Tess Ryan is a Biripi woman originating from Taree, New South Wales. She is undertaking a PhD at The University of Canberra focusing on Indigenous women and their experiences of leadership in Australia. Tess is a visiting scholar with The University of Melbourne through the Poche Centre for Indigenous Health Leadership and a student support officer. She has received a number of awards for her academic achievements, including an ABC Indigenous Media scholarship and a Charles Perkins scholarship. Tess was awarded The University of Canberra Medal for her Honours thesis: The push pull indicators of Indigenous political engagement.
Indigenous Australian women have been prolific in their endeavours to create change for their people in Australian society. Historically, these women have led from the shadows, in background roles with responsibility and integrity towards making something better for their communities.
I spend a lot of time writing about how amazing (these) women are, and I stand by that statement every day. I’m interested in how the many Indigenous Australian women I know, in the face of sometimes terrible tragedy, the lack of a formal education and poor socio-economic conditions, still manage to become leaders in their community, and sometimes in organisations and politics where they can make lasting change.
There are a variety of definitions we can draw upon when discussing leadership; one must make a distinction between leadership in the mainstream, and leadership as it has existed for Indigenous people both internationally and here in Australia. More mainstream definitions of leadership seem to be constructed with a business management context in mind and are highly United States-centric (Sveiby, 2010:282). More cultural approaches to leadership discuss a sense of shared leadership and collaboration with a component of identity and followership concerns. So participants in my project discussed what their definitions of leadership within an Indigenous context embodied, and this highlighted both similarities and differences. Cultural forms of leadership are often defined within parameters of consensus and local knowledge as Tuamusk et al (2013) and Kusumasari & Alam (2012) highlight throughout their work in exploring cultural responses to natural disaster affected areas in Indonesia.
I could go on at length about Aboriginal women and leadership as understood within academic literature paradigms, explain my research method and discuss in fine detail the specifics of my findings…but instead I want to stay with the core that is fundamentally the most important insight emerging from the interviews, the one that keeps me invested in the process of writing. AWESOME BLACK WOMEN GET SHIT DONE!
Indigenous Australian women seem to have an innate ability to see where something needs to be filled, a void if you like, that may (or may not) be directly related to that woman or to her community. But certainly it is one where there is a need to be filled and she has the capacity to do just that. It may be that she has had to deal with a suicide in her family, or she’s seen too many of them in her community and amongst its young people, so she sets up youth based activities and suicide prevention measures to stop this from happening.
It may be that she is keeping the local football team going so that the young men in community have something healthy to do, because she knows these men feel isolated and are at risk without the team behind them. Or it may be that her trajectory towards academia and health research is based on her desire to create change in the disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous health statistics. All of these examples denote a form of leadership, as they do illustrate forceful women who will stand up when others won’t to fight for what they believe in.
In some circles, this does make us as women ‘dangerous’. Dangerous in the sense that these women create great change – in matters of representation, identity and discourse. Dangerous in the sense that they stand up, and motivate others when they are expected to stay cowering in the metaphoric corner. I spend an exorbitant amount of time writing about identity in a collective and individual sense based on the interviews I have conducted with many Indigenous Australian women. A number of patterns begin to appear when you start to delve into the interview material. Firstly, we as women are not comfortable calling ourselves out as leaders, we don’t want nor need the attention. This is ever-present when talking to Indigenous Australian women, as leadership (basically a word for someone who gets it done, takes control and mobilises followers) is often a double-edged sword, blunt on one side from the many cuts it has dealt with in attempting to overcome disadvantage, and jagged on the other, ready to strike at those that may tell us ‘we aren’t good enough’. In our communities, the men are often the first to put their hands up and say they are the ‘big men’, and this is not a criticism. It is merely the nuanced difference between men and women in our culture. The women don’t need to necessarily name it, or discuss doing it – they just do. For the women who do speak up and own their place in a leadership sense, there is often high criticism for the way in which they present and perform their leadership.
Secondly, when taking on a study of this ilk and discussing identity, conversations with the women interviewed invariably came around to discussing the concept of the ‘angry black women’ syndrome. Similar to the angry black man syndrome, whereby black males become confrontational and hyper-vigilant after countless experiences of being treated as inferior, told they were dumb or couldn’t amount to anything, the angry black woman displays a stance that makes one uncomfortable, the glaring eyes tell a story of oppression, subtle and overt racism, and of feeling constantly reminded that their place is low on the scale. The angry black woman syndrome is a mix of education, empowerment and at times with a little post-traumatic stress thrown in the mix. Fight, flight or freeze – the angry black woman has finally reacted to the situation after years of being frozen in apathy or fear and moved towards a look that says ‘I know what you are trying to do, and it won’t work on me’.
