Adele Aria reviews Racism edited by Winnie Dunn, Stephen Pham, Phoebe Grainer
Racism: Stories on fear, hate and bigotry
Edited by Winnie Dunn, Stephen Pham, and Phoebe Grainer
Sweatshop Literacy Movement
Reviewed by ADELE ARIA
I was eager yet simultaneously exhausted to begin reading Racism: Stories on fear, hate & bigotry. This is not a criticism but rather acknowledges my visceral familiarity with the phenomenon. I suspect too many of us know, intimately, what racism feels like and how it manifests in our lives, often infusing our lives as embodied trauma, regardless of attempts to refuse the internalisation of harmful othering narratives. Produced by the Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement, the editorial team have curated a suite of stories by First Peoples writers, Black writers, and writers of colour to create a timely insight to the multiplicity of personal experiences. Reflections and stories of racism are interwoven with varied perspectives on how racism exists, ranging from the foundational violence of colonisation, Australia’s ongoing coloniality, the nuances of structural and systemic racism, to contested definitions, often imposed by those who inflict it rather than those who endure it. Centring experiences and voices who are often marginalised for their difference, the anthology enacts a resistance to how discussions on racism are derailed or quelled. It is also hard to know if contributors felt empowered, given this form of exposure and substantial labour is so often demanded from people whose lives and identities are marginalised. Attempts to challenge or claim social power often come with costs. It is also a delicate undertaking when Aileen Moreton-Robinson, in Talkin’ up to the white woman cautions that virtuous objectives of fighting racism might instead entrench the essentialising ideology of it.
Racism blurs lines between writing forms such as memoir or testimony and fiction, refusing to clearly distinguish them to focus readers on the complex and multi-faceted truths of racism. It reflects the heterogeneity of possible responses to the invitation to share stories on fear, hate, and bigotry. The anthology is the unflinchingly intimate product of three literary collectives: Western Sydney Writers Group, Sweatshop Women Collective, and Black Lives Workshop. The project intentionally confronts the broad spectrum of racism as a very real othering experience faced by many Australians despite the propagated myth that Australia isn’t racist. It recognises the colonialist brutality that provides the foundation of Australia and prompts interrogation of how racism is encultured.
Some stories portray understandable yet detrimental internalisation, while others rage at the way it imposes shame for being different and discomforting to whiteness. Other narratives evoke a sense of distress, rage, and demand for change. Some writers share poignant appreciations of how survivalism can be a unifying drive across the intersections of being diverse to a mythic norm in which Australia remains invested. The changing tones and approaches provide a journey of tension, without being so unrelenting that it becomes overwhelming. The stories do not feel like they have been censored or reshaped for palatability, but instead often dive into raw truths. The arresting lyricism and evocative depictions of bigotry build an urgency to keep reading.
Potentially, this collection is an opportunity for those at different stages of allyship, solidarity, and learning about how others live with apparently unavoidable burdens of othering and racialised stereotypes. The alienation exerted by racism upon First Nations people, Black people, and people of colour (FNBPOC) are transformed by insistence that readers recognise their humanity and question the acceptability of such harmful processes. It represents a compelling invitation to see, witness, and understand. Simultaneously, it signals the complexity of allyship and demands anti-racism be more than symbolic. As Max Edwards notes, the “desire to prove a lack of racism by demonstrating proximity to Blaknesss… dehumanises us”(175).
Challenging the tokenisation of non-white existence, the anthology honours the critically conscious existence of being racialised and objectified. The collective has refused the colonialist gaslighting narrative that racism doesn’t exist, revealing its pervasive influence upon social systems, structures, and day-to-day lives of people living in a nation state founded through violence. ‘an act of advice in motherhood’ by Meyrnah Khodr is steeped in the need to cultivate safety and protection in the face of the supposedly absent racism. In Amani Haydar’s ‘hijab days’ we see vilifications of religious practice made into excuses for bad behaviour.
