No justice under an unjust system

The verdict is in. and it’s not a just one. And there is little I can say at this point that would be even moderately coherent. So I’ll point you instead to someone who I think got it right. Kim from He Hoaka points out

Of all the evidence that was presented in the media and in court, culled from hundreds of thousands of pages of evidence collected, there is only one example of anyone other than the Crown causing harm to others (Apology followed shots). Four and a half years of harassment and vilification of those arrested, their whānau, the residents of Ruātoki, and Ngāi Tūhoe in general, does nothing to fix that harm.

We are expected to believe Ruātoki is a community of terrorists, and yet they have faced these years of provocation and threats without retaliation. The police have tried to humiliate and demonise these people, and have failed. They have been caught red-faced as the bullies they are.

I would suggest you read the entire article and then head over to not afraid of ruins and read this one too. Not just because it gives a complete breakdown of the verdict but because she has this to say

During the summing up part of the trial, the judge instructed the jury that, ‘Maybe there are two worlds as [Tāme’s lawyer] Mr Fairbrother has suggested but there is one law—the law that binds us all and under which you must reach your verdict.’

That’s true. There is only one law in New Zealand and that is the coloniser’s law. There could never be a fair trial. The New Zealand courts aren’t an objective arbiter between the prosecution and the defendants. The courts are part of the same colonial system that the defendants are fighting against, the same system they were on trial for fighting against. I’ve heard people say that the charges are bullshit, but really it’s the justice system that’s bullshit.

There’s no justice under colonialism.

What they said.


Feminism, colonisation and migration: a tale of caution

If anyone had suggested that I would be regularly identifying myself as a feminist in political spheres, I would’ve laughed at the improbability of it.  Coming from where I do, feminism was something that liberal, individualistic, upper-middle class, privileged women did to gain greater space and visibility in groups with people with less privilege and power than them.  Like Marxism, which got bantered around predominantly as a power play used to educate the uncouth and falsely conscious working classes, feminism was a means of wielding power over others rather than something to take strength from.

I therefore learned to distance myself from the discourse of feminism and to a lesser extent from those who espoused it.  There was quite a lot in the history and mythology of hindu and secular India that attested to the variety of roles played by women in the struggle and I rarely felt the need to use a largely white, middle-class discourse to contextualise or justify my actions.  Had the discourse of feminism been a part of a power-neutral conversation with those engaged in other struggles, my resistance to it would have been reduced.  It wasn’t.  It was, naturally enough, subject to the inequities rampant in our society and as such something that academically gifted, english-language educated, relatively privileged had access to.  I suspect if the discourse had been less elitist mahila mandals up and down the country would’ve found something to appreciate in it.

And then we immigrated to New Zealand.  Sigh.  Cue to radical re-analysis of context, politics and philosophy.

Over the years that I’ve spent in New Zealand (and now Australia) I have come in contact with young feminists from the Indian community.  It’s been fun getting to know them and I’ve learnt a lot.  One thing I’ve noticed is that (much more so than it is in India) feminism and alt scenes are a key means of rebellion and escape.  At the time that I was in India, I was younger and deeply rebellious myself but I’m sure I would’ve noticed if all of us were being pulled towards feminism as the answer to our problems (or the means by which to understand our problems).  We were definitely pulled towards anger and disillusionment with the state of things,  and we definitely got together to talk and organise, we just didn’t frame our conversations under the banner of feminism that’s all.

Let me be clear here: this is not a post about how feminism is bad.  It’s not a post about how Indian women can’t be feminists.  It’s not a post about how because the practice of feminism has been subject to the same flaws and power-imbalances as the practice of all political organising everywhere –  it needs to be abandoned and/or reviled.  For me, living in Australia, identifying as a feminist is a protective, productive and strategic decision.  What I am highlighting here are the radically different meanings of identifying as a feminist in India and identifying as a feminist in Australia.  What I am further trying to tease out are the consequences and effects of identifying as a feminist in Australia if you happen to be a non-indigenous woman of colour.

