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On belonging and home.

12 Mar

Often I feel guilty and apologetic that a lot of the people of colour stuff I do isn’t “real activism”. And there are a lot of social and political changes I’d like to see, and that I’d like to do more work on. Issues around labour and poverty, the criminal justice system, and refugee and immigration law in particular do seem more desperate, devastating and urgent to me than the kind of cultural problems I spend more time investigating, even if the latter might underpin the former.

That said, sometimes I feel kind of bashful when I talk about things like being asked “where do you come from?” like it’s not really important, it’s relatively benign, all non-Indigenous people are from somewhere else, having time to harp on about that sort of thing is based in the privilege of being free from more violent ways of being racialised. But being made to feel unwanted in your only home is a big deal. Having your knowledge of yourself denied and disputed is a big deal. I’m still only at the beginning of unravelling the psychological toll of these “microaggressions” and its impact on who I’ve become. I don’t want to trivialise these experiences any more. The emotional is real, and real politics deals with emotions.

And these experiences have hugely informed my political participation. When I was 17 I did a refugee solidarity action with a friend. When I was 18 I organised a small climate change rally. Both times I was asked by strangers, “what’s China’s policy on refugees?”, “why aren’t you doing something about coal in China” &c. This happens to me regularly at protests. I moved to Australia when I was four years old and I’ve been a citizen since primary school. I have full and equal civic rights, so the “macro” politics of law and government aren’t the issue for me in this instance. It’s cultural and psychological aggression that tells me I shouldn’t participate in the political life of the country in which I live, where I grew up and went to school, where most of my friends and family are, where I hold citizenship and vote and work and pay taxes, of which I understand the most history and politics, by which I am most affected, in which I am most invested. Liberal advocates for refugee and immigrant rights like to talk about the “contributions” refugees and immigrants have made to this country but white Australia only wants immigrants to contribute convenient labour that doesn’t displace white labour, we’re not supposed to be part of directing or defining the future of the country.

So I’m crying on aeroplanes, again. And when people ask where I’m going, I swallow the complications and tell them I’m going home.


On public conflict.

4 Apr

let’s get it on in public
– Kelis

My lover and I argue often, and often in public. We’re both kind of combative and whatever is the opposite of conflict-averse – trigger-happy, perhaps, or just straight-out aggressive. So a conversation about biscuits can easily turn into “I can’t believe you like white chocolate, that’s the most disgusting thing ever and even worse than your taste in men for example BRUCE WILLIS” and “yeah well YOUR FACE and your mum’s face and your blog’s typeface BOOM ps I hate your dress, it’s not ironic it’s just ugly”.

That’s an absurd example but you get the idea. I don’t think it’s better or worse than other ways to communicate, but for us I think it’s effective, intuitive and pretty fair because we’re evenly matched. I’m aware it can be threatening or at least uncomfortable for bystanders, and sometimes we’ll defer an argument or step inside. I appreciate that there are situations where it’s not fair on other people to make them party to our shouting match, and even if we know it’s all in good faith, it doesn’t necessarily appear so.

But I think there can also be this sort of genteel aversion to fighting in public which I dislike and distrust. It enshrines very specific cultural norms, prioritising values of discretion, pride and composure over passion, vulnerability, and spontaneity. It assumes access to more appropriate spaces, usually private property. And I think ultimately it can be dangerous because it hides away interactions that could sometimes use a witness and the accountability  that provides.

I attended a workshop recently on alternatives to police and responses to conflict. The participants talked about the different situations in which they might intervene, how, and what would help them to take action. I think it’s worth asking whether you have a problem with the behaviour at hand, or with it being in public, and sometimes that’s a difficult question to answer. And of course I know some behaviour is made unacceptable by its context, and especially by being inflicted upon a non-consenting audience.

I want to hear your thoughts:
• If you’re aware of a conflict between two people you know, what would it take for you to intervene?
• Does it make a difference if you witness the conflict directly?
• Where is the line between being a witness to abuse and being subjected to it?

Writing resolutions / In defence of writing and criticism.

9 Jan

Post A Week

I’m going to try for a post a week in 2011 — whether that’s writing to the left at State of Emergency, on living under capitalism at No New Year or about queer hanky code at opinicus rampant.

Because I’m doing it over three blogs I’m not sure if there’s any point signing up for the official PostAWeek challenge, plus I think I’ll be more inspired by the allies on my blogroll than the topics WordPress suggests.

I am so glad and grateful to be writing under these conditions — not alone in a garret or scratching into the margins of something else — but always with this rich delicious symphony.

Let me know if there’s anything you’d like me to write about, or if you’ve set yourself a similar goal so we can encourage each other.

On writing

A few people asked if I had any resolutions for the new year, and I mostly responded with something vague and non-committal. I feel a little ambivalent about setting a writing resolution — ambivalent, nervous and embarrassed.

The most useless thing I do in a week is the one I get paid for, so I am fairly confident that my urge to do something is motivated by something more or at least other than some kind of class myth about economic participation. But I think there is a bit of status anxiety involved in wanting to “make something of myself”, as well as a work ethic which, regardless of its ideological origins, results in feeling like I need to justify my existence by being “productive”. In a milieu that values change instead of reproducing existing systems, this might more likely be called being “active”, but either way it means that it’s not enough to live.

