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.

No Disrespect

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 ; )

Dear person of whiteness

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
For your
Gender identity
Sexuality
Class
Education
Disability
Body size
Mental illness
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
my ally
nor a revolutionary.

It doesn’t discount the white privilege you were born into even if you seemingly wish to deny it.

You’re not racist, you love brown people!

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.

Brown is the new goth

March 20, 2011 § 1 Comment

During the winter months of Melbourne I often listen to Bauhaus, A Certain Ratio, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and other such somber tunes. I had the revelation that I could easily write my childhood into a goth song. At some point I will perform  a variation of the following words with deep vocals, a bass with distortion and delay and appropriate costumery. For now it is a goth poem.

 

Goth poem

 

Grandfather knew not his name

Orphan raised in a colony’s shame

Indoctrinated with Jesus’ law

White hands drip silent gore

 

Father sought a better life

Better life with his good wife

God brought them across the sea

Terror Australis gave birth to me

 

Children taunt and children tease

With my skin I cannot please

Alone, run from the playground

With no words, no tears, no sound

 

School teaches ignorance

No talk of stolen innocents

Australia’s black history

To this child, unknown mystery

 

Heaven above, church so hollow

We offer hymns, empty echo

Jesus pale with open heart

Our father white in heaven art

 

Television screen, what can I see?

Where is the child dark like me?

With muppet monsters, far away

Small hope for a brighter day

 

Man-boy moonwalks the divide

We three dance, sister each side

Imitate, adorate, brother brown

Hear nothing brings us down

 

In the library, try find the words

In science fiction, other worlds

Look in, until I can look out

Fantasy within, and without

 

The darkness of my shadows

And the brownness of my flesh

Mark the limits of dominion

What your gaze cannot enmesh