What I find interesting about this is that there is no danger there unless you count a ‘looks can kill’ argument as something wounding to your delicate sensibilities. Have we really gotten to a point in society where this is a dangerous act? In Australia’s dark and largely ignored history, Indigenous women have been exploited and misrepresented, from the time of early ‘settlement’ to the false representations perpetuated in the media of lascivious victims, drug-addled and dependent (Humphreys, 2008; 2). To perpetuate the belief that we as Aboriginal women are compliant victims, vulnerable to any form of abuse, exploitation or self-destruction, plays into the continual parentification by government to fix the ‘Aboriginal problem’. It also undermines any suggestion that Aboriginal women may lead – forcefully, collaboratively or with any tangible impact within Australian society.
There exists a cultural blindness when it comes to seeing things for what they really are here. In Australia we gloss over what is apparent in connection to our First Nations Peoples. We don’t recognise the bare arsed facts of dispossession, removal of children; even identity itself comes into question. So for the black women I see, working day after day in both macro and micro levels of ‘leadership’, it almost seems pointless to stamp your feet and scream ‘I am here’ when you sense no one is listening. Some just get on with the job, while others put on their tough stance and prepare for the onslaught that ensues.
So are we dangerous because we carry the angry black woman gene, or is it something more than that? Perhaps it is that we are growing in confidence each day. We as women, regardless of cultural considerations, may be seen as being dangerous due to our ability to ‘get shit done’ without fanfare and when teetering on the precipice of collapse. There is danger in that to some, because there is power in it as well.
As Indigenous people, we bear witness to the institutions of power each day of our lives. From early colonialism where it was not specifically named, to the Foucauldian discourses we see in the present, institutions of power exist around us, and through us in the everyday. When we as Indigenous women enact or embody that power stance, we are inevitably perceived as being aggressive.
Over many years, Indigenous Australia has cultivated strong, warrior-like leaders and women have played a huge part in that. ‘Mission aunties’ is a term often used to situate black women as tough, forthright and not ashamed to put people in their place when it is deemed necessary. These strong women however are not exercising their leadership to emulate men. For Indigenous women, creating agency within their lives and for the lives of those in their communities can be a process by which different representations can take place. Fredericks positions this by adding that dissenting Aboriginal women’s voices are marginalized and silenced, and the Aboriginal women who raise concerns are positioned as angry or as aggressors (2010: 547).
If agency or empowerment increases, as Taylor et al. (2003) suggest, when ‘local people become involved in a process of determining priorities and solving problems, and, in the process, increase their knowledge and skill base in addition to achieving a sense of control over their environment’ (99), then many examples of Indigenous women and leadership fall into this concept almost accidentally by nature. Aboriginal women have shown particular leadership in regards to community-led solutions in many communities (Homel et al., 1999:189).
However, the idea that any woman be deemed as dangerous or ‘angry’ by society is an issue that feminists have been discussing for many years. And it is dividing feminism when in reality we should all just accept that we can be angry, and funny, insightful, and nurturing without eliminating elements in the presentation of the self. Whilst there are some theorists who choose to make clear divergence between black and white feminism, evidence from the research gathered suggests that there are those choosing to walk together to create strong leadership.
As Sarah Ahmed argues, the ‘angry black woman’ ‘can be described as a killjoy; she may even kill feminist joy, for example, by pointing out forms of racism within feminist politics’ (2010:257). Positioning these two forces against each other appears to be yet another way of further distancing ourselves from the collaborative work we can do across any race barriers in order to have greater impact within the feminist space. For it is when that shared vision works that we begin to see that how we behave, or why we behave in particular ways, should not have any bearing on who we are as women. Culture is ever present and it can be so distinctive in nature, and yet it is the shared cultural identity of being women that can be seen as a scary prospect. For the future of strong and determined female leadership, the sharing of this culture should be encouraged. If we are deemed dangerous because we speak up, then maybe we should all just speak even louder? The chorus of angry may then be seen for what it is – empowerment.
Ahmed, S. (2010). Killing joy: Feminism and the history of happiness. Signs, 35(3), 571-594.
Fredericks, B. (2010). Reempowering ourselves: Australian aboriginal women. Signs, 35(3), 546-550.
Homel, R., Lincoln, R., & Herd, B. (1999). Risk and resilience: Crime and violence prevention in aboriginal communities. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 32(2), 182-196.
Humprheys, A. (2008). Representations of aboriginal women and their sexuality. (Honours thesis, . University of Queensland School of Social Sciences Honours thesis. University of Queensland, Brisbane.).
Kusumasari, B & Alam, Q. (2012). Local wisdom‐based disaster recovery model in indonesia. Disaster Prevention and Management: An International Journal, 21(3), 351-369.
Sveiby, K. (2010). In Lowe S. (Ed.), Perplexity and indigenous leadership. (1st ed.). India: Sage Publications.
Taylor, R. (2003). Indigenous community capacity building and the relationship to sound governance and leadership. Paper presented at the National Native Title Conference. Retrieved may, , 10 2010.
Tuamsuk, K., Phabu, T., & Vongprasert, C. (2013). Knowledge management model of community business: Thai OTOP champions. Journal of Knowledge Management, 17(3), 363-378.