And I guess I think that’s true — that we live in this “state of emergency”, that the need for change is urgent enough to demand everyone works for it — but at the same time I don’t believe we need to justify ourselves or deny ourselves. I don’t like the idea of justification in particular because it suggests compensation — and I believe that nothing we do can compensate for unjust privileges, that we have to abolish the conditions that enable those privileges, and that we don’t have to suffer.

I am unbelievably lazy — given the choice I would never get out of bed — and it’s something that troubles me but also something I enjoy immensely. There’s work I want to do, but I do also really believe in pleasure, believe in its inherent value. When I am doing something I enjoy, I don’t have to produce anything because my own pleasure is meaning enough.

This is somewhat irrelevant, because I don’t enjoy writing. Elsewhere, 30 August 2010:

Drafts are distasteful to me (abject even), if I didn’t finish writing something when I began it becomes waste and I never want to touch you again. I want to love writing more than anything, more than I love fucking, food, dancing, sleep, baths, but always I hate it most of all.

Arrival card to Malaysia - "occupation: writer"

Lying on my arrival card?

In the last year I’ve begun to call myself a writer and critic, more as an invocation than a description. I’m reluctant to say that writing is productive, and mostly I write to provoke reflection rather than action. But I also don’t think it follows that writing is never activism, or that criticism doesn’t make things.

Blackamazon says:

An article does not feed

It does not clothe

It does not donate

It does not hold.

If I write something and you feel it

It may be some skill of mine but the thing that happens is within you

I think that’s true, but if blogging doesn’t do these things then neither does petitioning or performing or marching down the street or spraypainting slogans on walls or having meetings or making zines or speaking at a convergence. Neither does making films or music or art.

Most of the things we call activism don’t directly change entire social and political systems. Most of the things we call activism involve asking something of someone else. If a blogger of colour telling their story makes their friends and acquaintances more aware of racism, I consider that to be more direct activism than having a meeting to organise a petition to ask a politician to put up legislation for more funding for a multicultural television network which enables more people of colour to tell their stories. I think both actions are worthwhile.

As for criticism, I agree it can be unsatisfying – distressing – paralysing. But I think it’s also counter-productive and dangerous to demand that every criticism includes a “positive” suggestion, that negative comment without a positive alternative is somehow illegitimate. Sometimes we need the intellectual space of the hesitation after criticism to imagine an alternative. Or sometimes I would rather risk that emptiness than continue with the current structure.

Anyhow, here’s to a productive year — productive of justice and pleasure.


Leaving you with a poem: “For the Young Who Want To” by Marge Piercy. 3P has the last two lines as her Tumblr caption and I carry it with me as an injunction.

Talent is what they say
you have after the novel
is published and favorably
reviewed. Beforehand what
you have is a tedious
delusion, a hobby like knitting.

Work is what you have done
after the play is produced
and the audience claps.
Before that friends keep asking
when you are planning to go
out and get a job.

Genius is what they know you
had after the third volume
of remarkable poems. Earlier
they accuse you of withdrawing,
ask why you don’t have a baby,
call you a bum.

The reason people want M.F.A.’s,
take workshops with fancy names
when all you can really
learn is a few techniques,
typing instructions and some-
body else’s mannerisms

is that every artist lacks
a license to hang on the wall
like your optician, your vet
proving you may be a clumsy sadist
whose fillings fall into the stew
but you’re certified a dentist.

The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent
is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.

Against metaphor.

12 Oct

This post is full of offensive, derogatory and potentially triggering language.
I’ve been thinking about inclusive language and trying to be more mindful of my own.

I agree with the premise that language reflects and reinforces certain ideas, and that it’s worthwhile to be more aware of the assumptions behind our usage and understanding (the assumptions that make sense of words and give them meaning beyond their denotative referent; the word’s face value – what might be the first entry in a small dictionary).It’s a project initially motivated by solidarity with self-determination – by wanting to respect how people prefer to be addressed, described or discussed; to respond to their political needs; and to show support for cultural change through linguistic change. And it inevitably extends to questioning the assumptions on which all language relies.

But I’ve found common knowledge and practice around inclusive language in social justice circles to be both too simple, and too complicated.

Inclusive Language 101

The basics of oppressive language are simple to grasp. When you use language that can refer to or that is associated with a group of people or their characteristics and circumstances to mean something else (generally derogatory, but it may not be), you thicken the link between the two: saying “gay” when you mean “uncool” implies that gay people are uncool.

It’s simple to understand with the most overt examples, and simple to change: no matter how accustomed you are to using words like “nigger,” “faggot” or “retard,” it’s not hard to set up an alarm in your mind and find a better replacement.

Often there’s no perfect substitute, no word that’s quite as powerful – but that’s because oppression is powerful and there’s little that can call up so much power, so quickly, as a slur that stands in for a whole history of violence.

