Unlearning indoctrination: a conversation with Mandela’s white Afrikaaner secretary.

“What might it take for you to change your mind? Nothing simple, like what you’re going to have for lunch, but your whole ideology? Maybe even the belief system you’ve carried with you from childhood?”

– RN Life Matters, 16 February 2016.

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Yesterday I listened to RN Life Matters’ interview with Zelda la Grange, author of the book Good Morning Mr Mandela: A Memoir. For 16 years, Zelda faithfully worked for Nelson Mandela – first as a typist in the new Mandela-led government in 1994, then as his private secretary for many years after. Her story is remarkable for many reasons, but one in particular: Zelda, born a white Afrikaaner in apartheid South Africa, was a racist by the age of 13.

In fact, when the referendum was held in 1992 to end apartheid, 21 year old Zelda voted ‘No’. The reason why, she explained on Life Matters, was white privilege:

“I voted no, because this serves my being, I am comfortable living apartheid, I am privileged, so I didn’t want this to end… I am on the receiving end of apartheid, the positive side, so I didn’t want it to end and I voted no in the referendum.”

Zelda was raised in a very conservative (read: racist) household that believed, as most white South Afrikaaners did, in the rightness of apartheid: white supremacy, racial hierarchy, the physical and political separation/control of ethnic groups. She describes how the ideology supporting the regime was reinforced through propaganda via the media, the education system, and white churches. Zelda says:

“We never questioned it, because we were on the receiving end of privilege.”

The system of apartheid involved the complete dehumanisation and brutal treatment of indigenous South Africans. Zelda mentions in her interview just two of the many manifestations of this dehumanisation: the births and deaths of Black Africans were not even officially registered; and the movements of Black Africans were restricted and brutally policed.*

She notes, though, that a weird sort of cognitive dissonance was in play, as so many white children were brought up by loving Black domestic workers; Zelda herself adored her Black caregiver. But, she says, these Black people were acceptable because they were serving white people; those beyond a white household’s Black servants were not acceptable or worthy of fond human regard.

In February 1990, after 27 years of incarceration for being a liberation activist and “terrorist” against apartheid, it was announced that Nelson Mandela would be freed from jail. Zelda recalls being in the family swimming pool when she found out; her father, who regarded Mandela as an evil Communist, came outside and said to her:

“Now we are in trouble… the terrorist [Nelson Mandela] has been released.”

Not knowing who he was, Zelda was unperturbed by the news and continued relaxing in the swimming pool. Her father, fully aware of both the karmic debt accrued by centuries of brutal oppression by whites of Black Africans, and Mandela’s status as a resistance leader, feared the retaliation – and the possibility of Mandela leading it.

Zelda explained the white fear:

“Retaliation, because of centuries of oppression and discrimination, and I think understanding it now that we really feared that if Black people had the opportunity, they would retaliate.”

In 1994, despite having voted against the ending of apartheid in the 1992 referendum, Zelda took a job working as a typist for Nelson Mandela’s secretary, in the newly elected Mandela government. Psychologically it was a tense time for the white oppressors, even as it was a time of hope and liberation for all who worked to end apartheid (and of course, all who were oppressed by it).

At some point during her two years as a typist, Zelda nearly bumped into President Mandela and his security detail in a corridor. The chance meeting was an unexpectedly emotional, life-changing experience for her. Not only did Mandela stop and extend his hand to greet Zelda first, but he spoke to her in Afrikaans – her language. The language of those who had violently oppressed his people for centuries and incarcerated him for nearly three decades.

This excerpt from Zelda’s book describes the meeting:

“One doesn’t really know what to do at that point except cry, which I did. It was all too much. I was sobbing. He then spoke to me, but I didn’t understand him and was completely in shock. I had to say, ‘excuse me Mr President’, for him to repeat what he had just said to me, and after gathering my thoughts, I realised he was addressing me in Afrikaans – my home language. The language of the oppressor.”

The significance of Mandela addressing her in this language was profound; Mandela had said that when you speak to a man in his language, you speak to his heart. It was a great gesture of respect, afforded to a young privileged Afrikaaner woman who had voted to keep apartheid, yet went on to be on the payroll of the new Mandela-led government.

Zelda’s tears were tears of guilt. The realisation hit her instantaneously; the warmth and gentle kindness Mandela radiated deepened the sense of guilt she felt. Zelda could not fathom why he stopped to meet her, a low ranking staffer – and an Afrikaaner one at that. Seeing her emotional distress, Mandela put his hand on her shoulder and attempted to calm her down.

Thus began the unlearning of Zelda’s lifelong indoctrination. 

It is remarkable that the charisma and calming moral leadership of one person was able to trigger in many the undoing of what remains a huge problem for humanity – learned and deliberately taught supremacist thinking. Zelda’s transformation mirrored that which other whites were going through at the time; she recalls witnessing others having the same reaction to Mandela, the same experience of guilt realisation.

Because as Zelda’s father’s reaction to Mandela’s release had demonstrated, the white fear was retaliation – coupled with the desire to maintain privileges, it basically ensured racial hostility against the oppressed population for all eternity. But Mandela subverted their expectations. Zelda told Life Matters:

“It would have been justifiable for him to have resentment, and yet he did exactly the opposite.”

Mandela’s choice of forgiveness, negotiation, and conscious peace made her and many other whites feel grateful, disabled their fear-based defense mechanisms, and enabled them to finally see the horror of what they had inflicted upon Blacks and people of colour.

