How to stay still on a moving train

I was having a conversation with a friend of mine and we were talking about politics and physics but since neither of us knows enough about physics to talk about it for any length of time it was really mostly about politics.  But that conversation got me thinking about the nature of privilege and the amount of work it takes to keep still.

My parents are doctors so ‘first, do no harm’ is something I grew up hearing.  That and various versions of the same from Hinduism and Islam.  Growing up, I had plenty of privilege.  In activist groups working on issues around poverty and injustice I was often the person who would get taken seriously, or part of the group of people who would get taken seriously.  The times when I would not get taken seriously were when the groups were made up mostly of men from a similar class and caste with comparable education.  This happened frequently enough to give me sufficient insight into what it feels like to be treated as irrelevant.  It also happened often enough for me to see first hand all that I didn’t want to be.

So I learnt to see which battles were whose, and where I could locate myself in them.  And I messed up plenty of times and got told off plenty.  Of course I only started being told off once I’d let people know that doing so wouldn’t make me leave.  And even then they were cautious and apologetic about it.  That changed over time.  People I worked with started trusting my intentions and my actions enough to demand what they needed without apology.  I found friends whose challenges became harder to meet because they were actually treating me as capable of meeting them.  But it never got easier for me.  I got a lot better at it, and I got a lot of practice, but it was never easy.  And I never stopped making mistakes.

Moving to a different country was an interesting exercise.  Suddenly I found myself in a context where my body, my words and my experience were at best entirely irrelevant and at worst offensive and dangerous.  People who knew nothing about my world expected brownie points for having heard of/or read Arundhati Roy.  The world that did not speak the language they spoke, do politics the way they did had no meaning for them except as something to appropriate and fetishize.  This is a dynamic I’m familiar with (in India those in power talk about ‘tribal’ people much in the same way as people in New Zealand talk about Indians).  But what took me by surprise were the radical communities.  I expected dealing with their own privilege to be a central theme.  In stead I found a variety of intellectual justifications for maintaining their ignorance: “we shouldn’t be too inwardly focused, the struggle is out there”, “we have more in common with each other than we have differences”, “as long as workers unite everything else will work itself out”.  For me the most distressing part of hearing these was that I agreed, in part, with all of them.  But the parts I disagreed with didn’t really seem to exist so even voicing them made me sound insane.

I spent a long time lying low and working out the system.  And it took a while before I felt like I understood what was going on enough to feel certain that I wasn’t what was wrong with the way things were done here.  It helped a lot that I came from a colonised country and had an immediate and visceral reaction to the history of New Zealand.  But even that took work.  Because the colonisation of India is entirely different to the colonisation of New Zealand.  The occupiers still have the power, they get to pretend that colonisation is a just a figment of the imagination of the fevered few, and most political and international decisions are under colonial control.  In many ways I was lucky; my Dad was already going to Te Reo classes and I got to tag along, I had experience of a worldview similar to Te ao Māori so being in those spaces did not strike me as strange or uncomfortable, I was an immigrant not carrying a body that signifies colonial oppression so it was relatively easy for me to hold space.  Had it not been for these factors, chances are the sum of my knowledge about New Zealand history would have come from the Pākeha colonial perspective.

Decisions can be very simple, if not easy.  Coming from where I do, I found it inevitable that I identified as Tau iwi.  This of course made life that much more difficult when it came to navigating Pākeha New Zealand.  Not only was I a brown-skinned immigrant, I was a brown-skinned bad immigrant for not taking on ‘main-stream’/Pākeha New Zealand ideals and world-views.  Being Tau iwi and being brown in a white, structurally racist and structurally colonial society takes work.  And I’m learning how to keep still.

So turns out  keeping still on a moving train involves running at the speed of said train in the direction opposing its travel.  See?  Simple.  Not easy.


6 comments on “How to stay still on a moving train

  1. Kim says:

    This is fantastic, thank you

    • brownflotsam says:

      I’m glad you like. It’s always nice to be appreciated by your heroes!!

      • Kim says:

        Okay, that’s just silly, and I refuse to say you’re my hero too.

        What I really like about what you’ve written is that I can so identify with it–the fucking up time and again, the people who take the time to tell me what I’m getting wrong (I know this doesn’t happen as often as I need it), the gradual dawning of understanding and the cringe when I look back and see how I have screwed up.

        Thank you for writing about the difficulties of trying to do this in NZ activist settings. We really seem inexperienced at talking about colonisation (among other things) with awareness of our privilege and role in it. Like we can just refuse to accept our privilege and that makes us all equal.

        I’m enjoying your blog (and hi-jacking the comments at the moment, sorry)

        • brownflotsam says:

          Heh. Your refusal is duly noted.

          Yep, NZ activist settings were stressful. Part of it seemed to just be unconsidered remnants of the “we’re an egalitarian society and everybody is equal” spiel and activists had only got around to deconstructing the parts that were easiest/least deeply embedded/didn’t threaten their privilege. Part of having that kind of privilege is being able to opt out of engaging with the things that are hard.

          And as far as NZ is concerned, I’m very much in the fucking-up-and-not-being-corrected-nearly-enough stage myself.

          I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog. And this hardly counts as hijacking. You’re on topic and awesome. I’m off-topic and silly but it’s my blog and I’m allowed to be!

    • Kim says:

      Also, your blog is beautiful.

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