Monday, September 22, 2014

#UptheAnti: social movements and strategies for smashing oppression

I wrote this earlier this year after some intergenerational political conversations with folks who were involved in feminist movements in the 70s and 80s, but it seems urgent now more than ever with the election results:

At a time when ecologies are on the brink of collapse and more attacks are planned on the soil and the sea, poisoning and polluting the planet; when structural violence means poverty for the many and filthy affluence for a few; when the white supremacist capitalist settler colonial heteropatriarchy sustains structures of power, control and sanctioned abuse including incarceration and murder; when non-human animals are exploited, murdered and tortured on an industrial scale; when everything and everyone that matters are under constant attack - we need to be doing everything we can to strategise to end this shit and build something better.

I know a lot of people on the left put their hopes and faith in the parliamentary process via elections and encouraging people to vote, doing campaign trails etc. And this failed to change the government. I don't need to tell anyone that the next three years is gonna hit people hard, the violence against most people who are not rich white men will continue.

This failure should not lead to a sense of defeat. Like classic neoliberal speak, this is also an "opportunity" to rethink our strategies of struggle. I think there really needs to be a shift away from parliamentary politics and towards more grassroots organising, to build alternatives to really challenge the system at the root and lessen dependency on the colonial settler state on a material level. We need new strategies and to be bold and imaginative as to what we can achieve and do.

I think part of the strategy is for those of us who care about justice and equality to come together - learn from each other - from all our mistakes and successes - and work together. I think there are two types of gaps/divisions that need to be bridged to organise effectively from the grassroots: between movements and between generations. We can't build a mass movement for meaningful social change in our small scattered groups. What we need to build on firstly is our relationships and connections between social movements and have intergenerational dialogues. Sharing of knowledge, strategies, tactics and resources can only strengthen all our 'causes' which essentially have similar roots causes in the naturalisation of social hierarchy and the maximisation of profit.

I know a lot of other people have similar feels. I just want to encourage people to think beyond parliamentary politics and imagine possibilities outside of the settler colonial state, outside of capitalism and outside of oppressive social relations. 

Neo-liberalism and single-issue politics has created a proliferation of different interest groups that work on their own issues - NGOs and grassroots groups here and there that work on specific issues and campaigns, often siloed with few connections to groups working on seemingly separate problems.

There are people/groups that focus on anti-poverty, prisoners' rights, environmental issues, animal rights, university/student-based issues, housing/gentrification, union organising, decolonisation, tino rangatiratanga, queer liberation, gender-based violence, sex worker rights and other feminist issues. There are already some overlaps between these movements, but mostly through the people involved rather than different groups directly working together. Imagine if we got everyone in one space, everyone who is in some form of other involved in grassroots movements of radical resistance, and we focused our energy on taking direct action, empowering our communities to not only fight back and react to National's cuts and attacks but to create models of human existence without all the oppressive bullshit. 

Let's make it happen. Talk don't cook rice.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

I am an indigenous person but I will never call myself Palestinian.

Today was indeed a politically hectic day in Aoteaora New Zealand, especially if you are an activist that cares about both human and non-human animal rights. Protest actions were organised to demand an end to factory farming from about noon, and then the second surge of rallies to highlight the continued injustice and massacre of Palestinians in Gaza right after. It was emotionally, physically and as a Muslim, spiritually draining. I felt like my heart was going to burst but like blocked pipes, I hold, hold, and carry the rage that fuels us to march in mind, body and spirit.

There were three moments that really affected me mostly today. Firstly, I spotted a visibly Muslim woman at the animal rights protest. Yes, okay, she was wearing a hijab and holding a placard saying Stop Factory Farming. It may not matter much to others in the crowd (read: predominantly white, dog-loving activist scene) but for a Muslim vegan whose sense of solidarity is drawn only to an extent by say, 3 - 5 people of colour in the crowd, this was HUGE. I nervously, excitedly and clumsily approached her and asked her name. She saw the farmwatch documentary and that's why she is there. I said okay, that's cool, yeah it's just I am Muslim, and I hardly see or know anyone else who cares about animal issues since I started coming to these things... can we keep in touch, because it does get lonely being the only Muslim sometimes? She said, okay, and are you going to the Palestine one as well, and I was like YES, and she gave me her email and said she only knew about it because her husband told her. I said, oh you look quite young, and she said umm, no, I'm almost 30 my dear. I bit my lower lip and held my tongue.