Some time later, Zelda had the opportunity to see President Mandela speak at an official lunch; in attendance were representatives of the ‘rainbow coalition’ of the new South Africa. Mandela calmly (and almost fondly) shared experiences of his incarceration. Here, Zelda realised the gravity of what had been taken from him – that he had been imprisoned longer than she had been alive, for fighting against injustice.

In the interview, Zelda again describes the “awful” shame that overcame her; but it was mixed with the realisation that Mandela was not interested in white shame, but reconciliation and progress. It has to be said, though, that Zelda’s shame – really the dissolution of the ego that blinds those who benefit from systemic oppression to the evil of it – was (and is) essential to both reconciliation and progress.

On a personal level, guilt and the emotion of shame – which accompanies true empathy with the oppressed – is necessary in order for the unlearning of indoctrination to occur. 

This enables reconciliation on a societal level, too: genuine recognition of wrongdoing against an oppressed population by those who benefited from that oppression occurs when enough individuals in the oppressor group have become aware of and subdued what I call “the collective oppressor ego” (its hallmarks: defensiveness, sense of entitlement, centering of the oppressor’s worldview/history, and resentment of the oppressed group).

On the other “side”, an oppressed group’s refusal to retaliate after being empowered, and a willingness to transform the pain of oppression through forgiveness of former oppressors, is also necessary for reconciliation to occur – and facilitates the unravelling of indoctrination. Mandela understood this – though some liberation activists criticised him for giving up too much in negotiations with the apartheid government, he knew his approach was necessary in order to placate an indoctrinated, fearful and violent white minority… a privileged population who perceived equalilty as a loss.

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*The current wikipedia entry for Apartheid is actually a good introduction – read it here.

You can listen to Zelda la Grange’s full Life Matters interview here.

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How Donald Trump reflects his voters.

A transcendental meditation teacher once told me that in her belief system, the leaders that emerge and are chosen to lead a particular collective of people, are the direct product of the collective consciousness of that group of people. So what are we to make of Donald Trump, the front-runner for the Republican nomination? And what does it say about the consciousness of the people who gravitate towards him?

I must admit that I am not in the least bit surprised by his popularity in the race for that party’s nomination. Any level-headed observer of the tone and “quality” of politics on the U.S right – both in the lead up to the 2008 election of moderate President Barack Obama and after that historically significant win – will remember, that when Obama moved into The White House, the right wing moved into the nut house (to paraphrase one comedian).

We remember John McCain, the 2008 nominee (who sold out so many of his own long-held principles to maintain the support of hardliners within his party) trying to calm down the enraged crowds who attended his rallies, whilst simultaneously trying to harness their energy and stoke the fires of opposition to the prospect of the “foreign” named man becoming President. One incident, described in this Politico article, is stuck in my memory: when a middle-aged white woman was given a microphone and told McCain she didn’t want “Arab” Obama in the White House. On that particular day, McCain wasn’t prepared to let the factually wrong statement go uncorrected. He told the woman:

“No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that’s what this campaign’s all about. He’s not [an Arab].”

The statement appeared to be a moment of decency, McCain stepping away from the “red meat” script, and yet, the insinuation of the correction was that to be an Arab (which of course, Obama isn’t) also means to not be a decent man or citizen of the U.S. Still, McCain was booed relentlessly by the Republican rally attendees that day, every time he pleaded for reason and calm, in the face of outlandish or slanderous statements regarding Obama being a terrorist, a socialist, and so forth. Politico documented the dynamic between him and the crowd:

McCain promised the audience he wouldn’t back down — but again sought to tamp down emotions.

“We want to fight, and I will fight,” McCain said. “But I will be respectful. I admire Sen. Obama and his accomplishments, and I will respect him.”

At which point he was booed again. [emphasis mine]

“I don’t mean that has to reduce your ferocity,” he added over the jeers. “I just mean to say you have to be respectful.”

Gone are the days when a Republican front-runner called for civility and respect from their own flock. But where do people think the mob booing – and the seething xenophobia and reactionary impulse that inspired the booing – went? Those people, and their energy, obviously did not disappear; and going by their reaction to McCain during that campaign, they were already pining for a new, more extreme, less civil leader. Meanwhile, outside of that arena, Donald Trump was becoming as angry about Obama’s ascendency as the woman who used “Arab” as a pejorative. Trump emerged as a serious ‘birther‘ – one of the conspiracy theorists who wrongly believe Barack Obama was not born in the United States – in 2011.

In April 2011, NPR published this post on its politics blog, ‘Donald Trump, Birther In Chief? Poll Has Him Leading GOP Field With 26 Percent’. It says: “This poll […] indicates there’s a hardcore birther segment in the Republican Party that will reject any candidate who says unequivocally that Obama was born in the U.S. And those birthers are rewarding Trump, who has become something of the birther in chief with very strong support.” It also provides this excerpt of the poll findings:

“23% of these voters say they would not be willing to vote for a candidate who stated clearly that Obama was born in the U.S. 38% say they would, and a 39% plurality are not sure. Among the hardcore birthers, Trump leads with 37%, almost three times as much support as anyone else. He comes in only third at 17% with those who are fine with a candidate that thinks the President was born in the country. Romney, who recently stated he believes Obama is a citizen, leads with 23% with that group but gets only 10% with birthers.”

