Community: the illusion of inclusion

June 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

On the Queen’s birthday weekend I traveled to Sydney to perform at POC the MIC Sydney: “a performance night featuring people of colour spoken word, burlesque and more” that was held during Camp Betty “a radical political festival on sex, sexuality, gender and politics”. I read something close to the below text before performing my poetry and spoken word pieces, in regards to the context in which I was presenting.

For a few months now I have been creating poetry, spoken word and other writing under the name Harsh Browns about my experiences of racism. Much of my writing regards oppressive behaviours I’ve experienced from white people who consider themselves ‘progressive’ or part of ‘radical communities’.

It seems to me that there is comparative willingness for dialogue around politics of sex and gender but when it comes to talking about race, white people get really defensive or clam up, acting offended that I’ve challenged them because, they assert they’re ‘not racist’. As if a brown person couldn’t possibly have valid insight as to whether a white person’s behaviour may reflect institutional racism.

Most white people I’ve talked to seem to think racism is something other white people do. It’s a new experience for them to be challenged or what they feel is ‘misunderstood’ around issues of race.

And that’s in sharp contrast to my own lifetime of experience having my viewpoints regarding race so rarely affirmed or reflected back to me.

I’m sick of talking to white people about issues when they’re not considering how race relates to the conversation. I’m even more tired of talking to white people specifically about issues of race. We don’t begin the conversation on equal footing and I have so much more to emotionally risk from the ‘discussion’, that seems to change nothing except to increase my sense of alienation.

It’s more empowering for me to create art and writing about my experiences. Not for white people to understand me. Instead, I make it with hope that it’s for people who share my frustrations.

An event like POC the MIC that is organized by and features only people of colour, that prioritises people of colour first, each of us presenting our varied experiences, is personally empowering for me after spending so much time in supposedly ‘radical’ spaces in which I may be told I’m welcome but where white people are used to taking up most of the space and having their voices heard most of the time.

I performed the poems and spoken word pieces that I’ve posted on this blog. The night was personally empowering. Hearing the pain, anger, and other emotions in the voices of so many people of colour performing, as varied as each of our experiences are, was painfully affirming of my own feelings. Hearing the responses of other people of colour to my own performance was affirming of the energy I’ve been putting into writing about my experiences.

I feel like holding the details of these personal exchanges to myself and to those close to me. I came away from the weekend with a realisation that this permutable network of my own interpersonal relationships is the only concept of ‘community’ to which I feel comfortable to claim a sense of belonging. I feel affirmed that my feelings of anger at, and alienation from queer and radical communities, as I have known them, are justified. I feel empowered to let go of the expectation of ‘inclusion’ in what others consider ‘our community’. I’ve tried for so long to believe otherwise, but it’s always been a peripheral existence. I’ve never had the feeling of ‘home’ that I hear many others speak of in regards to ‘queer’, ‘punk’, and other ‘radical communities’, though I’ve inhabited spaces identifying as such, because of aspects of my own identity. Many people seem to speak with an assumed sense of belonging to ‘our community’, a sense that I suspect is linked to privilege that I have not experienced. When people speak of ‘our community’, I hear them speak of their idea of community. When white people ponder “What our community needs to do to be inclusive of people of colour…”, they centre whiteness in ‘our community’, and the conversation, and I feel further marginalized. I’m not interested in being ‘included’ on these terms, to be allowed onto the peripheries of an illusion of community that I do not believe in.

Many people who consider themselves ‘radical’ seem to speak of their idea of community as if it is an independent entity that is possible to exist, for the most part, exclusive of the oppressions they associate with broader culture. If there is anything more than a nod of acknowledgment of oppression within their idea of community, many individuals seem unable to acknowledge their own oppressive behaviours, nor their privileges. I’ve been to enough spaces that aim to provide a ‘safer space’ from x, y and z phobias and from racism, but in regards to my sense of alienation in that space, I may as well have been walking down Swanston Street in Melbourne city on a Friday night. At least there I wouldn’t have an expectation of belonging, one that is never fulfilled.

I’ve realised that I can only try to find a sense of ‘home’ within myself. And I did feel that sense of home within myself in the empowering space of POC the MIC. I don’t consider the people who performed and organised to be part of a ‘person of colour community’. I’m not falling for another illusion of community that expects a sense of belonging that will eventually disappoint. These realisations are not sad, nor individualistic; I will happily put my energy and support into relationships and projects, with individuals that reciprocate these energies, without defining my interpersonal networks as a ‘community’. It is not from a lacking in me that I claim not to belong to a ‘community’, it’s the ‘communities’ that are lacking, and it’s an empowering choice to claim ‘I do not belong’ to a community, only to myself.

