Week 9, Semester 2
By Ying Wong, Heli Yoon, Caity Setter, Ellie Ryan, Alana Ticchi, Lizz Kuiper, Jessica Flatters
This piece is a response to an article published by Jackson Willows in last week’s edition of De Minimis that challenged the utility and purpose of autonomous spaces in the Law School. Amidst the live debate, a few matters of importance must be confronted.
The practical function of a ‘People of Colour’ lunch
Firstly, the article never addresses in depth what the practical function of a lunch would be, beyond an assertion that “they think they are correcting historical wrongs”.
Every day, students of colour navigate a space that is overwhelmingly white - MLS. In fact, society at large reflects this whiteness. Think about the High Court bench, the eminent authors of our prescribed readings, and the composition of the faculty. Navigating this space can be exhausting at times; a slow, unrewarding, and seemingly endless trudge on the treadmill that is making others comfortable with our race. For people who feel this way, events like the People of Colour lunch create a space where our physical and cultural differences are accepted, and not thought of as the foremost defining feature of our identity.
The article appears to take issue with the idea that an event should not be drawing a line on the very basis that POC are discriminated against. Sure, but rather than tackling any lofty goals of “correcting historical wrongs,” we would like to make clear that the lunch was simply an opportunity to congregate without having to be concerned about race, and to just eat some goddamn pizza.
The “white/non-white” binary and the purpose of the lunch
We acknowledge the argument that the use of the term “people of colour” bears an element that might, as was (kind of) pointed out in Jackson’s article, create an us-and-them dynamic; an “othering” that has the potential to be polarising. It may also be a term that casts a blanket over the multifaceted experiences of the different permutations of not-whiteness, and assumes that “colour” is what defines “culture” and life experience.
Whatever the issue may be with the idea of a “white/non-white binary”, as canvassed by the article and subsequent comments, this cannot mean that a space should not be made for people who have collectively decided that they share a common interest in a common issue.
It is undeniable that people who have experienced racism, or come from a migrant or non-English speaking background, have needs that differ from those of the general cohort. The ES&J LSS portfolio is vital to addressing such needs, as are the Queer and Women’s portfolios in addressing the needs of students who identify as Queer, or as women. And, if you’re not comfortable with identity politics, the Later Law Students’ Network is another fine example of a student society built on the premise of addressing the needs of a particular section of the cohort who have experiences not faced by the rest.
Is the POC lunch really exclusionary? - Caitlin Setter
If you saw me walking through the law school, you’d probably be surprised to know that I am Chinese. Due to my mixed Hungarian background, the predominantly white features of my physical makeup grant me a certain type of privilege. I don’t bear the same burdens imposed upon a lot of Asian-Australians, and I can’t claim to understand their experiences of subtle and structural racism. I don’t speak the language, as my mother was vehemently discouraged from learning Cantonese growing up while the White Australia Policy was in force, and I won’t pretend that I am immersed in the Chinese culture.
It is for these reasons that I didn’t feel like the person of colour lunch spoke to me, or was an event that I needed to attend. And that’s okay. The key to these events is that, rather than being exclusionary, attendance is and ought to be self-nominated.
It would be a stretch to assert, as alluded to by Jackson, that the lunch sought overtly to “exclude” white people. Let’s think of it as seeking to include anyone who, for any variety of reasons, and despite their physical appearance, feels that it speaks to their needs and experiences.
The usefulness of white historical guilt
“You are not guilty of anything committed by someone else in history merely because you share a race. Neither am I. Neither is anybody. Race-based guilt is morally regressive to the core and should be expunged from society.”
Obviously. Many scholars have written about the stifling effect of guilt on any real change in our society. But no-one is suggesting that you, or that all white people, should be feeling guilty for the actions of their ancestors in order to effect change.
The rejection of the existence of “reverse racism” isn’t premised on guilt-treatment. Rather, it is imperative that we all - and white people especially - recognise that the systems we operate under now were built on the back of those historic, colonial injustices, and that this continues to inform who benefits from that system today. It is only once you acknowledge this fact that you become capable of contemplating solutions.
Being well-educated makes it harder to immediately understand what it’s like to go through life without a good education; being someone in good health makes it harder to immediately understand what it’s like to go through life in ill health. Obviously, it’s harder to understand experiences of the world that you haven’t had yourself, because life is, necessarily, subjective.
If there was one positive that came out of this whole shebang, it’s that the comments section opened up a forum for those with valid critiques of the lunch itself, particularly of the invitation process, to come forward and express those views. People on the wide spectrum of colours - and these are the voices that are important to hear - provided constructive criticisms. No doubt, these suggestions will help the ES&J portfolio identify what they can actively do to promote a less-divisive, more inclusive support network to promote equity.
We would encourage anyone who sympathised with the views expressed in Jackson’s article to listen to (like, really listen to) the experiences of people of colour who think that the lunch is important. This is not to say that all people of colour think it is important, but listen to those who do. If you’re genuine about reaching a point where our experiences of life are not shaped by race, then we would posit that listening to people who don’t experience the world that way is probably the best place to start.
If you do not identify as a person of colour and the past week’s discussion has created discomfort for you, we urge you to seize the opportunity to ask yourself why.
Let’s make the 21st century a more empathetic place.