I took articles like this seriously at the time, and hence have not been surprised by Trump’s popularity amongst Republican voters over the past year. Back in 2011 NPR also published this piece, ‘The Nation: Confronting Trump’s Coded Racism’, which identifies the historical context and racist nature of the accusations that Obama is not a U.S. citizen, and provides links to several excellent pieces (by people of various political stripes) that directly take on Trump’s race-baiting. It also contains this assertion:

“Still, racial dog whistles only work when a lot of people play along. Otherwise a coded attack — aimed at the racists but clinging to deniability — curdles into public, blatant racism. (That’s bad in politics and business, so it would restrain even a business candidate like Trump.)” [emphasis mine]

It would only restrain someone who knew they did not have the support of a large group of xenophobic nationalists and racists; at this point Trump does have their support. And right now, much like the meditation teacher asserted, he is a conduit for their frustrations, resentment, hatreds, fears, and (this is crucial) their egoic aspirations for grandeur. Furthermore, it is not unusual for uncivil language and extreme statements like the ones Trump produces regularly to be rewarded by right wing voters. Anyone who has ever watched a Republican debate that did not include Trump would have still witnessed extreme, violence-endorsing statements being cheered by the audience.

And yes, that audience isn’t only “white”. Much was made this week about the fact that a good percentage of Latinos in Nevada voted for Trump; it is wise to remember these voters were Republicans when processing that information. There are of course other people who are not traditional partisans, who consider themselves to be reasonable people, and who find Trump appealing for one position or another. One Latino man who plans to vote for Trump told The Daily Beast this, when asked what could possibly turn him off Trump – his naiveté is telling: “if he came out and used the ‘N’ word or something like that, I probably would not vote for him. But what is one racist thing that he said? The guy’s never said anything racist.”

Trump recently levelled a ‘birther’ accusation against his Republican rival, Marco Rubio. It has followed a distinct pattern that has characterised his other ‘birther’ accusations. The Atlantic published this piece recently, titled ‘Trump’s Birther Libel’, which makes the case that he is attempting to make American citizenship a matter of “race and blood”. It is important to note that Trump has the endorsement of people for whom race and blood are an obsession: white supremacists. Including a former KKK leader. The reason for this is obvious to all but the most naive.

John Oliver’s show ‘Last Week Tonight’ just aired an excellent, well-informed segment addressing Donald Trump’s bid for the White House, the reasons for his popularity amongst right wing voters, the gulf between the image/brand he has cultivated and his many failures as a business man, his pathological lying, and his unwillingness to outright condemn and distance himself from white nationalists (in essence, his base). Oliver makes an important assertion: that both being a racist nationalist and pretending to be a racist nationalist in order to win votes makes a candidate contemptible. Trump is guilty of one of those.

You can read Vox’s article on the segment HERE.

WATCH the segment below. Or if you live outside the U.S, you should be able to watch it HERE.

 


Diversity Feminism.

I have both a spiritual and justice agenda in life. Simply put, it is the empowerment of the Feminine and the healing/balancing of the Masculine – in my country of citizenship, in my country of birth, in the Pacific/Oceania region, and globally.

The text below has been sitting in my hard drive for eight months. I wrote it one evening, for myself, in the midst of one of those frustrating public discussions that occasionally arises regarding what feminism is and isn’t, who is and isn’t a good feminist, and why some women distance themselves from the term altogether.

It was inspired by innumerable disagreements I have observed on social media, about ‘white feminism’ and the bizarrely controversial term ‘intersectionality’; and my frustration with how essential conversations about the diversity (different realities) of women are often handled in this public sphere by otherwise intelligent, brilliant people.

And it was my first ‘stream of consciousness’ attempt to articulate my personal feminist framework in my 31st year of life – specific to my experience as a citizen of a ‘settler society’ (Australia) and the barriers that exist in this context. It takes into account the diverse lived experiences of women here (the experiences I am aware of), and how some women face additional barriers due to the intersection of gender discrimination with class, race, et cetera. 

Specifically, barriers to what liberal feminists would regard as the goals of feminism: equality in the public sphere and individual self determination. I did not consult any feminist theories whilst writing this document – my views expressed below evolved over time, shaped by diverse texts, debates, public intellectuals, and lived experience.

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So here it is. what I will refer to as my version of ‘Diversity Feminism’.

It:

1) Is focused on settler societies, and their diverse populations.

The locus of my Diversity Feminism is within ‘settler societies’ such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States – countries broadly built upon the displacement of Indigenous peoples by European colonisation, racist population and border control, and waves of migration. Some of these countries have historically also accommodated forced migration – various forms of slave labour. Australia included

Justice necessitates a full acknowledgement of these histories and policies, and the legacies they produced in terms of persistent intergenerational trauma and cultural, systemic inequalities – which adversely affect some groups in society whilst privileging others. Diversity Feminism seeks to understand – through history and other disciplines, the sciences, the humanities, and the arts  – the root causes of group disadvantage, and discord.

It seeks this multi-faceted understanding, in order to find holistic and innovative solutions to these disadvantages themselves, and create a more just society.

2) Is committed to reconciliation and respect for Indigenous peoples.

Full acknowledgment of history – in particular Indigenous history, both prior to and after white colonisation – is an essential condition of reconciliation, equality, and social cohension. 

The seismic injustice and wounding that occured at the time of the foundation of settler societies, and the destruction that policies governing Indigenous communities wrought over centuries and upon generations of people, must be acknowledged – as a precursor to a healthy society, the wellbeing of Indigenous peoples and, in particular, Indigenous women and girls.

Diversity Feminism upholds that justice requires SELF DETERMINATION for Indigenous communities, and recognises the esssential leadership role Indigenous women play in this self determination. These communities are diverse – geographically and otherwise. Their histories, needs and preferences will differ. The aim of government policies should be to work with communities in order to design and tailor programs to suit them and uphold human rights.

