A zine about resistance to racism and white supremacy in Australia, 2015.
Made by a couple of us in Sydney and Melbourne. You should be able to print from this link: no comfort
Interview w/ Robbie Thorpe of First Nations Liberation.
Interview w/ Viv Malo of First Nations Liberation.
Reflections on: Australia and internalised colonialism, racism and white supremacy.
1000 Paper Cuts: Resisting the damage of white supremacy.
Feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Published here is my article ‘1000 Paper Cuts’.
A precursor, a warning…
Australia has a race problem. Racism is everywhere. And I’m not sure what to write because I want to write about it all. Because the various elements can’t easily be separated. We might have read stinging rebukes of Australia’s racist border policy, theoretical academic pieces on the nature of ‘whiteness’, histories of genocide, personal accounts in zines about growing up non-white. I want this to be relevant to the current situation we find ourselves in but I also want to describe what, to me, are the lines of continuity between my personal history and experiences of racism and the broader social context. And I don’t know how to write because I want to be able to be usefully analytical at the same time as emotional: sad and angry.
I also want to explain to anarcho-crew that I don’t go in for suggestions that ‘our spaces’ are racist. If I thought they were I wouldn’t be around. At the same time they aren’t just apart from the rest of society and all manner of problematic shit passes. And for my most trusted people, I’m happy to point and laugh (or be outraged) with you about the various forms of ridiculous racist shit that goes on around us, but I also need folk to be constantly aware that while I respect that you can see and recognise that stuff, it’s never the same as feeling and living it. Racism in this country is so often not the overt, extreme stuff, but an overall insidiousness – an emotional trauma, slowly being broken down by thousands of paper cuts inflicted upon your skin.
Really, I want this article to be bipolar, to be schizophrenic (note1), to reflect all the conditions and affects of racism in Australia. And so that’s what I’m going to aim for and this is the warning: what follows will jump all over the place. To try and tie it all together i’ve been trying to think about all this stuff in relation to ideas of comfort and discomfort. Not just material comfort, but also emotional, psychological and ideological comfort. And to be clear, in a country built on racism and colonisation a tendency to these types of comfort is a tendency to white-supremacist conservatism. One further warning: my starting point will be an outline of how racism plays out in broader society. But to try and provide something different, I’m going to use sport to talk about this stuff.
Why discomfort is necessary.
Race is everywhere. And racism stalks it like a parole officer waiting to put it back in its place – white anglos in the predominant position with all shades of others placed in order underneath them, based on a series of material, historical and white-supremacist factors. Think of it like painting words on a white banner, colour is added within specific outlines that form letters and it all looks a bit brighter. But the formative background is still there and it is still entirely white. Should the colours leak beyond their prescribed outline, discomfort.
Loud, angry and uppity black or non-white people upset the sensibilities of white Australia. Any refusal to simply perform our difference within the specific, accepted terms of cultural identity (food, costume, entertainment) in such a way that does not service the need of white Australia’s sense of self-satisfaction is considered an improper leakage of colour. Such a leakage has occurred recently on a couple of occasions in the sporting arena with great levels of discomfort occurring for the sports- viewing public. In the AFL’s ‘Indigenous Round’, Adam Goodes, a proud indigenous athlete, celebrated kicking a goal with a traditional dance towards a hostile section of the crowd that had been targeting him during the game. The final moment of the dance involved the performance of throwing a spear at the crowd. Outrage ensued.
I’m not interested in making Adam Goodes out to be some icon of radical, anti-racist struggle. Goodes is entirely mainstream, named Australian of the Year in 2014. However, his recent history has involved pointing out someone amongst a football crowd that had called him an ‘ape’ and making the point that Australia Day would always be Invasion Day for himself and other Indigenous folk. Since these incidents he has been continuously booed whenever he goes near the ball at any game outside Sydney. And this is the point, within the confines of mainstream Australia it is a radical, uncomfortable act for any non-white person (and most especially indigenous people) to be loud, to wear their heritage and skin colour with pride and in ways that do not just fit into the manner of “keep your head down boy, and be glad that we’re allowing you to be here at all”. It is a radical act to loudly call out racism when we have been told to come up through this society by just ignoring it. The discomfort for white people that doing any of these things creates, very quickly becomes a reason for their underlying racism to become overt – you will be made an example of.
A couple of further things about the Goodes situation stand out to me. When the spear throwing celebration first occurred, it was noticeable that many white people who wanted to consider themselves anti-racist, saw it as an unnecessarily provocative act. This was a repeat of the scenario we see all the time (yeah, i’m looking at you lefty, activist fundraiser in Sydney… note2) where white anti-racists will seek to reign in the fury (note3) of a non-white response to racism into forms that they deem acceptable, ie are comfortable to them. As this issue became bigger news and positions became more polarised these liberal, anti-racists performed a backflip. The dance was now never a hostile performance, it was a celebration of his cultural pride. You know what, I hope it was both. Cultural pride and rage mixed together, charging at the racist crowd with a threat – fuck with me anymore and i’ll launch myself over that fence and kungfu kick all your heads off, a la Eric Cantona (note4).
