THE NAKED WOMAN is only visible when my manager’s door is open – when closed it is unclear what the painting depicts. From my desk I can make out the faint outline of a woman’s back through the frosted glass wall that partitions her office from the open-plan workplace. It reminds me of the European masters I studied in undergraduate art history, and the ironic way the portraits of high art have been reduced to cheap office furnishings. It’s not until the third or fourth time I walk past my manager’s office, with her door ajar, that I notice another woman in the image. She is African, and her tall frame hovers delicately over the white woman’s plump flesh as she gently sponges her shoulder. Seeing the poster in full view illuminates an unpleasant moment in history, and is like walking in on act you weren’t meant to see.
A Google search reveals that the poster is a copy of Moorish Bath by French painter Jean-Léon Gérôme. It is unsettling to imagine that, as my colleagues and I work, our manager sits at her Huon-pine desk scrutinising the reports and policies we prepare while the image of an African slave washing her white mistress hangs behind her. The ugly juxtaposition is heightened by the nature of our work, making her decision to display an act of slavery particularly perverse: she is the manager of community advocacy for a local council with the highest number of refugee and asylum seekers in Australia. She is a white woman in a position of power working in a community where many women of colour are isolated and discriminated against. And she fails to recognise the abhorrent message the poster represents.
Quiet murmurs circulate as others start to notice the poster. Why hang it? Does she understand what it implies? Her confident stride and arresting gaze suggest she is oblivious to the uncomfortable display of power that hangs in her office. Tension on the floor thickens, but approaching the situation is fraught – her aggressive tone is best avoided. With nothing to lose, a temp – who has just accepted a job in Brisbane – is the only one willing to confront her. She makes a formal complaint to HR and sends our manager a curt email before she leaves. The thought of women from the community seeing the poster appalls her. News spreads as other teams begin talking about the image. Then, as if nothing ever happened, it’s gone. But a troubling undertone still resonates in the office.
A few weeks later, our regular team meeting ends abruptly. Our manager reprimands me for choosing a local Afghan filmmaker to MC a film festival we produced for Cultural Diversity Week: apparently his style was ‘too political’ (although people from the audience asked if he would host future events). Her pursed lips spread into a cunning grin as she explains that I will no longer produce the festival. As she leaves the room she remarks bluntly that, after all, it really isn’t appropriate for girls to mix with Muslim men.
I was lucky to find another job fairly quickly, and the ugliness of her accusations and poster faded. But racist behaviour has followed me throughout my career. Female managers have dominated in many of the places I’ve worked, but the power gained by these white women has rarely been shared with others.
IN 1984, THE year I was born, Audre Lorde wrote Sister Outsider (Crossing Press), a groundbreaking attack on mainstream feminism’s failings. Lorde writes that when ‘white women ignore their built-in privileges of whiteness and define woman in terms of their experiences alone, then women of colour become “other”, the outsider’. In many professional environments and institutions, women of colour are still marginalised by white women in power. As a fair-skinned woman of Ballardong Noongar descent, I have never experienced the explicit racism Lorde speaks of, where the colour of her skin provoked cruel insults. Yet in a range of office environments where my identity was known, I quickly became the outsider, and female managers (always white) had little interest in nurturing or listening to women like myself. These dynamics continue to undermine feminism. When Aboriginal women and women of colour face barriers that white women do not, something is wrong.
My first office job was with the Department of Urban Development after I finished a master’s degree in urban planning in 2011. It seemed like a good idea, but the indistinguishable office cubicles and dull conversations created a rigid uniformity that blunted my early aspirations. Women huddled around desks in cliques, discussing diet trends, wedding dresses and the best salons to get their blonde tips retouched. My boss showed no interest and gave me very little direction, and I was floundering in a strange environment.
My growing sense of isolation eased when I heard about an Aboriginal network that was established to create peer-to-peer learning and social opportunities for Aboriginal staff across the department. At the first meeting, the bland conference room quickly filled with the warmth and humour that was missing in my office. But the mood shifted when people started to share their experiences after the official presentation ended.