A committment to long-term funding and a ‘self determination’ approach is crucial – communities, Indigenous women and girls, have suffered tremendously as a result of myopic funding cuts and frequent policy changes. In many cases, successful, self determination oriented policies formulated with or indeed by community leaders have been attacked and shelved as a result of the ideological biases of politicians, bureaucrats, and activists. 

Top-down, radically assimilationist policies have in many cases caused much harm. Knee-jerk resistance to “paternalistic measures” required to interrupt cycles of dysfunction can also be harmful. Again, the specific conditions and needs of each community, and the vision and wishes of each community, should determine the policies designed for them.

Finally, policy makers, the broader society, and certainly diversity feminists must acknowledge the deep racism that lingers towards the Indigenous peoples within our countries. This is undeniable – reflected in shameful statistical disparities and documented lived experiences of Aboriginal people. To deny these disparities in 2015 is, in and of itself, an act of racism. And will continue to be until those disparities are fully eliminated.

Much progress towards reconciliation has been made, and this is to be acknowledged and celebrated. But both systemic racism and incidences of personal racism towards Indigenous peoples remain ubiquitous. Respectfully understanding the histories of our nations – not just the relatively recent white settler histories, but Indigenous histories – and how they have shaped our national consciousness, is essential to understanding why.

We cannot truly close the empathy gap and support the empowerment of all Indigenous women and girls without this understanding.

3) Asserts that diversity is reality.

My Diversity Feminism obviously recognises areas of “universal” concern for women and girls in settler societies: legal equality for women; healthcare and family planning services; equal access to education, jobs, and public spaces; equal pay for equal work; progressive restructuring of education and work institutions to accomodate and value caring duties and child rearing responsibilities; freedom for girls and women from violence, abuse and harassment in all its forms.

However, by putting the locus solely on “universal” concerns, many western iterations of feminism within ‘settler societies’ fail to acknowledge or address a vast array of specific, complex obstacles that inhibit marginalised or “Othered” women within them – and prevent such women from enjoying the rights, freedoms, and equal participation in society enjoyed by the more privileged – i.e. white, able bodied, middle class women.

[This has always been the case. An historic legal example: “women” in general were not granted the right to vote in Australian Commonwealth elections in 1902; white women were. Indigenous women had to wait until 1962. In 1920 British subjects were granted ‘all political and other rights’, but South Sea Islanders were still ineligible to vote despite being British subjects. Natives of British India living in Australia were allowed to vote in 1925.]

To remedy this, Diversity Feminism centres its focus on the diverse realities of:

  • First Nations women
  • Ethnically diverse women, and linguistically diverse women
  • Women living with neurological differences, chronic illnesses and disabled women
  • Women living with psychiatric conditions
  • Elderly women
  • Transgender women
  • Single mothers
  • Women carers
  • Women who struggle with English literacy
  • Women stuck on a low income (the working poor, and welfare supported women)
  • Women trapped in abusive and/or violent relationships
  • Homeless women and women who require public housing
  • Women in remote, rural or underserviced communities
  • Same-sex attracted women
  • Women sex workers
  • Exploited workers (including non-citizens & forced/coerced labourers)
  • Women in the prison system
  • Women who have sought asylum in our countries.

These women may in theory share some of the aforementioned “universal” concerns and seek the same gender equity that white, middle class, able-bodied women do – but they face additional external barriers to the realisation of full empowerment due to factors like location, class, “race”, cultural background, literacy/language competency, and disability that can prevent them from doing so.

Diversity Feminism therefore centres the experiences of these women and seeks to examine these barriers, to understand how they intersect (“intersectionality”) with gender – in order to find multi-disciplinary, holistic policy solutions for them. Diversity Feminism is committed to ensuring all women are valued, supported, and empowered to live safe, meaningful, productive, and self determining lives.

4) Upholds and supports individual human rights, both in mainstream national culture and for women within culturally diverse communities (First Nations women included).

For the purposes of this document, cultural patriarchy is defined as: cultures in which the desires, drives and demands of men carry more weight that the desires, drives and demands of women; within which women are restricted to defined gender roles, mores of behaviour, and life paths; and within which women are prevented from ascending to leadership positions due to their sex.

Diversity Feminism supports progressive cultural change away from rigid cultural patriarchy, towards equal opportunity and rights for all women and girls – within both the broad national culture AND within its various cultural communities.

Diversity Feminism also understands that sustainable cultural change comes from within – in this case, led by women and men inside the communities in which change must occur. It therefore seeks to offer firm support to women and girls in culturally diverse communities – and their allies – to instigate progressive change within those communities.

In doing so, Diversity Feminism aims to both respect the unique identities of various cultural communities that are important to many women, AND augment such cultural communities to include recognition of human rights for women and girls. Diversity Feminism affirms those who seek to be agents of change from within.

Fundamentally, Diversity Feminism recognises the reality that many feminists successfully mediate between different cultural identities, in ways that affirm and empower them – and that cultures can change. It therefore aims to foster progressive change across all cultures towards the recognition of human rights for ALL women and girls – and more broadly, all people.

5) Upholds and supports individual human rights for women globally.

Supporting ‘change from within’ is a principle applied in relation to women and girls in other countries too. It is expressed through supporting grass roots initiatives in other countries – and between countries – to secure the rights and empowerment of women and girls around the globe. In particular, the voices and leadership of women in the “Global South”, and conflict zones, should be elevated and affirmed. Overseas movements of men for progressive cultural and legal change – the empowerment of the women in their countries – should also be supported. 

6) Understands that the nation states we live in exist within a bigger picture – a global economic system, that entrenches inequality and relies upon exploitation. 

