Not the sort of writing I usually post here, but a couple of pieces inspired by experiences while I’ve been traveling this year that touch on issues of anti-racism and colonisation.
1. A story about hanging with some hooligans at a football match in Ireland and a confronting moment of racism that is handled in the best possible way.
2. A somewhat free-form piece describing a beautiful place and the feeling of swimming in water that leads to reflections on history and place.
We had come to be there as a result of a night drinking Guinness at The Cobblestone in Dublin, where we met our Scottish football hooligan chaperones – from Glasgow, but not fans of either of ‘the Old Firm’ teams, instead choosing to follow the middling fortunes of Motherwell FC. We were invited to join them in making the trip from Dublin to Sligo in the west of Ireland for the match the next day. Motherwell were due to play Sligo Rovers in a game to qualify for a low-level Europe-wide competition – a big moment for both teams and their fanbases.
From a review of The Time of the Peacock (1965) to questions of assimilation and adaptation amongst the diasporic, migrant multitudes of today.
Scents of otherness in the Australian bush
In the The Time of the Peacock, Mena Abdullah captures the out-of-place-ness of an Indian family in 1950’s rural Australia through a series of beautifully crafted, short stories. Abdullah weaves together the family’s experience of holding dearly to the memories and ways of a distant homeland while trying to make a place in a country that marks them as indelibly different. She depicts the nuance and complexity of migrant lives – not just as outsiders in a foreign land, but also in the interconnections between family members. They aren’t just ‘Indian’, the dad is a Punjabi Muslim, the mum from a Hindu Brahmin family and those differences matter. The politics of the partition of India briefly arises, yet ultimately these subtleties are in the background, adding layers of depth to this telling of the migrant experience.
In the midst of the COVID-related lockdown I wrote of how “time passes at the tenor of a slow murmur” to try and describe the sense of a distortion that I was feeling. It might have been apt at the time, but the weeks following have passed at a different, much quicker tempo. Now the institutions (police, prisons) and systems of oppression (white supremacy, anti-blackness, colonialism) that seemed so fundamental to daily life that they must have been born with the changing of the seasons are teetering on the precipice. The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police has sparked a rebellion that has spread and taken form in all corners of the globe. Suddenly, time is a blur as history crashes around us.
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?
An affectation of innocence underscores white Australia’s relation to non-white migrants who arrive here. It exists as a certainty in the inherent goodness of the structures of liberal democracy, a belief that the welcome that has been given to us migrants is charitable and tolerant in such a way that reinforces a position of benevolent authority. In conjunction with this belief is the sense that non-white migrants are always looking to exploit the naïve, kindness of white Australia. This is a continuation of racist, colonial narratives that disguises the violence of colonisation by positioning white people as constantly endangered by the lurking, dangerous brown/ black other, who will use any means – barbaric and violent or sneaky and underhanded – to access all the goodness of white society. The sense of fragility and paranoia that these colonial narratives engender mean that migrants’ place here is predicated on endlessly demonstrating our gratitude for having been allowed to stay. We are expected to display our affection and attachment in ways that are both recognisable to, and uphold, the assumed neutrality of liberal democracy by not calling it for what it is: white, liberal democracy. This veil of innocence, of impartiality, attempts to obscure a founding violence that defines all racial politics in this country, while allowing for the ongoing exploitation and dispossession faced by First Nations people.
(from my notebook): The embassy is spread across three camp sites, each a few kilometres apart. It is a beautiful stretch of bush, a land signposted by awesome gums with secret hollows and gnarly limbs – the sacred birthing trees of the DjabWurrung people. You feel the presence of history in this country, of lives having passed through here for millenia, existing in symbiosis with everything this landscape provides. And all fully framed by the stunning, imposing presence of the sandstone outcrops and ranges known as Gariwerd. The highway cuts through like a scar, and the state of Victoria now intends to prise it open, creating a seeping, exposed wound.
DjabWurrung Heritage Protection Embassy stands as a blockage against the incessant flow of colonising, state violence that attempts to wash away all trace of the cultural and environmental custodianship that Aboriginal people claim over this land. In this moment, that violence takes a most banal form – a state infrastructure project to widen the already existing highway between Melbourne and Adelaide. This would eradicate a site of sacred importance to the DjabWurrung people, including an 800 year old birthing tree that has seen over 50 generations born in the hollow of its trunk (more here).
A very long essay I wrote around 7 – 8 years ago. I don’t love all of it now (and have edited a few bits out here) and it takes some ‘interesting’ twists and turns. However, I think the critique of liberal multiculturalism in the first half has some useful moments – although it’s heavily theoretical. Then there’s a strange middle section where I basically review a novel – ‘The Black Album’ by Hanif Kureishi – before a rambling ending that considers the possibilities of radical collectivity.
Understanding contemporary multiculturalism in Australia, in all
its liberal, capitalist garb, sets a background from which we can consider why
it is that certain traditional cultural forms – religion in particular – have
an ongoing resonance for migrants. The point of which is not to lay a critique
about cultural choices at the feet of particular migrant groups but instead to
show how this resonance of traditional cultural forms exposes the empty core of
liberal capitalism and its exhortations to individualistic, market-based
choice. Much of this will be inspired by sections of Zizek’s evisceration of
liberalism in Violence
as well as taking a look at some of the ideas in The Black
Album, Hanif Kureishi’s novel from London in the early 90’s.
The suggestion that non-indigenous people living in this colonised land should seek out and connect with their own cultural roots and use this as a source of strength in acting with anti-colonial struggles here, is a common one in radical milieus. I understand how investigating ‘cultural roots’ is important for some people, that being able to trace lines of connection to ancestors who resisted colonisation in their time can be a great inspiration in the present. However, I have also found its abstract use to be both confusing and simplistically dismissive of the global consequences of capitalist colonisation and resultant migrations. I think that it is necessary to interrogate some of the problems that are contained within such an uncritical valorisation of historical identity and culture.
These issues recently arose again at a workshop I attended that was centred around issues of Aboriginal sovereignty and colonisation/ de-colonisation. One of the facilitators, a non-indigenous woman of colour, gave a spiel about the importance of locating cultural roots, of knowing the land where your ‘bones are buried’, and drawing strength from this heritage. While I don’t believe that my personal experience should be taken as constitutive of a critique of this position, I will begin by laying out my subjective position just as a bit of background, but also because I’m pretty sure that I might not be alone in this.
‘Matangi, Maya, M.I.A.’ is a film about the discontinuities
and dislocations, and the adaptability and resilience of being a brown migrant
transplanted into a new, predominantly white culture. It is a film about the
multiplicity of identity that migrants live with – of re-discovering cultural heritage
as an anchor, at the same time as finding ways to enter into the surrounds in
which you now find yourself. And of course, it is a film about all these things
told through the story of the immensely popular, hip hop artist/musician/performer,
MIA. Some impressions: