I published a version of this piece originally on 8 May 2018, and a few days later I took it down. The reason is that the piece inspired very mixed responses from readers, and so I concluded after a few stressful days that while my words were very helpful to some, they were also inadequate for the subject I was dealing with. I wasn’t interested in being the recipient of a social media ‘pile on’, so I removed both the original blog post and its link to Facebook.
Race and whiteness is a fraught topic that I tackled with a degree of naivety, like I was out digging a hole and it suddenly started filling with water. What I want to do now is madly fling dirt back into the hole and fill it up again; pretend like nothing happened and there isn’t water from the pipe I hit going everywhere. But the tender, painful topic of race and whiteness is still there whether we cover it up or not, and I think it’s best we talk about it. I’ll be wrong again, but I do believe that stumbling through important topics is better than being paralysed into silence. Silence is not the answer here.
I decided to re-post the piece, and run it as a conversation with myself: the self from last week, and the self from today.
Last week: Once I participated in some anti-racism training, held in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. I was one of around fifty people in our early 20s, and we were crowded into a classroom, sitting on the floor around the edges. Most, but not all, were white college students who had come to this city to help with the rebuilding efforts.
At the time I was working with a predominantly black group doing community organising in a flood-affected black neighbourhood. Most of the other students were working with a predominantly white group doing reconstruction work in that same area. We all needed to think about race, because we were operating in a racially-charged context, and the politics of race were in our bodies.
At one point the facilitator posed a question to the white people in the room. “What do you like about being white?” he asked. Reluctantly, we recalled the many inherent benefits of having recognisably European skin: how it’s easier to get a job or get a loan, how people tend to take us seriously or assume our intelligence, how we have the ability to choose to be around people of our own race and to see people of our own colour constantly on TV and in the public eye. This was my first lesson in white privilege.
Then the facilitator addressed the people in the room who were not white – there were about ten out of the fifty. He asked, “What do you like about being a person of colour?” People responded by talking about the family gatherings that they loved, about dance and food and music, and about the deep culture that had been passed on to them and blessed them now. These things sounded to me to be rich and beautiful.
During the van-ride home, I remember there was one young woman who was upset and angry. She explained that she was Jewish, and while she was categorised as ‘white’ by the dominant American culture because of her skin-tone, she did not identify as white. Her story was not one of exclusive privilege; she recalled, rather, her family experience of exclusion, prejudice and great suffering over many, many years. The young woman felt that during the anti-racism workshop, her deep story was rendered invisible by a paradigm that insisted on seeing her only as white.
I’ve often thought about this woman, and both her pain of not being really seen for who she was, and also the very real privilege she did hold on account of her skin, which was happily in the same tone-range as those holding power. Likewise, I am trying to grow in my awareness of the privilege I experience because I’m Australian-born with European heritage, and yet I refuse to identify as white. My whiteness is not the sum of my story, and it is does not stand in for my culture.
This week: A friend gently reminded me that my ability to not identify as white is one of the many privileges of being white: that I am able to ‘move through the world’ in a way that is neutral, normal, without friction. It’s difficult to know the privilege of whiteness without knowing something of what it’s like to be a person of colour in this country. I can only imagine the racism, discrimination, exclusion and violence.
Last week: In more recent years, I have spent a lot of time with white people who are committed to uncovering their own deep stories: the places, generally in Europe, that their ancestors called home, and the converging events that brought them to this land of first people and migrants. I have done the same – hence spending time with second-cousins-once-removed in Sicily last year.
Mine is a quest to uncover ethnicity underneath whiteness, which tries to cloak everything in a pervasive sheet of ‘white culture’. White culture is a colonising force, and aims towards hegemony and homogeny. This is why I think that peeling back white culture, and seeing what life exists underneath and in our own stories, is an act of decolonisation.
This week: Colonisation has certain beneficiaries, who are the recipients of status and wealth in a system that segregates and robs. I am one of those. It is also true that I and other white people are beneficiaries only in a narrow sense, because I also believe that my deep wellbeing is inextricably linked to the wellbeing of all, and that ‘beneficiaries’ of colonisation can never be really whole while other people are suffering by the same system. In this sense, colonisation is bad for everyone.
And yet – and this cannot be underscored enough – the sheer awfulness and dehumanisation of colonisation is exponentially worse some than for others. I’ll never know what it is to be torn from land and children, or to be kidnapped or tricked and enslaved, or to be hung or shot at or intentionally killed with disease. I don’t know what it’s like to say, “My great-grandmother was enslaved by the British Empire,” or “I don’t know my mother because the government took me away from her as a baby”. I know nothing of that trauma that surely, inevitably, must rumble down the generations.
We live in a system of racism that is part-and-parcel with the system of colonisation: for example, the White Australia Policy, which casts a long shadow today, existed to preserve the dominance of the colonising (British) force. It is this system that thrusts life-limiting racial labels on us, which have very real implications in people’s lives. It is a falsehood to say that ‘race doesn’t matter’, because it so obviously does. It is also true that these racial categories are not all there is to us: how can they be, when they are the work of a system that aims to take away humanity? It is the uncovering of diverse humanity underneath the claims of colonial categories – culture and stories – that is the decolonising act. This is true for everyone.
However, as critics reminded me on social media, one of the despicable crimes of colonisation is that this system has robbed so many people of their deep story and culture, because it ripped them away from their people and land. Some people don’t even know what part of Africa or India or Australia their people are from, because they were violently dragged away so that others could profit from their bodies or their land. Also, even if one were to know and have a connection with their ancestral land, the very real economic implications of colonisation and racism mean that they may not have the resources to travel back. Today I’m wondering: is there a way for people to use the resources they have gained through colonisation to enable others who have been robbed by the same system reconnect to culture, land and language?
Last week: Sometimes people try to borrow practices and clothing from other cultures and claim them as their own, and this is called cultural appropriation. I think the reason we do this is because we are craving what we have lost ourselves: our connection to our stories, our land, our people, our food, our music, our art, our spirituality. It’s like we used to have a diet of fresh veggies and whole-grain foods, and somebody took that away and gave us a loaf of white bread instead. But it is wrong to take what isn’t ours: instead, we need to relocate the good and diverse cultural diets that we once had.
This week: Cultural appropriation is where a dominant culture adopts elements of a minority culture as incorporates them as their own. It is damaging because cultural elements with deep meaning are reduced by the dominant culture to ‘exotic’ fashion items or toys. Kjerstin Johnson says that people not experiencing oppression can ‘play’ temporarily with the ‘exotic’ other, without experiencing discriminations faced by the minority culture this thing is taken from. An Australian example would be people playing the digeridoo simply as a fun musical instrument, without a connection with the origin culture, or consent being obtained.
I believe it is important for us to try to unpack and understand the motivations behind the damaging things we do. This practice gives us a chance to stop doing those things. I’m not suggesting that white people need sympathy: simply healthy self-awareness. All actions stem from a need, and if white people are appropriating things from other cultures, we need to address the need that is within, in good and appropriate ways.
Last week: Recovering our own stories, which still bubble along underneath the slab of white culture, is a deeply re-humanising act. I also think it’s part of the fight against racism, because it is the sharing of stories that breaks down prejudice and binds us together. It is one way we can decolonise ourselves.
This week: a story. A while back I had a conversation with a woman who was a descendent from people who were kidnapped from a Pacific Island country to cut sugarcane in Far North Queensland. My grandfather and great uncles migrated from Sicily to do the same. There was a huge difference in our stories: her family was taken without informed consent; mine emigrated to escape poverty and lack of opportunity. My family found social mobility through wages earned in cane-cutting; hers was locked in servitude because of both the indentured arrangement and because of opportunity-limiting racism. Members of her community were ousted from Australia once their labour was no longer needed; my community was allowed to stay. My family experienced racism in a time in Australia when to be Italian wasn’t really to be white; her family experienced profound exclusion and racism that exists to this day.
Despite the differences, the sharing of these stories enabled us, in that conversation, to be white-but-more-than-white, and black-but-more-than-black. It allowed us to step into a different and deeper dimension, where histories overlap. In that place, I saw the story of another not from the clinical standpoint of one who reads a case-study in injustice, or even the exoticising manner in which an ‘objective’ white passive listener might hear the subject story of a person of colour. Instead, I heard my conversation-partner’s story from the vantage point of someone who was there also, cutting that sugar-cane under the burning sun. Were we side-by-side, or even there are the same time? Probably not – many Italian workers came to replace the ‘Kanakas’ when they were forcibly repatriated. Were our circumstances different? Profoundly. But still, we both recognised each other as being there in that part of history in that part of the world, and through our overlapping stories we connected in a real way.
It is these connections that undermine the segregating force of colonisation. That is what I mean about decolonising ourselves: I mean ‘ourselves’ in a collective sense, as in everyone. Decolonisation is, in part, the locating of connecting stories that make a lie of those big wide labels that colonisation has slapped on us all – even when those stories tell of differences in racism and privilege. It seems to me that hearing the story of another is important, and allowing the story to awaken the story in us: our own culture, our own experiences, our own privilege. We begin to peel back all our colour labels, and find the complexity of history and humanity underneath it all.
My reflection over the last week? That finding our deep selves cannot be done in isolation, and must be probed in dialogue with another, across difference. That’s what peeling back whiteness is about. It is this process that I’m committed to.