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Published September 24, 2013
By Yasmin Hassen
It’s been a little over nineteen years since I came to Australia. Nineteen years that you’ve been able to communicate with me through magazines, television programs, comedy skits, government policies, election promises and, sadly, what passes for news, without once listening to my responses. I’ve had constant reminders about how grateful and lucky I should be to be here in Australia. I’ve also had constant reminders about what a fantastic, accepting and multicultural society Melbourne is and how wonderful it is to have crepes for breakfast, sushi for lunch and Indonesian for dinner whilst constantly being reminded about the inability of people like me to “integrate” and assimilate into Australian culture (echoing European declarations of the failure and premature death of multiculturalism).
After so many years of consuming, digesting and analysing this discourse I thought it was about time I wrote you a letter without the filter of misplaced political correctness, labels that I do not identify with, and without the misguided notion that my story is representative of anyone other than me.
I’m a third culture kid, from a continent many think is a country that is the West’s idea of a failure only remembered for its famines, wars, and Female Genital Mutilation, whilst simultaneously being fetishised and exoticised when it comes to the bodies and spaces our women occupy in the minds of the public. I am not only a member of the Muslim and Black community, but I am an individual.
My ancestors, and by extension, I, were from a time and place where neither time nor place really mattered. They were from a place where they lived and loved out loud without fear, favour or spite. I am from a religion never far from the public consciousness. A religion that is a permanent part of me, just as much as my black skin and my gender is. But it is also a religion framed by the “mainstream” (however you chose to define it) in Orientalist and genderised discourses that in no way represents me.
I am from a religion that is over politicised. But most importantly I am a woman: an “interest” group that has been marginalised throughout history irrespective of race, religion, and circumstance – struggling and fighting for what has ironically been referred to as “inalienable rights” and only catered to in times of elections and moments of misplaced moral outrage. And the moment I begin to point out the obvious I get labelled with the socially dreaded “f” word: feminist. But I guess that’s my cross to bear.
I am not only a member of the Muslim and Black community, but I am an individual.
I write all this to demonstrate that I am a complex Black Muslim woman whose experiences and thought processes are nuanced, contrary to popular opinion, and cannot simply be summed up in this letter. I also write all this to highlight, as you know but conveniently forget, that we’re all born into certain historical, geographical and political contexts with particular physical traits, unique developmental experiences that allow for the formation of fluid identities that are simultaneously complimentary and contradictory. As such, the image you have of me – of the simultaneously oppressed Muslim woman and the independent black woman from a strong line of matriarchs – does little to conform to your prescription of who I am, but alas.
I have, for over twenty years, been straddling three competing paradigms that compel me to act as both a facilitator and mediator between these paradigms that are more often than not divided by politics than anything else. It is not a sense of helplessness that prompts me to write this letter, but rather frustration of having to do all the listening in our relationship.
I guess, it might be difficult for you to read these words but this letter is well over due. But I’m mindful of mama’s words (translated of course) echoing in my ears – “say what you mean, mean what you say, but don’t say it mean” – and in the spirit of honesty, I must say that nobody has a monopoly on racism, prejudice and discrimination. But we must all acknowledge that certain groups have historically been better at dishing and serving it than at receiving it. And before you inevitably label me a reverse racist know that it’s only an observation and not a judgement that I point out.
Occasionally I find myself questioning how sincere you are. I know it’s unfair to both of us but you also question my loyalty and wonder whether I’m Australian enough? Whether or not, I, as a Black Muslim woman who wears the hijab am oppressed or if my father made me do it – a question I get asked on any given day. In defence of my father, he didn’t make me do it but he did tell me that our very existence is political and therefore I shouldn’t be surprised when I get confronted with these questions, but I guess there’s no accounting for prejudice.
I also wondered why women’s bodies, most particularly Muslim women’s bodies and their choices are seen as cultural battlegrounds where every Tom, Dick, Harry and Abdi, Ahmad and Bilal think we are fair game. In all honesty, irrespective of faith, race or circumstance women should not be used as fodder to further prove that a cultural, religious and political ocean divides us in a twisted attempt to prove that a clash of civilisations exists.
Additionally, it seriously gets unoriginal when you ask “so where are you from? And how long have you been here?” like that provides a complete picture of who I am. I’m frankly sick and tired of answering those questions. Also, I never quite got why you feel that it is necessary to ask these questions unless of course it makes you feel good about yourself for “letting” me come here. I feel that not only is it patronising but I think you might actually believe that it somehow validates your inability to accept that my presence here is permanent, maybe.
I was once asked to speak at a launch of a Refugee Week event about, you guessed it, what it means to be a refugee in Australia. Me being me, of course I inadvertently skirted around the issue. You see, I’m not the type that feels comfortable with relating “my migration story” without the courtesy being reciprocated in return.
I am that type who more often than not wholly believes in the idiom of “what’s good for the gander is good for the goose.” I tend to avoid these situations primarily because I never really understood what purpose it serves to define my difference and “otherness” to you. I also avoid it because my story is in no way unique, interesting or revolutionary from any other migrant to Australia since the eighteenth century. Ultimately, we’re all from somewhere else, right? Just because I wear my continent on my skin and stand out like a polar bear in the Sahara I am conscious of the fact that where I am from should not subject me to an anthropological investigation, however well intentioned.
Most importantly, though, I shirk from answering these questions because they tend to be asked in a slow and very loud voice as though not understanding English is a form of deafness. I also never quite understood your voracious appetite to ask only certain people the questions “so, where are you from?” And the more patronising “where are you really from?”
Here’s what angers me most about our relationship: your refusal and unwillingness to distinguish between reality and perception when it comes to people of colour. It also angers me that when I begin to acknowledge that what you have to offer in terms of acceptance is a distinctly racialised understanding of difference – you tell me to go back to where I came from if I don’t like it here.
Ultimately, we’re all from somewhere else, right?
What this does to the dynamic of our relationship is belittling because it prescribes privileges to both of us that we haven’t earned. You have the unacknowledged privilege to coddle me with policies and programs that you think are good for me without ever consulting me. It’s about time you owned up to your privilege that has its roots in European colonial and imperial ambitions – with unstated Judeo-Christian undertones – that has for decades dehumanised generations of Indigenous Australians and disenfranchised Muslims in the decade since September 11.
It’s also about time you began to recognise that despite your constitutional monarchic ties, geographically your allegiances should be to the Pacific and Asia. If you felt part of the Asia-Pacific, you wouldn’t “dump” (for want of a better word) them “boat people” in PNG and Nauru. Sometimes it’s convenient to have neighbours like them to offload your global responsibility to, isn’t it?
As I find myself coming towards the end of this letter I realise that you may dismiss it, but just know that I’m not in need of sympathy or tolerance. But rather what I ask is that you acknowledge difference less superficially than you historically have done and not question, politicise, or doubt my inability to fit in, particularly when the parameters of belonging weren’t created for people like me in mind. See, I don’t need to be validated by nobody, there’s a universal God and my validation is already there even when the personal becomes political.
This is a version of a speech Yasmin presented at the Melbourne Immigration Museum’s symposium Owning Racism – Can we talk?
Yasmin Hassen is the former Youth Commissioner of the Victorian Multicultural Commission.