Writer Jacob Boehme who's from an indigenous community in Australia, Tamil indie musician Tenma and trans woman activist and artiste Kalki Subramaniam spoke on race, caste and gender.

How to be a good ally Artistes discuss identity appropriation at Chennai panel
news Identity Monday, February 03, 2020 - 15:28

“What do we do with the imaginary spear?”

As puzzling as this question is, an evening with three diverse and brilliant artistes -  writer and performer Jacob Boehme who comes from an indigenous community in Australia, Tamil indie musician Tenma and trans woman activist and artiste Kalki Subramaniam - turned into an enlightening session on identity, assertion, assimilation and appropriation.

The panel discussion organised by dancer Swarnamalya Ganesh’s Ranga Mandira Academy of World Dance/Performance and Indic Studies was curated by Radhika Ganesh, activist and co-founder of Kaani Nilam, a collective that works with diverse, marginalised communities, and took place on January 31 at Curioplay in Chennai.

The conversation began with the spear - the imaginary spear. In the year 2015, Australian football player Adam Goodes, who's from an indigenous community, was ridiculed and hounded by Australian media, the football association and its people for celebrating a goal by performing an indigenous war dance that showed him throwing a spear. The episode that followed the projectile of the “invisible spear” became a terrifying example of racism in Australia.

Assertion and representation

“He made an assertion of his cultural identity when he kicked a goal. But people were up in arms - “How dare you bring your culture into the game of football?” The entire country bullied him so much over a period of two years that he quit his passion, the game he loved. All for throwing an imaginary spear,” Jacob Boehme said, speaking about the incident and how prevalent racism is in Australia.

“We still do not have recognition in our country’s Constitution. We were given citizenship in 1967 and up until then, we were considered under the Flora and Fauna Act,” Jacob said.

Radhika began the conversation that evening by saying, “Throwing the spear is a natural instinctive image for any community that has been in the hunter-gatherer culture in the historic sense - it is a show of courage and valour. I’ve seen similar gestures in tribal communities in India. But here, it turned into a space for hate. How do you cope with it?” she asked, setting the stage for a discussion on assertion of identity, both as self and as a community.

Radhika continued, “The question of assertion is also parallel with appropriation. Representation is where you are kept. India is at that space today where we are questioning about who should be talking about what. Where do you fit? Are you an ally? Are you in or out? Do you represent or are you part of the dialogue?”

Born to a mother of European descent and a father from Australia’s Narungga community, Jacob spoke in great detail of his experiences and responsibilities to his community as a light-skinned indigenous man. “I came out looking like my mother. I had a very different life than that of my brother and sister and a much different life than that of my father and my grandmother. I know exactly what privilege is,” he explained while the crowd sat captivated.

Tenma, who formed The Casteless Collective in 2017, spoke next and brought to the table his experiences as a musician from north Chennai. “We wanted to break the labels first. Gaana musicians would get arrested for no reason because they were returning late in the night. Isiavaani (The Casteless Collective’s only female musician) was pushed into the light music scene but we found a fiery gaana performer in her. We barged into places, we jumped into parks. We did not care if they chased us out,” he said.

On stereotyping, Tenma said, “North Chennai is stigmatised as a place with gangsters. I've also seen bloodshed but it doesn't mean it comes from a specific area. Auto Shankar came from south Madras. Even this word ‘pullingo’ became a slur. Boys with coloured hair and those who sang gaana are called pullingo. It's a nice way of being casteist. I had no choice than to speak about it vigorously.”

The word 'pullingo' gained popularity around the release of Vijay's Bigil last year was criticised for its casteist connotation. The word was used to mock young men specifically from north Chennai areas, stereotyping their looks and behaviour.

“It is difficult because people are not aware of the implications of these labels. We have no choice other than driving the point home forcefully. We have no time for sympathy. I will live whether you like it or not,” he said, while the audience erupted in cheers.

Kalki, on the other hand, spoke about how liberating rejection can be. “A trans woman does not follow fashion, we create our own fashion. There is this urgency in us to express our beauty. In that sense, we feel more deeply than a woman. Women are oppressed in this society and when we aren't accepted as women, it gives us the freedom to express completely. That rejection has given the freedom to be myself. I have said so in my poetry as well,” she said.

She explained that for the trans community, art is the most important way of expressing oneself. “Be it joy or rejection, we express it through dance and music and theatre performances,” she added.

‘We need accomplices’

The evening also saw discussions on how one can become strong allies without becoming appropriators. Swarnamalya put forward a question on the insider-outside conundrum. “Can an outsider participate in this discourse and how? How do we participate in this journey with you? When you try to right the wrong, you may in a way try to become appropriators. How do you do it?” she asked.

In response, Kalki said, “Allies will have to be listeners first. We should teach our children that it is okay to be anyone they want to be and to not stereotype." Tenma added that an outsider can be of most help as an enabler. “In any sort of power struggle, it is very easy for one’s privilege to take over everything in the movement. It is best for an outsider, therefore, to become an enabler. It is time to pass the mic,” he said.

But the sharpest answer that evening came from Jacob. “If you really want to assist, shut up,” he exclaimed and added, “everyone talks about ally-ship but allies change.”

“We need accomplices, not allies,” he continued. “People in position of power are not changing. Allies will help you but accomplices will watch the door while you get to the safe. They have a stake in it. When a window of opportunity opens, you hold the door open with one hand and with the other you pull in as many people as you can before the door shuts,” he explained.

“I am very aware of what I’m walking into and how privileged I am because of how I look. But there’s also this funny feeling of being a traitor. On the one hand, it is my job to make it inside so I can make space for my people and on the other hand, you feel like a traitor because you are let in. You understand?” he asked, laying bare an intense turmoil that comes with being a torchbearer of against oppression who happens to be of mixed parentage. 

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