I’m going to finish this sports section with another Australian athlete, Nick Kyrgios – a half-Malaysian, half-Greek, 20 year old tennis player – who came under fire from the white sporting establishment for not displaying enough Aussie-ness when he plays. He’s brash, loud, arrogant, questions calls and doesn’t respect the elders of the white sporting establishment. Kyrgios may be a bit interesting or he may just be annoying – it doesn’t matter – but because he is brown and doesn’t display the values that white Australia deem best to represent Australia he has regularly been called ‘unAustralian’ and told to go back to where his parents came from (as he was born here) by swimming ‘legend’ Dawn Fraser.
The qualities Kyrgios has displayed means he will never be as respected or defended as Goodes, but I see them both as indicative of how non-white folk confront the effects of growing up and living in a white-supremacist society. We clearly aren’t all the same, and we experience and respond to racism differently, but just as clearly our psychological and mental capacities – a toughness, empathy, awareness and out-of-the-box ability to survive this racist society – are always going to be different to that of white folk and therefore seen as uncomfortable. We aren’t just different to white people because of skin-colour or having a different cultural background, we are different because the entire way we have experienced this society, and so the way we engage with it mentally and physically, is different. When white people get an inkling of the depth of this difference, that we aren’t ‘all just the same underneath’, it is generally unsettling for them.
And so it makes no sense for Kyrgios to act in similar ways as a white athlete when performing/ playing. It means non-white feminists have had to make ongoing interventions into mainstream feminism based on its failure to understand that differences manifest in a much greater way than is often acknowledged. And it is so often a cause of my frustration when I can see that close comrades, crew , friends, lovers kind of get something but never quite ‘get it’. This is ultimately where this article is going – radical, anti-racists need to get the extent of this difference because we need to be spreading and increasing that source of discomfort. I am making an argument for the strength of the different mental capacities that we (non-white folk) have developed, that they aren’t a reflection of ‘damage’, but instead are more likely to be hardened and resistant to the tendencies of white supremacist society. We shouldn’t reduce ourselves to ‘we’re all just the same’ just so people can feel good about themselves. We need to increase the discomfort through all parts of white Australia. But i’ll come back to pushing that line after…
Taking a step back and bringing in some of my personal experience. Because it needs to be clear that in using ‘we’ or a more generic ‘non-white folk’ i’m not suggesting an equivalence between all of our different experiences. There are many ways to experience being non-white in this country and the effects play out differently for disparate individuals AND groups of people. Being Muslim at the moment has its own particular set of circumstances. And of course, being Aboriginal will always carry its own set of meanings and experiences. But at the same time some of our experiences of how racism plays out will crossover – this might often have more to do with white racists’ un-nuanced application of their racism.
I grew up a brown migrant in the western suburbs of Sydney in the 80’s and 90’s. Back then there were already significant pockets of migrant communities, but nothing like it is today. Growing up there involved unconsciously having to prepare myself to exist within white, westie culture. The questions now swirl around my mind – what extent was this assimilation, what extent was I choosing and what extent was it not really either – just the complex machinations of socialisation and trying to fit in so I could find enjoyment? Being into a lot of sport (never cricket though, confounding many people who wanted to jump to easy cultural assumptions) was one avenue that made things easier for me, gave me fun times and even provided some back up when overt racist shit happened – there’d be fights and friends would have your back. Overt racism was almost a relief, an outlet from everything else, where literally everything else – the entire experience of living and growing up – was about navigating through a minefield of hidden race politics.
My sister recently moved back to western Sydney from the inner-city. She was over the elite smugness of white, liberal inner-city folk. She preferred to choose the likelihood of facing a little more casual racism in a direct form. She was also choosing an area where there were large communities of recently arrived migrants from similar parts of the world as were are. But these sort of communities actually raise some degree of discomfort for us. Me and my sis never developed our defensive capacities against racism within the context of a closely-bonded migrant community. There weren’t enough of ‘our type’ around. So we had to adapt in other ways. A difference of 20years of having lived in and experienced Australia means we have developed in certain ways that means we couldn’t simply integrate into the sort of community she now lives near (and nor would we necessarily want to).
