Coloured Experience

By Kesharni Goonewardene, State Financial Officer

When I was in school ten years ago, I started to take an interest in the different barriers that men and women face. In particular, I was interested in how this power imbalance manifested in the workforce and leadership. However, I remember that feminism was often misunderstood at that time, and that there was sometimes a negative undertone associated with it. Furthermore, no one was really talking about intersectionality; let alone teaching students about it. I didn’t really have a good understanding about the intersection between race and gender.

Throughout my adolescent years, I had a tendency to behave angrily rather than rationally when I was going through emotionally challenging times. However, compared to my Caucasian peers, people reacted differently to me when I expressed my anger - I had lots of people start to tell me things like, “you’re so much nicer than I thought!”. Being a woman of colour, I began to identify as someone who was being stereotyped as the “angry black girl” at school. At the time, I didn’t fully understand the narrative that I was allowing people to perceive me as.

I admittedly embraced the “angry black girl” stereotype because I had no idea of the cultural appropriation behind allowing it. Being a first generation Australian with a Sri Lankan heritage, being labelled a black woman isn’t politically correct.

Only black women experience the unique form of racism that is the “angry black woman” stereotype. Nonetheless, women of colour in general can experience heightened resistance as leaders. I have realised that sometimes, when I act assertively, I am mistaken for being angry.

In year eleven, my cohort attended leadership camp. The camp’s aim was to prepare students for the burdens that can come with leadership. This is where they spoke to us about the importance of “leading by example”; a saying that has been drilled into my memory. In my last year at school I was elected by my peers to one of the positions for Stewardship Committee Leader. I was thrilled to be recognised as a student leader for my school and cohort. Although I felt an overall sense of respect and cheerfulness from my cohort after my election, I still felt like there was a proportion of students who did not take my leadership seriously. Throughout my entire schooling career, I felt as if my personality was defined by my skin colour, and became desensitised to the difference in interactions that I would face from peers, compared to the way people would respond to Caucasian students.

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Thankfully, I never let these false perceptions of me hinder my drive for starting my career. As soon I turned the legal working age, I tried my best to hit the ground running.

I applied for any job vacancy I could find in my area. At the age of 17, I was thrilled to finally land my first job, thus beginning my career in retail. I’ve worked for a number of employers in the retail industry; however, one employer stands apart from the rest.

I was 18 when I started this job. As I progressed, there were times when the job could be challenging and demanding. Still, it gave me a platform to learn so much about leadership. I was fortunate to have wonderful female managers and supervisors who were able to guide and train me. Each of them had different management and leadership styles, which allowed me the see the variety of approaches there are to dealing with issues that arise in retail. For the most part of my experience, I felt lucky to work with like-minded people who shared similar values. I felt acceptance amongst peers and no longer felt like I was being reduced to a stereotype.

It has been liberating and validating to work in this environment, and I hope that more women of colour are able to have a similar experience. I feel incredibly privileged to have had this guidance and opportunity; I acknowledge that women of colour aren’t commonly afforded experiences like these.

After working with the One Woman Project for a little over a year now, I have never felt more empowered or more motivated to work towards showing everyone that feminism is intersectional. The passionate volunteers who I work alongside inspire me with their profound devotion to working towards gender equality. Just like them, I have and will always continue to work toward women being granted equal opportunities on a local and global scale.