My Diversity Feminism recognises that Western nations enjoy the level of development they do in large part as a result of centuries of mass human and resource exploitation in the “Global South”. Western colonial projects also planted the seeds of many conflicts and territorial disputes. The international relations objectives and foreign policy of countries (notably the United States) since the development of the nation-state system, have created both immense wealth for some and immense suffering for millions of others globally. Obviously, women and girls are amongst those affected. 

And Diversity Feminism recognises that the material wealth and many of the products we rely upon/enjoy are stained with the suffering of unseen, unheard, exploited workers throughout the world – many of whom are women and girls, or the family members of women and girls.

Diversity Feminism therefore supports progressive government/legislative regulations at a regional, national and international level that protect ALL people, fauna and ecosystems from:

  • human and labour rights abuses
  • unsafe and unethical business practices in all markets (including practices harmful to animals)
  • unsafe and unethical supply chains in production of goods and services
  • unsafe and unethical resource extraction and/or processing

On a personal level, my Diversity Feminism compels me to try, as much as possible, to approach consumption with a sense of responsibility to both the wellbeing of workers and responsible resource extraction in mind – supporting businesses operating ethically in accordance with regulatory measures, or of their own volition [e.g. B Corps]. 

When exercising ones political, legal and consumer freedoms, the Diversity Feminist should endeavour to make choices that align with any or all of the above.

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And… that was it. First attempt to articulate my approach to feminism as a citizen of Australia, a lady with roots in the Global South, a disabled woman. The idealist in me actually believes settler societies have the potential to be the freest, healthiest, and most harmoniously diverse societies on Earth, if they examine their national souls and do the necessary progressive justice work; my diversity feminism is very much about getting us there. I will continue to refine the vision.

© 2016 Pauline Vetuna, All Rights Reserved.


I will live the life of my dreams… in *this* body.

[sorry this post is a few days late – I’ve been having issues with my wordpress admin page]

 

This post is about living, loving, and joyfully navigating the world in a body that may be culturally stigmatised, socially marginalised, and structurally discriminated against. I experience the pleasure, the privilege of insights, and sometimes the pain of inhabiting one of those bodies.

Because when your body is the target of discrimination, it is a challenge to not internalise some of the nonsense that is directed at you by others. Even when you are a strong individual who powers yourself from within – which I am (most of the time). I re-listened to a podcast earlier this week, that reminded me of the importance of body acceptance work – for people whose experiences moving through the world are coloured by other people’s prejudices against their “different” bodies.

The podcast was Lena Dunham’s Women of the Hour, Episode 2. In it, Girls star Aidy Bryant shares what it is like to be an actress happily living in an overweight body. Ethiopian writer Hannah Giorgis discusses the politics, style and magical bonding that connects Black women who embrace their (often stigmatised) natural afro locks. Young musician Mindie Lind, who has no legs and rides around on a skateboard, explains how being a “crip” is a daily creative process (a brilliant description), and talks about being the object of sexual desire.

Episode 2 also features writer, TV presenter and activist Janet Mock, answering questions about her experiences of being a transgender woman of colour; plus filmmaker/writer Rachel Fleit, who has alopecia, sharing truly beautiful insights from her journey of “coming out” as a bald woman. Rachel says the way she handles people’s weird reactions to her baldness, completely depends upon what she calls her “spiritual fitness” on that day – something that really resonated with me, in general.

In fact, aspects of the experiences of all of these women resonated with me: Aidy’s carefree joy in her body and positive professional experiences within it, despite the rampant discrimination people often warn her about; Hannah’s bonding with her Black girl friends over hair and politics; Mindie’s sense of both power and vulnerability regarding her sexual life, and the creative adaptability that being a “crip” necessitates; and Janet’s simple desire for reciprocal love – a loving, public, respectful and equal partnership.

To me, the experiences shared in the episode highlight how people who inhabit bodies that are socially marginalised, often need to develop – through persistent, loving, self-acceptance work – a confidence in themselves and their being that can withstand and transcend the dumb shit they will encounter in the world. The late poet and disability rights activist Laura Hershey wrote: “Remember, you weren’t the one who made you ashamed, but you are the one who can make you proud […] you get proud by practicing”. For me, this simply means to continuously embrace and love your body.

I am practicing doing that again. In my previous post I wrote about how I am in the process of gaining my physical strength back after recovering from PTSD – integrating a new health and exercise routine into my daily life. At the age of 31, I am closer than I have ever been to realising a permanent, unconditional love for my body, that transcends all the harmful false beliefs I have allowed to exist within me in the past – all of which were internalised from negative experiences in the world, related to the way my body has been accepted (or rather, not accepted) by others.

These experiences started from the age of three. This is the age I was when I first experienced racism. A Japanese girl (funnily enough) at my pre-school told me at length and in great detail (quite alarming, given her age) why my Melanesian body – skin, hair, facial features – were ugly and not as lovely as people whose features were Asian or white. I was the kind of completely open-hearted child who believed everything the world told me at that age, so naturally, in that moment, I internalised it.

But it actually didn’t scar me too much, as I grew into a sensitive but confident child, with many a limerence-afflicted boy admirer and a healthy amount of affirmation from the people in my life. Nonetheless, the “bug” of that incident of racism was still embedded in my psyche, reinforced by the pro-white biased culture I was immersed in, and triggered whenever experiences of racism occurred. And when I say triggered, I am not talking about merely remembering the first experience – I am talking about feeling, in the moment, as inferior and uncomfortable in my body as vulnerable 3 year old me did in that pre-school playground.