"It's okay", a friend said to me, "at least she cares."

Then, when the Palestinian rally started, I listened to the politician drones around me interpersonally chit chattering away about the Israeli occupation being about land and natural resources, and not really about religion or racism albeit racism being a by-product of it all. In Arabic-mixed with English, I could make of a few people asking where their sister went. I also saw a person holding a boycott Israel placard while sipping a Starbucks coffee. Yet amidst the cacophony of ironies and hyprocrises, the organisers look determined and serious with the microphones. One of the organisers Nadia was a brilliant speaker, and the line of speakers to me spoke poignantly and powerfully. You could feel the passion. You could also feel the tension.

So when the two Palestinian children stepped to the front and started reading their speeches off their tiny flashcards, addressing a crowd of what looks like at least 500 people at Aotea Square, I broke. I wasn't the only one. I saw two guys in the front with tears streaming down their cheeks. The first one goes, the killing needs to stop. She goes, I am going to save my pocket money and donate it to the children in Gaza to save them. She goes, we thank you for your feelings but what we need now is action. My God, the truth.

As we march and shouted, chanted to fight back, exclaiming things like, Shame to US and Israel, and Charging them with Genocide, and Occupation will die, and long live Palestine, I had a moment when I spotted a placard which wrote, "This is Not About Religion. It's about Humanity" and recalled the conversations, feelings and actions I have yet to have with my people in Singapura. I felt like maybe it is time to throw in the towel. Maybe this is where I belong as a person of colour deemed and self-identifiably a Young Asian Feminist in Aotearoa, marching along, doing my bit to support and act in solidarity with tangata whenua and the struggles of indigenous peoples globally like in Palestine, whose experiences of colonisation is present today and ongoing and killing literally its people, including women and children, one by one, by ten, by hundred, by thousands. I mean, why should I bother with the Malays in Singapura. Even they themselves do not care. They told me, many times - it's too late for us.  They seem to be willing to accept and submit to their own silent death as an indigenous people, being ethnically cleansed through sinocentric-capitalism and duped by narratives of being saved through Islam. When I remarked how amazing Malays in Singapura  have suddenly become political about Gaza, someone replied back, "It is not about religion, it is about humanity." My mind wanders back to here in Auckland. Let it be hashtagged. Let this protest continue.

But then Roger Fowler started singing. The emcee goes, "with the song, We are all Palestinians now." I thought I heard it wrong. I looked quizzingly at the other YAFA members. No that's the song, they said and cringed with me. I don't understand, I said. I started looking around and many were mainly looking to go home probably to start resting and preparing for iftar. I peered through the segregating crowd. The song was chirpy, merry, country. I saw Roger singing smiling, red in the face. I don't understand.

I am an indigenous person whose land has been occupied whose people have been penalised for existing, but I will never call myself Palestinian, I wanted to say. I am Muslim, but I will never know the level of injustice, discrimination and violence faced by Arab Muslims fighting for their survival for centuries until today. I will never know how it feels like to knowingly witness and watch with an entire world the purposive manslaughter of my own people every single day. I will never know based on my history and genealogy, the effects of having an entire people destroyed city by city until the only city left to make a home for our children feels like one where we are forced to pay rent, and feel constantly hounded by landlords whom were never lords of our land to begin with. I will never know how it feels to have to flee from generations of occupation and imperialist wars my ancestors and predecessors died through because of centuries of zionism that were institutionally built with propaganda machines and weaponry in the West to maintain and sustain the oppression of my people. I will never know. I will never understand. I will never call myself Palestinian.

So how is it that this one person can?

It is very hard to organise, let alone mobilise, people to care about any particular issue that is beyond their day to day cause or cycle. You need allies. And importantly when you are the minority or oppressed group concerned, you need to be how should I best put it, "not so choosy or fussy" in how you select your allies. Because you do know that your allies are predominantly people with some level of power. Maybe they are not the bourgeoisie, but they would then be socialists with white male privilege. And of course 99% of the time if you are in a white settler nation, they will turn out to be, well, white. And you need them to assist you in your discovery and mission. That I understand unfortunately, very well.

