Graphic by Hengjia Liu
CW: Discussions of war, colonialism, and racism.
This piece was originally published in ‘Pleasure and Danger’, Bossy’s 2020 print edition.
Inspired by Robyn Kaur Sidhu’s “White Girl Does a Political Science Presentation (after Jasmin Roberts).”
“… whatever her paper topic is does not affect her directly / I can tell she made it through this assignment unbothered / alive…”
I was born into war; the roots of which I can meticulously track back to centuries of colonisation – even if my tutor thinks that this reality is a mere card which can only be played a finite number of times. My mind constantly fights not to forget that he is wrong.
You can understand, then, why studying my own history – far removed from the ugliness we managed to escape – is a jarring experience. On the one hand, I am thankful for the detached neutrality which academia offers, an anaesthetic I can use to process my own pain. On the other hand, I recognise that it is a far more conscious and deliberate process to choose to set aside that suffering and channel my intensity into something more productive. And then I wonder why I feel so heavy and dreary after four years of performing these motions. Remember, process, set aside, and focus.
It was perhaps this exhaustion that led me to switch from an IR major into a development studies major in the hope that the mechanical apathy of international relations could be tempered by alternating semesters in social science, where I could indulge myself emotionally. I wrote my first essay about the Sri Lankan civil war in an anthropology course about affective memories and post-conflict trauma in migrants. I’d never felt so excited or passionate about anything before. I showed my mum one of the articles I read to write my essay. She told me she knew the author’s mother; she had been shot over a decade ago for writing and publishing a manifesto revealing the reality of living in Jaffna.
I wrote the essay over four days through a constant stream of tears and a throbbing, subterranean sort of panic. This was not, as is the case for many students, the general pressure of writing an essay before a fast approaching deadline, but because I was reconstructing my own experience of war, confronting my own trauma, and learning about my history through this nonetheless academic task. Slowly and carefully, I untangled these knots and split-ended histories, spun my heartache into neat, double spaced Times New Roman, and wove it all into a coherent document of topic sentences and propositions.
Yet, just last week my political science tutor cautiously reminded a fellow classmate sharing his experience as an ethnic minority amid a nation building agenda “not to take things too personally.” Do not make it personal, she said. Engage please, but not in a way that threatens this carefully constructed, artificially made, ivory tower which we all call academia. I tried to thank him for sharing his story. But it was too late. The awkwardness had settled, and I was once again so very tired.
* * *
My parents migrated to Melbourne at ten and twenty from Vietnam and Malaysia respectively. They faced the majority of the cultural shock that has now been cushioned for me, both in the way that Melbourne grew accustomed to the presence of Asians and how my parents have, in some ways, assimilated to contemporary Australian multiculturalism. Due to their young ages, they faced assimilation with relative ease and dexterity compared to their older relatives. As a result, I feel more like a second-generation Australian than a first. My parents have each departed from many of the traditions of their mother cultures; I haven’t grown up in a religious household, we barely practise cultural traditions and I have very little knowledge about those which we do beyond vague exposure. I cannot speak any languages other than English and have sadly grown up accustomed to being unable to communicate with the majority of my relatives due to both the language barriers and the intergenerational difference. While I long to bridge this gap and learn more about them, my relationship to my lineage is one that has recently felt sterile, distant, and guilt-ridden.
I’ve accessed much of my factual knowledge about my ancestral cultures and histories in neutral learning spaces within the framework of a Western education. It’s a disconcerting experience to see your relatives described impersonally, as part of a collective from this era or that. Whether in year seven history, a political science paper, or a Hollywood film, it’s jarring to see your family’s displacement and traumas contextualised and discussed as merely the result of some fill-in-the-blank set of strategies in a historical conflict between global giants to mobilise their fill-in-the-blank ideologies. Reconciling these histories with my own existence here in Australia is surreal. I suppose it’s the jarring feeling of real people being delegated to some overarching label; of complex societies and cultures being summarised in a term; of a set of conflicts defined to a time period. History is compressed with time; people described in past tense become estranged from us in the present, and sympathy dissolves into desensitization. There’s an inevitable touch of impersonality when we compress individuals into diasporas and then succinctly into words, occupying only a page in a book or a relevant example in a lecture. But there’s a strange solidarity that comes with it too. It’s the nature of history, the unavoidable, jarring feeling of having a neat summarisation for an entire set of feelings and experiences which we never quite feel will or should have an explanation that has made my relationship to my lineage as intimate as it is distant.
