July 21, 2011 § 9 Comments
In response to your question: “Where are you from?”
Why do you ask?
Is it your curiosity in the ‘origin of my features’?
Is it your fascination for ‘other’ cultures and what they have to offer you?
Why do you desire an exact definition of my difference?
Why do you assume I desire, and am able, to define this difference to you?
Do you show the same interest in determining the ‘ethnic make-up’ of every white face that you see?
Isn’t everyone from somewhere?
Don’t you have a heritage?
Why does whiteness make yours invisible yet my brownness make mine subject to your anthropological investigation?
Do you believe that I should be delighted to personally inform and educate you?
Do you think it is my responsibility to know, and always be ready to impart, the details of my cultural heritage?
Do you apply these same standards to yourself?
Why do you assume that I’d love to reminisce about what my family, or I, left to come here?
Didn’t it cross your mind that we may have left for good reasons that I do not wish to reminisce about, especially with a stranger?
Do you believe your curiosity is commendable?
Do you think I should be grateful for your ‘tolerance’ and interest in ‘diversity’?
Do you believe this is YOUR country to welcome me to?
While brownness prompts
“Where are you from?”
Your whiteness prompts
“What do you do?”
You wish to define me by my physicality but you expect to be defined by your actions and your intellect.
Have you travelled the world and been asked the same question?
It isn’t the same experience in a place where you had expected to be treated as a visitor.
Perhaps your whiteness provided a fascination, but wasn’t it also exalted?
Weren’t you still treated like a speaker at a podium?
Or don’t you see this because you are so used to being heard from that position?
Don’t you realise that in expecting to discuss my brownness as subject of your fascination you position me as an exotic curio on a pedestal?
Do you think I wish to be a talking doll, spilling my secrets each time yet another curious child pulls my cord demanding that I politely answer your question?
I performed the above piece at the RISE 40Hands book launch and poetry slam on the weekend. The publication features poems, mostly by detainees and ex-detainees, with additional contributions by people from POC migrant backgrounds, such as myself. I was lucky to participate in the series of RISE poetry workshops hosted by Pataphysics. Pata and many of the workshop participants performed on the night, as well as the always amazing Candy Bowers, the cutting Kojo, and the witty and charming Marissa Johnpillai, visiting from Aotearoa.
My poem is addressed to white people, like most of my poetry, but it’s not for them. Judging from the laughter it received from many people of colour in the audience (POCS made up the majority of attendees), the people I had hoped would get it, really got it. I did see some uncomfortable white people and this was unfortunately acknowledged by the MC, Victor Victor, after I left the stage, when he apologised if anyone was offended, because that wasn’t ‘our’ intention as it was a night about ‘positivity’. Ramesh, CEO and co-founder of RISE, did ask him to take back the apology, which he did the next time he was on stage. Is there any person, especially any white person, who couldn’t do with being challenged on their less obvious (to them) racisms? And how, and why, should I do that without making some people uncomfortable? Especially considering, as a person of colour living in a white-centric world, I’m always adapting to ‘uncomfortable’ circumstances.
I want to print the poem as a handbill, a kind of none-of-your-business card, to give out every time I get asked this question, à la Adrian Piper. I’d like to just walk away without having to verbally explain each time why that question is so loaded and why I am so reluctant to indulge the curiousity of the questioner.
I’d been having relevant correspondence with Wai Ho, who is part of Mellow Yellow blog, among other things. I sent them the poem and their email response ponders where that question comes from…
White people, especially in colonial settler societies, ask that question because it’s like closet homos that bully queers. Colonial settler society imbibes amnesia, because they would like to forget that they did indeed “come from” somewhere not so long ago, and that their “coming” was an invasion (which is why they get so touchy with Asian invasion). Also the shame/guilt they feel from leaving UK/Europe makes them extra touchy about things… They actively forget their shameful colonial histories, which is why they like to think they have no culture, because they’ve cut off their ethnic cultural limbs along with their colonial imperial invader hands.
White Australia makes such a big deal about ‘letting’ certain people into this country, actively forgetting this is not their country either.