I cannot pinpoint an exact moment when I started to “de-colonise” my mind, and completely purged it of the white/light supremacism that permeates much of the world. But I do know it had everything to do with connecting with other Black people who already had unburdened themselves of the bullshit. Since racism begins as body-based discrimination, the unburdening process naturally involves a positive reclamation of the body – specifically, of all the traits that white/light supremacism deems unacceptable. Going natural with my afro-curly hair in my mid 20s was not only an aesthetic choice; it was a political act. A freeing, personal expression of both my antiracism and my feminism.

Becoming sick at the age of 13 presented another psychological challenge to overcome – more layers of body dysmorphia, discomfort with my physical form. I was a naturally athletic and sporty child, so losing the ease I always felt in my body was a shock to my system. And, just as my unconscious discomfort with my Melanesian features owed completely to the experience of being immersed in cultural white/light supremacism, my discomfort with the effects of illness (which in my awkward teens included scoliosis, scars and reduced muscle tone) owed largely to the unkindness of other people – and societal attitudes about “different” bodies.

Unburdening myself of that particular form of internalised -ism, happened strangely and miraculously when I became a paraplegic, at the age of 21. Given my medical history (the illness I battled in my early teens affected my spinal cord), becoming disabled was the one thing I was most afraid of. Ironically, though, I became healthier in the aftermath of that particular trauma. For the duration of the year after that life-changing event, I worked out every day, my skin glowed, my appetite improved and I felt extremely present (and, yes, fly as fuck) in my body… until I started full-time work in an office and no longer had time for it. Different story.

So here I am now, 10 years later, recovering from another extended period of trauma. Not only can challenging times in our lives seriously harm our physical and emotional health – they can also seriously damage the relationship we have with our bodies. For me, I think these last six years have really been marked by a desire to take care of and embrace mine… but an inability to do so consistently and effectively. The PTSD symptoms totally depleted me of the energy, stability, and clarity I require in order to be able to take care of myself as a disabled woman.

2016 for me is about giving myself that energy, stability, and clarity. I have designed my new health/body routine to ensure I am maximising the amount of vitality, gratitude and joy I feel within it. Because it is this amazingly resilient form – this Melanesian, disabled, female body – I will live my long, long life and dreams in. And it is by really, truly loving and caring for it – embracing everything the unconscious world around me signals in subtle and overt ways is unacceptable, every day – that I will be strong enough to make those dreams come true.

Just watch me 🙂


Exploring Truth through Theatre and Film.

“Bindjareb Pinjarra is devised theatre at its finest. It’s well-paced, with relaxed delivery, attractive larrikin clowning, and confessional intrusions where actors drop character to address the audience from their own experience. This last is effective in illuminating deficiencies in the way we educate young people about Australian history and culture.”

Cameron Woodhead, The Age, June 15

‘Falling for Sahara’ aims to raise awareness about the refugee experience to the wider Australian community, and highlights the important role sport – in particular AFL – plays in creating social cohesion for newly arrived communities in Australia.

Staff writers for essendonfc.com.au

This has been a great week for professional and personal growth, under the tutelage of professionals (I am now being schooled in Playwriting as well as Screenwriting). Seeing these two productions over the past week made it that much better! If you get the chance to see the following play or film at some point, I would encourage you to do so 🙂

Bindjareb Pinjarra, & the Playwriting Weekend

On Saturday I saw Bindjareb Pinjarra, a BRILLIANTLY constructed, entertaining, deeply moving and thought provoking improvised comedy about a massacre (that sounds wrong, but somehow, it totally works). THIS review in The Age (do read it) sums up pretty much everything I enjoyed about the storytelling elements of this production, so I won’t duplicate that discussion here. Instead I want to share the two big questions that emerged from it, for me.

Bindjareb Pinjarra is about the mass killing of the Nyoongar people at Pinjarra on October 28, 1834. This event was recorded by White authorities as the Battle of Pinjarra but mourned by local Nyoongar as a massacre. What is known is that Governor James Stirling led a force to punish the Bindjareb tribe. They took the Aborigines by surprise, and shot indiscriminately for over an hour (shot at people who certainly did not have the weaponry that they did). The death toll, though the subject of much debate and denial, included women and children. These deaths were recorded and passed down in Oral histories on the Nyoongar side, whilst news reports and “official” counts by Whites maintained the numbers were significantly (and conveniently) lower.

Towards the end of the play, one of the actors breaks character to address the audience (this happens at various points in the telling) and poses this question to us: did the Blacks exaggerate the numbers to make the killing seem worse than it was (although any deaths make this event heinous, in my mind), or did the Whites downplay the numbers to make the Nyoongar people look dishonest, stifle their claims that it was a massacre, and thus, legitimize their actions (at least, in their own minds)?

In essence: where lies the truth?

A challenging question, one that I feel completely compelled now to explore in my own writing – not specifically in relation to this event, but in general.

There is another question that is raised in the play that needs to be addressed, for it is one that comes up a lot whenever the topic of historical injustices (particularly as they pertain to Indigenous peoples) comes up.

And that is: why does it matter today?

An infuriatingly ignorant question. People do ask it, though. I’m sure we’ve all witnessed people question why we should “dwell” on these issues. Insisting that we should focus on the “positives” and not judge the motivations and actions of previous generations. And I personally don’t. I don’t judge the actions of previous generations. I judge the actions, and attitudes, of current generations. An understanding that current conditions, prejudices, disparities in health and life outcomes, rates of incarceration, and a myriad of other issues are directly related to the histories that preceded today, is possessed by anyone who has a functioning brain and a basic grasp on the concept of ‘cause-and-effect’. Acknowledging past injustices does not solve the problems, but it is most certainly the first step to healing what is a deep psychic wound that most non-Indigenous Australians (myself included) have the luxury of ignoring.