There’s plenty of existing discussion about words and phrases that can be hurtful or exclusionary and why you shouldn’t use them. Meloukhia gives a few examples:

Bitch. Cripple. Grow a pair. Lame. Cunt. White trash. “He/his/him” as a generic when the gender of a subject is not known. Ballsy. Harpy. Whore. Female impersonator. Jewed. Real woman. Retarded. Slut. Dumb. Natural woman. Harridan. Witch. Idiot. Man up. Biological sex. Crazy. Tranny. Invalid. Psycho. Step up. Asexual (not in reference to someone who identifies as asexual). Breeder. Shrew. She-male. Gay (not in reference to sexual orientation).  Moron. You guys as a generic greeting to a mixed gender group. Skank. Mankind. “Man” as a generic for “people.” Gyp. Halfwit. Insane. Schizo/schizophrenic. “Disabled” as in “the disabled.” Women born women. Ungendering by using “he” as a pronoun for a trans woman or “she” as a pronoun for a trans man. Fat/fatty (as an insult, not an adjective).

Some of these offend because they are commonly used as an insult but also refer to, or are associated with, a group of people (“cunt,” “moron,” “insane”). Some perpetuate stereotype by associating a group of people with certain characteristics or actions (“ballsy,” “jewed”). Some directly exclude (“biological sex,” using male pronouns as generic). Some embody double standards (“whore,” “shrew”). Some depersonalise (“the disabled”).Some understandings of inclusive language focus too much on the first two types. I don’t want to argue for either rejecting certain words or reclaiming others, and I certainly don’t want to make a judgement about who can say which words, and when. I do want to acknowledge that there’s more to language than vocabulary; more to inclusive language than banning words and phrases.

I want to talk about when language perpetuates unintended associations and assumptions in ways that are problematic but not necessarily hurtful. I want to consider this without calling for a ban, without even asking people to avoid certain phrases or judging them on how they use language. At the same time, I recognise this is an academic exercise: while deliberate language is political, it is not necessarily inclusive, and attempting it isn’t activism.

Beyond Denotation: Against Metaphor

Extending my last piece on analogy, I want to argue against metaphor – against substituting one thing for another, against reaching into the baggage of one thing to enrich or complicate our understanding of another.

To start with an obvious example, blackness and darkness is routinely used to stand in for mystery, fear, or general negativity. Though these associations may exist in many cultures, in mine it also draws on racism.

We use poor to signify lack, but it indicates both the state of having less (“poor people”) and being less (“poor form”).

Disability metaphors abound: a publication which would never refer to people as “retards” or “spastics” is likely to use “blind” and “deaf” regularly as a metaphor for ignorance or ineptitude (“the Government is blind to growing dissatisfaction …” etc). Debt is “crippling” and design is “schizophrenic.”

In Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag considers late twentieth century discourse on cancer to reveal our time’s anxiety about uncontrolled economic growth and technological progress. When capitalism is called cancerous, how cancer patients experience their bodies, or isolate the disease process from their bodies?

Rape is used as a metaphor for almost any offence or injustice, from colonisation to privacy violations to logging of old-growth forests. Consent is relevant in almost every political conversation – autonomy is essentially consent collectivised – but alluding to sexual assault is unnecessary and insensitive.

It’s impossible to escape metaphor’s intersections with oppression; most adjectives can be applied to bodies and people, so the words that describe me (short, young, light) inevitably draw on some other meanings (curt, fresh, unimportant).

Of course, I don’t really want to argue against metaphor. I want richly layered associative meaning; I want poetry. And I know sometimes synonyms are equal, if not independent of analogy, metaphor and association. Language is more complex and flexible than these caveats suggest.

Etymology is not meaning

Inclusive language is naive when it presumes that that a word only means one thing and will always mean that thing. Etymology is not meaning, meanings aren’t always hierarchical, and language changes through time and shapes itself for the situation.

Some meanings pass away: if linguists just hush for a bit, I think people will quickly forget that “bastard” originally meant someone whose parents weren’t married. Now it’s just someone you don’t like, or in Australia, anyone. The modern meanings of “laconic”, “spartan” and “lesbian” are dominant in the anglophone world, and their racial origins are only of academic interest. Historic insults sound so weak to modern sensibilities that television shows like Deadwood use anachronism to get the tone across. The sense of “gay” as homosexual has overtaken earlier meanings such as female prostitute.

On the other hand, accidental associations that aren’t based in etymology may cause offence. “Niggardly”, for example, can be used as a covert racial slur though its origins have no connection to blackness.

Asking people to take responsibility for every possible interpretation of their usage forgets that understanding is a collaborative project between speaker and listener, writer and reader. Intention is no defence, perhaps, but context is part of usage, and misinterpretation is always possible. When we talk about inclusionary language, we need to recognise that semantics is complex, and there’s more than one way to understand a text. We can’t scrutinise how people talk and write without considering how we listen and understand.

More dangerously, sometimes language is understood by reference to the user’s person, or what is known of it — the problem becomes not what but who. I can tentatively agree that members of an oppressed group can reclaim their insults while others cannot. But when irony, good intentions or offence is assumed based on presumptions about the writer/speaker, that means our understanding of language is too simple and too rigid.

Can language change culture?

While I believe that language influences thinking, its effect is subtle and not linear.

Changing language has an impact: using only first names or only family names, gender-neutral pronouns, or even just Ms as a title, can tease out fascinating reactions. Douglas Hofstadter’s Person Paper (an old favourite, and an exercise in analogy) shows that the extend to which English is gendered is quite disconcerting when revealed.

I’m not sure, though, that the structures of a language necessarily reflect much of the society in which it’s used. Persian, Hungarian, Bengali and spoken Chinese all use gender-neutral pronouns, while Arabic, Greek, German and Hindi have gendered nouns as well as pronouns. I think a global, historical survey of the correlation between grammatical gender and sociological gender would reveal, well, not very much.

