For people who aren’t white and living in a colonised and white supremacist society, being able to understand and process feelings of guilt, shame and trauma is an ongoing exercise that requires honest reflection and accountability. Where We Stand is a dance/ performance ‘ritual’ that facilitates this by inviting Indigenous and other people of colour into a theatre turned into a healing space filled with warm, soothing aural tones and soft places to be in. In that space, personal stories of the damage of these interlocking oppressive systems are shared amongst us. In being there, feeling the intimacy of relating such experiences, a question arises in my mind: how do these personal affects, these lifelong traumas shared between us as confessional mementos translate into forms of anti-colonial solidarity and action that might upturn the colonial, white supremacist society that we inhabit?
(Interjection: This is not a review. When the themes that arise in a book, a piece of music, a movie or some other artistic performance correlates to issues I’m thinking about – or, even better, provides fresh insight that helps me consider those issues – I write about it as part of my own processing. I’m emphasising that this isn’t a ‘review’ because I didn’t take notes. This article is based on my memory of the performance and the thoughts it inspired. Also because of the nature of this performance, my mind frequently jumped between different thoughts and memories – while trying to be present – and so I was more attentive at certain points than at others.)
It takes me a moment to understand the first part of the answer to that question: that simply sharing these experiences is powerful, the collective airing of racial hurt and trauma, the coming together to absorb new lessons of strength and resilience. A commonality is felt as the residual issues we’re individually processing in our lives are given form in someone else’s story. These connections might seem obvious, but finding space with other people of colour where they can be expressed is not a common experience within this society. Too often, our resilience is shaped by silences: the silence of agreeing, the silence of forgetting, the silence of not-quite-seeing, the silence of breathing and holding in. The silence inhibits us, but is also a matter, for some, of surviving. Or at least of getting by.
Expressing racialised trauma in ways that are healing does not come easily in a white supremacist country. Our emotive responses are positioned as irrational or threatening (something i’ve written about previously), incommensurable to the white people around us. The ones we trust the most will still never grasp the nuances of how our lives are effected, the ones we should never have trusted will deploy white fragility to avoid situating their own complicity, and the ones we’ve never trusted will mobilise fear and hostility to attack the differences that are not assimilable and that make them uncomfortable. Against this, it’s so important to hold the value of spaces where we can sit with our shared trauma and not be limited by the restraints of whiteness.
That whiteness is a low gloom that holds us in, assimilates our being to it and seeps into our thoughts. I’ve waded through that swamp and I remember how it irritated my skin, a festering, pulsing mess, itching with the feeling of not-quite-being-right. Scratching at its manifest difference. I didn’t want to be white. But I didn’t want to be different either. I assimilated in ways that I’ve been ashamed of, but also know that it seemed like all I could do to get by. One of the performers, Aisha Trambas, relays a similar experience of the internal conflict between the whiteness that becomes a part of our psyche and our attempts to hold onto our different ways of knowing and being in the world. It resonates with me deeply. She is black, but grows up with a loving white family and it becomes painfully apparent that there are things they can never understand of how she has to move through the world. And, as with me, that internal conflict plays out physically, contemplating her skin and her otherness in front of a mirror that reflects back her difference. She has to fight to remember and lay claim to all the strength that comes with her African heritage, instead of simply falling for the trappings of whiteness.
The ways our internal pain emanates out through our bodies is explored in the few dance/ performative elements that do occur during Where We Stand. (I don’t know how to write about dance but…) Isabella Whawhai Waru and Ate Cheska become entangled, their bodies seemingly a burden upon each other, but through precise, yet fluent movements they recompose into supportive structures raising each other up. Although much of what I took from being in that space was through the words expressed, this performance added to sense of being present there, capturing the weight of carrying such traumas and the immense freedom in shedding them.
This shedding of trauma is viscerally expressed in Pauline Vetuna’s (Gunatuna – indigenous to Papua New Guinea) piece. As they grapple with separation from their homeland and their place in this colonised country, they proceed to unthread a series of beads and release them to the ground. This could also be symbolic of the dispossession that colonisation has wrought, a reality that Vetuna feels acutely as their accessibility requirements makes their village in the mountainous interior of PNG impossibly remote from their life here. Theirs is another account of the damage that is carried as part of the displacement inherent to colonisation. It is a singular, personal experience, but shared in that space it is both a releasing of trauma and a joining together to move beyond.
Sitting with discomfort
Where We Stand is powerful as a healing space because it doesn’t only deal with individual hurt, but also makes us sit collectively with discomfort, recognising and expressing that commonality isn’t a given and that we’re all situated differently within structures of colonisation and white supremacy. It asks us to be accountable to our position within the settler-colony – and for most of us in the room, that requires a reckoning with our position as settlers. For non-Indigenous people of colour, moving towards an understanding of this and being able to act against settlerhood will arise in relation to our lived experiences of racism and being other-ed in myriad ways by white society.