I argue Racism also provides value for anyone whose own lives are inextricably bruised by others’ fear, hate, and targeted bigotry. Necessarily, there are nuances to others’ experiences, despite the often-unimaginative ways people enact the cruelty and brutality of racist attitudes and beliefs. Some readers might see their own lives and difficult moments represented in this book and may also find insight into varied vulnerabilities and idiosyncrasies. Difference and experiences are idiosyncratic, such as at the intersections of anti-Blackness and power dynamics between child and adult in Guido Melo’s account which reminds us that the trauma of racism is often written into people before they find homes in so-called Australia. I also do not think FNBPOC owe further immersion in the lives and pain of other people made busy surviving racism.
Juxtaposed with examples of racist attitudes and thinking, the collection also considers the reality that survival and resilience often coincide with internalisations, which might manifest as the lateral violence described in Shirley Le’s ‘looking classy, what are you?’, the anti-Blackness of an advertisement in Ayusha Nand’s chapter, or Chris Tupouniua’s and Rizcel Gagawanan’s accounts of judgements about what constitutes an adequate performance of race.
The anthology winds through preoccupations of belonging and identity, the exclusionary impulse that categorises and dehumanises, and the fraught navigation of power dynamics. Despite mainstreamed voices suggesting these are historic processes that no longer exist, it becomes undeniable they are ongoing contemporary issues. It becomes clear that people are not single-issue representatives, showing intersectionally marginalising forces such as sexism and classism.
Wresting power from white creators who have been dominant voices defining representations and stories of diversity, the anthology draws readers to the perspectives of FNBPOC instead. It reveals the insidious harm of mainstreamed voices dictating the order of things. It is the judgement produced by whiteness and propagated by others in Chris Tupouniua’s first prose piece. A character in Daniel Nour’s story contrasts the food of ‘multiculturalism’ with ‘normal foods’ like steak and broccoli as if there is magnamity in whiteness permitting diversity.
While Heikmah Napadow’s ‘zooper dooper’ shows us how simple an ally’s act of defiance can be, there is no pandering to those who offer allyship, conditional upon gratitude and sufficiently placatory anti-racism activism. In a world that recently witnessed the reinvigoration of the Black Lives Matter movement and localised Blak Lives Matter action, reading Racism might be challenging for self-titled allies. It is gloriously non-compliant with the false boundaries of niceness in tone and content.
Overall, the writing rejects attempts by whiteness to rehsape racism as inconsequential or rare unpleasantry. In the conclusion, Sarah Ayoub counters with the stark and disturbingly growing statistics of the many Indigenous people, amongst others, are paying with their lives.The harms and pain are no longer abstract. The ways in which some are empowered or emboldened to police identities and tone is made visible and problematised. Without falling in the trap of tediously explaining what racism is, the narratives are a testimony of the pervasiveness of the phenomenon. It unequivacolly rejects a reader’s power to dissociate.
The omnipresent force of racism can literally take lives and also steal precious moments. Sara Saleh skillfully takes the reader into the anxiety and denial of personhood that can occur, particularly amid the militarised precarity of Palestine. Even as global attention increasingly scrutinises the terror people are facing in Palestine, Saleh situates moments that might otherwise constitute togetherness and rituals of family in the omniprescence of colonialist violence. Like many other accounts, ‘beit samra’ interrogates whose lives are valued enough to galvanise change.
Understandably, the compilation might exclusively include writing to expose and commodify trauma and scars for educational consumption of others, but its span is greater than this. Janette Chen uses acerbic humour, playing with the apologism that underpins many racist behaviours. While resisting demands of consumability, writers artfully explicate how people are required to produce evidence of humanity. They must justify their existence, from producing literal receipts (such as the dockets Sydney Allen proffers under interrogation) to insistent demands of conformity with stereotyped ideas of what FNBPOC are supposed to be. Adam Phillip Anderson’s ‘round eyes white asian’ parallels the policing of racial identity that the protagonist is subjected to with how it might also serve as a shield, highlighting the distancing power of othering.
