Your Mothering is Political, and That's Not a Bad Thing: My Attempts at Anti-Racism Through Mothering.
**[2021 edit - A year later, I see how much more I still have to learn. How many more layers of indoctrination and ancestral actions are alive in me. I pledge to engage in re-education, that is the unlearning and relearning, that is needed to become an ally and accomplice in every sense.]
I sit here between the shadow of the Watagan mountains and Awaba, which is what Lake Macquarie was called before colonisation, dispossession and genocide. I would like to begin this article by acknowledging and paying my respects to the Awabakal people, the Traditional Custodians of the land on which I live and work. I would like to pay my respects to their Elders, past, present and emerging, and acknowledge all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their ongoing connection to the land, water and skies. This article contains references to deceased people and content which may be distressing to some readers.
Like many white people I have been reflecting on my own privilege this week and my desire to avoid tokenism as the horrifying level of racism that underpins the social structures that see me inherently privileged and comfortable, and others oppressed because of our skin tones and lineage. Even the fact that I can write this without having overwhelming fear for my safety is reflective of the privilege I hold purely because of my skin colour and recent heritage. That in itself is abhorrent.
I have done various cultural competency trainings and have worked in teams under the guidance of Aboriginal people providing health care services to Aboriginal families and communities. I am aware of and have written letters on issues related to large scale housing developments happening within my local government area that come within 20m of a known sacred site used by generations of Aboriginal women to birth, bathe and hold ceremonies. I am signatory and have donated to Aboriginal causes related to climate justice like Seed. I am aware of the Victorian government’s lengthy attempts to destroy sacred birthing trees that 50 generations of Aboriginal women have birthed by, and supported documentary filmmakers and organisations exposing the dangerous and ridiculous policy of removing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women from their communities when they are close to their due date to birth unsupported in various hospitals around the NT. This policy continues despite the outcomes of "Birthing on Country" pilot programs showing fantastic outcomes. I seek to respectfully pay Aboriginal people in the purchase of art, fabric and food. I protest and sign petitions, yet this is not enough.
This week, my discomfort that I can not fix grief, that I can not solve, is heightened. I can not solve the pain of the mother, sisters, aunties and daughters of George Floyd, or Ms Dhu, or the many hundreds of people who are dying unnecessarily in custody and our communities. I can not take away the fear of the African-American mother who dreads the day where her son stops becoming “cute” and instead becomes “scary”. I will never feel the exhaustion that my friends who are fair skinned Aboriginal people feel having to justify why they still feel racism effecting their lives every single day. I will not feel the underlying anxiety of being an Aboriginal mother, who due to systemic failings and intergenerational trauma and disadvantage, is over ten times more likely to see her child removed from family care than a non-Aboriginal child. I will not understand fully the experience of my Aboriginal patient who fell due to his brain tumour and people walked by rather than helping him up. I can not flick a switch and overturn the corrupt decisions of my local council or NSW development boards or stop Scott Morrison from saying stupid, hurtful and heartless crap about how Australia is “so wonderful” and “lucky” so we don’t need “copycat rallies” mirroring U.S. concerns about police brutality and black deaths in custody.
What I’ve realised though is that I can’t solve, and if I want to be an accomplice to creating change it is not my role to. Colleen Clemens defined allies and accomplices as follows: “An ally will mostly engage in activism by standing with an individual or group in a marginalised community. An accomplice will focus more on dismantling the structures that oppress that individual or group—and such work will be directed by the stakeholders in the marginalised group.” So, instead I shift my focus to what I can do in my day to day life to dismantle the structures that oppress and marginalise groups and individuals, under the guidance of those who are disadvantaged by my privilege.