Ate Cheska’s piece interrogates the conflicted nature of this position. Of Filipinx heritage, but a settler on this land, she carries her own diasporic histories from a colonised place, as well as many of the same wounds that have been inflicted by the racism of this country. However, she also grapples with the difficulties of being oppressed and an oppressor, verbalising shame at how she might have hurt others in ways she could not ever know. These are important words for all of us to hear. I know that it took me longer than it should have to connect in solidarity with Indigenous struggle. I understand the reason was a wrong-headed sense that my own experiences of racism within white Australia would be subsumed and become irrelevant in those spaces. I wasn’t ready to confront the contradictions of my position.
But there is never a clear binary distinction where we can separate the ways in which we are oppressed (POC) and the ways in which we are oppressors (settler). Our bodies are an entangled nexus of contradictory desires, impulses, hurt and oppression. While identity politics might identify broader systems of power and oppression, it too often freezes the capacity to act upon these forms of power entirely at the level of the individual. We are expected to always work on ourselves, whether to ‘undo our privilege’ or to process the traumas that have been inflicted on us by various forms of oppression. But to really understand the complexity and inter-connectedness of different forms of power we must sit alongside others who hold some degree of commonality with us, as well as degrees of difference.
The discomfort of accepting all these contradictions in the one moment – and not seeking to separate them out into distinct categories – is how we can begin to act in solidarity with each other. This is the value of Where We Stand, it creates space where these positions could exist uncomfortably, intimately and supportively alongside each other, all at once. Being confronted with uncomfortable propositions together in that space – with Indigenous folk and their stories immanently present – can be a critical part of collective processing and a trajectory towards anti-colonial solidarity.
The first performer/ story-teller, Laniyuk, began by telling the story of where she came from, her connection to country. Of her courageous and resilient ancestor who survived another act of murderous, colonial violence on this continent – which saw her lose her entire family, her lifeworld, her people – and yet forged ahead to create a pathway for her future generations. The difficult and emotive, intensely personal, telling of this story of mass-poisoning and survival places all of us immediately within the frame of colonial relations in this country and the brutality it has enacted upon Aboriginal peoples.
But from this horrific place, Laniyuk goes on to share a scene from a future where she is the remembered ancestor of a future generation. And in that future there is a place of learning that First Nations’ youth attend, educating themselves within Aboriginal knowledge systems, language and understandings of place and country, instead of the colonial institutions that enforce white ways of knowing the world and being in it. It is a powerfully de-colonial and astoundingly well put together vision, that pulls threads of resilience from a brutal past, through the present and into a hopeful future. And, while I personally struggle to imagine hopeful futures, simply speaking such a vision feels like an act of resistance coming from an Indigenous person who carries all the strength borne of surviving ongoing genocide and dispossession.
How those of us who are settlers on this land relate to such futures will potentially be a crucial point of departure from the white, colonial state. As people of colour, we can easily become assimilated into settler-colonial fantasies of making a comfortable home here, of a postcolonial ‘multicultural’ future that does none of the real work of decolonisation and continues the erasure of Aboriginal sovereignty. In defiance of this, Isabella Whawhai Waru presents their piece as a letter to their younger brother, forewarning him about the difficulties to come. Waru tenderly passes on words of warning and encouragement, drawing on their Maori heritage to help him situate his place in the world, with loving family close by. But there is responsibility too: to take this handed-down, familial knowledge of colonisation from lands close by and ensure that it informs his engagement with the nature of colonisation on this land. There is no dealing with the damage of our own experiences of racism without connecting to settler-colonialism.
As we take the courageous step of being accountable for our inextricable position within oppressive systems, it is important to not then become trapped only within individualised, subjective experience. It is through the bringing together of the personal, collective and systemic that we’ll manage our own trauma and be able to use the skills, strength and resilience we’ve gained in a way that might contribute to overturning racist and colonial systems. Where We Stand is a specifically curated space that allowed Indigenous and other people of colour to engage with these questions alongside each other. To find what commonality exists without hiding from the difficulties of our different positions in relation to whiteness and settler-colonialism. Such collective spaces won’t always look just like this. However, in whatever situational form they take, they will be an important base for healing, solidarity and struggle.
Epilogue: not everyone together always…
So what happens to white people? In creating the space already described, Where We Stand simply chooses to de-centre white people, making them peripheral to other considerations. It literally makes them peripheral, by asking them to remain in the foyer for an entirely different experience while the rest of us were inside the theatre/ healing space. A previous run of the performance, that occurred in 2018, received some mainstream notoriety because of the separation of the ‘audience’. This article, while giving Isabella Whawhai Waru space to explain, has that separation as its entire focus, reporting on offended white people while not mentioning what the space might have been for Indigenous folk and people of colour. It typically chooses to give space to white fragility, once again making white people the centre.
I have very little idea what happened in the foyer, but I’d like imagine it could have been a useful space for white folk to talk with each other and confront their own situated-ness within colonialism and white supremacy. I’m personally ok with sometimes making collective space alongside the white people I trust. But not always. Processing the sort of hurt and trauma I’ve described here is often so much more difficult and draining when we have to account for their reactions and fragility. Collectively sitting with discomfort is especially important for white people who are so used to power orienting towards them. I imagine the thoughtfulness that went into the space inside the theatre would have been replicated in what occurred in the foyer and am intrigued to know what was presented to the people there, how it was envisaged, and how it was received.