RISE is a not-for-profit organisation founded and run by ex-detainees for refugees, asylum seekers and ex-detainees, making a rare, empowering structural choice of striving to function with little involvement by white ‘benevolence’ (which always enacts a power dynamic). Government policies and ‘Go back to where you came from’ attitudes are the obvious racisms that do-gooder white people love to point their fingers at, but institutional racism affects and infects us all. Finger pointing white people who wish to claim they are ‘not racist’ need to question their place in a system that places whiteness in the magnanimous ‘helping hand’ position and Indigenous and non-Indigenous people of colour as the should-be-grateful recipients of ‘tolerance’ and charity.
White people need to ask themselves why they expect gratitude for ‘giving’ access to the benefits of a country that white people stole and now most assume as their own. I don’t hear do-gooder white people who mostly call themselves ‘Australian’ even use the qualifier of ‘non-Indigenous Australian’ (though the term ‘Indigenous’ is also a white construct).
White Australia may forever be defining people who have come here because of circumstances they would probably rather not remember, as ‘refugees’. White people wish to forever remind people of their experiences of trauma, escape, re-location, and detention because it reminds themselves of their own ‘generosity’ in allowing people who ‘needed them’ to let them into ‘their’ country.
White people need to question their very curiousity in ‘other cultures’, because it’s a white-centric viewpoint that places people of colour as curious, unknown ‘other’ waiting to be ‘discovered’ by them, and the ways of whiteness as expected knowledge. No gratitude should be expected for this dehumanising other-ing of people of colour that comes with the normalization of whiteness.
White people recognise only the symptoms of systemic racism that register to their own perspective; physical violence, government policies, verbal intolerance and abuse, ‘obvious’ exclusion and discrimination; but there are other often indescribable power dynamics that I register in my daily lived experience which white people do not recognise, especially in their own behaviour. A white person may ask “Where are you from?” with ‘good intentions’, but ‘good intentions’ have always attempted to justify the oppression of people of colour. I recognise their invasive and other-ing curiousity in ‘different’ physicality as yet another symptom of a white supremacy in which I am made aware of my position within, and am expected to tolerate, every day.
June 15, 2011 § 4 Comments
No reason to
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
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
Unshared with me
You live by rules
Believe they are
Applied the same
To me and you
And I have tried
To believe this lie
Swallowed each sigh
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
The blame on me
All your offers
Your offers that
Or calm relay
In any words
You are content
To see yourself
The world you know
Supports your view
So I suspect
You won’t take time
To self reflect
My rage is real
And every day
The world I knew
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.
May 10, 2011 § 3 Comments
Last weekend an event was held called No Disrespect; “an exhibition to create alternatives and opposition to the ‘say no to burqas’ mural in Newtown: a visual, aural and sensory display of creative dissent”, put on by Muslim Youth of Sydney, Justice and Arts Network and Cross Border Collective and held at the Newtown Neighbourhood Centre in Sydney. Some people claiming politically progressive views decided that the link I posted on my facebook page (I have deleted my facebook account since then) to the event was an appropriate forum to exercise their intellect, ‘valuing freedom of expression over racism’ in regards to the mural. Of my choices to either remain silent to their hurtful ignorance or to focus energy that I’d rather be putting other places into writing a response, I chose to type up the following poem. It’s creative expression I wish there wasn’t reason to create.
I’d like to acknowledge that I am not a Muslim woman; I am not speaking from a perspective of lived experience, unlike most of the women who made work and spoke at No Disrespect. I speak only from empathetic observation and do not intend to represent the many voices of those affected directly by Islamophobia.
On internet intellect or Say no to bigotry
Oh internet intellectuals! I try not to let you drain my battery,
The attention I give you now is not intended for your flattery.
I’d like to ignore your ignorance but it offends my senses,
Your arrogant articulation of politically progressive pretenses.
The choice is yours to deny your place in a white supremacy
And it’s your privilege to believe in an illusion of equality.
Today it’s racism as your stimulating topic for high tea discussion,
Without enduring it daily you engage sans emotional repercussion.