Childhood, beauty standards, tradition, success, grief, and colonialism are just some of the interwoven themes. Even in supposedly congenial workplaces, Amani Haydar shows the casual derision in a colleague describing Ramadan as “that thing”. Vacillating between the objectification of diversity as an educational exercise and the anxieties about what visibility might bring, Daniel Nour’s ‘tournament of the ethnics’ narrates the advocacy of a father who wants a son to be able to exist in his own way. In ‘palangi’, Chris Tupounia calls out the lazy demonising caricatures created by whiteness but also weaponised by other FNBPOC.
Featuring emerging and established writers, hailing from Indigenous, Arab, African, Asian, Latinx, African-American and Pasifika backgrounds, readers can engage in a robust provocative journey. It moves through explorations of racism, its universality and potency, the homogenising force of it, the power dynamics it propagates and is served by, survival and struggle, and its many forms whether directed outward or inward. The powerful, often raw and prosaic, lyrical works in the “micro aggressive fiction” portion serve as a crescendo for the collection. Crossing genres from poetry to prose to commentary, this section signals the movement through discomfort, self-doubt, and sorrow, but revels in withstanding and challenging of racism. They are bite-size rejections of demands to avoid being “angry while Blak” or to prove that a “model minority” person only speaks gently when spoken to.
As the editorial team Winnie Dunn, Stephen Pham, and Phoebe Grainer attest, Racism is intended to be “raw, honest, provocative”(13). During the resurgence of the #BLM movement, booksellers reported a significant upswing in purchases of books on racism. This was soon followed by evidently prescient concerns that anti-racism books would remain unread, merely performative acquisitions displayed on bookshelves. I worry that people who could benefit from reading it, will not. Those of us who face racism infiltrating our lives might only relive those moments replicated in its pages. I urge readers to share and recommend it, insistently. Ensure the labour and talent contained within its covers an opportunity for more readers to dive deeper into understanding racism to be and why it exists. The potential value of the reading experience is limited by who will not pick up the book. However, I personally have some reservations about some inclusions perpetuating ideas such as ableism in describing antagonists, conflation of Asian identities with yellowness, and the colonialist possessiveness of “our” Aboriginal people or “Aboriginal Australians”.
FNBPOC are not a homogenous monolithic identity, and neither are the stories homogenous. Refreshingly, the collection is unconstrained by cookie cutter ideas of what literature is supposed to look like, resulting in writing imbued with the individualism of the authors and their lives. There is a range of exploratory narratives from the humorous allegory of chasing away Eurocentrism in Tyree Barnette’s ‘invasions’ to the anguish in Nellie Tapu Nonumalo Mu’s ‘the white don’t like the black’. Contributors share vulnerably in explorations on vulnerability, rage, grief, defiance, exhaustion, and reflect upon the lived reality of racism. Facing into the unsettling reality that the pathway to resilience is paved in survival, the comfort of whiteness is not privileged. Australia’s persistent coloniality generates a liminality to which it pushes anyone who doesn’t meet the narrow definition of “Australian” but Racism: Stories on fear, hate & bigotry centers and amplifies voices from the edges. Embodying the Sweatshop editors’ commitment to the power of literature, it refuses to be party to the erasure of the pretense that racism isn’t real, here and abroad. The white gaze is, finally, not the defining approach to racism in Australia.
1. I use the atypical initialism of FNBPOC in recognition and acknowledgement of the primacy of the traditional custodians of the lands upon which the anthology writers and I are situated. The many First Nations peoples whose sovereignty was never ceded, have been most targeted by the violence of racialisation in the founding of the Australian nation state. However, I note the preferences in language are constantly shifting and I do not intend my use of this term to override any individual’s self-representations or community preferences.