Sunday, 6 May 2007

Crumbs off a dominant table: some pitfalls of “dot not joining” syndrome - hannah Ho

I once read somewhere, that it’s real hard to refuse crumbs off a table when you’re starving. There are many conceptual crumbs. Dominant crumbs. Enough to pacify. Enough to keep us from complaining and rioting. But not enough to feed us from the roots, to nourish our beings and communities. Sometimes when we’re beat down and on our own buzz, our own focus, we can forget to join the various dots.

Multiculturalism: crumbs off a dominant table

Multiculturalism is a funny term that means way different things to different people. I think it’s also a sneaky term. It’s like the cherry on top of the cake that people fight over, forgetting that the real substance is actually the cake.

For ethnic peoples / non-päkehä tauiwi, multiculturalism can be an offering, seen as a life raft in a racist sea. This is the place where you have no place, where people continually ask where you’re from in a way that assumes that this is not your home, where cars drive past trailing shouts of “fuck off home chink”. It’s where talk back radio blames all society’s issues, not on neo-liberal capitalist reforms or dislocated individualism, but on skin colour, eye shape, an inferior culture or way of life.

A place in a multicultural society sounds real sweet. So sweet that often we forget to ask who’s offering and why?

I’m wary of talking about multiculturalism for a number of reasons. I don’t like how it’s used without any acknowledgement of past racism, or any commitment to address current racism. I also don’t like how it is used to dismiss Mäori claims of sovereignty, rights and tino rangatiratanga. When multiculturalism is pitted against indigenous rights, you set ethnic minorities against Mäori. The upshot? Dominant Päkehä culture gets to keep its comfy spot on the couch.

Second, that offer often has fine print. The fine print is one of assimilation. It's no longer ok to demand that all New Zealanders be white. But it is still okay to demand that everyone here should live in the “Kiwi way”, take on “Kiwi values”, speak “Kiwi”. You can't change your skin colour, so that’s not your fault, but you can change your culture and try to fit in. In exchange for our tolerance you be the ethnics we want you to be.

We've been so good and tolerant and big: don’t muck it up by stepping out of line, or it will piss us off. (“And this is how they thank us?!!") This kind of "generosity" recalls something like a Victorian Christian missionary approach: One that reinforces the status quo.

While multiculturalism may be partly founded in good intention, it is at the same time underpinned by globalisation and a market-driven economy. One of the arguments you hear in support of multiculturalism and increased Asian migration, is that it increases our global trade connections, and brings economic benefits to the country. There's no doubt that this true. But I guess I'm asking, "is that the only reason they want us Asians here? Do they only want us for our money? Our investments? Our fee-paying students?" How come new migrants from traditional source countries never have to prove their economic contribution?

If economics is the basis for our presence here, that doesn't really make us feel valued as human beings. And if the motive for supporting multiculturalism is economic, then I think us "ethnic" people need to be very careful of how much we buy into the concept.

Joining the dots

If you've worked on social justice issues for any length of time. you'll know the contradictions that exist between and within "sectors" (decolonisation, sustainability, race, gender, sexuality, disability, class etc).

There are Asian business people, interested in anti racist stuff so they too can have equal access to a market that exploits, and puts profits before people.

Within queer spaces here and worldwide, we struggle with tensions of assimilation and mainstreaming. There are mainstreaming gays and lesbians that want the law changed so they too can get married and partake in the mainstream middle class, never mind that the rights espoused under "marriage" (rights in hospital, access to children, assets), might be extended wider than the binary/dual intimate relationship, and not limited to a certificated relationship.

Within the general western/white left, there are those who think they know best for the poor starving incompetent masses overseas. They do so without looking at the impact of the Western lifestyle, their country’s economy and their ecological environment. Never mind the fact that aid can perpetuate dependency, while we feast on righteousness and their cash crops.

There are many more examples. Those working on race will often neglect to examine class privilege, both here and internationally. People working within gender and sexuality will often not confront skin colour or race privilege. Class movements will often downplay gender and sexuality as a site of oppression.

These dynamics are detrimental to how we want to work and the change we hope to make. I once attended a queer youth support group and had to sit through queer white boys making racist comments, all while going on about how homophobia really sucked.

Having major blindspots and denying diverse and complex experience and subject positioning, alienates people. It makes the change we are trying to make, in the groups we are working within, seem exclusive, insular, small minded, and almost cultish.

The question to ask is "who benefits?" Something I reckon we non-Päkehä tauiwi, should keep an eye on is the whole divide and rule thing. If established migrants diss out new migrants for being too loud, Chinese bag out Mäori for being lazy and asking for handouts, working class päkehä blame the Asians for buying all the houses and taking all the jobs, the rich Asians - as opposed to the more numerous poor -- continue to buy houses and write-off class challenge as racism, then the dominant power structure is maintained.

Challenging and connecting

As peoples who are working for just change, we need to start acknowledging the interconnections between our issues.

If we are serious about social justice, it is because all injustice is oppressive. It has serious implications for those negatively affected by it, as well as those of us who practice it, benefit from it and partake in systems that reproduce it.

The question is, how do we make those connections?

1. It's "and" and "and": not "either/or"

Most of us enjoy privilege and power in some way. And we know that when power is challenged, it will most probably be met with resistance. The binary, either-or way of thinking, can be seen in most groups. Challenges to sexism in Asian anti racist movements have been met with a “you’re selling out, dividing us. The fight is against whiteys and now you are demonising your own brothers." Or sometimes challenges within white dominant queer spaces have been met with a "i'm oppressed and queer, I'm not racist, you think that race is more important than being queer”. The same old "you're with us or against us" mentality.

In our dislocated western environment, we tend to think about things in isms, theories and compartments. I think that's the problem. We need to explore a larger, more generous, way of viewing and living. That means not getting caught in the binary, either/or way of thinking. It also means taking a holistic view, one in which healing, love, relationship and spirituality, have their place.

I admit, it's hard to see that you're not working holistically, especially if you think you are. It's hard to see you're missing bits of a picture, when you think you're seeing the whole thing.

I think the safest thing, is to assume you aren't seeing the whole picture - that in fact, not only are you not seeing the whole picture, but there are actually multiple pictures that you aren't even aware of.

You just have to go on what you have, and be thankful when someone fills in a bit more of the picture.

2. You don't have to be right all the time

There is an arrogance that comes with righteousness. Most of us are guilty of that at some time or another. Acknowledging that on a continual and ongoing basis is a good start to really getting past the binary approach. We are, after all, products of an imperfect world - so we shouldn't beat ourselves up over imperfections.

We only have to look at our own social justice history to see imperfection. The first wave of feminism, for example, has been widely criticised as a white middle-class movement that failed to address wider injustices in society. History may judge us like it has them - both the good with the bad.

The way I see it, change, and social change, is a continual process. We chip away at it - maybe our whole lives - and pass our projects on to the next generation of activists (if our projects are still relevant).

We do this because we are serious about social justice: because all injustice is oppressive.

Finally, with the social justice-y kinds of things we are all engaged in, in varying ways - it pays to keep an eye and an ear out. An eye and an ear out for our own hypocrisies. We all have multiple identities, genders, class, sexualities, nationalities, ethnicities, backgrounds and ancestors. So that means we can have multiple oppressions and privileges.

In our critique and deconstruction, let us remember to heal, as well as leave room for creation and construction.