But like Frantz Fanon once wrote, “When people like me, they like me "in spite of my color." When they dislike me; they point out that it isn't because of my color. Either way, I am locked in to the infernal circle.” Complicities are tricky. One minute we are hollering out at our government on New Zealand's complicity in not imposing pressure on the Israeli nation-state and its allies within the international community on the situation in Gaza. Next minute we are standing beside an old, white man singing about our oppression. Yes, this is not about religion. It is about humanity. But humanity is diverse and interlinked and complicit in each other's survival and struggle, not just in the hands of Governments, and Big Brotherhoods. We are amongst it. Let us not pretend that we are all Palestinians now.




YAFA (Young Asian Feminists Aotearoa) bloc at solidarity with Gaza protest 26 July 2014. I'm the one with the Fuck Zionism sign.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Disbanding Melting Pot Massacre: Some reflections on being in an Asian feminist punk band


MPM has disbanded.

But I like to think of it as transforming the nature of our musical relationships with each other. Opening it up. More fluidity rather than fixed band members and instruments. I am both sad about the end of the band as it was and excited about the possibilities of creative directions for the political messages we want to convey and express. But I want to reflect on what it meant to be in/part of a band, more specifically an Asian feminist hardcore punk band.

For me and Shasha, we’d both been attracted to and involved in punk scenes, played in other bands. I’d been in an anarcha-feminist riot grrrl band with white grrrls called Hysterror, then it was renamed Mad Bitcher. But before that band, I remember answering an ad online for a guitarist when I was 15 and it was two white cis-boy punks and when I met up with one of them in person, they were surprised and had thought that I was gonna be a guy and seemed quite disappointed. Later, they never made an effort to even have one jam with me. That was my first experience of sexism/racism/ageism in almost being in a punk band.

I’ve always felt quite alienated in the punk scene in Auckland. I wasn’t into drinking, smoking or taking drugs. But I was attracted to the politics of punk and the spirit of rebellion and resistance in the lyrics of the punk bands I was listening to: Crass, Zounds, Propagandhi, Choking Victim, Contravene etc. I got into more political punk music through pop punk which was being played all over the radio around the early 2000s with Blink 182, Good Charlotte and Green Day. Feeling like a misfit, their music was easier to connect with than the mainstream poppy love songs at the time. With the war on Iraq and invasion of Afghanistan happening, I got involved in activism and there’d be punks on the demos. The first person who introduced me to anarchism was a punk kid at a protest to free Ahmed Zaoui. I started going to local all ages punk shows and became friends with some of the more political punks, the crusty anarcho-punks. In general, the bands that were around in Auckland weren’t all that political then and pretty much all white men. I think the Coolies and the Quims were the few women-led bands that were around but the Coolies disbanded not long after I got involved. I still remember their set on International Women’s Day in 2005.

Despite the assholes I came across in the punk scene, the gigs and music helped create some sense of community and solidarity among young people getting into punk or activism at the time. They provided a social space for political discussions hanging out outside in the middle of the night breathing second-hand smoke in between bands. Those were the days of police raids of shows with pepper spray, sometimes arrests, lots of questioning, and people were beaten up on demonstrations. These run-ins with the law enforcers exposed me only partially to the extent of police violence and brutality. Though these were shitty experiences, it strengthened a sense of solidarity and community for those of us that were politicised.

The more my analysis became shaped by feminism and anti-racism that challenged the class-centrism that universalized white men’s experiences of capitalism, the more disillusioned I became with the dominance of drunken and sober sexism, homophobia and racism. It wasn’t really my community and could never really be. Even though I’d been associated with the punk scene in Auckland for maybe 9 years now, when we started MPM, it felt like we were by default on the outside, trying to work out where/if we fit in. We had good shows, bad shows, fucking amazing shows and played with fucking awesome bands we really admire. But that sense of community and connectedness wasn’t really there.

The experience of being in a band beyond the ‘punk scene’ has meant a lot to me. To be able to play with other people of Asian diasporas with similar politics and be angry and scream from our standpoints was something I never got to do before. I could write lyrics that my bandmates would get. If I was in a white person-fronted band, it wouldn’t work for them to be singing it. Music is so personal/political. Not just the contents of the lyrics, but also the form, the per-form-ance and the process of creative production. Being in a band is like being in a relationship with all your bandmates, you have responsibilities, negotiations, conflicts – but there’s something really magical when you’re jamming and the sounds, rhythms just gel and move together (like sex!). You lose yourself in the music and forget you’re the ‘individual’ that neoliberal ideology convinces you you are.

