In our latest book review, Jacquelyn Baker reviews the 20th anniversary edition of Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s Talkin’ up to the white woman: Indigenous women and feminism (University of Queensland Press).
By Jacquelyn Baker
2020 has already been dubbed a historic year. As the new year ticked over, record-breaking bushfires continued to burn throughout New South Wales, Victoria and other areas of the country. By the end of March, a ‘once in a lifetime’ global pandemic was beginning to have a devasting impact. In May, the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers garnered support, solidarity, protests and action not just within the context of Minneapolis or the United States, but internationally.
In Australia, the Black Lives Matter movement rallied in response to First Nations deaths in custody—in June it was reported that 434 Aboriginal people had died in custody since 1991—and called out systemic issues of colonialism and racism. White and non-Black allies also sought to educate themselves on issues such as racism, prejudice, and privilege. This attempt to self-educate saw a surge in sales of books about race and racism. In Australia, white and non-Black people were also turning to books written by Aboriginal people so that they could ‘learn about Aboriginal cultures, history and experiences’. Book sellers, such as Readings, compiled a list of books to help readers ‘understand and fight white supremacy’, which included the 20th anniversary edition of Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s Talkin’ up to the white woman: Indigenous women and feminism.
Moreton-Robinson’s ground-breaking and highly influential book was ‘born’ out of her PhD dissertation (p. vi). In the introduction to the original publication, she explained that Talkin’ up to the white woman was ‘an extension’ of her ‘communal responsibilities’ and that she was ‘representing an Indigenous standpoint within Australian feminism’ (p. xvi). Moreton-Robinson explained that the standpoint of Aboriginal women is informed and shaped by ‘sharing an inalienable connection to land’, dispossession, racism and sexism (p. xvi). In her book, Moreton-Robinson analysed and criticised the subject position of the middle-class white woman. She also highlighted the way in which middle-class white women have positioned themselves in relation to—and have constructed ideas about— Aboriginal women. In her concluding comments to the original edition, Moreton-Robinson encouraged white feminists to interrogate their privilege and to find a way to relinquish some of their power.
While the preface to the 20th anniversary edition may only be eight pages in length, these pages are brimming with new insights that would enhance the reading experience of those who are both new and returning to Talkin’ up to the white woman.
The preface to the 20th anniversary edition is firmly situated in the context of 2020. It begins in the midst of the COVID-19 global pandemic, before moving towards a reflection on Aboriginal communities. Moreton-Robinson discusses memories of meeting with Elders at Stradbroke Island to whom she had sent her PhD dissertation, before addressing the context of the publication of her book. In reflecting on the reception of the book, Moreton-Robinson recalls how the negative responses had affected her professional opportunities in Australia; she was offered a meagre eight speaking and presenting invitations in Australia between 2000 and 2020. Moreton-Robinson ends the preface with her reflections on feminism. While white feminism centres the middle-class white woman’s subject position—which is, in part, based on an understanding that the mind, body and earth are separate—Moreton-Robinson contends that ecofeminism re-centres the relationship between humans and the earth, which, as she suggests, is more aligned with the knowledge production of Aboriginal women.
Moreton-Robinson concludes the preface to the 20th anniversary edition of Talkin’ up to the white woman:
How ironic that the global spread of the coronavirus reminds us that humans cannot transcend our bodies; our biology is dependent upon mother earth whose power we cannot control. (p. xii)
Indeed, organisations, such as the UN, have stressed that if drastic action is not taken now, it may be difficult to adapt to the future impacts of climate change. It will come as no surprise, then, that results of recent polls conducted by the Australia Institute and the Lowy Institute suggested that Australians’ anxieties about climate change and the uncertainty of the future have increased.
Twenty years after it was first published, Moreton-Robinson’s Talkin’ up to the white woman still feels like a timely read. The author’s original premise and findings continue to illuminate how whiteness operates in feminist movements as well as in institutionalised settings. The new insights that Moreton-Robinson has included in the 20th anniversary edition are perceptive reflections of our current circumstances as well as a call-to-action that has been informed by the knowledge production of Aboriginal women and Aboriginal communities.
It is clear that now, more than ever, we must listen to and prioritise the knowledge production of, and by, Aboriginal women. Reading Talkin’ up to the white woman is a good place to start.