A young woman nervously revealed how her colleagues taunted her. Clinging to her sleeve, she explained how they repeatedly told her she only got her job because it was an identified position for Aboriginal applicants only, and she was taking it away from someone who was more deserving. One woman spoke of being stuck in the same entry-level job for twelve years. Although she regularly discussed her desire to move on, her interests were not heard. Another shared how her boss had laughed when she asked to apply for study leave to start a master’s degree. And everyone talked about being tokenised and forced into roles that didn’t suit their needs but made the department look good.
The manager of diversity from HR convened the network and organised the gathering. She seemed more than happy to offer vague advice like attending further training and organising regular catch-ups with supervisors to document achievements. And the other white managers she arranged to speak discussed career pathways in the same nonchalant tone. None of them were willing to confront the lack of racial diversity in management and the reasons why so few Aboriginal staff progressed beyond mid-level project officer roles.
The lukewarm advice we received didn’t dampen the solidarity felt between Aboriginal staff. But as people started to leave the conference room I recognised my own despondent look in their eyes. Once again, a white female manager believed she was doing good by helping us navigate our careers even as she failed to hear our goals and dreams. I continued to struggle in my role; after three months, I still had no position description and was only being given menial tasks.
I decided to email the diversity manager for advice because there weren’t any other obvious solutions. She replied, reassuring me that my manager was incredibly hardworking and was particularly passionate about developing projects to support Aboriginal people. She was clearly just very busy. The irony of a white woman convening the Aboriginal staff network and solving our problems was not lost on me, although it seemed invisible within the power structures of the department. But I was still surprised by the casual way she dismissed my problem as if I was making it up.
In her 2016 Meanjin essay ‘What happens when you tell somebody else’s story?’, Alexis Wright solemnly states: ‘Aboriginal people across the country have always found it difficult to be heard.’ Wright’s searing piece identifies the powerlessness Aboriginal people often feel in white institutions. It is not a new argument. In 2000, Aileen Moreton-Robinson wrote Talkin’ Up to the White Woman (UQP). I didn’t discover her book until 2015, and was shocked that something written fifteen years ago could so accurately describe my own professional experiences. Moreton-Robinson writes about the dynamics of female leadership in academia, where white women held power and her views were subordinate. Like the diversity manager in my first professional role these women believed that they knew best. Moreton-Robinson states: ‘White feminists position themselves as anti-racist women who are doing the right thing, unaware that their actions are not interpreted by Indigenous women in the same way.’ Reading her book is difficult, because so little has changed.
In early 2016, a senior academic I considered a mentor invited me to a climate change roundtable at the University of Melbourne, hosted by Mary Robinson, the former president of the Republic of Ireland. I accepted her invitation gratefully, assuming that attending the high-level policy debate would be helpful for my career. As I entered the room she acknowledged me with a condescending pat on the shoulder, then proceeded to physically guide me around. It became clear why I had been invited: I was introduced to the former president in front of the other academics and politicians as ‘Timmah, a young Aboriginal’, then told that I shouldn’t feel intimidated by Robinson and all the important people in the room.
Her introduction stung. The uncomfortable situation was intensified by Robinson’s arrogant tone: she talked about the important work she did in Central America to support women from Third World countries in climate change discussions as if they had no capacity or culture and were entirely dependent on her. I resisted the anger that flared and tried to see the humour in playing the token Aboriginal youth – there to make the white woman look good. I thought about the late poet Lisa Bellear and her own struggle as a Goernpil woman in the academy. ‘Feelings’, from her 1996 collection Dreaming in Urban Areas (UQP), describes how sometimes you just have to walk away, laugh at their ignorance and preserve your own dignity. And on this occasion I didn’t talk up to the white women, although the humiliation stayed.
IN 2016, WHITE Australia slyly started to admit that their ‘closing the gap’ rhetoric had failed. I had started a new job in community services and my boss repeatedly reminded us that Aboriginal health outcomes were getting worse, referencing the Centre for Independent Studies report that outlined how $6 billion in annual funding delivered few results. As she and the other white managers debated how we should shift our strategic approach, no one seemed to care or even hear what I had to say. I quickly learnt that critiquing their ideas was tiring and had little effect. As Megan Davis wrote in Griffith Review 51: Fixing the System, ‘Australia has rejected self-determination – freedom, agency, choice, autonomy, dignity – as being fundamental to Indigenous humanness and development’. Davis’s article pays homage to the commitment and perseverance of Aboriginal people who work in a broken system – but I was losing hope and patience. It was easier to go along with it, appreciate that I was being paid while desperately looking for another job away from all the white women managing Aboriginal affairs.