Some songs can take ages to perfect but with “Migrant and Refugee Solidarity Song”, we jammed it out in one session, we just did it together without even really speaking. It’s not like you just hear the song, but you feel it and make it at the same time with the whole of your being. The sense of collectivism in the creation process and during the performance where everyone has an equality crucial role to play that is really different to say, rapping alone to digital beats, spoken word or making a speech. It’s that interdependency and collectivism of being part of something beyond the sum of individuals involved is so missing in other forms of social interactions. This aspect of being in a band is amazing, and the post-performance highs can be epic, leaving you buzzing and unable to sleep. Then there are also the lows and I’m glad I was warned about them early on.

We encountered a lot of challenges as a band, some were fairly predictable but still disappointing. The DIY music scene, largely being apolitical don’t tend to try to understand us or what we’re about. Like the typical migrant situation we had to learn and understand their (sub)culture to navigate it but there’s rarely any consideration of if that should also maybe happen the other direction. We can fill a token slot, make the punk scene appear to be all accepting, multicultural and pro-feminist, but never get our politics taken seriously unless we kick up a fuss about it and then we’re expected to do the educating on privilege and complicity 101. Gets super tiring.

We’ve been silenced and had our agency over self-representation denied ‘cause some white folks didn’t get a joke about ‘reverse racism’. We’ve had other people of colour attack us for naming whiteness, as if that’s racist. We learnt that an influential person in the music scene was a perpetrator of gendered violence and have cut all connection with them.  We’ve had to defend ourselves for not wanting to play shows with homophobes. We got a lot of shit and defensiveness from people who just didn’t get it.

We’ve also had invaluable support from our friends, flatties and allies. Without them we couldn’t have done what we did.

What’s interesting is that as a band, we have connections and identify with so many different communities and movements – feminisms, anti-racism, anarchism, decolonization, queer and trans liberation, migrant communities, animal rights, anti-capitalist student movements, and yet never neatly fitting into any of those movements and often alienated from our own communities. This did give us opportunities to play to very different audiences but for most shows and festivals, it never felt ‘at home’. Except maybe our first show that we organized – “Decolonise the Mic” as part of the Decolonise Your Mind hui. Best audience ever!!

Being in this band with all the previous and existing band members before the disbanding has meant so much to me. It made me feel less alone in the fight in the struggles for liberation and equality. We reached people and met people in ways we wouldn’t have otherwise met, and got to know people in ways we could only do through music. We’ve built new relationships with people through performing, organizing and just being/having a presence. Those are the connections that matter and will last beyond the band.

I still feel partially connected to punk because it played an important role in radicalizing my perspective of the world. As a genre of music, we really owe it to the African-American brothers who formed the band Death before any white punks bands existed. What I really like about punk is that you don’t have be good at your instruments, you can still make music and say things in your own way without feeling like you haven’t met some sort of professional standard. And I’d fucking love to see more feminists of colour pick up a guitar and start a band. Maybe then can there be a community of us. I think we all just want to feel like we belong somewhere and it’s especially hard where you can never feel fully comfortable in any established communities, and at this point, I know it’s not a place I will ever “find” but a place we have to make for ourselves.

I think music has a special place in social change and revolutionary movements. It’s certainly been part of altering my political consciousness. And we will continue to create, just not in the same way or form. For us to create in a world where all that is important is constantly destroyed or under attack is a way of fighting back. To create is to demonstrate that the systems of oppression can never destroy or control our hearts and minds. Your voice, your expression, art, performance, words are important, especially if you’ve been taught to hate yourself – for being a girl, queer, trans, non-binary gendered, non-white, indigenous, an immigrant, a refugee, unemployed, working class, classed as “crazy”; if your love and care for all animals and the earth has been trivialized or ridiculed. When you speak, make music, write or create, it’s a political act in itself.