– Chantelle Lý, 1st year, PPE and Visual Arts.
* * *
Studying IR with my background is an uncomfortable experience. IR likes to shroud itself with ‘neutrality,’ as though the entire discipline is not framed by a Western lens. I understand. I live and study in a Western country, I get that this is the framework we’re coming from. Yet, I can’t help the discomfit that arises in so many of my tutorials.
I remember my first ever IR tutorial; stumbling in, out of breath after mistaking Haydon-Allen for Hancock. My tutor asks us why we are studying IR, and the responses vary from “wanting to learn more about the world” to be being interested in “other countries and cultures,” and it’s all so impersonal. It’s my turn, and I shove back the words that want to rise – I can’t imagine myself studying anything else other than this, I can’t imagine not devoting myself to trying to stop wars, and helping civilians in war-torn countries –and instead settle for a broad, naïve, idealistic “I want to help people.” Already, my response felt out of place in an IR tutorial, and that feeling would just be the beginning.
We discuss the 2003 Iraq War through game theory – an example of ‘chicken,’ in which neither Saddam Hussein or the US blinked – and I have to act as though the repercussions of this did not lead to my family having their already broken country crumble even further. We discuss war as a political tool, as if it isn’t part of the fabric of my entire family’s history. As if they are not all civilians of war. In tutorials, we discuss the Syrian War and analyse it through the realist lens, trying to identify each actor’s interest, and I have to pretend that I don’t have family friends who have had someone they love die in that war. We discuss, we analyse, and I bite back words, histories, my anger. I have to be detached, impersonal, because bringing up a personal history has no place here – it’s not academic enough.
Yet I know the only way for me to help them, to impact international politics, is to study this degree. So I sit through it, hating having to be ‘neutral,’ worrying that I, too, will come to see real people through state-centric theories, that I am detached rather than merely acting detached.
I’ve had other experiences which have reminded me why I continue to study this, the real reason I chose IR. My tutor is a person of colour and he talks about channelling his anger at the world into his academic work, to turn it into something productive for the world, and it speaks to my soul. I understand and I am understood. I, too, am angry at the injustices, the years and years of colonialism, what war has done to my family and to so many others.
I study this degree to one day help them, and help them I will.
– Ayah Sahib, 2nd year, Arts and International Relations.
* * *
In a tutorial, we were once asked to read and weigh up the arguments set forward by Bruce Gilley, a white male academic who wrote and published “The Case for Colonialism.” The article is exactly what the title suggests – it isn’t satire, the title isn’t the journal equivalent of clickbait. Digging into the colonial history of “Third World peoples,” Gilley suggests that colonialism “led to improvements in living conditions” and that we should “unlock those benefits again.”
The anger I felt in that tutorial was expected. So, when I was asked to look past my initial emotions and academically analyse the piece for positives and negatives, I thought right, of course, I’m a student first, a daughter of colonial struggle second. I engaged in a debate of what colonialism could do for a country, took notes, and played the part of a distanced student. But the whole experience swirled within me for months, and I eventually realised that I never should have been put in a place where I was asked to set aside my cultural history in pursuit of academic discourse.
Anqi Liu, a post-colonial theorist, describes post-colonialism as “the continual shedding of the old skin of Western thought and discourse.” I was born 52 years into India’s post-colonial era, and at three years old I began my journey of redressing my identity in Western ideals as my family moved to New Zealand. So, when I sit in a classroom, I take on the lens of a Western academic rather than a post-colonial activist.