I won’t stop doing those other things, but what I can do every day is practice anti-racism in my mothering. As signs in the U.S. rallies have said “All mothers were summoned when George Floyd called for his Momma”. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen or heard an ad about being a “busy mum” my chosen charities would be significantly richer. All that busy-ness does not serve us, it serves the powerful institutions that depend on us being distracted with and exhausted by unpaid caregiving responsibilities and paid work so we don’t kick up a fuss about how unjust the world is. Heaven forbid if we had time to stop and think for one second we might do something like feeling good about ourselves as we are, ripping down and redesigning white patriarchal social structures, or making privileged people pay more tax to provide the support and redress that is needed to start making a difference to those who are disadvantaged.
If you hear a voice doubting yourself about the ability to lead this in your family, or are feeling unsure about politicising your mothering, let me tell you that mothering is always a political and powerful action. Every time you choose free range over caged eggs, you are making a political statement. If you have the money to choose public or private schooling, your choice is a political one. Choosing a TV station is a political act. You are shaping values and ethics and morals as you go about your day, every day. I am not highlighting this to make you feel burdened by more responsibility, but showing you that mothering itself holds greater power than you may have thought possible.
So, mums, how do we do it? This is me making a start, using my practice of mothering as an avenue for activism. It is not an exhaustive list and will ebb and flow as I learn how to do better. If you can educate me so I can better educate my child, please do.
- Trying is better than waiting for perfection. If white people are paralysed by fear of not doing or saying things 100% correctly, we remain silent, and #SilenceIsViolence. I was sorely tempted to send this piece to some of my Aboriginal friends for review before publishing it, but decided that it is 100% not their responsibility to review my writing. They have enough pain and rage to deal with before even thinking of proofreading whatever I come up with at my dining table in my house on stolen land.
- Be honest with yourself and work through your own assumptions. Although American, this guide for white women (and yes, there is a men's version too) and these tools from Harvard are good places to start.
- Have direct conversations with your kids. We already do this about everything else, so why not race and all the other -isms? I remember my parents talking seriously with us kids when I was in primary school after an older family member called part of the town she lived in “Vegemite Valley”. I was disgusted by it, but can’t recall if it was called out to her face. I will try my best to call out racism, homophobia, sexism and all the other –isms as well as my children grow and develop and encourage them to do the same. The child in the playground they call out may end up being a police officer, security guard or politician, and needs to know there are other ways of valuing people.
- Address the undercurrent. You don’t notice the tide until you start to swim against it. I wouldn’t shy away from telling my daughter about the oppression she may face a female, as this is a tide she will have to swim against during her life. Because we are white parents, we are responsible for making sure she is also aware that we are swimming with the tide of privilege simply due to the colour of our skin. Although we are hetero-normative biological parents, I will educate her about the normalcy of all sorts of caregiving configurations, sexualities and technology-assisted, adoptive and other ways of becoming parents. I will highlight how society disables people or makes them “othered” - when there is insufficient wheelchair access to stores, when flashing lighting means our friends with epilepsy couldn’t join us somewhere safely, or that the noise or size of a football crowds might prevent our autistic friend from attending and enjoying themselves even if their passion is football.
- Get chatty. My toddler has a fascination with hats, and recently ran up to a man wearing a turban pointing and yelling “hat, hat!”. Instead of scooping her up and awkwardly running away, we were able to talk about how it was indeed a beautiful hat that was very special to him. It wasn’t a super in depth conversation on religious freedoms, but she got the vibe that we were being nice to each other. If you talk with the other white mum at the checkout behind you but not the family next to you who have dark skin, that sends very different vibes and implicit messages to your kids, even if you don’t mean for it to happen. Maybe that mama is buying something similar to you, or has kids a similar age, or has a beautiful dress on. Just be friendly as you would with everybody else, it’s not hard.
- Learn the name(s) of the traditional custodians of the country on which you live, and talk with your kids about how these people lived at one with the land for thousands of years. You could also learn the names of some of the key features of the landscape, plants or native animals together in the original languages of your area, as well as some of the stories about these and share these with your kids while you walk in nature or along the water’s edge. The Local Aboriginal Land Council websites or the Aboriginal Education Officer at your school may have some useful information about this, or you may find some information on plaques at lookouts or galleries. (You can also voice how ridiculous it is that signs are erected that commemorate acts of white supremacy, like the information signs at Holbrook in place of the sacred trees that were removed in construction of the Hume Highway bypass of the town).