You don’t have to wait for someone else to come along and speak your thoughts and experiences for you, that day may never come if you don’t do it yourself. That’s why we existed.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Never Forget: October 15th Solidarity Tour



On Monday, October 15th 2007, more than 300 police carried out dawn raids on dozens of houses all over Aotearoa / New Zealand as part of ‘Operation 8′. Police claimed the raids were in response to ‘concrete terrorist threats’ from Māori activists. What initially started with 20 defendants resulted in the trial of four – Taame, Emily, Rangi and Urs – which concluded on 20 March 2012.
Six years later, most of the charges have been dropped, Rangi and Taame are out on parole, Emily and Urs have almost finished serving their home detention, but the impact of these raids on those arrested, raided, their whānau and communities continues.

Kaupapa

Never Forget is about:
  • Commemorating the raids and acknowledging the pain they caused.
  • Understanding that these raids were part of a long history of colonisation and dispossession in Aotearoa.
  • Building solidarity with Indigenous people struggling against colonization globally.
  • Creating dialogue and alliances between tangata when and tauiwi ethnic minorities.
  • Discussing how tauiwi ethnic minorities can actively support Māori in the struggle for tino rangatiratanga.
More info: http://neverforgetoct15.wordpress.com/

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Tau iwi People of Colour Supporting Tino Rangatiratanga


Talk at the “Against Racism: Tino Rangatiratanga, The University, Our Future?” forum

For a while now, some of us part of Young Asian Feminists Aotearoa have been having discussions about decolonization what it means for us as Asians and tau iwi people of colour to be living on stolen land. If you’ve seen that banner “Asians Supporting Tino Rangatiratanga” at protests, that’s us!
Before I start, I just want to say that I’ve been feeling a bit conflicted speaking at this forum after experiences that made me think long and hard about the barriers for tau iwi people of colour to engage with issues of colonization in Aotearoa especially when the conversation is controlled and mediated by Pākehā and the normative discourse is framed by biculturalism. I really want to challenge the view that this is just about Māori and Pākehā. In that framework, tau iwi people of colour are either treated as honorary Pākehā or non-existent in this country. By tau iwi people of colour, I mean settlers and migrants who are racialised, generally of non-European descent. We also exist in this country, and particularly this city. In many ways, we are also complicit in the colonial relationships and structures set up before, during and after our arrival. I want to explore what it means for us to support Tino Rangatiratanga and how they might be similar or different to the role of Pākehā.
I want to start off with answering the question of “Nō hea au?” Where am I from? Although that’s usually quite a loaded question white people ask me all the time for being visibly Asian, where I’m from is significant for this discussion. Unlike tau iwi who are Pākehā, my ancestry is not in Europe… but this land known to English-speakers as China, a massive country now imagined as a superpower or a source of cheap labour. Specifically, I was born in Tianjin a port city not far from Beijing. This city, my hometown has a colonial history of occupation by 8 different nation-states from the 19th to 20th century, but western cultural imperialism is still happening today through the importation of dairy products for example. My grandparents still remember the days of Japanese invasion and occupation characterized by torture, mass murder, pillaging and burning villages to the ground as well as vivisection - that is - medical experimentation, on Chinese people. But people in my ethnic group, known as the Han Chinese, have been both colonized and colonisers in different times and places. Taiwan, Tibet, Urumqi and Singapura are some places currently under Han Chinese occupation and rule. I support the tino rangatiratanga of the indigenous people of those lands as well, although I can’t say I understand the context that well having never been to any of those places. I’ve grown up most of my life in Tāmaki Makaurau, Aotearoa where racism and xenophobia against Asians in the 90s was pretty visible and as in your face as an egg in your face walking home from school and your parents working low wage jobs because they can’t speak English. I didn’t start really understanding the history of this land until my later teen years, which I didn’t learn through the school system but through education on the streets, at hui and protests. So I’m supporting tino rangatiratanga with this history.  

