On struggling with how to approach a multiply-racist incident…

I recently witnessed a multi-confronting racist incident. Whereas in the past I have felt compelled to act, this time — in the moment — I was at a loss for words. The nature of the incident, what it conveyed, was quite specific. Quite stark.

I was out with two people. It was close to midnight. We were walking along the Main Street in the coastal village of Thirroul (a northern suburb of Wollongong, NSW, Australia). A car passed us and one of the young (white) men inside stuck their head out of the window and yelled ‘go back to Nowra.’

Nowra is a city to the south of Wollongong. There are some significant socio-economic issues and challenges there. The city also has a visible Aboriginal population. I use visible here, as there is an ongoing history of invisibilising Aboriginal populations: out of sight = out of mind. In simple terms, in Nowra the social implications of widespread structural problems faced by Aboriginal Peoples in Australia are within sight. They are not as easy t0 ignore.

Broadly (not limited ot Nowra), many people in the (white) community inflate structural issues with personal failings. Rather than confronting systemic issues, there is a relational construction (Othering) in which the broader (white) community act to position themselves as not like them (i.e. not like Aboriginal people). This is far from uncommon, rather being quite normative. In short, poverty faced by members of the Aboriginal community is labelled as a result of their own actions, behaviours and (framed-as-an) inability to be a contributing member of society. They are essentialised.

In yelling ‘go back to Nowra’, this young (white) man was identifying the two women as Aboriginal. Putting aside the gender implications of men yelling at women (multiple issues), in affording the label of Aboriginal to these two women is further illustrative of multiple layers of racism. These women are not Aboriginal. The young man conflated and reduced having black-brown skin to being Aboriginal. These women were positioned as multiply inferior. Their skin colour meant they were. Worse (in his mind) they were Aboriginal. Aboriginal and from Nowra — where apparently all Aboriginal people belong. Their place was not in a well-to-do suburb, a predominately white suburb.

I still do not have a simple, one line, retort to such a comment. I am still (as a white person, with years of unquestioned and unearned privilege continually being unpacked and digested) coming to terms with the broader and nuanced inferences and implications of such a string of words.

What I do know is that I am multiply responsible for challenging such actions. As a man, it is my role to confront other men on their sexist behaviour. As a white man, it is my responsibility to confront other white men on their racist actions.

To not do so is to be complicit…

Abandoning marriage, in all forms

The issue of marriage is one I have thought on sporadically for many many years. I have always had concerns in general, largely based on giving the State more control over one’s life (with the role of the Church being effectively removed some time ago). For example, why should someone (i.e. government department or Church) other than the two involved decide if and when they should be in such a relationship or not? In short, I have long had concerns before debates around marriage equality/gay marriage gained public attention.

The current state of electoral politics in Australia, specifically the potential for a very damaging plebiscite on marriage equality/gay marriage (in which those who speak the loudest an most vile will gain far too much coverage and cause significant harm), has added further layers the the question. Within this context, I still feel that a way forward is consistent with removing State control over this aspect of our lives.

I have been reading  Dinesh Wadiwel’s (2015) book The War Against Animals over the last few weeks. Alongside prompting me to think in interesting and consutctuve ways about the animal question, I foresee it will be quite influential in Critical Animal Studies, and intersectional scholarship more broadly, for some time to come. Many of the insights and aguments presented have far reaching implications, even if unintended. For example, in seeking to reflect on how we perceive Other animals and moving towards a more just approach, there are clear paralells with challenge heteronormativity and associated bigotry.

In discussing Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka’s (2013) Zoopolis (a ‘remarkable work of political theory’) Dinesh confronts and challenges calls for granting citizenship rights to Other animals, which are considered as a means to address anthropocentrism:

Another approach is to abandon citizenship altogether as a means of constituting community… Sovereignty, at least in Agamben’s conception, arises precisely at the decision on exception; a decision on who is in and out, a decision on which Agamben notes is by definition biopolitical. If, as Agamben describes, biopolitics is an expression of the distinction between humans and animals—a veritable moving zone of conflict—then we might perceive that any model of political membership that prescribes citizenship based upon inside/outside relationships will already be biopolitical, and will already rein scribe the borders between human and animal, even if the terms of that political membership might change. Thus while we may bend citizenship to include other “fellows,” the fact that political community is by definition based on an inside/outside relationship (that is between those who belong to a political community, and those who don’t) already recreates the border between human and animal, between those who are owed rights and those who are not… (Wadiwell 2015, 248)

Replacing ‘citizenship’ with ‘marriage’ comes close to a simple challenge to a number of the imlicaitons of calls for marriage equality/gat marriage. Rather than bend the (religious) notion of marriage to include those who do not ascribe to heteronormativity (in the broadest sense), we can do away with marriage altogether. There is lot to unpack here, and I may revist it at some point in the future…

Abandoning marriage — as in removing any legal status whatsoever —  addresses a number of the questions and concerns raised about the moderation/assimilation/de-radicalisation of queer activism (see Jess Ison’s Queer Nation is Dead). Many are visibe in simply replacing citizenship with marriage in the above excerpt (and ‘human and animal’ with human people).

This may currently be unique to a small number of countries, including Australia — previous governments effectively removed any differences between the legal status of what are termed ‘de-facto relationships’ and marriage. That aside, I see that as a political campaign much more useful than working towards for marriage equality/gay marriage.

To put it a more simple, direct way, fuck marriage. Let the bigots in the Church have it — removing any social benefits/consequences. Make it a matter for the Church, with no legal or social implications…

Subjectivity and the privilege of time

I was recently prompted to reflect on my interest in animal question. This led a to a revisiting of my narrative, the why behind my interest. The why behind two decades of social justice activism, and my parallel intellectual-academic interest going back more than a decade.

