Because my navel-gazing is reaching new heights with this ‘one-new-thing-a-day-thing’, I am now completing a second blog post for today, thereby getting me completely up-to-date. It’s also actually kind of procrastination, because there is a piece of brown paper stuck to my wall with a long list of theatre-related things that I *should* be doing, but, of course, once I *should* be doing it, its the last thing in the world I want to be doing. Suddenly daily blogging is easy! I could blog three times a day! Four times! Any amount of times to avoid re-writing my piece of shit (possibly racist) play! Blog blog blog, all the time blog!
So, here’s my second post for the day and I don’t mean to blindside you, but its going to be a serious one, about a serious topic. Its a risk, I know, what with you all expecting posts about weird food rules and speed dating mishaps. It’s kind of like when actors suddenly release an album of country music and they’re all, ‘I’ve always been a singer/songwriter/had my own band, I just had to put it on hold because of my acting’ and everyone’s a little bit uncomfortable, but they don’t want to say it to the actor’s face. Or, vice-versa when a singer turns around and says, ‘Actually, I’ve always been an actor and I just did the singing thing because my management thought it was a good idea’ and we all go, ‘oh, ok, well, I guess we can give you a bit part in some crappy teen movie that will be shit anyways so we don’t have to worry about you screwing it up and we’ll just see what happens.’ Yeah, this post is probably going to be a bit like that. Walk away now if you don’t like serious topics or if you ever questioned the wisdom of ’30 Odd Foot of Grunts’ (actually, no, that would mean I’d lose everyone. Ah… walk away if you didn’t enjoy Mandy Moore’s star-making turn in, ‘Saved’. Still all here? Awesome). Ok, buckle up, guys, its going to be a long and bumpy one.
I managed to finish my other post before heading to my feminist discussion group (by the way, isn’t this a much sexier title for a blog post? It definitely is a much sexier title for a blog post – if you don’t know what I’m talking about, please refer to the previous blog post, Friday, Saturday, Sunday). I didn’t manage to edit the other post very well though and I’ve realised it kind of reads like a stream-of-consciousness rant from your local neighbourhood cat lady, but, hey, that’s probably where my life is heading, so why not get some practice in early? ‘I don’t like the new Spam containers! That garbage bin is giving me the evil eye! Why are you all dying your hair purple? Give me your shoes!’ But, I’m going to try and make up for it with a very coherent, intelligent, interesting and amusing blog post now about my time at the feminist discussion group, which is hereby deemed my ‘new experience for the day’.
Going to the feminist discussion group is not actually my new experience. I have been attending since February. My university friend, Rachel Hills, is an excellent feminist blogger as well as freelance journalist, speaker and soon-to-be-published author. At the start of the year, Rachel started up a feminist discussion group. I decided to join up, realising that since the end of university with its mandatory regular reading and discussion of academic articles (ok, so not everyone considered it ‘mandatory’, but I was a good girl and I always read the required papers), my brain had begun to atrophy a little. Who can say what it was? The endless hours watching Facebook and Twitter tick over? The near-constant watching of ‘Friends’ re-runs? The alcohol? Who knows? Nevertheless, I felt like I was getting stupider with age and I was always promised the opposite was going to happen, so I decided to do something about it and join a discussion group. Rachel’s sounded great.
Over the past few months we have had some interesting discussions ranging from ‘the myth of the feminist troll’ to the controversy of Hilary Mantel ‘criticising’ the Duchess of Cambridge. None so interesting and controversial, however, as this evening’s. The topic? Racism, white privilege and what happens when it comes in contact with feminism.
Racism has always been a topic I’ve been passionate about. This has been the case since as a 12 year old, I argued with my friend (and my friend’s mother) about the merits, or lack thereof, of Pauline Hanson and One Nation (just to be clear: I was anti, they were pro. It was the beginning of the end for that particular friendship). All through high school racism was a topic I would discuss passionately, racists were people I would ‘call out’ on a regular basis – Australians’ attitudes towards asylum seekers particularly disgusted me and I took great pains to attempt to correct them on a regular basis (and when the subjects of my disdain didn’t change their minds, my next step was to burst into tears and storm out. Highly successful, let me tell you. High-ly success-ful).
