The inescapable whiteness of the Sydney Writers Festival

May 13, 2018

Running from April 30th to May 6th, various locations around Sydney hosted an incredible line-up of diverse writers, leaders, and thinkers from all over the world to discuss the Sydney Writer’s Festival 2018 theme of “Power” – and which power structures are more prominent and damaging to society than white supremacy, patriarchy and the seemingly inextricable intersection of the two in feminist discourse?

The line up this year included many amazing women of colour such as Tayari Jones, Aminatou Sow, Glory Edim, Jenny Zhang, Zinzi Clemmons, Cleo Wade, Jamila Rizvi, Nakkiah Lui, Jenna Wortham and more. Of course, in having these women breakdown power, feminism, race, writing, Intersectionality and Trump’s America, these conversations could not be had without discussing whiteness – or more specifically, the ways in which white people can fail to use their privilege to help amplify the voices of marginalised communities.

I was delighted to have attended five panels over the course of the festival, all of which contained numerous mic-drop moments that had me speed writing notes in a battered pink notebook. I left each panel with renewed energy, feeling fuelled, empowered, inspired but also angry. Why? Well, there are numerous reasons that spring to mind. Firstly, as Audre Lorde so perfectly states in her essay titled 'The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism,' “Women responding to racism means women responding to anger; Anger of exclusion, of unquestioned privilege, of racial distortions, of silence, ill-use, stereotyping, defensiveness, misnaming, betrayal, and co-optation.” So there was definitely that. 

Secondly, I (and seemingly other audience members who have taken to Twitter since) felt angry because almost every panel (and others I did not attend) featuring women of colour was met with the defensiveness of white audience members during question time, who did not further the conversation whatsoever.

During these conversations, the panelists made themselves vulnerable and were nothing but sincere and open as they discussed their experiences, their desires and their critiques of certain spaces and communities. Each panel was a pleasure to sit in on and provided an invaluable opportunity for the mostly older and white audiences to learn from these women of colour about their unique experiences and the way in which more privileged individuals can be allies. 

If these audience members were listening in the way that I was and were taking their shared experiences as something to consider and be mindful of, rather than a personal attack, then the answers to any possible questions were right there. Instead, Q&A’s centred around whiteness, prioritising the narratives and the hurt feelings of white audience members, almost as if they hadn’t listened to a single word shared. The questions went a little something like this:

“I can’t help that I have privilege!” “Don’t you think by attacking white people you are doing the same thing to us?” “What can I do to be a better white person?” “How do I not be racist?”

In short, eyes were rolled, by myself and probably every panelist of colour trying to externally keep their cool. I don’t know how they did it but then again it’s probably become a daily practice, people of colour experience this all the time! Since leaving these panels I have discussed my discomfort with numerous friends feeling nothing short of embarrassment knowing that these incredibly talented individuals were walking away or leaving Australia probably feeling as if they had bled their heart out to a tone-deaf audience all for nothing. I’d like to hope that these defensive and clueless audience members are just a part of the loud minority rather than the majority, but I can’t say that with certainty.

As a woman of colour who often discusses race, I can not begin to explain how tiring it is to explain to a white person why they should care about your cause or your marginalisation. Let alone why they should take your identity seriously. Yes, I’m sure that the larger percentage of these individuals are well-intentioned and it is important to ask questions and to initiate open dialogue, we all had a "pre-woke" period. But what we’re talking about here isn’t some complex branch of science, we’re talking about the ability to have compassion for other human beings – one of the key basics for existence and surely, a no-brainer. 

In learning how to practice Intersectionality in our everyday lives, it’s important to recognise the degree of privilege we all wield and benefit from, no matter what marginalisation we may simultaneously experience. For some individuals, this process takes a lifetime – it can appear overwhelming and confronting. However, recognising your own privilege doesn’t negate or erase the power structures that still maintain the capacity to oppress or discriminate against you. 

As a cisgender, straight, able-bodied and white passing biracial female recognising the levels of privilege I do and do not have means that, 1) I do not exist with the same privilege as a white man or woman, but 2) ultimately my experiences are different from and more privileged, than that of other women of colour or women from trans, disabled or LGBTI+ communities. There is no guilt or shame that needs to be involved with owning privilege, simply just a recognition that whilst these components of our identity make us unique, they also make our life experiences vastly different from one another. Therefore, we have a responsibility to use our privilege the right way – notably by realising it exists and not being defensive when someone calls you out on it.

In needing women of colour to either be silent about their experiences or softer in their recounts, it is implied that in order to be heard, respected, and seen, that there is some criteria that must first be met – we have to make our trauma more digestible for white people in order to have our humanity recognised. People of colour aren’t robots, they're humans and when humans are threatened or hurt, they’re not going to smile about it – god forbid they feel any anger or expect any sort of accountability. When conversations about racism are met with tone policing and white guilt, it prevents the conversation from being enlightening or achieving its purpose. It’s one step forward, two steps backwards.

So how can you and I be good allies then? Well whilst I can make plenty of suggestions of my own, Aminatou Sow who participated in many panels, put forth a list of important questions we must all start asking ourselves at a panel titled ‘My Feminism Will Be Intersectional or It Will Be Bullshit’, the answers of which will be extremely telling. Some of these questions included:

•    Where are you spending your money? Who are you giving your money to?
•    How are you acknowledging the people you use every day? 
•    What does the makeup of your friends look like? 
•    Who are you referring for jobs? Whose work are you referencing?
•    Who do you think is worthy of the future and life you want for yourself?
•    Who are you listening to?

As for me? My first suggestion is this: please stop being so defensive when confronted with your privilege, it won’t kill you but it will better you. Sit in your discomfort for a while, because this won’t kill you either! Neither will picking up a book and reading it, and neither will hearing a panel and actually listening to it – not listening to respond but listening to understand. Let’s do better. It's not that hard. I believe in you!

1 comment

  1. I absolutely love this post Sunny and although being white, I certainly recognise the issue being that white people need to stop placing their feelings before those sharing their stories of prejudice, marginalisation and outright hostility due to their heritage. In terms of race. It's akin to women sharing their #metoo stories and men invading that space with not all men, which is an example I use often to tell fellow white women to boost voices without interjecting.

    I see very similar discussions within the book community often, how important conversations of marginalisation are circumvented by white women in particular. The questions posed by Aminatou Sow, that's something I think we should all be asking ourselves before placing forward white opinions where our opinions aren't warranted or welcomed. You've mentioned that we should try sitting with our discomfort and I find that incredibly profound.

    You're an incredible voice of inspiration Sunny, not listening to respond but listening to understand is something that has hit home with me and something all white people should practice. Brilliant post sweetheart ♡♡♡♡♡


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