Everything is problematic

Part of the project of inclusive language is to remove certain words from acceptable parlance. But inclusive language is also about finding new ways to tell our experiences, to express what is difficult to explain, to speak the things there are few words for. On top of that, inclusive language should accommodate many different linguistic styles and capabilities.

In just over a week, I’ll be in China for ShanghaiPRIDE – the second ever queer festival in Mainland China – and I’ve been eagerly brushing up on my Shanghainese. As the only conversations I have in the language are with my parents and teenage sister, my vocabulary is limited to familial dinner table conversation. Listening to Shanghainese rap songs, I’m chuffed to hear all the different words for idiot. I want to learn to swear and I can’t be fussy about inclusionary language.

One of my parents’ nicknames for me as a child was “mo ten”, and because I’m not part of a linguistic community I don’t know if it means “slowpoke” or “retard”. My other nickname was “shior gan du” (which I think translates to “little stupidhead”) and “zi seh di” (which is literally “13 points” but also means silly/ditzy/daft). Nostalgic digression aside, I don’t think I’ll ever have the knowledge in another language to understand the associations and nuances I know in English.

We can pull people up on language that offends or excludes, explaining why we might want to avoid it, but using the wrong language shouldn’t discount someone’s opinion altogether. Inclusive language needs to be one tool to making our spaces and movements more open and accessible, rather than proof of our good politics or an excuse for authoritarian discipline.

If inclusive language reduces everyone to silence, it’s not inclusive. It seems obvious but bears repeating.

More links:

A truncated earlier version appeared in The Scavenger.

Against analogy.

23 Aug

A less academic version is on The Scavenger. 

We understand everything by reference to something else — or at least, language demands that we describe everything in this way. Politically, analogy is a really effective and intuitive way to make an argument and provides a ready shortcut to sympathy for your cause. It can also be lazy, inaccurate, inappropriate, and even oppressive.

Some analogies are obviously farcical — the suspicion people have towards the wealthy, for example, is rooted in entirely different motivations than the disdain people have towards the poor. Modern liberal thinking offers discrimination as a metonym for all oppression, with prejudice as its cause and individualisation as the solution. But while prejudice is arguably problematic in its own right, discrimination is only one aspect of oppression. (As a start, others might include erasure, marginalisation, fetishisation, tokenism, appropriation, exploitation, segregation, assimilation …)

But discrimination, with its assumption of of original equality thwarted by individual prejudice (rather than systemic inequality which requires active resistance), is the most popular and persistent understanding of oppression. And it lends itself nicely to generic policies that supposedly protect a myriad of identities and positions, always power-evasive in its language, as though, for example, discrimination “on the basis of sexual orientation” is as likely against heterosexuals as against queers.

The discourse of anti-discrimination reinforce a notion that all oppressions are similar. And while I may well agree that different types of oppression are equal, I think that analogising one to another stunts our knowledge of either. I’m as guilty of the practice as anyone, if not more, and it is so much easier to compare something strange to something familiar than try to explain it in its own terms. But I also think it’s vital to understand any type of oppression in its historical, cultural and social particularities.

Within radical activist communities, there’s some awareness that eliding another’s experience to your own can be oppressive in re-centring your own position. But I want to fight even my own tendency to explain different oppressions and privileges I experience in reference (rather than in relation) to each other. In thinking about oppression, I want to discriminate more.

Perhaps because the most violently overt forms of skin-colour-based racism are fairly widely recognised as unacceptable, race often seems to be the default point of reference for all oppression. Even putting aside the fact that racism varies in every country, at any time, for each specific racialised group, as well as members of any racialised group in conjunction with other factors in their lives, racism generally has characteristics and conditions that aren’t applicable to other oppressions.

This isn’t about hierarchy. It’s about specificity. Three very crude examples:

  • One reason classism is not so much like racism because while your racial identity might change across cultures, within a society an individual’s racial identity is usually stable throughout their lives, though they may be positioned differently day to day. Individual class mobility being greater, most people are more willing to understand class as a (relative, temporary) position rather than an (essential, immovable) identity.


  • One reason sexism is not so much like racism is that intimate, affectionate, companionate relationships are expected across gender boundaries and often considered a key site in which gender is contested and patriarchal power asserted. Intimate, affectionate, companionate relationships across racial boundaries are often imagined instead as proof of equality, in the sense of evidence rather than test (which might be more appropriate).


  • One reason heterosexism is not so much like racism is due to how the individual relates to the family and society at large. Most people have family members who are similarly racialised, and if not, race rarely needs to be disclosed or announced in the way that various queer identities are. The experience (or rejection) of personal disclosure situates the subject differently in relation to sexuality, compared to race or gender identity which is assigned.



