George Street, Paint and Lywood, Reflections and Refractions
there’s not just the one you know –
everyone thinks about the bitumen being uprooted
to let more pedestrians through
tourist foot traffic
Clover calls it
as though there aren’t enough uninvited
feet or traffic on Gadigal land
but this one
on Darug country is
campos cups line gutters
boral trucks circulate concrete
towers of babel
in honour of the pink phalluses that run the world
alleyways hide away
in polyester suits and too-tight skirts
faces swollen with pride
dare a virus that hides in tabloids and Pauline’s lies
dotted by those with three
filtered layers of the best PPE
China has to offer
it was on this road that she power-walked
pandemic productivity still key
to line up outside of Destination Roll for bánh mì that would
the roof of her mouth
looking down and scrolling fast
walked into her
spilling his brew
scalding his ego
and she stood
because despite the remarkably pressed shirt
the cravat and the latest device
the letters before and after his name
he had only scored one out of three
on this indictment
points for trying
she muttered through the fabric on her face
Paint and plywood
She studied the underside of the desk.
As she zoomed in on the mangled piece of Extra, she played back pre-March-2020-soundscapes of the pavement outside: the steady thudding of footsteps, sharp staccato of five inch heels, the dragging of high schoolers’ feet as they skulled cans of ‘V’ and the heavy metallic moping of tradesmen, labourers and the wannabes with fake lashes from here to there who’d signed up for the $25 White Cards so that they could wear cargos, high-vis and hard hats for the ‘gram.
Which self-proclaimed adult had hastily shoved a piece of chewing gum under a desk, she wondered. Her right hand remained loosely open and clammy atop the hum of her heart, as she ran the left one down the bulge of her chest into the cavity, feeling for her diaphragm – still tight – and willed her body to breathe deeply and erase the sight of last night.
8 minutes and 46 seconds was what it was, and yet she had seen all but two, maybe three seconds which had been enough to torpedo her into torpidity so that a thick fog that crept its way into a murky and muddied mind and shifted its weight so that it too was now pressing down on her, so that there was more CO2 than air. The thought alone was enough to put her into a state of panic and sweaty fever.
And then this one.
A stranger, still brought to her on screen, his heart would have pumped harder, each one of those 526 seconds, overcompensating for the lack of oxygen, eventually leading to cardiac stress and rupturing inside his chest.
Cause of death: broken heart.
Cause of death: broken system.
The salty pool that had formed beside her temples was now cool on the tacky, plastic floor. But unlike George in Minneapolis, the vibration of her phone brought her back to the paint and plywood of the bare Parramatta office, pandemic, protests and empty sidewalks.
She ignored the Zoom reminder, remaining there, her brown body a sign of protest, art and offering.
Reflections and refractions
Before we delve into the conversation of ‘woke’ and ‘wokeness’ it needs to be said that this term is of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and I have the same amount of patience for it here in the Australian context as I do for Halloween.
At the start of 2020, I announced on social media that the start of the new decade would be the year of People of Colour. I was excited. Bong Joon Jo had just received an Academy Award, Taika Waititi acknowledged the Indigenous people of Turtle Island while accepting his and Rihanna followed this up with a plea to self-proclaimed White allies to “pull up” for racial justice.
But what I thought would turn into a moment for People of Colour turned into splintered factions of fragmented folk who were more interested in amplifying themselves as individuals as opposed to celebrating the collective and communal movement that called for solidarity. Within the Asian community I noticed People of Woke: those who had ticked boxes themselves and had arrived. The problem with tick box approach to ‘wokeness’ is that it prioritises a destination instead of focusing on the non-linear process of evolution. And so became observations and interactions with the Youngcle and the Women of Woke.
Jess Sells Wertman said, “Know the difference between a leader and a marketer. Many marketers like to style themselves as leaders, but that doesn’t mean they ARE.” And 2020 saw the rise of the Woman of Woke marketing her Brownness to commodify her popular experience of race. There were: #brownbosses and #girlgangs and #bossbabes and #girlbosses and then there were Youngcles, Brown men who never showed solidarity with Brown women, but suddenly inclusivity experts, organising conferences and now the face of equity panels.
Portmanteau of young and uncle.
A young, cis het, Brown man who has convinced himself and others, that he is
progressive or ‘woke’, but is really a conservative uncle in disguise.
Youngcles are often:
– well dressed (but make it look thrifted)
– sophisticated (look at all the letters before AND after my name and all the job roles in my bio)
– progressive (BLM, y’all)
– erudite community leaders (can I get an Amen/வாழ்க!!)
– whitewashed tombs (empty, hollow and rotten)
Youngcles are coddled by Aunties. As a result, they do not know what to do when a Brown woman speaks up and out to them. They are unused to, unwilling and unable to be corrected by Brown women. They may be more willing to listen to Black women because of their need to appear ‘woke’. They will always listen to a White woman, pay to be mentored by her and marry one if possible.
