Analysing contemporary African Australian experiences through an intersectional feminist lens
Through an intersectional feminist analysis, this article addresses how the African-Australian community are represented through institutions, discourses and mainstream culture. As social workers, it is important to critically analyse power structures and value lived experience in our practice. This is a systemic issue. There is a misrepresentation of Australians of African descent in the media, an underrepresentation within politics and overrepresentation when considering their interactions with law enforcement. This article illustrates the resilience, strength and power of the African-Australian community. It draws on a grassroots case study that challenges stereotypes, champions diversity and amplifies the voices of activists. The article is drawn from the advocacy experiences of the authors, both of whom are young women of colour and leaders within their communities.
Australians of African descent face unique forms of racism and discrimination; their experiences are different from other Australian immigrants and African diasporas. When studying Blackness in the Australian context it is important to draw a distinction between the different groups that share this identity. This ranges from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to South Sea Islanders, Pacific Islanders and African-Australians. References to Blackness throughout this article are used specifically to describe the experiences of African-Australians. By employing an intersectional feminist approach, this analysis challenges Australian norms, structures and culture. To confront the status quo, it is essential that social workers are prepared to question public institutions, systems of power and discourses. To create change, they must also be willing to explore new opportunities. Now, it is more important than ever to empower those with lived experience with the freedom to exercise their autonomy.
An introduction to authors
Anyier Yuol is a South Sudanese Kenyan born. She moved to Australia at age 10 years old on a humanitarian program with her family. Anyier currently divides her time between endeavours as broad as community activism and providing consultation to local councils, state and national government agencies, schools and businesses on numerous issues on women and girls’ rights, refugee and gender equality, youth participation and improving representation of minority groups in the Australian beauty and fashion industry. Anyier has been influential in her advocacy activities in creating a space where women are able to use their voice to bring about change through educational platforms. Anyier believes education is the key for women to achieve stability and economic independence.
Anyier is also an Australian delegate representing non-government and community organisations with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNCHR) and the former Chair of Australian National Committee for Refugee Women (ANCORW)”. She is also the Founder of Not-For-Profit Miss Sahara Organisation and Anyier Model Management. Both aim to increase diversity in the Australian beauty and modelling industry as well as bring awareness to the under-representation of African.
Lisa Lewis is a Saudi-Arabian born, Anglo-Indian immigrant to Australia. She is an aspiring academic who is passionate about the creation, preservation and dissemination of knowledge. As the current Chair of the Harmony Alliance: Migrant and Refugee Women for Change Young Women’s Advisory Group, a Youth Panelist at a State Government agency and a Committee Member of her Local Council, she is interested in bridging the gap between the community, social sector and government. Lisa actively practices allyship by advocating for equitable, intersectional and justice-oriented development in every space she is able to enter.
There is no homogenous African-Australian experience. Across the nation, African communities are diverse, vibrant and resilient; they represent a number of languages, cultures and histories. Throughout the last two decades, African families have immigrated to Australia through a number of migration routes. Some through skilled and family reunion pathways, and others through Australia’s humanitarian program as refugees. We can only begin to address the types of oppression faced within this broad community through the application of an intersectional feminist lens. Coined in the late-1980’s by legal scholar Kimberly Crenshaw, intersectionality is a framework that explains why social justice movements require a more holistic and inclusive approach (Cho, Crenshaw & McCall 2013). This article employs a broad understanding of systemic oppression, one that recognises how each person’s identity impacts their positionality and personal experiences. Factors that influence an intersectional experience may include: gender, race, social class, age, ability, religion, sexual orientation, and geographic location. Social workers must be cognisant of how a combination of their different identities can impact the lived experiences of those they work with. For social workers, this means that the individual’s they work with often require unique solutions to address their personal problems. This is because there are limitations with having a reliance on empirical evidence and statistical data (Bryson and Lawrence-Webb, 2000). A combination of both will result in the best outcome.
