Earlier this year, Tania Cañas, Arts Director at RISE Refugee in Melbourne, wrote an article 'Diversity is a White Word’ that subsequently exploded on social media, igniting discussion across the arts and in literary journals (Koubaroulis, 2017; Aranjuez, 2017; Iyer, 2017).
It was spring of 2016 and on the promise of safe spaces, diverse women writers gathered. I was eager to meet my favourite authors and writers of colour; and to be part of a unified front for diversity. The women who were attending the Diverse Women Writers event included women of colour, women with disability, women from the LGBTIQA+ community, and women with mental health issues. Everyone had come together for a day of discussion and conversation about diversity.
I stood near the door, hesitant, then inched my way to the back row of seats. Beads of sweat trickled down my forehead, my heartbeat thundering through my ears. I strained to concentrate and hear the discussion.
Unused to crowds, panic seized. Going out and mingling in a room full of people was new to me. My anxiety rose to dangerous heights. I couldn’t breathe. Did I need an extra dose of medication? I checked my watch. No, it wasn’t time to take any of my anxiety medications yet. Perhaps later, before I cycled back home.
Oblivious to what had happened during the morning sessions – I was late because of a punctured tyre on my cargobike – I was unsure and nervous about raising another kind of representation within an already diverse group. Was I still keen to take my first steps towards activism and advocacy for an unheard-of representation, carers of colour? I took a deep breath and waited. Waited for an opportunity, to find that courage. By the time the Question-and-Answer portion of the afternoon started, I felt cold in a warm, crowded room. Would anyone even notice me? I was seated at the far left of the room, where there were less people.
I raised my hand.
‘In the write-ability narrative where is the carer's voice?’ I asked, my voice shaky.
Even before I could elaborate about the narrative as a carer of colour, a Twitter conversation erupted when a disability advocate sparked a conversation on social media. She was not present in the room that afternoon.
The woman, with many social media followers, was at the forefront of feminist and disability advocacy. She had battled disability websites and carers – who were called caregivers in other countries, mostly from the United States. “I acknowledge need for carers voices, but they're louder than actually disabled so often”; she tweeted, "websites read about how they leave actually disabled people out – including its writers & I (& others) don't want to read another blog by parent who says their disabled kid is a burden … the majority I've read are very burden/inspiration-porn focused.”
Perplexed, I wondered if my question was misunderstood? Hadn’t the organisers repeatedly emphasised that this event would be a ‘safe space’? Did safe space mean physical space only? Did it include social media?
I felt attacked. Was it because I was a carer? Where was the solidarity?
I wanted to reply that the focus was about Australia’s diversity and not about other countries. But the disability advocate wasn’t in the room. She was however, online, watching the event’s hashtag, #DiverseWomenWriters.
I was shocked, betrayed even. In the age of the Internet, nothing seemed a ‘safe space’ anymore.
All I wanted was to raise the migrant’s point-of-view of being an Australian carer, the narrative of carers from diverse backgrounds. Carers of colour were not discussed during the event and seemed invisible from the discussion of diversity.
How do I even answer a well-seasoned advocate? I couldn’t form words in my head. I found myself speechless. Was I being attacked online because I was a carer? Fidgeting, I felt uneasy, embarrassed. I wasn’t ready. I can’t possibly publicly admit that I had –
"To be fair, her comment was more about cultural issues ..." Other diverse women writers who were in the room, jumped into the online conversation thread. "In the spirit of diversity, we need space where carers speak (their) own experience ... respectfully representing one's reality."
Dismayed and deflated, I took a few steps back from advocacy. It was my first year as an emerging writer, a writer of colour, and I was new to the realms of activism and advocacy. But something bothered me about how this was playing out.
Cañas explained what I experienced:
"Just because we exist in a space, doesn’t mean we’ve had autonomy in the process by which the existence has occurred. It is not about ‘giving a voice’, we already have one. It has been systematically silenced.”
Months later, the popular disability advocate would reiterate her stance at another writers’ event: "The voice of the disabled should come from them, not from the carers or parents." Did she know there were carers, like myself, who were among the audience? I stiffened in my seat.
And yet, I also found myself agreeing with her. As the late Stella Young wrote in 2013:
“[W]omen with disabilities are largely invisible in Australian society; but it’s not because there just aren’t that many of us. People with disabilities make up roughly 20% of the Australian population, and disability is slightly more prevalent among women.”
But as I fervently listened to the panelists, I wondered, where were the disabled women of colour? Shouldn’t there be representation within the disability community itself?
