We are not equally oppressed. There is no joy in this. We must speak from within us, our own experiences, our own oppressions—taking someone else’s oppression is nothing to feel proud of. We should never speak for that which we have not felt.
— bell hooks (but I actually first encountered this as my friend Leilani Visesio’s Facebook status update).
So this is the last time I’ll be writing for Salient and I know y’all are gonna miss my on-fleek musings on everyday life and politics, but don’t cry too much, I’m the next Kanye so I’m not dead yet and you can follow me on Twitter and Instagram if you really miss me that bad.
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We could write about anything we wanted for this issue and I was like mean, but was also like woah. It’s like you’ve gone out for lunch in this mean ass foodcourt and so there’s all this choice and then there’s all this pressure to choose the very best one, and yet your instincts are telling you all these conflicting things so you end up just getting a cheeseburger.
This was gonna be the cheeseburger. But I hate to break it to ya, it’s not. Cos as much as it’s tempting to write palatable bullshit, I feel like I’m fundamentally betraying myself when I do so. It’s not my responsibility to be generous as a writer, a female writer of colour for that matter. I don’t have to explain anything to you; don’t have to write political shit all the goddamned time like you want me to; don’t have to ground my writing in the sensual feminine sensitivities that you crave from me: as one of few voices of colour, difference and minority in this magazine—that is my implicit role. In any white institution that I’m involved in these and more are the things expected of me. Which is why last week I wrote some bullshit about being hungover. Because sometimes I HATE that burden of responsibility.
But it’s not just a burden I can shake off. Once you step out of the foodcourt and realise there’s more to life than cheeseburgers, nasty butter chicken, and St Pierre’s sushi, it can be hard to go back in. So long story short, once I had seen and realised ways that oppression has seeped into Aotearoa like an oil spill, I chose to keep saying shit. I’ve probably talked about this point a lot in my writing, but I’m gonna whip you over the faces with it. For me, saying something, standing up for the causes I believe in, not backing down when the white patriarchy and matriarchy make you feel powerless, is a social responsibility. That’s my decision, based on my own personal experiences of it and against it. It’s grounded in shit I’ve seen and been part of, and in my own struggle to get out of it.
At the same time I feel that it’s a social responsibility, it doesn’t mean that I’m responsible to you to explain these matters. Decolonisation, indigenous rights, white privilege—these are things I think about on the daily. Like every decision I make is in some way influenced by these factors.
And that’s really fucking hard work. I too was born into white mainstream society. I too learnt how to be racist so that racism felt normal, even against my own people. I learnt to admire white female beauty; I absorbed capitalist identity ideals, learnt that beautiful and thin women are more successful and desirable, and that being brown is only hot when it’s exotic. Surprised? Just because I was born with brown skin it does not mean I was born decolonised. I was born into the same world as many of you and it is because of the issues I face with my skin colour that I decided to unlearn and, now that I have started, I know that this process of unlearning is something that will continue for the rest of my life, as long as I stay committed to doing so.
This does NOT mean that I’m the go-to voice for speaking on ‘diversity’ issues, minority issues—read: anything non-mainstream white. This does NOT mean that I even have to have an opinion on that, although clearly I do. The point is that this is all massive emotional labour for me. Any gesture of this, like my writing this article and addressing you directly, is an act of generosity. It is reaching out and trying to help you understand even though that is not my obligation. Each time I’m called on to speak there’s the expectation that I’ll say something ‘meaningful’: about my culture, about being a minority, etc. ad nauseum. It’s my passion to speak about these, but that is not without a tax on my mental health and wellbeing. As I said, these ideas didn’t just come naturally to me. I had to work, still have to work, to think in new ways. And I’m constantly being called up for saying things that in my ignorance I didn’t realise were wrong. Which is part of the learning process.
If I can unlearn, so can anybody.The information is out there. There are people you can talk to. Books you can read. Youtube videos. It’s not up to those who have already suffered at the hands of systemic racism and colonialism, who have had to go through the often agonising process of learning their own sovereignty, to have to explain it to those in positions of privilege. I’ve heard so many people saying, though, that they’re scared of asking for fear of being cut down, or criticised, or told they’re wrong. Well buddy, the road to enlightenment is difficult. And yes, there are likely to be painful stuff ups along the way. Your pride is gonna take a hit. Your perception of the world might drastically shift. It did for me. Yet, quite frankly, I have basically zero sympathy for white peoples’ tears against the backdrop of years of system and overt racism in New Zealand.
Do not however confuse this is some kind of permission to, once ‘woke’, speak for identities that aren’t your own, or think that you have a right to an opinion, or to preach about things these once learned. That is nobody’s right but the person who has experienced it. This is however an entreaty to educate yourself. To be aware of the privilege of your path. To consider the trajectory of your voice, and that someone else’s might benefit from taking that position instead of yours.
My responsibility then is to myself. To tell truth as I see it. To call bullshit when I see it. To be open to being called out when others see it in what I say. To be truthful to my story. And then those who might identify with aspects of my story, might feel encouraged to start to tell their own.
So here we are, back at the foodcourt. I’ll sit down at one of the tables outside McDs and I’ll start talking. And most people there will probably ignore me, or look at me weirdly, or tell me to shut up even. And I’ll keep doing this, until someone else, someone who’s been too scared or disempowered to say anything, will vibe with my words, will tell me that they’ve got a story too. That they’ve been outside and have something to say. I’ll give them the mic. And then I’ll sit down for a feed with the rest of the crowd, listening to voices that matter.