Recently I’ve heard several arguments comparing the oppression of non-human animals to racism, criticisms of that analogy as racist in itself, and responses calling that criticism speciesist. I am openly speciesist, but I don’t think the criticism necessarily was — though I am a woman and a person of colour, and comfortable with both experiences, I prefer them not to be analogised. Additionally, I think there’s a multitude of reasons why people of colour might resist being compared to animals which don’t rely simply on disgust at being associated with animals because animals are inherently unequal to us.(1)
The most important reason, for me, is that self-determination is vital to my understanding of interhuman oppressions. While animal rights activists may seek to protect a way of life for animals that includes minimal interference, this isn’t comparable to self-determination. All animal rights activism requires some degree of members of the oppressor group speaking for the voiceless and oppressed, in a way which would be inappropriate for an ally of any oppressed human. In their attempt to compare human oppression of animals with racism, these activists glossed over an essential aspect of the oppression in question, which is a factor in how it is maintained. Animals are not only denied agency, but their agency is unrecognisable to us; it does not and cannot translate to our political and social language. I don’t think the dissonance between animals and humans is comparable to any difference between humans. 

Another analogy that caught my eye recently was in Tobi Hill-Meyer’s article on transmisogyny, where she says:

When people who are attracted to women and have met only a few trans women announce that they would never date a trans women, that’s transmisogyny. (Think about it, if a white person announced that they’d never date a black woman, especially if they had only met 2-3 black women in their life, we’d name that as being influenced by racism.)
I’ve said elsewhere that I think
you don’t get to say you’re attracted to women when you’re only attracted to people assigned female at birth, or gender-normative women, or women with cunts.
When people say they’re attracted to women, but mean cis women, or say they’re not attracted to men, but mean cis men, that’s transphobia. Certainly. But gender is also widely accepted as not only a legitimate criterion for sexual preference, in a way that little else is, but privileged as the primary axis of orientation. So transphobia is pretty different to racism when it comes to sexual preferences, given its particular relation to gender. 

In any case, people announce racialised sexual preferences all the time without it being called racist. People talk about how they have a thing for redheads, or blondes, or brunettes; how they think pallor is elegant or freckles are cute; even how they love skinny white boys(2). Apparently, as long as you articulate your preference as something more specific than white, the racial dimensions of your preference are excused or dissolved.

All this is not to say that we shouldn’t ever analogise, or that we shouldn’t ever try to build broader theories. I just want to think deeper before jumping to analogy, to tease out the differences and honour the particularities, to work on knowing something as itself.

1. I really liked Stuff White People Do’s post on the central metaphor in To Kill a Mockingbird (comparing a black man to a bird). I plan to discuss metaphor further in my next post.

2. So there’s this thing where people talk about thinking skinny white boys are hot like it’s real radical. Sure, conventional beauty standards favour muscle and tan at times, but nowadays fashion at least is all about the Hedi Slimane silhouette and in any case it doesn’t look like fat brown men are going to be trending any time soon.

Space, invaders, and somewhere else.

14 Aug

[First posted on my Tumblr on 8 August 2010, republished here with edits and additions.]

The Tomorrow, When the War Began series was a big part of my early adolescence, and I really appreciated those contemporary teenage voices — especially, perhaps, Lee’s character.

as much as I loved this series for giving me a young Asian-Australian who wasn’t ‘exotic,’ who was just struggling with stuff and living his life and having romantic teenage entanglements with people who weren’t Asian, I hated this series for giving me an agressor who fed into the Australian zeitgeist of imminent invasion by the yellow hordes to the North.

天高皇企鹅远: tomorrow, when the war began and the myth of the imminent invasion

But like Steph, I resent the series for reinforcing a popular (if implausible) invasion narrative. The fact that the invader is unspecified in the book doesn’t help much — though all descriptions are left ambiguous, they are marked as culturally and linguistically Other in ways that are associated with Asia and Yellow Peril (see Catriona Ross’ article referenced in Steph’s post).

In The outsiders within: telling Australia’s Indigenous-Asian story, Peta Stephenson traces white Australia’s obsession with invasion narratives to its own colonial history. She quotes Meaghan Morris, who calls this anxiety that “something we did to others … could happen all over again” a chain of displacement.

We replay our genocidal past as our apocalyptic future.

The idea of a chain of displacement has great resonance in Australia, even among the left. It’s common to see pro-refugee slogans and imagery pointing out that the British First Fleet were the original boat people.

But the British weren’t refugees. And the elision of various arrivals, for disparate purposes, is dangerous and naive whether it comes from the left or the right. Colonisers aren’t refugees. Convicts aren’t migrants. Migrants aren’t refugees. In fact each category of arrival, at any point in time, is subject to its own specific conditions. And the colonisation of Indigenous people by the British can’t be replicated. Whether new arrivals are resisted or welcomed, the chain of displacement solidifies and legitimates white Australia as native, erasing Indigeneity and evading power. In Tomorrow When the War Began (p 170), Robyn says

We ‘ve got all this land and all these resources, and yet there’s countries a crow’s spit away that have people packed in like battery hens. You can’t blame them for resenting it, and we haven’t done much to reduce any imbalances, just sat on our fat backsides, enjoyed our money and felt smug.

but her shame about the unfair distribution of space only serves to make her possession of it more natural. She talks about it later as something to change, after the war (ie, social change as an act of altruistic service in the luxury of peacetime), as if her possession of land, space and wealth isn’t something that’s maintained through violence every day (which is particularly obvious in the novel, but just as evident in real life if you’re paying any attention at all.)

There’s been a lot of heat on refugees, immigration and population leading up to this election. I’m reluctant to detail either my post-national utopia or my desires for current federal policy. Suffice to say that the concept of sovereignty is complex and anti-intuitive for me, but not something I wish to disregard completely.

