thrives off all sorts of inequalities (not to mention built from mass femicide through the witch hunts in Europe - see Silvia Federici’s work, Caliban and the Witch). 

I see the tokenistic gestures to involve women of colour, but I do not see power-sharing or any meaningful redistribution of resources to those who are multiply marginalised and disempowered. 

For example, when pay equity discussions brought up by white "intersectional" feminists, the focus is only on gender - very rarely on race/ethnicity. On average Pākehā women earn $3-6 more than Māori, Pasifika and Asian women, and as a group earn more on average than all men of colour (source). Is there even data on the difference between cis and transwomen? If we talk about economic inequality, you cannot ignore the racialised and feminised aspects of poverty and affluence. With migrant women of colour being generally paid less than men and Pākehā women, they are more affected by the new immigration rules that has a pay threshold per hour. To qualify for the Skilled Migrant Category to stay in this country, the threshold is "$24.29 per hour or above (or the equivalent annual salary)". There is already employment discrimination against people on temporary visas and with "foreign"-sounding names so think about what this means in terms of who can and can't qualify to live in this country. Did you also know that for people with disabilities, employees can apply to have a minimum wage exemption? This means people with disabilities can legally be paid below the minimum wage. How comes this is never part of the conversation? 

Intersectionality as a framework has been useful to recognise the ways that oppressions reinforce each other. It’s been important as a critique of white feminism and anti-racist movements who don’t address gender-based oppression. This analytical tool has been effective in the amplification and representation of the range of identities and voices who experience oppression. But is this enough?

Many of the ways I’ve seen white feminists use intersectional feminism as just about “inclusion” not only still centres white middle class feminism, but also entails expectations of assimilation into mainstream feminism. The ways of doing things, the practices of white feminists hasn’t really changed, just included more non-white, non-cis, non-able-bodied, and non-hetero faces. I have rarely seen it about supporting the self-determination of more marginalized groups to do their/our own thing. The goals of white “intersectional” feminism is to make themselves look more inclusive than for them to work on changing the material conditions that marginalize those not of privileged identity categories. It’s about serving their moral identity as a Good White Woman, a technique of the self that actually uses the oppression of others as aesthetics and decoration like their culturally appropriated dreadlocks, bindis and Māori tattoos. It’s to make themselves feel better, to feel cultured and “woke”. 

It makes me angry that a lot of the hard work of the generation of feminists of colour are being disrespected, co-opted and misused in such a way that continues to undermine us. 

The master's tools will never dismantle the master’s house, Audre Lorde said, but the tools of the oppressed have persistently been stolen to maintain and add to the structure of the master’s house. They may give a shared room in the basement to women of colour who acquiesce to their rules, but that structure hasn’t fundamentally changed. 

We cannot take claims of “intersectional feminism” at face value. What I have learnt most and feel that is most useful for strategies of liberation through an intersectional analysis is not about individual identities, but how different systems of oppression work together to produce conditions of inequality. Essentially, it’s an understanding of the way power operates and how we cannot end sexism without ending racism, without ending capitalism, without ending colonialism, without ending ageism, without ending homophobia and transphobia, without ending ableism, without ending every single oppressive system of social hierarchy that requires relationships of domination and exploitation. Equality to me does not look like a woman of colour for Prime Minister or CEOs. It does not look like a gender diverse military or police force. It shouldn’t be about leveraging off all the diversity boxes you tick for individual career advancement. It looks like the abolition of all systems of violence and inequality. In Aotearoa, this means first and foremost working against settler colonialism and it’s violent imposition of patriarchy on this land. 

The liberation of people experiencing the most marginalisation and structural oppression ultimately means liberation for all.

 In summary:

Stop co-opting intersectionality to make yourselves look better without putting in the work. 
Stop using intersectionality to just change the faces of the ruling class. 

I’m keen to see people who proclaim themselves as “intersectional” feminists and advocate for intersectional feminism to have a deeper understanding of power relations when doing feminist organising. It’s a matter of building reciprocal and supportive relationships with groups who are more marginalised, working on their own people to be less oppressive instead of spending more time and energy tagging along to our events. It’s all good to come, listen, and learn but do something with that knowledge to improve the material and social conditions for people who bear the brunt of multiple forms of oppression. Share/donate your resources and wealth. Volunteer your time to support in practical ways. Stop tokenising and erasing the work of women of colour. Organise to dismantle the *structures* of oppression rather than focus on representation within it. Share power.  

White feminism comic (script by Wai Ho, art by Fu Fighter Arts)