So with this history in front of me, I think the distinction between tau iwi people of colour and Pākehā becomes important in the ways we support tino rangatiratanga and the role we might play in the movement to decolonise. This category extends to other migrants and settlers who are not Pākehā, including those who are indigenous to other lands, migrants or refugees who have been dispossessed by war, occupation or rampant capitalism as well as those who were privileged enough to migrate as a skilled migrant. So this is quite a broad category of people with a lot of internal inequalities based on class, religion, gender and ethnicity. I don’t claim to speak for all tau iwi people of colour, but I do think it’s a useful category to name non-Pākehā groups that are also racialised and experience racism in this colonial settler society but are not Māori. Whatever the case of how and why we’re here, our visa status or citizenship has been granted to us by a colonial settler state that stole the land and established power to make decisions of who does and doesn’t have the right to be here. We weren’t invited here by tangata whenua but allowed/tolerated/permitted to be here by the thieves of their land, so immediately the relationship is fairly fraught because we’re part of a settler population that further entrenches the dispossession of tangata whenua.

At the same time, while many of us have certain privileges as settlers here, racism and xenophobia can make it hard to access appropriate housing, employment and allows the mainstream to treat us as secondary citizens or residents or otherwise as ‘illegal aliens’. Or we might be economically included but socially excluded in the imagination of the nation-state. There are different kinds of racisms that are specific to each of our different ethnicities, but being tau iwi here means that we’ve come into a system of colonial relationships and a country where the wealth is based on colonisation and domination of tangata whenua.  

With this fraught relationship in mind, I think it’s important to recognize the divide and rule tactics used and circulated that shapes relationships between tau iwi people of colour and Māori and our perceptions of each other. Biculturalism and multiculturalism often get talked about as opposing visions of cultural politics, but neither of which really question the centrality and dominance of Pākehā culture. Biculturalism tends to shut non-Pākehā tau iwi out and meanwhile multiculturalism gets used to undermine tino rangatiratanga (see Brash’s Orewa speech). Token knowledge of Maori culture or reo sometimes gets used by Pākehā to indigenize themselves and further exclude tau iwi people of colour, to ‘one-up new migrants’. I see this as a form of cultural appropriation for other racist agendas.

Migrants of colour and Māori get pitted against each other in this way as if anti-racist liberation is a zero-sum game. Often migrant knowledge of these issues or of Māori culture have been mediated by racist stereotypes in the Pākehā media then translated and filtered through in our languages. We’ve rarely had opportunities to build links and alliances with each other without Pākehā people mediating those spaces. So we’ve had to build and organize those spaces ourselves and want to continue building those links and sorting through the tensions that might exist between the goals of tino rangatiratanga and migrant justice. In YAFA, we’ve have looked at how immigrants of colour in Turtle Island or what’s known as Canada have bridged those tensions and it seemed like the conversations there have been happening on a wider scale and stronger links have been forged between migrant justice and indigenous struggles. I’m really interested in how that can be done here.

Many of us want to make sense of our place in this and want to stop participating in ongoing injustices.

My main message today is that there are tau iwi people of colour supporting tino rangatiratanga despite the barriers. And it’s not necessarily a new thing. We were there on the hikoi against the Foreshore and Seabed bill, we were there in solidarity when the anti-terror raids happened on October 15th 2007 and throughout the court process, supported the protests against the deletion of Māori seats in the creation of the supercity, marched against asset sales despite the xenophobia and fears of foreign (i.e. Chinese) ownership as if land in this country isn’t already in non-Māori ownership.

More tau iwi people of colour need to play a part in supporting tino rangatiratanga otherwise by default we’re playing a role that is complicit and maintains the racist structures of this colonial settler society. Beyond having a common oppressor, I think it’s important for tau iwi people of colour to build meaningful relationships with tangata whenua to tautoko the movement for tino rangatiratanga and mana motuhake from our own cultural frameworks. By questioning our own complicities and seeing through the divide and rule tactics of the colonial settler system, as tau iwi people of colour, we can seek strategies to disrupt and resist settler colonialism, because there can be no justice for anyone on stolen land including migrants without achieving tino rangatiratanga and mana motuhake for tangata whenua. I imagine and hope that in the not too distant future, we can have these conversations and discussion on the terms of tangata whenua and in te reo Māori rather than te reo Pākehā where mātauranga Māori is centred rather than marginalised or tokenised. 

We’re still figuring out our role in the struggle for tino rangatiratanga and have a lot more to learn but we want tangata whenua to know that we are here in solidarity and other tau iwi people of colour to know that it’s important for us to also engage.

