I have been reading Ruby Hamad’s theories that white women are complicit it in colonisation[i]. It didn’t bother me at first because what is colonisation but living in a colony and making a life and sure, white women did that. The title of the article was “White women were colonisers too. To move forward, we have to stop letting them off the hook”. This bothers me deeply and offends me personally. I know this was the intent of the provocative title, and it is supposed to tap into some kind of race guilt, but that is not what is annoying me. Ms Hamad says that she did not write the title, and I accept that. But I am sorry to say, it has continued to annoy me that The Guardian are refusing to let my white lady ancestors “off the hook”. I’ve now seen Ms Hamad try to explain this theory on Q&A, and although it was almost unintelligible and I will accept she was nervous, I want to say some stuff.
Yesterday I was sitting at Howard Smith Wharves on the Brisbane River looking thoughtfully at the city I was born in, that my mother was born in and that her mother was born in, and that her mother was born in, that they all died in and that in all probability, I will die in. Both my grandmother and her mother were born “father unknown” in Brisbane. My great grandmother Mary Elis Hughes was born a bastard in 1878. She had my Grandmother Edith Clara in 1898 also a bastard. Mary added some respectability to their life by marrying a free Scottish settler when my Grandmother was five. I don’t know if this was before or after my grandmother was diagnosed with Polio.
My Grandmother Edie, after whom I was named, was left with only one functioning leg. She never allowed anyone to see her as a cripple and would use only one crutch so that her other arm was always free to work. As the oldest, she helped to raise the children that came from the respectable marriage. When Mary’s husband died, she lived as a widow with her children. One day Mary put the wrong fuel on her fireplace and received horrific burns, she died in agony a few days later. Mary was buried in the Toowong Cemetery with her mother, rather than in the posh Scottish family plot owned by her late husband’s family in the same cemetery. My Grandmother had no further involvement with the family. Thankfully my grandmother was a seamstress and could make a living.
Edie didn’t marry well, but for a disabled woman, who was the bastard daughter of a bastard, maybe this was all she could hope for. Edie’s husband Bill, my grandfather, was a WW1 veteran. He had been a lighthorseman and fought in the Battle of Bathsheba. Bill also appears to have been born out of wedlock. I traced Bill’s ancestry back to Mary Dunstan, a convict of the second fleet who arrived in 1790 having stolen “2 bolts of cloth and a silk handkerchief”. By the time he married my Grandmother he was 38 and must have already been showing the signs of Huntington’s Disease (HD). HD is the genetic disease that has plagued our family since maybe the beginning of time. It starts with emotional instability and leads to what use to be called lunacy.
Bill’s mental illness meant that he was prone to bad decisions and my Grandmother had to sell her sewing machine to bail him out of prison, leaving her with no income and the entire family homeless. Bill and Edie had two female children, the oldest of which was my mother. My mum was forced to go to work as a very young woman to help support the family. Her wages were a fraction of what men earned at that time. After WW2, they lived in the housing camp at Victoria Park, Kelvin Grove. They were latter allocated public housing.
My mother and her sister produced nine children between them, only three girls, of which I am the youngest and sole survivor (of the females). I am the first in my family on any side to gain a University education. My mother would have thanked Gough Whitlam for that, and I suspect she was right. Mum was a Labor woman and her politics were ground in the rolling lack of opportunity and hard labour that was her entire life. My mother, like her mother before her, worked most of her life. For all my childhood she was a cleaner. My sister was a waitress and then an Artist and an art teacher. My only Australian female cousin worked in menial jobs until she got sick. All the women in my family, apart from me, carried the defective HD gene.
I am an Australian white woman and I am descended from bastards, sluts, lunatics, thieves, criminals, working women and diseased women. I know the life they lived was on land that had been solely occupied by Australian Indigenous people for ever. But what they were doing here in this city was not colonising, it wasn’t even complicity in colonisation, it was certainly not white supremacy, it was common or garden survival, and they didn’t even really do that very well. Alongside them were Indigenous women also living brutal lives, with less opportunities, this I don’t wish to deny, my mother certainly didn’t deny it. I owe these white women, my ancestors, my late sister and my late cousin everything, but I owe what are now being called women of colour (WOC) nothing, certainly not an apology, nor an explanation, mainly because they don’t exist.
WOC and “brown women” are political inventions in the same way that “white women” are. My mother considered herself a White Anglo Saxon Protestant (WASP). She may have stolen this identity from the free settlers who’s ancestry she had adopted, but in her work ethic, her morality and her perspective she was correct. WASP’s can in some way be considered a people because they have a belief system, a common ethnicity, a traceable history and a more or less common understanding of themselves as a group. I can talk about the crimes and gains of WASP women, but not today. Today I want to say that “white women” can be a physical description, but the idea that they are a people group is ridiculous. Polish women, French women and Russian woman are all white, but when they come to Australia they do not act with one agency. “Brown women” is even more ridiculous. This is supposed to be fair Indians, Middle Eastern women, and mixed-race women, among others. The Middle East alone has several different races with different cultures, religions and languages. Are they to act with one agency when they come to Australia? Are they defined solely in their separateness from white people? So, what are my children, who have a Lebanese father? Are they white? Do they lose their Lebanese heritage? Or do they abandon their Anglo Saxon heritage? These are stupid questions that I refuse to address.
This is all bullshit. It is all invented to pit us up against each other, to assign historical blame, privilege and victimhood in accordance with the subtle hue of skin. It is part of the new left trend to deflect blame from the elite and situate it in the general working populations to divide them politically. I will not play, and I refuse to pretend that it is not deeply offensive to the people who have birthed me. They can run this line that brown scars are causing my white lady tears as much as they like, but they do it to call me a white supremacist, and that’s pretty bad.
Being the daughter of thieves and sluts and working class women, I want to say “fuck off”, but given that I have some education, I will refrain because I know that this is not really personal. This paradigm is one that is developed almost exclusively from French and German social theorists. The new Marxist-postmodern theoretical structure is dependent on white supremacy being not just alive, but rampant. Post-modernism and Marxism are being mixed and borrowed from to divide populations and re-define people groups. Historically, theories that carve up populations into groups of oppressors and oppressed are employed to dehumanise sections of the population. That is not the end game though. This in an attempt by an elite to mobilise political action against those in the state from whom they wish to usurp power. It’s not historically unique and never ends terribly well.
In this case it is my ancestors that are having their history prostituted for ideological purposes. When I was studying revisionist Indigenous history at university, Indigenous people were taking back their own narratives, and I enjoyed reading their stories. But placing our histories into Marxist narratives is no way forward. The women in my family have lived hard lives, and for what it’s worth they belong to me. It’s not only that I am offended by this politicisation of peoples lives that have shaped my own, I know that it is dangerous, unhelpful and stupid!
Written – September 2019