My parents, on the other hand, still echo the fire of anti-colonialism – calling upon heroic stories of Indian activists, voicing venomous thoughts of “white culture” and “what they did to us,” memories which are alive in their generation’s consciousness. Yet this consciousness is not accessible to me – except through the smallest, opaque windows: a conversation with an older Indian, a book illustrating how we are irrevocably changed by colonialism, an essay topic asking me to analyse the causes of the Partition.
My obligation to be part of the post-colonial movement of embracing India and shedding the skin of the West has been dead since I left in 2002. And yet, the post-colonial activist in my blood doesn’t let me rest, making everything – dating, public holidays, classrooms – a site of inner conflict.
I felt this conflict as I watched people throw around justifications for Gilley’s arguments to collect participation points. The activist in me wanted to call out the preposterous nature of this discussion. Do you know what we have lost to colonial powers? Do you understand the pain that we have held onto since? The educated Australian student within me kept me obedient and measured in my responses.
This made blatant to me the cultural insensitivity of the academic space. Academic analysis should not push down cultural voices and historical emotions; instead, our classrooms need to encourage these personal perspectives and connections because they highlight the realities and complexities of what we study. Colonialism cannot be reduced to a list of pros and cons; it involves people’s lives, identities, histories, and futures.
– Zenia Vasaiwalla, 3rd year, Arts and International Security Studies.
* * *
“A more striking picture there could not be imagined, than the beautiful English face of the girl, and its exquisite fairness, together with her erect and independent attitude, contrasted with the sallow and bilious skin of the Malay, enameled or veneered with mahogany, by marine air, his small, fierce, restless eyes, thin lips, slavish gestures and adorations.”
I paid well over one hundred dollars for this anthology. One hundred dollars – straight out of my paycheck – in order to properly facilitate my participation in one of my English courses this semester. We are only three weeks into the unit, and I am already beginning to wonder if I have made the wrong choice. From the moment that I had been forced to accept an average final grade of 60 from a white lecturer teaching a course on racism, I’d known that my personal experiences had no place in a Western university. I have checked my background at the door ever since, have approached every history lesson and assigned reading from a ‘neutral’ perspective. The perspective of someone who wouldn’t immediately be outraged by the depiction of a wealthy Englishman enabling a near-illiterate Malaysian’s addiction to opium; his only concern after the fact being that his visitor may return with more Malaysians, who will inevitably seize him by the wrist and lead him to ruin. But of course, foreign = bad.
I could play dumb – but I want them to know that I am smarter than this. I was not raised to bite my tongue and know my place. I want to remind my peers that the Malay is an explicit example of racial Otherness. I want to tell them that De Quincey continually takes advantage of the minorities in his life to fuel his craft. “The Malay had a name,” I want to say. They all had names, before people like Thomas De Quincey declared them dingy and dirty and stupid. I want to say that people like me are more than nameless characters in your goddamn stories. I will make you look at what I cannot ignore, until it sits – miserable and weighted – in your stomach. I will try not to notice that I am about to tear my beating heart out of my chest and lay it down before you in my bid to be understood.
By the time that I have finished reading the text, I have an entire script laid out in a Word Document; I am desperate to ensure that I do not falter, that my voice does not waver. But I don’t even get a chance to open my mouth. This week, ANU is forced to respond to COVID-19 by shifting to remote learning, and my tutorial is cancelled to accommodate the transition.
During our next lesson, my lecturer uses the remaining five minutes to ask if anyone has any thoughts on De Quincey’s biographical descent into addiction, and is immediately forced to field a barrage of questions about aestheticism and the romanticism of drug abuse. I know that it isn’t his fault: English majors may have been raised into the practice of critical thought, but racism is difficult to comprehend when you have not lived through it.
I delete the notes from my computer.
– Cinnamone Winchester, 4th year, Arts.
“… this does not count as a primary source / so I provide plenty of peer-reviewed articles written by white authors in its place…”