“I’m not racist”

June 22, 2011 § 10 Comments

I hear this line of defense so often when I challenge white people on racist behaviours. I had the privilege of listening to a recording in which Tracey Bunda, speaking on a panel “Women of the First Nation” that opened the Feminist Futures conference, broke down how it is that white people exercise privilege in saying these words.

How is feminism relevant to Aboriginal people’s lives? Whose purpose and for what purpose is being served when Aboriginal people come into this space? In crossing over into a feminist space what risks are hidden that we may have to come face to face with? And we usually do that alone as Aboriginal woman. And in raising this matter I think how permanent a fixture being raced, moving into racialised spaces and how race takes a very different shape to say, the time in which my mum grew up which was 1920’s and even the time in which I grew up in the 19 – I’m not telling you.. (laughter). But it’s still very insidious within Australian society and it takes a very different shape.

You know, it’s easy to look at somebody like, what’s-his-face, an Andrew Bolt, but it’s those very insidious forms of racism that have become very sophisticated, and they are framed within politically correct, ‘colour-blindness’, and it’s those sorts of racisms that Aboriginal people deal with, and non-Indigenous people deal with, and part of the privilege is to be able to say “No, I’m not racist”.

(later, during question time, in response to audience member asking Tracey to expand on ‘the privilege of being able to say “I’m not racist”’…)

When we challenge a person on their behaviour and that person responds back to us by saying “I’m not racist”, it’s an exercise of power to shut down the conversation. Right? Because, the person who is saying that, and it’s usually a white person, wants to hold, wants to be centred and dominate virtue. And so that behaviour of goodness is always then attributed to whiteness. And then in challenging white people by saying “That behaviour is racist. What you have just said is racist”, there’s this retreat to virtue and a retreat to goodness to dominate that particular space. And so, in dominating that space; “No, I’m not a racist”, what becomes unspoken is that “You’re not virtuous because you are not engaging in polite conversation with me. You’re actually wanting to disclaim my virtue. You’re bad”. And blackness is associated with bad.

– Tracey Bunda, a Ngugi Wakka Wakka woman and Associate Professor of the Yunggorendi Centre at Flinders University, speaking on panel “Women of the First Nation” which opened the Feminist Futures conference that was held end of May in Melbourne. Notated with her permission.

I don’t want a piece of the cake…

June 15, 2011 § 4 Comments

The Recipe

No reason to
Expect respect
You never gave
Me it before

You stroke my arm
Treat me as a child
You help yourself
Say you know best

Your kindly tone
Belies the truth
Your gratitude
Has attitude
At any rate
It’s all for you

While I should know
I am lucky
To get pity
Should be thankful
For a handful

You let me take
A slice of cake
Your recipe
Unshared with me

You live by rules
Entitled to
Believe they are
Applied the same
To me and you

And I have tried
To believe this lie
Swallowed each sigh
Inside myself
All my life

Now your surprise
That I go wild
Out of control
Of your control

You try to keep hold
Choose to dismiss
My anger blind
Myself unkind

The blame on me
For rejecting
All your offers
Of unity

Your offers that
Delete dissent
Refuse critique
Especially
Without comedy
Or calm relay

In any words
However said
You are content
To see yourself
As innocent

The world you know
Supports your view
So I suspect
You won’t take time
To self reflect

My rage is real
And justified
And every day
The world I knew
Including you
Compounds my view

I know that I
Can’t change the world
That includes you
But I can try
To change my world
To exclude you
As you did me
Though you don’t see

My sights are clear
All I expect
Is what I give
My self respect

……………………

I wrote the above poem in consideration of my many interpersonal relationships with people whom have not allowed space and understanding for my anger over institutional racism, that I see clearly reflected in the dynamics between us, yet they do not.

The poem references a quote by comedian Paul Mooney, “I don’t want a piece of the cake, I want the fucking recipe” from his stand-up CD ‘R A C E’ (1993). I realised after writing it, that race is not explicit in the poem. Several people have commented to me, after performing it at POC the MIC Sydney last weekend, that they heard it as reflective of their own lived experiences of oppression, not necessarily to do with race. I wrote it for those who share the frustrations of exclusion to do with race, but recognise that there are many oppressions that contribute to people experiencing anger about their alienation.

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