Some of us have some projects planned as well: one is a zine about people of colour settlers and complicities in colonialism, which is aiming for transnational conversations between and within colonial settler societies including Aotearoa, Australia and Turtle Island. Shasha Ali, who is also part of YAFA is also planning a commemoration for the October 15th raids to involve performance artists and musicians for shows in Poneke and Tamaki-Makaurau. Get in touch if you want to be involved.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Conflicting loyalties: challenging white orientalism and homophobia in diasporic communities

For a long time now, I've thought a lot about the issues with talking about the oppressive stuff in my family and culture in a white-dominated context that constructs non-western cultures as more oppressive, inferior and generally more backward or authoritarian. Having worked with young women from Asian, Middle Eastern and African backgrounds coming out of family violence situations, there's quite common response of internalised racism. In these cases, resulting from trauma. This dilemma between challenging orientalist and racist ideas that present non-western cultures as more oppressive and challenging the very real oppressions that affect me directly in my own family is a really hard one to straddle and difficult to know how to talk about it publicly without painting my family or all Chinese people as sexist or homophobic, or more so than the dominant Pakeha culture.

I recently came out to my parents as queer, not directly using that term but indicating that I'm not heterosexual. My parents are also Christians, my mum doesn't just think it's sinful to be sleeping with women but that I have a mental illness and I need 'treatment'. She claims that according to the internet that 70% of homosexuals are fake and can be cured from such disease. She also keeps repeatedly asking me whether I think of myself as male and pressures me to grow my hair long and dress more feminine. After I came out, I went home the next weekend and she had taken out all these old photos of me from intermediate school where I had long hair and wore dresses just to remind me that I am a GIRL. I don't think I can even begin to try to explain what genderqueer means. I asked, so what if I do think of myself as male and she said that's also a mental illness and that I'll need to be cured from it. It's not normal. Apparently if we didn't leave China, I would not be queer, it's a white people thing.

On the other side, if I'm having issues in my queer relationship with my white partner the discourse my mum uses is that same-gender relationships just don't work and aren't supposed to work. Find a (Chinese) man, get married and have babies like she did. You don't have to love him to begin with but you will grow to love him. Like my mum did, apparently. It's like if you're queer and there's problems in your relationship it's because you're queer and the solution is to be heterosexual. If you're Chinese and there's problems with your family it's because Chinese culture is just more conservative or backward and the solution is to distance yourself away from it or try to assimilate into Pakeha culture. It shouldn't have to be like this.

I think there's a lot of issues involved and I don't really know where to start to begin articulating them. There are tensions between ethnic loyalty under conditions of racism and eurocentrism where your culture/people is considered more homophobic or sexist if you talk about those kinds of oppressions in among people of your ethnicity. They then become marked as "cultural" oppression. When this oppression is talked about in Pakeha culture they're considered "structural" oppression, because Pakeha apparently don't have culture (but have structures, lot of them, hierarchical ones). I don't know how many times Pakeha people have expressed this "I don't have a culture" sentiment. As Marilyn Strathern said, "the nice thing about culture is that everyone has it". It's just fucking invisible to you because you're part of the dominant culture. Then also with diasporic experiences, your family is usually your first point of understanding of your cultural background and however your family operates becomes a characteristic you might attribute to 'your' culture. I can see that slippery slope towards internalised racism when violence is added in there in the context of wider societal racism that makes your culture seem more backward anyway. But that distinction between "cultural" and "structural" oppression is interesting, with "cultural" oppression as a problem with this thing called "culture" and for that oppression to stop, the culture must change. With "structural" oppression, it's the structure that has to change. Maybe we need to talk about "structural" oppression within all cultures or use "cultural" oppression universally including the dominant one because oppression justified and exercised through cultural hegemony especially in the dominant culture.

I hate that super annoying framing of having to choose between anti-racism and queer feminism. In a dominant white context it just makes it fucking hard to talk about. How do you address these forms of oppression that may be culturally specific in a diasporic context without adding fuel to racism and colonial feminism? How do you unlearn internalised racism when that's been a response to trauma? How do you explain this shit to white people without feeling like you're providing evidence that their culture less problematic and being a 'victim' that needs them to save and protect?