One advantage of rebelling against gender norms while in India is that (generally speaking) the radical examples of gender do not come from a white perspective.  When I moved to New Zealand, I had to work hard to find non-white voices in feminist writing and only when I had found them did I begin to feel some resonance.  But finding the words of non-white immigrants and indigenous peoples is hard when reading feminist work.  Oh and this is as good a place as any to clarify that that is what I’m concerned about.  Because to me feminism is primarily about solidarity.  And while I’m talking about books a lot, the discourse of whiteness is enmeshed with that of feminism in many different spheres (most often I’ve seen it expressed as unthinking racism in feminist organising).  The doing of feminism has not been the sole prerogative of the middle classes, but again, the finding of these stories is hard work.  And I always find it interesting to tease out the intersections between stories of working class struggles and stories of migration and colour.

If you are by any chance a feminist of colour living in a colonised white-privileging country and reading this; I have this to say: don’t give up, and don’t stop rebelling.

The white-middle-class-able-bodied-female-identified feminist discourse is a great introduction to rebellion and it is a great place to start.  It is not the sum of experience and most likely, if you don’t fit neatly into the categories outlined above, it will not come close to being the sum of your experience.  So take it as a measure of solidarity and acknowledge its limits.  You don’t have to fight to be heard if you don’t want to.  Often the costs of fighting (loss of friendship, accusations of racism, isolation) are higher than the benefits.  But do remember that the parts of you that don’t fit the box still exist and deserve to be valued.  Oh and it is tempting when faced with one oppression to treat it as fixed – try to avoid this as much as you can!  Privilege and solidarity are both context dependent.  So resist the urge to become complacent in your state in the world.  Chances are things are hard enough on a day-to-day basis to make it difficult to be complacent anyhow.  Believe me, there is a wealth of strength and solidarity to be found in other discourses and feminisms – so find it.

A window to the Australian landscape

A few weeks ago my mother and I went to watch a play about the artist the world has come to know as Albert Namatjira.  I have been trying ever since to articulate my reactions.  I think this is as clear as it is likely to get.

Even before you entered the performance space, the scene was set.  Paintings by the artist were papered along the outside wall.  The stage itself was a collaboration of spaces.  The background for the stories to be told was set by a continuing landscape in chalk being worked on by the living family of the artist.  The foreground was a portrait of the actor playing the artist being worked on as the audience found their spots as spectators.  The performance spaces with music and desert were the landscape on which this background and foreground were based.

There were amazing things about the performance.  It was undertaken by the Namatjira Project and it was clear that the play itself was part of a much wider project supporting indigenous rights.  The acting and storytelling was compelling.  The telling was unapologetic and for the most part saved from being preachy by the humour with which it was told.  And it left me wondering how different the story would have been if it hadn’t been written to be heard, seen and understood by white people.

My ignorance about the history of colonisation in Australia is almost total.  Everything I know comes from drawing connections between other histories I’ve heard.  So I learned an awful lot from being to the play.  But I still don’t know the artist’s name.  I know he was Elea of Aranda country.  I know his Father’s name sounded like Numentjirja to me (but I’m probably mangling it horribly).  I know Missionaries approximated this to Namatjira and named him Albert.  And that he signed his paintings Albert until it was pointed out to him that he needed to have more than one name, from which point on he signed Albert Namatjira.

The paintings of Albert Namatjira have always been for the consumption of the colonial eyes.  What he painted for a constant compromise between what he saw and what he could make his customers see.  There was a beautiful part in the play where he (played by Trever Jamieson) talks about places that he sees.  And places that are not his to see.  Places that are for women, places that are sacred.  It made me wish that the colonisers had that much insight in to their own world.  A little less arrogance about what is seen would have made for much more interesting history.

It makes me curious what the people in the audience thought they saw.  The theatre was full to brimming and we were up in the gallery.  I didn’t see a single person of colour there other than my mother.  And given the demographic of Canberra generally and the fact that we were in a quintessentially middle-class setting, this didn’t really come as a surprise.  But I was saddened by the reactions of the audience.  The uncomfortable giggle that broke out when talk turned to the appropriation of indigenous names was pretty much par for the course, as was the general hilarity of seeing a man dressed up as a woman.  The things other people find funny I can’t laugh at.  Or even about.  And so I wonder.  How different would the play have been if not meant for middle-class, white people?

The play does what it needs to.  And continues the tradition of Albert Namatjira.  The tradition of walking a fine line between two worlds to make enough money from the white world to be able to do the work that needs to be done in their own.  The paintings will be sold, the play will be seen, and I will learn to be here.  Perhaps eventually, I’ll find a space where I can hear the stories that are meant for me.

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.