What I want to say here, now, is that Indigenous people in Australia fight to exist at all. And people of colour immigrants and refugees fight to exist here. Debates around population and environment can be disturbing for many reasons — there is just so much classism, racism and sexism at work, I don’t even know where to start — but I think its particularly irresponsible when people talk about population without acknowledging that some people are never asked to justify their existence, their presence, or their reproduction. The right to be here is something most Australian-born English-speaking white Australians just have. Inalienably. And you might be persecuted for a billion different things, but you’ll be persecuted here.

If you are a non-Indigenous person of colour, the onus of proof is enormous. You need to justify your presence by political necessity or economic value or whatever else. And things like permanent residency, like speaking English with an Australian accent, like citizenship, like being born here, even, only give you so much. Regardless of your legal rights, if you’re a person of colour and convicted of a crime, you can bet that the tabloid press will call for your deportation. (I have heard the Herald Sun call for a white immigrant to be deported, but ey was a NZ citizen and convicted of a crime. I regularly hear calls for people of colour to be deported, regardless of whether they are citizens or born in Australia.)

If you’re a non-Indigenous person of colour, here is this presumption that there is always somewhere else for you to go. Even if you’re a refugee and there’s far fewer places in the world that are safe for you than the millions of Australians who could travel freely, who could easily be somewhere else. We don’t have statistics on how many refugees are deported to their deaths. But many of the places refugees come from are probably safer for wealthy white Australians – nobody’s ever going to suggest an exchange program though. So when Lady Sovereign sings, “I’m English, try and deport me”, I want to sit her down and say, “No one is trying to, honey.”

I’m an Australian citizen, so personally my legal rights are fairly secure. And I’m a migrant, so the presumption that I have a “somewhere else” is correct, and in my case it’s somewhere I can plausibly be, quite safely. But even my friends of colour who are third or fourth generation Australian-born, whose only language is English, whose only English is Australian, whose only home is here, are asked to justify their presence all the time. Not legally, no. Not to any government department, not to anyone with concrete authority, perhaps. But to clerks and fellow commuters and strangers in the street and friends’ parents:

“Where are you from?”

My reaction shifts between anger, indifference, empathy and suspicion. I know it is sometimes innocuous, sometimes just phatic speech, a polite show of curiosity. I have heard many bitter jokes — to answer, “my mother’s cunt”, or that it means “Why aren’t you white?”

At the moment, for me this question usually means “Where can I put you?” And whether it’s a category in your mind or a country I don’t belong to, I’m sure it’s somewhere I don’t want to go.

Though it can be a powerful slogan and positioning tool, saying we are all boat people actually misses the point on both Indigenous sovereignty and immigration and refugee policy. It reinforces the fallacy that Indigenous people are asking white Australians to “go back to England”. It analogises racist rejection of refugees and immigrants with resistance to colonisation. It presumes that everyone has equal access to “somewhere else”. And it evades the question at the centre of it all: Who has the right to be here? Who decides? Who benefits?

Defining femme.

9 Aug

Essin’ Em at Femme’s Guide asked how we define femme, both our own femme and femme in general. It’s not easy. She locates the essence of femme in a certain kind of sass, saying

We give it out when we feel invisible, showing people that we have our own identity and please stop grouping me in with the other straight girls/women here, thank you very much.

Ulrika Dahl in Femmes of Power calls us “proud, fierce and intentional” (p 20), and that resonates with me. Though obviously it’s not exclusive to femme, I think intentionality is crucial.

Intent makes femme queer. And having sex with men, even cis men, can’t un-queer that: I am somewhat frustrated with queer femme identities being defined against heterosexuality. Invisibility sucks, but so does hating on straight women’s femininity, not to mention the implied biphobia and transphobia. If femme stands alone and doesn’t depend on a femme/butch opposition, femme writers need to stop centering our identities on our choices of partners. (I think oppositionality is hot, by the way, so long as the binary doesn’t pretend to be mutually exclusive and exhaustive.)

That said, femme is relational, if not oppositional. I’m not sure how to characterise the relationship of femme to either gender identity, presentation or position without limiting it in ways that exclude others, but I feel femme is oriented, in some way, towards femininity, whether it takes it apart, make it up, or fakes it real loud. And regardless of how much femme might reject traditional femininity (aesthetically, culturally and politically), I think for femme to be anything more than an overwrought but underthought excuse for my outfit despite my politics, femme has to be connected to femininity — to defend the feminine (1) in all its guises, even those that don’t appeal personally, rather than denying all association with whatever femininity isn’t queer, isn’t subversive, isn’t self-conscious (2).

If femme is conscious, that consciousness is rooted in the kind of feminism that questions the values of a masculinist culture, that asks us to rethink the worth of all that is called feminine and effeminate (3), and dismissed and diminished for it. Femme consciousness asks, why is architecture more serious than fashion, who decides what is public and what is private, and when will people stop asking me what I get paid for and let me tell them how I love?