Similar to the cynicism expressed in regard to the Apology to the Stolen Generations, people who question the use of acknowledging today that this event – and others like it – were indeed massacres, despicable acts of unjustifiable violence, are completely, and embarrassingly, missing the point.

Falling for Sahara & Refugee Week Film Festival

On Monday night I attended the Refugee Week Film Festival at the Sun Theatre in Yarraville, a charming old little cinema. The program featured a few short films made by young former refugees/participants in the 2011 Young Media Makers Project (mentored by my Pacific Stories producer Amie Batalibasi) and the screening of the 2011 Melbourne feature film, Falling for Sahara (supported by the Essendon Football Club and directed by Khoa Do). The evident somberness of the audience kind of bummed me out – especially since the theme of Refugee Week this year is ‘Restoring Hope’ (I guess they didn’t get the memo, or possibly read this piece in The Age). I did, however, accidentally end up sitting next to Inderdeep, who wrote the Big Issue article that inspired my Big Issue article, on the ‘About The Messenger’ page of this blog! (yet another coincidence. They’ve been happening with increased regularity of late).

It is important to remind people that ‘refugee’ is NOT a derogatory term, an “identity”, or some kind of subset of humanity. It is a political term used to denote people who are stateless, primarily due to war and persecution, who are in need of a homeland and the protections that come with having citizenship within a nation state. They have the same basic human needs as you and me, the same desires for safety, and are entitled to the same basic human rights. Relocating to a new country from a camp or some other place is, of course, hugely challenging, in many ways. The four short films screened addressed some of these challenges. The first made the point that perspective – celebrating the light side of life – is important, especially if you have been through disturbing circumstances. The second was a documentary, interviewing two young refugees in good ‘ol Footscray (one Asian, one African). Another dramatized the culture shock of a newly arrived refugee, unfamiliar with life in a modern city.  And the last was a well-constructed satirical piece on Australian government policies towards refugees from particular ethnic backgrounds.

The feature film we watched, Falling for Sahara, also showed some of the challenges of being in a stigmatized minority and crossing cultures through the characters of three young men/teenagers of African descent, living in housing commission high-rise flats in Melbourne (that look grand with good cinematography!!!). Directed by former Australian of the Year Khoa Do, it features a script developed in conjunction with the cast of African-Australian actors, and (then) recently arrived refugees from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan and Somalia. The three young men come from different circumstances. MJ is a refugee who experienced camp life in various countries in Africa before coming to Australia. Beniam is a lothario type, and the film opens with him seducing the beautiful Achol. And Ramsy is an aspiring Australian Rules football player.  All three are affected by, in varying ways, a stunning Ethopian girl named Sahara.

I love seeing a group of people in Australia represented on film who pretty much never appear in media (unless presented in a sad/troubling news story or as ‘The Other’). In Falling for Sahara, the three young men are just a few dudes getting on with their day-to-day lives. Beyond the idiosyncracies of specific accents and peer group dynamics, their preoccupations are pretty UNIVERSAL: love and sex (at least for Beniam), belonging, appeasing their parents whilst having some sort of agency over their own lives, and a sense of identity. The way these characters pursue these wants is (obviously) influenced by their background culture (and its expectations of how they should behave), attitudes that they have been brought up with, and the complications that come with having to engage with (and try to integrate into) a dominant culture that contains elements simultaneously trying to reject them. A culture that has its own ingrained attitudes or misconceptions about who these young men are to begin with.

Another thing I appreciate about this film is that it does touch on some pretty sophisticated and complex issues: internalized and external racism, class, collective tradition versus individual choice. They emerge through snippets of dialogue, but are not explored fully.  This didn’t really bother me too much, as by the 15-minute mark it felt to me like a “slice of life” kind of film, a snapshot of the lives of these young people. Once I had decided as an audience member this was what the film would be, I surrendered, and enjoyed the experience of seeing a part of Melbourne we don’t often get to see.

But, if I could change anything about this movie, it would be to give the script a stronger focus on the issues that the film lightly touches on, by making the protagonist of the film Sahara. I found myself wanting to know who she was. Why she just watched as the completely innocent MJ is dragged away by police, who have jumped to the conclusion he is hassling her based entirely on his appearance, not behaviour. How she felt about being married off to a man in Ethiopia. Why a private school educated, modern young woman could not assert her own wishes in the face of thousands of years of cultural tradition.

Obviously, that was not going to happen given football was supposed to be prominent in the film – The Essendon Football Club were supporters of the production, and have been working with the Flemington Housing Estate for a number of years.  But perhaps even that focus – the role of sport in integration – would have been better served by making Ramsay a stronger central protagonist. We don’t find out much about him other than he plays footy, has mixed feelings about Australia, and fancies Sahara. The dominant sport cultures reveal a lot about a nation. I wanted to see how he got along with his teammates – in the film, Ramsy complains his teammates don’t pass to him, but it isn’t clear whether this is true or not. His character is seemingly eager to belong but also uncomfortable with Australia; trying to be in it and pursue a sporting career yet simultaneously dealing with the tension of elements within that culture rejecting him.

I wanted to meet his family. I wanted to see him making escalating and tough decisions to get what he wanted.  Essentially, I wanted more drama.