And then, sometime in my twenties, I just stopped talking about it. Part of it was exhaustion – no matter how much I talked, no matter how many petitions I signed or marches I went on, no matter how many years went by or what party was in government, things never seemed to change. Asylum seekers continued to be used as pawns in political power games or to sell newspapers. But also, the more I read on the topic, the more it seemed I had no right to talk about it at all. And if I did try to talk about it, I felt like I was picking my way through a minefield. A minefield situated on thin ice. Because with my upper middle-class white girl privilege, most of what I said or thought could be seen as patronising at best, offensive at worst. It was whilst doing a reading for my course, ‘Teaching Students from a non-English Speaking Background’ that it suddenly hit me (well, it was written down in the article in front of me, so hard to miss) – it wasn’t just that I was ‘lucky’ to be white. The privilege that I enjoyed as a white person was only possible through an equivalent amount of disadvantage of non-whites. My privilege didn’t exist in a vacuum – it was built on others’ disadvantage. It wasn’t enough to be nice and stop people saying mean things or making tasteless jokes and agitating for programs and funding that supported non-white people, communities and voices. My life as I experienced it was the result of decades and decades of racism in my favour and in the favour of my ancestors. A substantial amount of everything that made me ‘me’ was only possible through my shaping by a significantly racist society and culture. After spending the majority of my adult life thinking I was a hugely decent human fighting the good fight against racism, I suddenly realised that I actually knew absolutely nothing about what I was talking about. Add that on to the issue of feminism (a cause I feel I belong to, but do not engage with regularly enough to feel entirely confident of all my opinions) and I felt I had no idea what I felt or thought. I knew I didn’t like racism. I knew I didn’t want to be racist. But I had a terrible feeling that from the perspective of someone else – a Chinese woman, an African-American woman, an Aboriginal woman – I was completely, hopelessly, offensively naive. And, just as ignorance is not a defence in a court of law, my ignorance of the issues didn’t protect me. If anything, it just further highlighted my white privilege in that I lived through a quarter of a century without ever having to properly address these issues on any serious level.
So, what’s my point? Why am I still in this long-winded preamble? Well, I think the point I’m trying to get across to you is how emotional this topic is for me. Politics in general is a subject that I don’t keep my cool around very easily. I know many people find this odd – why do I care so much about something that doesn’t affect me? The thing is that I believe in a strong government. Not strong as in a fascist dictatorship, but in strong leadership working towards making their country a better place. I don’t believe politicians should be caretakers, or should be catering to the lowest common denominator, or should just be keeping out of your way so that you can live your lives. I believe that, at their best, politicians should be showing us the way forward, should be intervening where they see injustice, should be exploring ‘dangerous’ ideas, things they truly believe are important and are going to change our lives for the better. I don’t politics should be debated in soundbites surrounded by videos about ‘Samson the roller-skating parrot’. I argue about politics because I do believe that at its best, it has the potential to change our lives for the better. Incidentally, this is why I don’t think I could ever be a politician – I’m too much of an idealist and real politics would crush my soul. I would wind up an insomniac depressive abusive alcoholic who is possibly cheating on my partner and also stealing government stationery and stamps just to feel I was somehow getting something out of this whole horrible ride. And that would be the worst.
The problem with thinking that politics and ideas can change people’s lives is that I have a real attachment to the ‘truth’ and the ‘right’ answer. Because, if politics is going to change lives, we need to make sure they change them for the better, meaning we need to find the ‘right’ answers. A person, therefore, who disagrees with me on a topic is not just ‘a person who disagrees with me’, but a person who is ‘actively destroying the climate’. A person who is ‘actively allowing innocent people to die’. A person who is ‘actively discriminating against refugees.’ It’s not that I’m doing anything active that these nay-sayers are getting in the way of or trying to prevent (the most I do these days is donate money, sign a petition or two and march in the odd protest), but just that their apathy and disagreement is one more mind to change, one more person to convince before anything significant could happen on a political level. Any topic that I felt seriously passionate about was liable to bring me to tears if I wasn’t able to change my sparring partner’s mind, with a corresponding loss of trust in this particular person and a huge amount of embarrassment surrounding my lack of cool.
However, as we have previously mentioned, within the topic of racism, and racism in feminism, I was/am pretty much lost at sea. Not only did I not have the ‘right’ answers, the ‘right’ answers seemed so far in the distance I couldn’t imagine ever being able to get anywhere near them. I did not seem to even have the language to start talking someway in the right direction towards what those ‘right’ answers might be. I had vague feelings and ideas that I was terrified of voicing, because I was terrified someone might tell me I was wrong and preventing good things from happening and furthermore I was a terrible, terrible racist. And I wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. All I wanted was someone to tell me what the right thing to think and do and say would be and then I would very happily comply. But I didn’t quite know how to express such a feeling without sounding like an idiot.