- Use food as an avenue to explore – Learning what is (or was once) native in your area or an ancestral food can be powerful. There are plenty of “bush tucker” foods, spices and teas that are becoming readily accessible with a supply chain that ensures Aboriginal people are paid properly for their expertise, work and produce. If you like watching Masterchef with your kids, you could add in or swap for the cooking shows on NITV or SBS for some variation and exposure.
- Read widely and with your kids – For our own education (e.g. “Dark Emu” by Bruce Pascoe) so we can educate your kids in ways that our school system is currently failing to do. In terms of children’s books, it is relatively easy to ensure the books in your collection have a diverse range of characters if you’re aware that you can look for it. Our local bookstore and library have tonnes of excellent books showcasing Aboriginality, queer parenting, disability, migrant families and more. These children's books addressing various marginalisations may also spike your interest.
- Enjoy music together – Dr G. Yunupingu's music (whose needless death is reflective of systemic racism) is one of my favourites for "quiet time". Aboriginal artists like Archie Roach, A. B. Original and Thelma Plum share meaningful life experiences in their songs, and accomplices Paul Kelly and John Butler share anti-racist messages in a way you may be more familiar with. Listen to the lyrics, singalong and talk with your kids about the story behind the content. Kinderling kids digital radio station’s “Mother Tongue” segment is excellent for integrating easy words from various languages and knowledge including Koori into your house, and the station itself is a welcome reprieve from endless hours of Playschool songs.
- Have diverse toys and artwork – Lia Pa’apa’a talks in the #MumsMatter Decolonising Motherhood symposium about the importance of having toys that look like you to feel included in society. If you’re a fair-skinned person like me, we might have to actively try to find dolls or little LEGO people that don’t look like you do (and are sourced from Aboriginal owned businesses like this one) so our kids realise that this too is normal. This is important, as most Australian TV shows, media and advertising reinforce white normality. As Lia discusses, artwork, instruments and toys (where makers are acknowledged and paid properly) from different cultures are interesting, fun and valuable in sending inclusive messages from early on.
- Give non-white kids opportunities to shine. Aboriginal players make up ten per cent of the top flight Australian Football League, yet are hugely underrepresented in captaincy, coaching and support staff. You may not be aware of the media messages around Aboriginal “natural sports talent” vs. white “work ethic” and “game smarts”, but once you see that the message exists you can’t unsee it. If you are involved in your kids sports, consider offering leadership roles to Aboriginal and non-white kids and family members and ensure they have the support to participate successfully in the role.
- Explain your outward political actions. This kind of ties in points three and four, but I think it’s worth a separate category. If you sign a petition about deaths in custody or go to a protest, explain why you’re doing those things and involve them. If they want to make a sign, help them. If they don’t, you don’t need to force them to. Explain to your kids the responsibility of voting, why you do it, and ensure that who you vote for in each and every election actually matches your values and priorities now, not your parents values when you were young and impressionable. You might ask your playgroup to include an Acknowledgement of Country at meetings and widen their toy collection as above, raise your discomfort with celebrating Australia Day if you’re invited to a friend’s BBQ, or suggest an Aboriginal-targeted position to replace you next time you go on maternity leave or a work vacancy arises. A side-note here is that climate action and public health policy is important here too, as the bushfires and pandemic have demonstrated just how much harder hit marginalised groups (who have insecure housing or casual income, or who are elderly, infants or disabled) are by natural disasters and crises, that are likely to become more common rather than less in coming years.
It is scary to think of what kind of world our children are growing up in, even from a position of privilege. As mums, we know intimately that “From Little Things, Big Things Grow”. We can make positive change in this world day to day. Through my mothering, I am trying my best to move from ally to accomplice, and hope that you will join me too.
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