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The radical implications of 'they are us'

  • 04 June 2019


When Jacinda Ardern uttered the words 'They are Us', in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Christchurch mosques, a powerful vision hovered over the impending debates on the meaning of what had happened. Something hitherto invisible came into view and was repudiated: a conceptual structure underlying the operations of social power.

The central point here was articulated in feminist theory of the 1980s — most trenchantly, by the legal theorist Catharine Mackinnon, in an essay called 'Dominance and Difference'.

It concerned the subtle ways in which the status quo conceals an implicit standard against which questions of difference and equality are judged. Mackinnon argued that issues of sexual equality are really issues of the social distribution of power — to be understood in terms of male supremacy and female subordination.

Mackinnon's analysis was offered at a period when feminist attempts to change an unequal status quo were readily construed as postulating unfair discrimination against men. Bringing to the surface the implicit sexual discrimination inherent in the status quo was a powerful contribution to feminist theory of the time. It exposed 'maleness' as the invisible benchmark — the standard against which both difference and sameness were to be understood. In this context, sameness was construed as being the same as men; difference, as being different from them.

The accompanying insight — which cut through confusion in debates centred on sameness, difference and equality — was that true diversity was difference among equals; and true equality was equality within diversity.

Feminists were quick to draw on those insights into the conceptual aspects of social power underlying sexual difference. Yet It went largely unnoticed at the time that similar structures and operations of power underlie inequalities of race and culture. It is especially worthy of note that, within Australia, an underlying assumption of dominant 'whiteness' has continued to shape the conceptualising of relations across the divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous.

Later feminist theory has been more nuanced in relation to complexities of hybrid, intersecting identities under conditions of inequality. Yet invisible 'whiteness' still goes largely unrecognised in contemporary Australian debates. Even where explicit doctrines of 'white supremacy' are rejected, those underlying structures can reinforce an anomalous privileging of non-Indigenous construal of Indigenous 'problems'. Voices which speak in the supposedly neutral tones of authoritative objectivity can nonetheless be suffused with unexamined assumptions, reflecting the distribution of power in an unequal status quo.


"What, in a supposedly multicultural society, warrants