It is equally important to routinely shift our gaze from the experiences of individuals to the collective. For black feminists, the intersectionality framework is a useful tool that intelligibly articulates their historical, cultural and socio-spatial experiences. The repetition of negative stereotypes through Australia’s media, law enforcement and politics influences the heads, hearts and hands of those who consume their messaging. As Davis (2006, p.3) argues, “we need studies that separate out the different levels in which social divisions are constructed and analyse how they are intermeshed with each other in specific historical situations”. Despite Australia's reputation as a diverse nation, this characteristic has not translated into some of its major institutions. For example, an analysis of ASX200 companies showed that Non-Europeans only made up 4.7% of the Chief Executive or C-Suite employees, despite constituting 21% of the overall population. This is a problem because 3.1% of the Non-European category was people of Asian identity and 0.9% was attributed to Middle Eastern and North African people. Further, when Media Diversity Australia (2020) conducted a survey with 300 television journalists they found that 77% of the respondents from a diverse cultural background believed that ethnicity could hinder their career progression. The absence of diverse voices in Australia's public sphere is a passive problem; we must also address the actively growing prejudices directed towards African-Australians.
These contemporary examples identify how political discourse can be misappropriated to demonise African-Australians. They also echo the ethos of the nation’s 1901 ‘White Australia Policy’; one of the first pieces of legislation introduced to the federal parliament. Arguments of this nature are contrary to the logic of equality, equity and justice.
Patterns of misrepresentation in Australia’s media contribute to the racialisation of the nation’s African-Australian youth. Racialisation refers to ‘the cultural or political processes or situations where race is involved as an explanation or a means of understanding” (Murji & Solomos, 2005, p. 11). Racially biased discourses are a form of unconstructive ideological social power. The production, dissemination and impact of anti-black narratives in Australia’s media leads to negative repercussions throughout the community (Gitlin, 2003; Kendall, 2005; Norris, Just, & Kern, 2003). Ethnic minority groups are often framed as violent within the media; their sensationalist approach to reporting is driven by their inclination to initiate a ‘mediatised public crisis’ (Cottle, 2004, p. 2). News organisations apply specific lenses to their coverage of African-Australian youth, which in turn intensifies the discrimination against them and inadvertently justifies discrimination, both in person and on social media (Windle, 2008). It is within this type of lens that social dynamics of racism can also come into play, including dominant reporting of policy. The attitudes and perspective of politicians’ shapes and contribute to this process. To address these systematic issues, awareness of racialisation among these institutions need to be addressed in order to break the pattern of racialisation and impulses in reporting.
From the individual to the collective, and addressing considerations from the personal to political, black feminism is a call to action. In essence, this social movement resists normative power structures, to rebalance power and uplift those who exist on the margins of our societies. As a feminist and African Australian woman, I draw my lived experience from this perspective. Through my professional work and experience I have recognised the intersection of race, class, and, and their risk factor from an individual and systems perspective. This has led me to view these issues as significant providing me an opportunity to empower individuals from grassroot level to addressing institutions barriers. Below is an example of how I have taken action, of starting a business that promotes inclusivity of African and other migrants in the fashion industry while calling out on brands to take more actions.
At the detriment of the community, Australia’s media has been associating Blackness with criminality for years (Majavu 2018). As forms of traditional and social media fuel conflict, the relationship between law enforcement agencies and young African-Australians is increasingly being strained. The law enforcement-youth interactions have always been fragmented and have created numerous concerns within the African communities. To unpack this, we draw on the interaction of African Australians youth and the police. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (2020), in 2019 82% of the nation’s prison population were Australian-born. Despite this, the media routinely targets African-Australian youths during their crime news coverage. The disproportionate attention these young people face manifests from the wider attitudes of Australian institutions. By associating African-Australian identities with negative phrasing like a ‘culture of violence’, ‘African gang’ or ‘...dealing with the refugees who had come from a culture of boy soldiers and social violence’ (Evans, 2007b, p. 3) fruthers social division. This is also reinforced by reports that some police ‘fear the emergence of militant street gangs of young African refugees who have served in militia groups in their war-ravaged homelands’ (Kerbaj, 2007a, p. 8). It is only natural for racialisation to be met with resistance.
By examining the experiences of African-Australians within different public institutions, this article illustrates how marginalisation can occur in a multiplicity of ways. Examples of racial bias were found across sectors, from politics and the media to law enforcement. To practice intersectional feminism, it is vital that social workers take the initiative to challenge discriminatory structures, discourses and norms. We must embrace the unique knowledge, traditions and cultures that people from African descent can share. We must move from tolerance to acceptance. As noted throughout this article, there are forces that seek to further social division. To reinforce Australia’s community cohesion, it is vital that social worker practitioners actively create change in their local communities, beyond what is expected of them. The case study featured in this article provided a real-world example of how one individual could influence the entire system.
Australian Bureau of Statistics (2020). Prisoners in Australia 2019. https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/people/crime-and-justice/prisoners-australia/latest-release#prisoner-characteristics-australia
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