So for me, femme is a collective cultural resistance; individually, something like risk-aware consensual gendering. And as Jeanette Winterson often says, “what you risk reveals what you value”. Femme is often framed in terms of what you put on (pearls and lipstick, heels and hose) but I think it’s more about what you take off — a certain kind of armour (4). Sass is not the same as bravado. It shares while it resists. Femme wears its heart on sleeve, and such gestures are not high maintenance, but often high risk: not only of invisibility, but also everything that femininity risks, whether or not it’s consensual, whether or not it’s intentional.(5)

I wish I could buy back the woman you stole

– Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “Y Control”

I think femme is always extravagant, because femme is always expensive. Femme costs as much as I can afford, all the strength and flexibility I can afford, all the softness and forgiveness I can afford, but I’ll spend it. It’s worth it, and I want to be generous. I am trying to be generous. As generous as I’m greedy. This is femme for me.

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On nationality, class and linguistic privilege.

21 Jun

I have substantial linguistic privilege. I moved to Australia at an early age, I’m good at learning from the kind of lessons that teachers are used to teaching, and I went to a very ritzy private school in Melbourne. Plus, I like language and it fascinates me so I put a lot of time and energy into it. Consequently, I read, write and speak in ways that our culture values highly. When I don’t sign my name or explicitly identify myself, I’m read as a upper-middle-class white man — meaning, my writing style has prestige and no marks of gender or race.

I try to be aware of this privilege, and to use language in ways that are clear, accessible, inclusive and appropriate. I won’t give up ‘jargon’ entirely, because I think there are concepts around oppression and injustice that ordinary vocabulary can’t adequately represent,1 but I’m always happy to explain or rephrase things. I’m not authoritarian about punctuation, spelling and grammar, and I am learning how differently people can express themselves, and how to understand that.2

These days, my speech sounds just like a native Australian English speaker. As a voracious reader and the eldest child (and for a decade, the only child) of for-the-most-part non-English-speaking parents, I learned a lot of words from written text, so until quite recently there was always a portion of my vocabulary I wasn’t sure how to pronounce. Many of these words were fairly unnecessary anyhow (“clandestine”, “fecund”, “quixotic”) but also I had to think of coffee to remember that “cough” sounds like “coff” and not “cuff”. A much heightened version of this experience is common to many international3 speakers of English — being better at reading/writing than speaking/listening or having a lot of vocabulary but not knowing the pronunciation or even having Standard English in terms of grammar and vocabulary and everything but just having an accent.

When I was studying linguistics, I was pretty frustrated that descriptive and prescriptive understandings of language (describing ‘standard’ use – how a language is usually used – rather than prescribing ‘proper’ use – eg how grammar teachers think it should be used) just pitted class difference against national and ethnic difference. For example, “you’re a doctor, ain’t ya?” is considered Standard Australian English while “you doctor, isn’t it?” (common phrasing in Singapore and Malaysia) is not. As “ain’t” originated as a contraction for “am not”, technically the former is no more correct than the latter — ‘proper’ usage would demand “you’re a doctor, aren’t you?” — but the ungrammatical usage of native Australian English speakers is Standard, while that of others is not. Ethnic differences within a country could fall on either side, it seemed, but I quit before I found out.

So when native English speakers demand that I write less academically, especially when they have had a similar education but just prefer a more casual style, I flinch. I don’t think my English is harder to learn than yours. The dictionary meaning of specific words is much easier to look up than the implications of various idioms. I understand prestigious styles are intimidating in ways that non-prestigious styles are not, but within subcultures non-prestigious styles are privileged too, and no less inaccessible.4“Femme revo love FTW” is just as impenetrable as “intentionality is radical” to the uninitiated. (Perhaps.)

But more importantly, the circumstances under which I achieved my linguistic privilege make me fairly reluctant to relinquish it. I learned to talk like this by prioritising English over my first and second languages, in which I have no literacy and a very low level of comprehension. It’s not exactly true that I gave up one for the other, but I did learn English under pressure of assimilation and when people now tell me I can’t express myself how I like in English, it makes my sense of loss much more palpable. I can’t talk to my grandparents any more, and all I have to show for it is writing like an upper-middle-class white man. Language is steeped in love and pain, pride and anger.

I want to make a commitment to clarity and accessibility when I am writing for a broad audience, especially in work against oppression.5 But I want others to make the same commitment, and it means more than just cutting out academic language. It means writing across generations, across cultures and subcultures, and in ways that are easy to pick up, if not immediately obvious.

I’ll be talking more about inclusive language in upcoming posts, focusing on analogy and metaphor.


1. Julia Serano, discussing the term “cis”, says

it sounds like jargon simply because most people are unfamiliar with it. […] Our ideas/thoughts/concepts/beliefs are very much constrained by the words available to us. If we didn’t have the terms heterosexual, heterosexism and heterosexual privilege, those of us who are LGB wouldn’t have the language to describe (and thus challenge) the marginalization we face because of who we sleep with. If we all just spoke “plain English” circa the 1950’s, where do you think we’d be these days with regards to sexual orientation-based discrimination?

Queen Emily at Questioning Transphobia also says: “‘Academic’ is a way of dismissing us for evolving a vocabulary of our own”.

2. Silentmiaow’s videos really changed how I thought about expression: ‘In my language‘ and ‘If you can do X, why can’t you do Y?