Youngcles lack the ability to pause and be introspective to question their attitudes and behaviours because they have been, and continue to be, propped up by women who have internalised misogynoir. However, Youngcles consume Black and Brown womens’ work, spit them out, water them down and co-opt their language to control the narrative for clout and cuddles.
Women of Woke
After nearly fifteen years of exploring, meditating on and implementing antiracist and decolonised methods into my own practice as an educator I fully acknowledge that I have eons to go and that there is no final destination. I also recognise that everything I have learned and continue to learn is because of the labour of Black folk who came before me. So, in 2020 I watched as women of colour who shared no lived-experiences due to their proximity to Whiteness, suddenly tuned into 2020 and become “woke” to racism. These women who had class, light-skin, thinness, ability, sexuality or caste on their side, suddenly saw an opportunity: their Brownness had become marketable. This discovery, like all discoveries, led to extraction, commodification and capitalisation of Black and Brown folks’ experiences who were further marginalised than their own and they suddenly became a “voice to the voiceless”. Their extra privileges allowed them to enter into spaces that were otherwise inaccessible to those of us who for years had been holding these conversations and deemed unsavoury, unpleasant and ultimately unwelcome.
Take the South Asian business associate, who expressed her solidarity with First Nations people and her commitment to amplify South Asians, for example. When I attempted to speak to her about her business’ anti-Thamizh sentiment I was gaslit, blocked and deleted. Then there was the DM received on LinkedIn by an older South East Asian woman who wanted to collaborate, only to reveal her organisation’s plans to trademark the term ‘Women of Colour’ so that she could “take the movement global”. Then there was the woman who held a large-scale event “amplifying women of colour” without remunerating them appropriately, extracting from presenters their resources, time, labour and leaving them unpaid, while patting them on the back for their “valuable voices” and congratulating them for the exposure.
It is these women who are given access into spaces that amplify their voices but theirs alone, because of their various connections and their proximity to Whiteness. They are the faces of diversity campaigns, inclusivity leadership summits and receive funding for shiny-new University-backed research. Why? Because so much of their ‘brand’ of woman of colour is reflected back in existing systems and structures. There is no challenging of status quo, no speaking truth to power and certainly no interrogating the establishment. Those whose experiences and voices are palatable, are the Diversity Darlings because of the way they package Diversity & Inclusion: on a platter and hand fed to those who are unwilling to do the work themselves.
But D&I strategies are like your basic butter chicken: easy, cheap, palatable & inoffensive.
The cleansing, uncomfortable work of antiracism is like Amma’s Yāḻppāṇam prawn curry: burning hot, makes you sweat, your eyes bleary, your nose runny & goes right through you until you get somewhat used to handling the heat. You’ll feel them hum for days in your belly & on your lips but if you’re brave you’ll be back for more.
So what to feast on? Basic Butter Chicken or the courageous but often uncomfortable voices who are unafraid to speak of their rich histories while reimagining their own bold futures?
About the Work
My work is in the form of creative non-fiction and explores the ways in which I experienced racism and sexism during COVID. The few times I ventured out into public spaces I encountered open and violent, verbal, racial abuse. This was not new in any way, but because of the way in which COVID had kept me secluded away in my safe, sterile, silo, I had forgotten what it was like to be out and about and in this body of mine.
George Street explores the way in which everyday violence towards Black and Brown bodies has been normalised and how desensitized many of us who experience it are.
Paint and Plywood is a reflection on the way in which the #BLM movement, through American imperialism, finally forced conversations around race to the forefront of Australians’ minds. It also explores how many of us felt a visceral embodiment of pain and fatigue but were still expected to function at work in pandemic conditions.
Reflections and Refractions examines the way in which 2020 saw the rise of many People of Colour identifying as such, to signal their advocacy for this group, while simultaneously causing harm to marginalised People of Colour. It interrogates the way these people are profit-driven (both financially and socially), prey on peoples’ social awareness or guilt and cash in on their idealism with purpose-driven marketing campaigns, while deflecting questions about their own ethics, all without taking accountability for their own wrongdoings.
About the Creative
Priyanka (she/her) is an Eela Thamizh woman who lives and works on unceded Darug land. She is the daughter of refugees who fled a state-sponsored genocide to the UK and migrated to ‘Australia’ in the 80s. A writer, educator and multidisciplinary artist, she chronicles her experiences on the intersections of her various identity markers, as well as her general observations of Western Sydney life through poetry, prose and creative non-fiction. She is inspired by the works of Oodgeroo Noonucal, Toni Morrison and Mathangi Arulpragasam. Priyanka’s first book, Mozhi (2021), is a poetry collection exploring language, trauma and fringe-dwelling.