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.
Reflections on the proliferation of borders from a pandemic world. (written mostly in 2020, finished off in 2021)
When the flames engulfed the home of the brave,
The stampede towards the the border was in vain.
Faces palmed, faces paled
As the wall they said would make them great could not be scaled.
– ‘Victory Lap’, Propagandhi
The nation closes its borders. This is both remarkable and not. Unremarkable because the militarised border regime that has governed the political trajectory of this island nation had easily created the capacity to enforce a total shutdown. It ordinarily walks the line between living up to the racist fantasies of a paranoid population and the economic need for certain types of migration to fill gaps in the labour market. But these aren’t ordinary times and so it flexes and the racists swoon while the ‘progressive’ liberals are appeased in their sense of (bio-)security.
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.
There comes a point when it’s probably better to accept that the most well-developed ethical response has been scattered by the unrelenting winds of shit-baggery and there’s not much to do except roll with the visceral disgust as the stench hits our nostrils. That point occurred last week as we were treated to an online promotional video featuring Home Affairs Minister, Peter Dutton in an American SUV, cruising into a car dealership and shaking hands with the workers – all to a banging DMX soundtrack. The promo introduces Dutton with the tagline, ‘the baddest MP’, and along with the choice of vehicle and music is a trolling attempt to bring him cred as some ‘badass’, gangster politician who does what’s needed to get ‘it’ done.
“We will be beggars so long as we accept as universal the political divisions that cut up the white world and through which they conceive of the social conflicts and struggles that these divisions will engender. We will be beggars so long as we remain prisoners of their philosophy, of their aesthetic and of their art. We will be beggars so long as we do not call into question their version of History. Lets accept rupture, discord, discordance. Lets ruin the landscape and announce a new era”. – Houria Bouteldja
white person once asked of me “can’t you be less antagonistic when challenging
racism”? It was less a question, more a direction, imbued with all the
faux-innocence and partitioning of ‘civilised rationality’ as a quality
specific to whiteness, and therefore necessitating white people to preach the
word. The imperative that justified colonisation as the bringing of
civilisation to the barbarians, is now repeated by white liberals espousing
‘rational’ and ‘civilised’ debate in the face of racism and white supremacy.
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.
The first time I heard a non-white migrant use the word
‘settler’ to describe all other non-white migrants in so-called Australia, I
recoiled at this naming that felt so unfamiliar to my experience. I didn’t
associate with being a settler because that term seemed to place me within the
same racialised group as white people – and I had my own familiarity facing their
In any case, the discomfort of that moment provoked some
thinking on my part, as well as a few conversations with Aboriginal people, non-indigenous
people of colour and white folk. After initially feeling that my position as a
brown migrant bore no relation to white colonialism, it became apparent that for
many Aboriginal people it most certainly did. Dispossession from country, loss
of access to resources, and the struggle to hold onto cultural forms are all
ongoing effects of an unceasing colonisation that remains in full swing. While
racial power in this country is still specifically invested in whiteness, there
are significant material benefits that non-indigenous people of colour have
been able to access as an effect of colonisation.
‘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:
A look back at 2018 and how white fragility describes a developing trajectory of white supremacy at a national level. How this shifts understandings of white fragility beyond simply being an individual weakness to reveal the interplay between interpersonal and structural racism.
2018, much like every single one of the preceding 230 years of this un-ceded land’s ongoing colonisation, managed to mark itself in the pages of racist infamy with the latest bouts of hysteria, paranoia, dog-whistling and racial-profiling. Considering the genocidal nature of that history and everything else that has passed, it might be possible to assume that there is nothing new to see, or be said, here. However, to effectively track and counter the active threat that racism presents, it is important to stay attuned to the variations in trajectory that occur in terms of discourse and action. One aspect that has become noticeable, if not to the same extent as in Europe and the USA, is that the far-right has managed to use a generalised state of hyper-racialised paranoia to find ways to enter the mainstream. While tracking this will not be the focus here, it is related to the discursive trajectory that I will be exploring in this article: how a sense of white fragility is increasingly articulated as a justification for the re-assertion of this country as a white space.