The 2011 ABS statistics show that people born overseas who speak a language other than English are far less likely to use mental health services. Of people born overseas, only six per cent aged 15–54 used mental health services. As Koziol (2016) describes “Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) groups are … the forgotten few … falling through the cracks, including language barriers, lack of knowledge and engagement, and possible cultural stigma around mental health conditions."
According to Michelle Cahill (2015), “In its networks, establishments and canons, Australian literature operates as a white settler narrative. It claims a material and discursive space disproportionately over Aboriginal and other ethnicities, racialising their differences from the presumed universality of its own. Debates over gender and genre tend to overlook the marginalisation of non-dominant ethnicities.”
In the language of my birth country, there was no direct translation to either words ‘mental health’ or ‘depression’. Instead, I could name at least ten words from two dialects—there are many dialects in the Filipino language—which closely translated to either impertinent, crazy, or possessed by evil spirits.
Kailangan tirikan ng kandila, nasapawan siya ng masamang espirito. Nakulam siya. Nakarma kamo. Lukaret kasi, eh. Ayan, para siyang sisa, timang. Heh, kulang lang siya sa pansin. Ang OA. n’ya. Drama Queen kamo. Pinarusahan siya ng Diyos. Nautog yata nung bata siya. Siguro, nahulog o nabagsak siya nung sanggol pa siya. Ah basta, engot talaga, hindi nag-iisip ng maayos. Hibang. Hindi kasi marunog sumunod sa mga nakakatanda. Baliw. Nabuang.
What the disability advocate didn’t know was that I, too, have a disability – an ‘invisible disability’, what is described by Sanusi & Galant (2017) as “the term used for a condition that isn't visibly apparent when you meet someone.” The Disability World website has an up-to-date list of invisible disabilities; for example, people with visual or auditory disabilities who didn’t wear glasses or discreet hearing aids.
My disability was the kind you couldn’t see – and I hid it well; so well, that I didn’t even share it on social media. While I’ve been wearing eye-glasses since preschool, I’ve been taking antidepressants and anxiety medications since my daughter’s chemotherapy in 2011. I was diagnosed with clinical depression. Recently, I’ve been diagnosed with hearing loss.
Am I too ‘diverse’ to take part in this conversation about diversity? Am I too complicated? Is having too many layers – as a woman of colour, who has an invisible disability, with mental health issues; who slowly cycled on a trike or a cargobike as everyday transport; a writer of colour, and a most of all, a carer of colour – too much for white women authors and writers?
Is diversity indeed, as Cañas has described – a white word?
Adolfo Aranjuez. ‘The Abstraction of Privilege’. Right Now: Human Rights in Australia. 27 June 2017, <https://rightnow.org.au/essay/the-abstraction-of-privilege>
Michelle Cahill. 'Who is lobbying for migrant writers?'. Sydney Review of Books. 13 November 2015, <https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/13-november-2015-who-is-lobbying-for-migrant-writers/>
Tania Cañas. ‘Diversity Is a White Word’. Arts Hub, 9 January 2017, <http://www.artshub.com.au/education/news-article/opinions-and-analysis/professional-development/tania-canas/diversity-is-a-white-word-252910>
Nithya Iyer. ‘Displacing Whiteness in the Arts: Discussion with Angharad Wynne-Jones, Arts House Artistic Director’. Peril Magazine. 12 August 2017, <http://www.peril.com.au/topics/displacing-whiteness-in-the-arts-discusion-with-angharad-wynne-jones-arts-house-artistic-director/>
Kiriaki Koubaroulis. ‘CAAP Longhouse #1 @ Carriageworks.’ Cultural Omnivore. 27 April 2017, <https://culturalominivore.blog/2017/04/27/caap-longhouse-1-carriageworks>
Michael Koziol. ‘Migrants, Non-English speakers less likely to use mental health services: ABS’. The Sydney Morning Herald. (8 June 2016) <https://www.smh.com.au/national/health/migrants-nonenglish-speakers-less-likely-to-use-mental-health-services-20160607-gpdbba>
Victoria Sanusi & Laura Galant. ‘This Is What It Feels Like To Live With An Invisible Disability’ (31 July 2017) < https://www.buzzfeed.com/victoriasanusi/this-is-what-its-really-like-to-live-with-an-invisible?utm_term=.xug6VBkLn>
Stella Young. ‘The Politics of Exclusion’. Destroying The Joint: Why Women Have to Change the world. Queensland University Press, (2013), p 247.
About CB Mako
CB Mako is a member of West Writers Group and an art student at Footscray Community Arts Centre. Winner of the Grace Marion Wilson Award (non-fiction category, 2016), her works have been published in The Suburban Review, The Lifted Brow, The Victorian Writer, Pencilled In, Peril Magazine, Mascara Literary Review, and Koru Mag.