All this is to come back to my point that there are many ways of experiencing race in this country. Me and my sister would experience it very differently to even people from our general racial background because we have decades more experience of adapting. On the other hand many of these recent migrants have the advantage of adapting and dealing with racism within the context of a larger community. A few years ago when Indian students were being targeted on public transport there were demos organised. My position within these sort of demos felt uncomfortable. There would possibly be assumptions that I am part of the affected community and could have something to say, but I knew that my position within it was purely one of solidarity – sure I could be beat up on public transport for being brown but the circumstances would look different. Me and my sis have acknowledged this – due to assimilation or adaptation, but really neither a negative or positive, just how things are – we carry ourselves differently. We are individually less of a target. It can be unsettling to recognise these small differences. They make enacting anti-racism seem so much harder, but we need to embrace that discomfort so we don’t fall into traps of over- simplification. Which leads me too…
Solidarity and a messy banner
It took me a long time to really feel capable of throwing myself into solidarity with Indigenous struggles’ with the urgency they deserve. While white friends and crew were all over it, I was stand- offish. This wasn’t because I didn’t recognise colonisation and genocide as the most significant founding reasons for everything that is fucked in this country. It was more because I’ve felt uncomfortable not knowing how to place myself as a brown person who had my own experiences of racism in this country, in solidarity alongside a struggle that was more crucial and based in a totally different experience of race to my own. I think for white folk it is easier. For you lot solidarity with Indigenous struggle and sovereignty was the obvious way to be anti-racist and confront the racist shit that exists in this country. For me, I already had a lifetime of confronting that racist shit and it felt disconcerting to me that potentially those experiences would have no relevance.
But it has become more obvious to me that the strongest bonds of solidarity will involve embracing discomfort. This doesn’t mean having to let go of my own experiences of racism – I think true solidarity really does need to be based in finding crossovers in all our experiences of resistance and struggle. I don’t want to enter into solidarity with other struggles purely as an ally, an empty vessel there to take on someone else’s cause. But the point of allowing for discomfort, is a recognition that all that is ‘comfortable’ about racial politics in Australia is there to uphold white-supremacist hierarchies. Going back to the banner- painting analogy, I think we should be open to drops of paint falling outside the lines, smudges and colours mixing in unintended ways. If the banner is taking up too much floorspace and we have to keep crossing over it, don’t be afraid to dip a toe into a painted bit – the sensation of discomfort might be somewhat nice (yes, I know that the final banner wouldn’t be so effective and so the analogy falls down, but it’s all I got). Resistance to the racist, colonial Australian state will need to come from numerous angles and the solidarity we aim for will at times look like a messy banner, but letting ourselves be unsettled opens new ground to view potential connections.
Spread the discomfort*
Australia is having a very uncomfortable race ‘moment’ right now. Whether it is Reclaim Australia, the forced closure of remote communities, boat turnbacks or the booing of Adam Goodes, white Australia seems to be having out some very unsettled discussions in deciding how best to hold its predominant position. I hope this moment in broader society doesn’t pass by in radical, anti-racist spaces where we really need discussion about new ways of fighting back that aren’t always reactive. My argument in this article is that our role (but especially the role of white anti-racists) is to spread the discomfort and challenge all the load-bearers of racial comfort in this country.
When liberals (white or non-white – I haven’t gone into it in this article, but certainly there will be non-white people who are happy enough with whatever space they have been prescribed that they won’t want it to be unsettled – we call them race traitors) are suggesting we should just ignore the far-right mobilisations of Reclaim Australia we should know that our physical presence makes them as uncomfortable as the presence of Nazis. They will want to hold onto a belief that really this is a ‘tolerant’ and ‘accepting’ society. We want to trash that ‘tolerance’ because it immediately bestows upon them a ‘right’ to tolerate. They blame the Abbott government for the current state of things because they don’t want to slightly recognise that their white brethren enact racism daily on a street-level (overtly or not) and have done so for centuries. White Australia aren’t sheep following the governments’ racist lead – the interaction is two-way and it is all about ensuring the continuation of the material, psychological and emotional comforts they enjoy.
Liberal anti-racism merely falls into this framework, not doing anything to upturn it, but merely wanting to insert a little more ‘diversity’ within. But diversity and multiculturalism are nothing but a ruse to allow white Australia to push aside the discomfort of acknowledging that racism is the predominant factor in the comfort of its existence and to allow it to enjoy the superficial ‘fruits’ of other cultures. All radical, anti-racist acts now must be about smashing the foundations of this framework. We must create disorder and discomfort for white supremacy in as many ways as possible – emotional, psychological, ideological and physical.
* Let me be clear, I consider this strategy of spreading discomfort only relevant to the racial politics i’m writing about here and possibly not useful in resisting other forms of oppression? And also I don’t consider a generalised call for spreading discomfort to be the same as suggesting that no-one should ever have places of emotional, psychological, material comfort. We will need those spaces if we are to be able to keep fighting.
Note 1 – At some point I want to write more around Frantz Fanon’s work on race and colonisation and mental health.
Note 2 – about this incident see article at: https://goldenbarleyschool.wordpress.com/2015/06/10/discomfort-non-violence-and-race/#more-185
Note 3 – While it’s problematic to always assume fury as a response to racism it is definitely one possible reaction, but even it can take different forms. It can unleash in the moment on the perpetrator but it can also be turned inwards in damaging ways. bell hooks had a book called ‘Killing Rage, Ending Racism’. The ‘killing’ in the title wasn’t a verb, as in ‘stopping rage’. It was an adjective to describe a particular form of rage that non-white people can feel when one incident provokes a lifetime of dealing with racism to be unleashed.