A little over 10 years ago I was interviewed by Lauren Corman, on Animal Voices in Toronto, for a program about vegan blogging. I thought that listening to what I had said back in 2006 — beyond providing a refresher into my motivations — might provide some interesting insights and potential contrasts to my current perspectives, attitudes and approaches to the animal question. It was quite illuminating.

In drafting the requested piece of writing over the last few days, I also revisited my previous post here, in which I reflected on the question of why I became a vegan. I am asked this from time to time, and it seems to be a little more often of late: an intersection of both people becoming aware that I am vegan, and an awareness of having my 20 year veganniversary a few months ago.

Central to both is the formative impact that Henri Safron’s (1976) Australian film Storm Boy had on me when I was very young. It is my earliest cinematic memory. In seeking to put into words the impact this film had on me, beyond what I outlined in my previous post here, I went back to Lauren Corman and Tereza Vandrovcová’s chapter in Defining Critical Animal Studies (2014). I am fortunate enough to know both of them, and my perspectives have been influenced by their ideas, research and words. Of specific note here, I was looking for a way to express the formative significance of Storm Boy, and in particular the portrayal of Mr Percival (a pelican) in the film.

Mr Percival was presented as someone rather than something. It is without doubt that their presence was also fundamentally on their terms — and I think this also goes a long way to reflecting some of the ideas Lauren and Tereza engage with in their chapter. What is very clear is that Mr Pervical had a voice, a subjectivity, their own ‘social, culture and emotional’ life and experiences (Corman and Vandrovcová 2104: 139). The Director clearly intended for this.

To return to my revisiting of the Animal Voices interview, two key themes stood out for me. The first in many ways reflects a tendency in Critical Animal Studies (shaped by patriarchy and other social relations more broadly) and one which I think is specifically being addressed in the scholar-activist community. When being asked about my (intellectual-academic) interests around the animal question, I referred to male scholars only. This intrigued my a little as my ideas are significantly informed by ecofeminist scholarship (for some time before I had read the works of these two men). Alongside reflecting on my patriarchal obliviousness at the time (something I continue to seek to identify unpack in myself and my lived experiences of privilege), this also highlighted a broader tendency in the academic field to afford credit to men for doing the work that women had been doing for some time — effectively disappearing their work. Fortunately there has been a significant and intentional shift in CAS over recent years. Carol Adams and Lori Gruen’s (2014) Ecofeminism: Feminist Intersections with Other Animals and the Earth provides a substantive body and forms part of this shift.

In revisiting the interview, my focus on the work of these two men (I was seeking to highlight a tension) with the associated non-acknowledgment of the important and influential work of women also highlighted the other key theme which stood out to me. I noted that I often present ideas without unpacking them as much as I perhaps should. It is most glaring and significant with regards to this above example, as it has broader and negative connotations. Specifically, the disappearing of foundation and important voices of women, and a reification of notions of men as central to everything.

What I was able to identify in revisiting the interview was the basis of my approach. This is an approach I still embody elements of today and have taken on as something I need to continue to address and refine.

More-so in my teaching and conference presentations, I seek to present ideas to foster dialogue, to prompt questioning. I do not fully unpack ideas, rather seek to leave somethings a little open and create opportunities for others to interject, to question, to become involved in the discussion. In part this embodies an an assumption that the knowledge I have is (relatively easily) available to others. This is rooted in my lived experiences. I have a working-poor background and this is identified by the Australian University sector as ‘first-in-family’, which simply means the first person in an entire genealogy to attend university. Rooted in this experiences is an assumption that if I can know something, others must be able to as well. What this can lose site of (and I this recently came out in discussions with a colleague who I am supervising through their dissertation) is the value and benefit of time. I have had the privilege of time. The time required to find, to read, to think, to be exposed, to reflect on a range of ideas. To put these together, to share them with others, to be critiqued, to critique, to learn, to engage. This is something not available to many, and disproportionally impacts to the working-poor ( a little irony here?)

My approach to not fully unpack ideas came from this well-intentioned assumption. However it is one that has implications and consequences. In seeking to reflect on this more broadly, I am also trying to inform my approach to activism and social change outside of engaging with those already on the trajectory towards a more fair and just world. I feel that I need to be less dismissive (even when people say really fucked up and racist shit, and when men ooze with patriarchal arrogance), to listen, and to be more strategic in my responses. We all have our narratives which in themselves are shaped by our contexts, our lived experiences. Whereas my working-poor background was its own struggle, I have also been afforded significant — and in a number of ways unearned — privilege (I was the only male and second eldest of four children). I have had time, opportunities. My narrative, my subjectivities, have prompted and afforded some of the necessary spaces and questions needed for me to learn, to shape my trajectory and desire to see a more fair and just world.

All of our subjectivities are differently formed and informed. They need their own time to develop, to evolve. Perhaps I need to further reflect on (the impacts on me of) Mr Percival being afforded the rare space to illustrate their subjectivity?

As a side note, I am working my way though Dinesh Wadiwel’s (2015) The War against Animals. Alongside and extending on the central theme of Jason Hribal’s (2010) Fear of the Animal Planet: the Hidden History of Animal Resistance, Dinesh presents on way in which humans can challenge to war against animals as through exposing the resisting practices of other animals (pp. 167-8). Alongside acknowledging Mr Percaival’s subjectivity in Storm Boy, another clear example would be Gabriela Cowperthwait’s (2013) documentary Blackfish.