3. I say “international” rather than “English as a second language” (ESL) because English is a first language for some of these speakers; rather than “culturally and linguistically diverse” (CALD) because I don’t like “diverse” as a euphemism for “other”; rather than “non-standard” because the ways of speaking I am referring to are standard in some countries. But “international” is inadequate too, as some Indigenous people who speak English as a second language might have the same experience, as well as other ethnic minorities who have been in a country for generations. It’s all a bit more complicated than I made it, but I do think “Standard Australian English” is tied up with ethnicity, race, nationality and the idea of who is “native” to a language, which is less simple than it might sound.

4. The idea of “inessential weirdnesses” as defined by Class Matters seems useful here. The article talks about how alternative cultures can be more baffling and alienating than mainstream cultures for someone who is outside of both (in this case, it’s alternative professional middle-class culture versus mainstream professional middle-class culture, but the same could be said for young anarcho punk slang English versus prestige English).

5. Dense academic text will still appear on this blog, because I post things that are written for elsewhere, and besides, according to WordPress statistics no one is reading this.

> Read earlier draft (without footnotes)

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On fuckability.

11 Mar

Revisiting my last post: Of course, the most obvious response is sexual refusal. And while those who have no other power exaggerate the value of their fuckability just as much as those who want to fuck them may feign powerlessness, the power of sexual refusal is grossly overestimated.1 I am so frustrated by young women who confuse femininity with fuckability, and fuckability with power — the exchange value is not so high as you might imagine, and the market is flooded.

But apart from it being a predictable strategy for any femme, I think it’s damaging and wasteful to withhold something you want, in order to punish someone else. Punishment may bring its own satisfaction, but it’s ineffective for the change I’m seeking, and I think you know how I feel about self-denial. But what compels change? Merely addressing something doesn’t alter it, and “calling out”, from what I’ve experienced even in relatively supportive communities, can be arduous, traumatic and futile.

1. I agree with Max Attitude that “someone always likes someone else more”, and in some situations that means the latter has a lot of power over the former — I think in other situations the latter is much more replaceable than either party might realise. Sometimes the power dynamic in a relationship is an exact inversion of each partner’s power in the wider world, and it’s their relative positions in the rest of society that enable the temporary and limited inversion in their relationship. For example, I think this is true for most cases of the “hen-pecked” husband or “pussy-whipped” boyfriend (it’d amuse me to analyse the difference, but it’s an unnecessary diversion) — and in the remainder of cases, probably the majority, the woman doesn’t even have more power in the relationship. In more casual encounters where the transaction is simpler, I think both the value of fuckability and the interchangeability of fuckable bodies is more evident.


I keep finding relevant links after writing a post. This one via Claire Arch-Nemesis.

> Jezebel: Three reasons why “Erotic Capital” is bullshit

On femme shame and feminist solidarity.

6 Feb

This has been my summer of femme: I’ve been fairly consistently made up, dressed up, and chatted up as a super girly supergirl. And I love that, I love playing princess and twirling my skirt and drinking tea with curled pinkie. I think I make it clear that it’s not all I do, but I do love it.

But I’ve met a fair few people through kink in the last several months, who’ve never known my history of more eclectic gender display, and with whom I haven’t really discussed politics at all — which might not sound so shocking but really it’d been years since I’d met any substantial number of people outside of activist circles, with whom I couldn’t readily assume certain values. Instead I’ve been trying to assume the best of people, and mostly I’ve been pleasantly surprised.

There have been instances where I’ve been uncomfortable, though, and realised that my arguments aren’t prepared for dominant culture, that I rely on the terrain of a particular discourse. When I launch my rhetoric leaps without this, they start shaky. Sometimes I don’t start at all — without a community to back up calling someone out, without recognising that as a specific cultural intervention and being able to call on all the strategies and wisdom that involves, it’s just too scary.

Being a young, thin, femme woman who fucks men means that men talk to you like you might agree with what they think of other women, who they think aren’t you but who you know may as well be you — who you will be, one day. It’s not enough to call yourself a feminist, to provide your alternative viewpoint somewhere further down the conversation. You can be horrified, but most likely your horror isn’t palpable, because that’s not what’s on his mind. You have to say it: This upsets me, this is unacceptable to me. But often I don’t.

It’s not just men, either — I’m no less devastated by women who deride all the ugly/old/fat/butch women on the scene. But either way it’s a feminist problem, because people rarely talk about men like their only worth is their fuckability. Not that men don’t have to grapple with that, but that there’s something outside it for them. And obviously (again again) I don’t have a problem with people having physical preferences, but there’s a difference between saying what you like and saying how you think other people should be.

[ Aside: I find it strange (and frankly, hilarious) that people assume that I’m only attracted to women who look like me, especially when those people are men trying to get into my bed. (If that theory holds, it won’t work for you, mister.) I have fucked people double my age, double my weight, a foot or more taller, and with hair in entirely different places. But also my femme identity depends on that being an option, not a requirement — if you take away the intentionality, you take away all my pleasure. ]

So maybe I should say here, because someone might read it: I will always, always take the side of the woman you scorn. I will always empathise with her, even if it seems we’re categorically different, because I know we’re serialised the same. Even if I’m silent, even if I sleep with you anyway, I will mourn the moment later, and feel ashamed.

Afterthought (10 April 2010)

I just read this interview with Jaclyn Friedman, ‘Fucking While Feminist’, which seems pertinent. She says some really transphobic things, but I do like the idea of the various tests, like applying the Bechdel test to internet profile interests.