So it is fair to say that I went into tonight’s discussion with a fair amount of trepidation. I read the readings. There were some things about them I didn’t like, but I wasn’t sure if that was the ‘right’ thing to feel or not. I suspected it wasn’t. I suspected I was a terrible racist for feeling such things. I went into the discussion determined to listen to everyone else’s opinions and only speak up if I felt genuinely comfortable and safe. I know it sounds a bit ridiculous for a white girl to be worried about being ‘unsafe’ in a discussion on racism, but that’s how it felt. I know it’s more to do with my own issues about being left-wing and my views around politics in general and being too sensitive etc. etc. but, still, I was quite nervous. At the same time, I was very happy to be going to a discussion that I felt would actually broaden my mind a little, as opposed to a discussion on body image – a topic I have debated with myself and others for the past 14 years and feel I have so comprehensively covered from every angle that there isn’t much left to talk about.
I know, I know, I’m blabbing on a bit and you’re all thinking, ‘when are you going to get to the new experience so I can go back to looking at kitten videos?’ (its ok – I’ve been taking breaks whilst writing this to look at cat videos too. Feel free to take a break now and then). The new experience came right at the start of our discussion this evening. We had barely placed our orders and were exploring the idea of what racism meant to us as children (a starter topic decided on by our facilitator – a Hong Kong Chinese feminist) when two women approached us. They were young and trendy and had been sitting in the corner doing some art project. I instinctively liked them. And then I tuned into what they were actually saying to us.
‘My friend and I think its a little strange what you are talking about,’ one girl started. She had a French accent. Egotistically, I assumed they were impressed by our discussion and wanted to understand why we had gathered to discuss such a serious topic. Perhaps they wanted to join in? Look at us, bridging cultural divides and cafe tables all at once! Not so, grasshopper. ‘We think its a bit offensive that you are sitting here, talking about these things, in a public place. We are both becoming a bit uncomfortable,’ they continued.
We were all flabbergasted. Of course, however, as we were a discussion group, two of our members immediately began to question these women on why they felt that way. Not in a demanding way – in a, ‘oh, isn’t that interesting, why won’t you tell us more,’ way. The women explained that they had come in to the cafe for a nice conversation and what we were talking about was ‘not nice’. We all tried to explain that, actually, in fact, we agreed with them and we didn’t think any of the things we were discussing were ‘nice’, but we were talking about them to analyse the topic of racism – not to condone it. I apologised on behalf of the group and suggested that perhaps the women had gotten the wrong impression, perhaps they had only half-heard what we had said. The conversation continued on for a little while and was just on the verge of getting heated before the women decided to leave, which was probably the best solution all round.
So how was this a new experience? At no point did I feel anxious or upset. At no point did I feel like I had done the ‘wrong’ thing. At no point did I lose control of my emotions. I managed to express what we were trying to do, that it was in no way intended to be offensive and we were sorry if they had found it so. Most importantly, I never felt embarrassed or ashamed, despite the fact that one of the women was black and, perhaps, ‘knew more about this topic then I did’. Perhaps it was the fact that I was so surprised I didn’t have the opportunity to feel upset or embarrassed – but even now I don’t feel any regret over the discussion they heard or the discussion that followed after they left. I don’t think there was anything wrong with us discussing the topic in public. Furthermore, this feeling of being able to express my thoughts and feelings in a clear and reasoned way seemed to buoy me for the remainder of the evening. Even though I did manage to stumble blindly into some fairly offensive language and territory whilst trying to get to (what I thought) was a valid point, I kept my cool when another friend called me on it. She called me on it, I felt the lump rising in my throat, the panic in my stomach and I managed to keep it all under control. On the tube home there was no obsessive repetition of the phrase, ‘kill me, kill me, kill me, kill me’, complete with eyes squinted shut and head shaking, trying to get the memory of the embarrassment of the incident and my stupidity and offensiveness out of my brain. And that’s because there was no embarrassment. The discussion was a genuine discussion and not an argument I had to win. I felt like I was learning and listening and talking and it was ok to make the occasional mistake and it was ok to say the occasional ‘wrong’ thing, because I was trying, I was really trying to come to some sort of understanding and that was a pretty great, wonderful feeling to have on such a controversial topic outside of the classroom.
I don’t think this evening has solved all my problems with political debate. For one thing, you start getting into tricky territory the moment you extend ideas into action – suddenly you can’t just discuss different interesting ideas, you have to decide on a direction (the ‘right’ direction) and everything gets heated again. That said, I’m just happy to have participated in a conversation that is important, that is tricky, that is controversial and that does not in some way involve reality television or different flavoured Oreo’s. Because I do worry that too much of my life is taken up with trivial things lately – and that’s certainly an easier thing for me to focus on, but, well it’s only my upper middle class white girl privilege that allows me to ignore discussions of racism in favour of multi-flavoured Oreos. So, I think its time I stopped and thought about that seriously.