When my manager asked me to visit an Aboriginal community centre we had funded, it seemed like a good opportunity to get out of the office. I headed across the West Gate Bridge in a pristine fleet car, keen to meet the Marla Aboriginal Women’s Group that gathered there on Friday mornings. I got off the freeway, underestimating how sparse the outer suburbs were as I drove up and down a street in Melton, looping around the roundabout and past the train station in frustration. Apart from a kindergarten, there were no shops or amenities, just a few brick veneers with overgrown gardens and padded-up windows.
With no signage or obvious entrance, I was shocked to realise that a modest brick home I had driven past a number of times was the community centre I’d been looking for. The heavy, drawn curtains and dilapidated fence seemed to suggest the building wasn’t ready for anyone. I knocked at the flywire door tentatively before a woman from a local health service also arrived and ushered me in. As we entered, I was struck by the cheaply-furnished rooms – all mismatched second-hand tables and plastic chairs. The kitchen was empty apart from a kettle and a box of old toys. The smell of mildew filled the air, and I wondered what the hell the local council did with the $80,000 we gave them to support the project.
The health worker made me a cup of tea as the Marla Women’s Group and their kids started to arrive. The support and warmth these women showed for each other eclipsed the bare room as conversation erupted and gifts piled on the table. It turned out the group had organised a baby shower for one of their members; she was oblivious when she arrived, until the others revealed the surprise. It was her sixth child, but, she explained with tears in her eyes, this was the first time anyone had ever celebrated with her.
The group had been running for over ten years, and they’d organised a range of activities; the women proudly told me about an upcoming art exhibition they were curating. But they didn’t hide the issues they faced: unemployment, homelessness, depression and drugs affected many in the group. As they opened gifts they also shared their struggles with the health worker openly. The woman about to give birth was in an abusive relationship, and escape was her eldest son taking her and the younger kids to McDonald’s for dinner. Another woman worried that her daughter was falling behind at school: she had missed a term but couldn’t handle the bullying anymore. A young boy stared blankly at the wall as his younger siblings played: his mother knew he needed psychiatric help but she’d already used her twelve annual Medicare-funded psychologist appointments. Everyone seemed to be just hanging on, but they were happy, eating party food and talking about the baby on the way, revived by each other’s company.
I scribbled notes frantically, wanting to capture their stories so I could explain everything to my boss. Driving back towards the city I rehearsed what I wanted to say; I needed to be measured, rational and direct about ways we could help. When I got back to the office I asked if we could have a quick meeting after work, which she agreed to. As I started to discuss the women’s needs she nodded and listened, but didn’t seem to take anything in. There was no rush to escalate the issue or discuss the next steps with her manager. She kept reassuring me that it was a local government issue now, so things would work out for the best; I kept suggesting we move them to a more established centre, or organise psychologists and other social services to do on-site visits. My words washed over her, as if they were irrelevant to our jobs.
The next day, I overheard her talking to another senior manager about how I was a little anxious. I understood then, more than ever, how Aileen Moreton-Robinson felt – and how seventeen years on, our voices were still being ignored. In Talkin’ Up to the White Woman, Moreton-Robinson writes, ‘Indigenous women believe that when white feminists advocate for equality for all women, this should mean that the needs of women who are in the most unequal position in society will be the first attended to.’ The Marla women were in the most unequal position, but my white boss had other priorities. She seemed far more concerned about selecting the right images for an Aboriginal Action Plan she was writing and ensuring that key ministers were available to attend the launch.
These injustices occur too regularly, but Aboriginal women of my generation can draw hope from women like Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Alexis Wright and Lisa Bellear – even when change feels far away. Challenging women in power is not easy, particularly when many are blinded by their own privileges. But with Moreton-Robinson’s words to guide me I will keep talkin’ up to these white women because, as she writes, ‘the invisibility of unspeakable things requires them to be spoken’.