So many meaty themes touched upon and hinted at, as well as characters we haven’t yet seen on screens. I would LOVE to see them explored more fully in future productions. Given that I am a writer, maybe these are topics I should tackle myself. And I have a suspicion this was the message for me this week.

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Special shout out to Amie Batalibasi and Lia Pa’apa’a who opened their new studio/art space ‘Sunshine Art Spaces’ yesterday!  http://prettywak.com/

Also check out this great t-shirt I scored on the weekend, from FCAC – really fits with the theme of this post:

Available from Footscray Community Arts Centre


Pacific Stories – DVD release

“Eight Australian Pacific Islanders share their stories about the challenges of negotiating Islander culture, language and identity in an Australian context.

With cultural backgrounds from across the Pacific, these filmmakers explore the struggle to keep family connections strong; investigate stories from the spiritual world; celebrate Oceanic art; and contemplate the meaning of age old traditional practices in our contemporary world.”

Pacific Stories, the DVD.

Hello!

Pardon my absence from my home on the internet. I have a number of fun projects on the go at the moment. A number of pots on the stove. A number of juggling balls in the air. I’ll stop now. You get the picture.

I will return with a post when I feel I have some semblance of control over these personal and creative affairs. In the meantime, I would like to promote something that is worthy of your attention. In late 2010-2011 I had the privilege of participating in a project called Pacific Stories (see blurb above).

Produced and facilitated by filmmaker Amie Batalibasi and cultural educator Lia Pa’apa’a as part of the Emerge Festival, and supported by Australia Council for the Arts, Multicultural Arts Victoria and Footscray Community Arts Centre, Pacific Stories was a film project for Pacific Islanders, mainly from the Melanesian region. Basically, we all made a short, factual film.

The films we made were compiled onto a DVD. The DVD recently received a G classification, and the project is keen to sell the remaining DVDs. You can purchase a copy here:

http://www.multiculturalarts.com.au/events2011/pacificdvd.shtml

Pacific Stories was first and foremost a great learning experience, and one that I am sincerely grateful for. Filmmaking can be tricky – the film I ended up with was completely different to the film I actually wanted to make. I had hoped to make a straight documentary without my voice anywhere, but time constraints and, ahem, shy participants forced me to reconstruct my idea into a 5-minute V.O’d narrative.

Such is life. The really great part was getting to see the other participants films, and to see them shown to a packed audience 🙂 That was fun! I wrote about that experience HERE.

Amie and Lia have rather brilliantly kept the Pacific Stories project rolling with Harmony on the Murray, a two-week intensive film project with a group of students at Robinvale P-12 College. Showcasing not only the talent and creative ideas of the young people involved, but the remarkable tutelage of these wonderful women.

Read about it here:

http://pacificstories.wordpress.com/2012/05/07/its-a-wrap/

Some of Amie’s Young Media Makers Project crew will now assist in post-production. The Young Media Makers Project (YMMP) aims to use film as a means of creative expression for young people to tell their stories in a new and innovative way and to provoke thought about young people’s issues amongst the wider community. Attending the first screening of the first crop of films from this project, a number of the young filmmakers had come to Australia as refugees. It was awesome to see their stories on screen, told from their point of view. Thought provoking, and, also, thoroughly entertaining.

You can follow that project here:

http://www.youngmediamakersproject.com

So, that’s that. Back soon – once I learn how to juggle.

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Had a seriously delicious, gloriously cheesy spinach gnocchi for lunch today at The Quarter, 27 Degraves Street Melbourne. Great service, waiters were excellent with my wheelchair needs. Good, good karma to them.

And as stated in last post, I did try Shira’s (In Pursuit of More) recipes! More on food and health and pigging out in a future post. As the owner of one of the most sensitive and irritable stomachs downunder, It appears I am finally – truly – making peace with food. How nice it is to just cook and eat, curl up with book and cup of chai, then sleep 🙂 Simple pleasures.


Matchstick perspective of Australian History

I did this exercise with a group of people the other day. Great for visual learners! And great for all of us who are not of Aboriginal descent to do.

You will need about 1600 black matchsticks, and a handful of white matchsticks for this exercise.

Get everyone to gather around a designated floor space or large table top. Line up the black matchsticks next to each other, so that they create a continuous “worm” or row.

Once all 1600 black matchsticks are lined up, ask the group how many generations their family has been in Australia. Find the highest number. In the group I had, the maximum number was 5 (an Anglo-Australian woman).

According to the number, get an equal number of white matchsticks (in our case, of course, it was 5). Line them at the end of the “worm”.

Then, explain this to the group:

EACH MATCHSTICK REPRESENTS ONE GENERATION (25 years, or thereabouts).

THE BLACK MATCHSTICKS REPRESENT ABORIGINAL AUSTRALIA.

THE WHITE MATCHSTICKS REPRESENT WHITE & MIGRANT AUSTRALIA.

Some of the more CONSERVATIVE ESTIMATES say that ABORIGINAL PEOPLE have been on the continent of Australia for around 1600 generations.

The First Fleet (the 11 ships that sailed from Great Britain to establish the first European colony in Australia) sailed into Botany Bay in January 1788, or 8 to 10 generations ago.

1600 generations, versus 8 to 10 generations.

Visually, this looked something like this

(using my groups 5 generation maximum):

Something to think about.

My immediate reaction when I first did this exercise was “Wow. That certainly puts the whole ‘we grew here, you flew here’ nonsense well and truly in the shade.”

Just a bit 😉

A little more humility and perspective would help race relations in this country a great deal.

Australia, very young and mostly free… 

A beautiful, wonderful country… with severe blindspots.