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September 18, 2016 | by  | in Features |
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The Privilege of Them Feels

Who else can’t stand Angela from The Real Housewives of Auckland? From the moment I watched her interact with the other women, I knew that she was a snake underneath that fucking killer fake smile. I literally felt like vomiting after watching her attack Gilda at Michelle’s dinner party on the second episode: I could taste the saccharine drivel dripping from her dazzling mouth and through the TV screen as Gilda tried to hold her own under Angela’s merciless provocations. And then she, as snakes are wont to do, manages to turn the situation around and victimise herself.

Yeah, I totally love to hate on her because that’s what reality TV is made for, but if you were to lift this situation out of the streets of Remuera or mansions of Coatesville, and pop it into your average ‘Kiwi ladies’ hang out, Angela becomes just another one of the people you probably hang out with, kinda can’t stand, but put up with anyway because #harmony #friendship #bffs and Gilda is your coloured friend even though #idontseecolour and #alllivesmatter. I can only speak for myself and the situations I’ve been in and witnessed, but my experience has shown me that only certain feelings and their associated behaviours are socially acceptable, and this is tied to the politics of class and race.

You can look through the annals of history or even just head on over to stuff.co.nz to see the way anger and other so called ‘negative’ emotions are narrativised through race. There’s a difference between anger and violence. There’s also a difference between violence and gratuitous violence. Anger is the emotion and feeling, violence is a behaviour that’s displayed sometimes when angry. Anger does not always amount to violence. The conflation of these two is a critical error. If violence is used by someone in a position of power, how is it fair to say that the victim should not use violence back? These are tricky ethical and moral dilemmas for sure and in no way do I want this to be read as condoning police violence, but what I am saying is that we should always think about the codes with which we often unflinchingly refer back to for our definitions of what is right and what is wrong. To bring it into a more real realm, the video that was snapped a few weeks back of police attacking a young boy on his bike in South Auckland depicts an act of violence. The appropriate reaction to that should be, in my opinion, anger. Not violence. But anger. Anger against injustice, blatant police brutality and bullying, racial profiling, and the abuse of power. The violence in this instance seems to me to be rooted in racism, which is rooted in hate, which is rooted in fear.

Instead of being encouraged to identify the root of the feeling we’re just made to think that emotions fit into different categories—negative and positive. It’s great to be happy, but it’s bad to be angry. Instead of encouraging appropriate dialogue around these feelings, we begin, from an early age, to just stop expressing some emotions altogether out of fear of vilification and other punitive consequences. Moreover, the freedom with which we feel safe to express some of these emotions has a lot to do with the construction of racial stereotypes.

Let’s not forget that I’m talking about this from a position of privilege—I’m free and able to talk about the expression of emotion in a public platform that’s going to be read by mostly white middle class liberals, without consequence. I am free to talk about the philosophical problems of police brutality and I’m not going to get profiled or arrested because, even though I’m brown, I’m the acceptable, educated, and articulate kind of brown. So what is the relevance of talking about freedom of emotional expression to you? Perhaps so that you’ll be aware of the privilege of emotional freedom of expression. Maybe so that you can recognise that you have the ability to be angry and the police are most likely not going to arrest you for it, or paint you in the media as a demonic P freak.

Going back to the event of the recording of police violence against a young boy and the appropriate reaction of anger and disgust—who is socially ‘allowed’ to have this reaction? If a group of young brown boys from South Auckland decided to speak out about this, would this get the same kind of response or public support as say a group of wealthy white people who decided to take umbrage against the very real existence of racism in Aotearoa? Definitely not. In the Real Housewives example, if Gilda, who is Iranian, decided to call Angela out for being a horrid bitch, she would most likely have been labeled as a bitch herself. If Louise had stood up and said “Angela, you’re being a bitch,” everyone would have congratulated Louise on doing what’s right, on standing up against Angela, on being an intelligent woman etc. etc.

Our perceptions of anger are so tied up with our perceptions of class and race. If I say South Auckland what are your first reactions: Gang violence? Domestic violence? Armed robberies? Yeah, this shit goes on there. But this isn’t the only place in Aotearoa all these forms of violence happen, and it’s not the only thing that happens there. But how can that not be your reaction when these stereotypes are thrust in your face by mainstream media?

The scrutiny of suburban Auckland aside, it seems crucial to recognise that reactions to feelings are social constructs, as are the expressions of the feelings themselves. But it goes beyond just being cognisant of this, how can you use this knowledge and your privilege in constructive ways? How can you use your right to feel anger and rage at social injustices to do and say something against them? For me, it’s a social responsibility.

I’m not saying that every person of privilege can take the platform and speak for those whose rightful expressions of anger are less valid than others; I can’t speak for anyone other than myself. But I can speak up against the injustice and I can implore others to do the same. I can use my privilege to encourage you to feel that social injustice is wrong, because it is. And that not doing anything about it or ignoring it or leaving it for others to speak up about is shameful. I can say that I’m disgusted with the privilege and apathy that I encounter in most New Zealanders on a daily basis. It’s not enough to just be aware of your privilege, to just acknowledge it. You have to go further.

I’m not saying I have answers. I don’t know how the fuck to stop racism, to stop fear-mongering, to stop hate, and hate crimes, and police violence, and apathy…  but I know that saying nothing allows it to fester, allows the wrong people to be criminalised and hated on, and allows the real villains to get away with it. I’m also aware that my little and probably annoying af voice is going to be read by maybe a handful of people, and that from that handful maybe only one or two, or maybe none, are going to seriously consider what I have to say.

So how did a piece that began with a flippant remark about the Real Housewives of Auckland turn into an imperative about checking your privilege and doing something about it? I’m in a position where, as a brown female writer with a strong social conscience, I am often burdened with the talking stick when it comes to writing about race, colonialism, and identity. I am given free reign when I write for Salient. I could have written about anything—about how happy I am when I see my friends, about the love I have for my family—but I took the stick and decided to make it about something bigger.

Because I see it as a responsibility. I have a platform, one with a pretty small reach in the general scheme of things but it’s a platform nonetheless. For me not to make it about social injustice in Aotearoa feels wrong. Once you come out of the cave, you do not crawl back in. It’s an interesting quagmire: on the one hand I feel burdened by the need to say something, and, on the other hand, if I don’t what’s the point of my writing. Why have yet another voice putting words out there into the aether to be consumed and forgotten? And while the things I have to say are important to me, and I think that they should be important to you too, I still cannot speak for anyone else. How do you not only speak about injustice but encourage action against injustice, through words? I hope that by writing this, I encourage at least one person out there, who is afraid to speak, whose words are silenced and undervalued, who too feels enraged by the social injustices in this country, to speak up. If I can encourage more of the voices that aren’t heard, I will try. If someone can look at me, a brown girl who has decided to speak, and feel encouraged to do the same, then I will keep speaking. I will keep speaking until my own voice is quieter than those whose voices matter. I will speak until my voice is no longer needed. Only then will I be silent.

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