You are free to discuss the complexities of others’ oppression
Without having shared their experience of derision and suspicion.
You ponder the power of a bigoted mural to spark debate,
Shielding your eyes as more fuel feeds a fire of anti-Muslim hate.
You champion ‘freedom of speech’ over oppressive behaviour
While strutting your western gender equality as all women’s saviour.
You support ‘tolerance’ to allow art’s validation of another racist voice
In a choir set to inspire undressing burqas out of fear not freedom of choice.
The politics of race and religion play out yet again on women’s bodies,
Does what you not share in experience exclude you from feeling empathy?
You safely ignore the threat of violence others face for their religious expression,
Dismiss impassioned debate as irrational with emoticons of passive aggression.
Immunised by your privilege against seeing symptoms of a disease pandemic,
Oh institutional racism! If only it was just academic ; )
March 28, 2011 § Leave a comment
My experiences in Melbourne over the last few months have underlined for me the absence of considered racial politics and the lack of acknowledgment of privilege by many of my peers in supposedly radical communities. I wrote and performed the following piece for POC the MIC II a few weeks ago, a (personally inspiring) night of spoken word and performance by people of colour.
Dear person of whiteness
Would you like me to share my experiences with you?
If I choose to
Treat you with suspicion;
Deny you the respect you assume you deserve;
Deny you the benefit, of the doubt, of my trust;
Never rank your esteem too highly:
Would this be sharing my experience?
I wish I could.
But it’s only going to be a sip of what I swallow everyday.
You may have tasted similar experiences before
Manners of speech
or other elements we may not have had choice in and that I haven’t imagined here
And my life has taught me empathy that I do offer
But you’ll never share my experience
Being a person of colour isn’t
A tattoo I inked onto on my body
A political patch I sewed onto my clothes
An outrageous outfit I selected
A behaviour that the authorities don’t approve of
A lifestyle my parents frown upon
You may have chosen some of these things
And good for you to try to feel empowered
Express yourself against a system that seeks to oppress us all.
But just because you’ve chosen these ‘struggles’ doesn’t make you
nor a revolutionary.
It doesn’t discount the white privilege you were born into even if you seemingly wish to deny it.
March 21, 2011 § 5 Comments
A usually unacknowledged racism I have experienced not only from strangers, but regularly from friends and lovers is that of being exoticised for my race and skin tone. I quote, paraphrase and relay with barely any poetic license some of these experiences in the following verses.
**profanity and sexual content warning
You’re not racist, you love brown people!
I’m not your erotic exotic
Not coffee, caramel or chocolate
You want to eat me so you can grow
But I’m a wonderland you’ll never know
You do yoga? You’re spiritualistic?
Want to seduce me to sitar music?
Your third eye’s open? And fixed on me?
Now light your incense to incense me!
You love world music and ethnic food?
What a multi-culti attitude!
You can’t be racist, you only fuck Asians!
You don’t even want to be Caucasian!
You’re brown on the inside? ‘Cause you’re full of shit!
A deep tan don’t mean you understand it
You say that I’m lucky to have my skin
But would you trade where white gets you in?
Thanks for noticing we’re not all the same
Asking me where I’m from before you ask my name
I say Oh Melbourne, Sydney, originally Perth
But you push to locate my ethnic worth
You’re always looking to have an edge
You think you’ll find it in my heritage
Oh so curious about minorities
We make such radical accessories
Up high on my shit list
Mac daddy mactivists
Wanna fuck the system but cum on my tits?
You think you’re god’s gift, but I’m an atheist!
Fuck oppression by fucking the oppressed?
Your cultural fetish doesn’t dress to impress
I’m not flattered by your directed obsession
To put me on a pedestal for your condescension
When you don’t even try to sweat it
How will you ever come to get it?
Don’t turn to me to turn you on
Turn on yourself, it’s your white norm
* please note, I have updated this poem as I realised I had used ableist language regarding visual impairment. The poem appears in it’s old version in my zine/chatbooks printed before May 2012 but will be updated in future publications. Apologies to anyone who may have been alienated by my insensitive use of language in print or at readings in the past.