At the axes of multiple structural yuckness, we gotta figure out a way of combating oppression intersectionally without undermining other shit that's important to us. That context of Pakeha cultural supremacy that adds a dense fog to the rough terrain that's already hard to walk and navigate. But we can't let it get in the way of where we need to go. We have to figure this out together.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

CONVERSATION ON COLOUR SHAME (AS AN ASIAN FEMME)

Hey all, I wrote the below in response to someone asking me to write about an aspect of my journey to anti-racist work... hope there is some value to you in reading this. Thanks heaps :-)

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So. Yesterday I was explaining to a white person about my choice to stay as tanned as possible. How it is a conscious decision on my part in response to the status given to pale Asian women. In Asia, there are heavily marketed whitening creams, lotions and operations, as there is a belief that paleness (or "whiteness") is connected to status and conventional ideals of beauty. Many advertising campaigns and films and other media will feature pale Asian women, or purposefully employ part-Anglo/Saxon/Celtic Asian women to feature in said media.
Darkness of skintone still plays into preconceived notions of savagery, primitivism, animalistic tendencies, and other exoticisms. Lightness of skin still suggests purity, pristine beauty, innocence, and thus, being appropriately feminine.
These are generalisations, from conversations with my educated, informed radical queer friends. These are associations people make, despite their reluctance to. In the last few years I have been called "Pocahontas", "Warrior queen", "Amazon woman", and "Tribal Priestess" from these friends. People have also guessed my nationality as Pacific Islander, South or Central American in initial interactions. I am 100% Vietnamese. I don't mean this to take away any burden of history from black or brown people in my community or reading this, and I am not expressing these anecdotes as complaints, merely observation for analysis. I also apologise if I come across as if I am appropriating any other struggles that are not my own.

In my conversation yesterday I explained to my white friend that my choice now to be as dark as possible was one choice of many that I have made over the last 20 or so years, of thinking about race, and in particular, my own journey with my racial identity. I am 31 years old. I explained that up until my early 20s I made a conscious effort to stay as pale as possible, I was a teenage goth, I stayed indoors in Summer, only went to the beach at night... and how that was a conscious denial of my Asianness. I was aware that I was disassociating or attempting to detach from my brownness, my other-ness - these conditions that brought me emotional and physical pain as a teenager growing up in the white oceanside suburbs of Sydney. I was ashamed to be Asian, and I tried to hide it in many ways. I am now trying to dismantle that shame.

My choice now, besides to get healthy doses of Vitamin D, to stay sunlit and brown, are a reply to the conversation I started as an 11 year old. I am now here and proud and fierce.

I have recently started to accept my skin and body as part of who I am, as I realised that I disconnected from these states as a child and teenager as both these physical attributes attracted physical, sexual and verbal abuse from those around me. I am attempting to reclaim my self.

I write this, aware that this is still the beginning of my epiphanies, processing, acceptance.
This is one example of many, many decisions I have made around my intentional anti-racist politics, decisions made from the age of 11. I could write about those decisions, but feel there are too many to recount. The main aspects is that I alternate between empowering People Of Colour in POC-only spaces (workshops, lectures, shows, activism, direct action, community work, refugee work, work in developing countries, journalism) and educating White People and White Spaces (social work, youth work, Critical Whiteness workshops, Privilege workshops, talks on Gentrification and Displacement, talks on Responsible Methodology for NGO refugee services, etc). I have spent years in POC-only countries doing work, and then return to Anglo-Saxon countries to do other work (and usually to save money to fund the other experiences and travel). There has been (exhausting, draining, alienating) years of serving a predominantly white community, and then making a conscious decision to take a break from that and serve intentional POC spaces. This is a continual ellipse, however the older I get, the more focussed I am on giving time to POC-only communities, to asylum-seekers, to immigration and workers' rights.
At this point I am writing a book for Asian-Australian teenagers, will go on another Race Riot zine tour later this year through the south of the States, and hope to seek more work supporting immigrant communities in some way.  I am living in a predominantly white country at the moment, with an almost entirely white radical queer and punk scene around me, which is an aspect I wrestle with daily.

*** I hope this has not offended anyone, as I understand talking about skin colour and shades as an Asian person expresses ALOT of the choice and privilege I have in society. I mostly hope that I have been able to contribute something to the reader. ***

Please contact me if you would like to discuss anything further - annavo@riseup.net