Category Archives: Western Privilege

Healing and Understanding Cultural Difference within our Relationships

Before Christmas I had a great session with a new psychologist. I went in freaking out a bit, because things were rough last year, and towards the end it all felt out of control. At the same time, I’d been doing a bit of reading on brain/neuroscience. Except… well, I’m no brain scientist, and I don’t think I really understood what I was reading. Somehow, in all of that, I convinced myself that I was behaving like a manic psycho and my brain was totally rewiring itself to model my behaviour; meaning I was falling further and further into manic mode. So despite all the pain of my first few therapy sessions, I decided to give counselling one more shot.

And just for the record – I’m glad I did. I was shaking going in, and launched straight into a cautious tirade about how I was “regressing” into infantile communication strategies (umm, like not talking to anybody and literally locking people out when I was feeling really down). Unlike the past therapists, this one didn’t focus on aspects of my behaviour that were abusive and crazy (not that there’s anything wrong with focussing on that). Instead, she calmed me down, acknowledged I was going through a hard time, and asked me not to be too harsh on myself. Wowie….

OK, so it’s obviously good for the ego to hear that locking people out of the house doesn’t make you a manic psycho bitch or regressive infant, and that it’s in fact a self-care strategy. What rocked my world about this therapist, though, is that she acknowledged my relationship (i.e. didn’t just focus on me as an individual), and finally (finally!) addressed the fact that there are some cultural differences between me and L which I should probably try to get my head around.

We’re onto something here folks!

I guess most people in an intercultural relationship don’t need a therapist to tell them  they should explore and understand cultural differences between themselves and their partner. But hey, what can I say, I’m not most people 😉 And the other therapists I’d seen had taken very different and more individualistic approaches to recovery and healing, with absolutely no acknowledgement of the intercultural dynamics within my relationships. Indeed, as readers of my older posts will know, one therapist even suggested I was only with L because I was fascinated by him as an object of intellectual curiosity and humanitarian assistance – implying that I was the type to fetishise difference. Needless to say this was rather hurtful, and made me self-conscious of exploring any kind of cultural difference between us, thinking such exploration would be evidence of pathology and co-dependency in our relationship, rather than an expression of love and understanding.

Don’t get me wrong. I have always been mindful of cultural difference. I started this blog, after all – and my very first post is about how I’d always resisted the label ‘cross-cultural’ when maybe the idea could actually help sort out some resonating truths about our relationship. Yet I’ve also been mindful of exoticising L, of appearing too keen and interested and naive, of making him feel like some kind of African specimen for an ignorant western mind. My attitude was (and is) compounded by the fact that L has, shall we say, very little patience for my discipline and profession of choice, anthropology. To simplify his position , anthropology is the most colonial, the most exoticising, objectifying western discipline. Ironically, my very training in social science took away any intellectual resources to argue back. First year anthro right through to graduation is all about the evolution of western social sciences in the context of colonialism, eugenics and economic expansion; about the academic discourse that justified the imperial control of bodies and minds and resources; about the privilege that makes western projects of objectification such as ours possible in the first place. It’s self-critique all the way, and speaking for myself and a few close friends, we certainly came out of it cringing at our naive fascination with ‘other cultures’.

After such wide-ranging accusations  of being exoticising and objectifying (from too-many-years-at-uni, from L, from the previous counsellor) it was refreshing to hear this new therapist encourage me to learn about L’s culture. She suggested I read up on the history of his country, the politics, and what he might have experienced in the early formative years. Read up on the position of women in his country, try to understand how this affects the way he relates to me.

I might cringe at myself all the time for wanting to learn more about different-ways-of-being-in-the-world. But the truth is, reading up on politics and gender and culture in other societies is right in my zone, and true to myself I stumbled across this fantastic article by a medical anthro from L’s country (redeemed, I hope, by the fact that she’s not a foreign researcher) writing about cross-cultural experiences of trauma and healing after the civil war. For many people in L’s country – which has been subject to a long period of political violence – physical and psychological ill-health can often be interpreted as a sign of malevolence in your relationships. That is, health is not just an individualised phenomenon, because the ‘person’ themselves in this culture (as with many cultures in the world) is understood via their relationship with others. Western ideas about healing can be counterproductive in such societies, as western medicine treats illness in a very clinical, scientific way that locates a particular disease/incident of trauma in the body or mind of an individual. So for instance, individual therapy would be considered an appropriate strategy for a rape victim in a conflict situation. Indeed, medical organisations such as Medecins Sans Frontieres often send out teams of psychologists to conflict and crisis zones. However, the western method of verbalising and essentially reliving trauma over a prolonged period of time until some kind of symbolic catharsis is reached, and what’s more in a clinical setting with just the individual and the therapist, can do more damage than good in cultures where recovery is not just about healing the individual, but about restoring fractured relationships in a symbolically potent and culturally resonant way.

The author uses an example of a boy from L’s region who was stolen by the rebels and forced to fight as a child soldier in the civil war. After being reunited with his family as a teenager several years later, the boy  did not respond so well to prolonged individual therapy. What really worked, however, was a subsequent healing ritual in which he was placed in a hut, the hut set on fire, and the boy rescued by his uncle. The ritual involved not only the boy himself (as therapy would), but his whole family, restoring familial roles and responsibilities torn apart during the conflict by allowing his family members to ‘save’ the boy from the fire, since they were unable to save him during the war. It’s a ritual then, that reinvigorates relationships and facilitates family healing in one symbolic moment (rather than ongoing and prolonged individual/group sessions where you would normally verbalise your trauma in a quite literal way). By overcoming the traumatic event symbolically, you can move an continue to foster healthy family relationships…and from this healthy selves.

Now I suspect a ritualistic approach to healing wouldn’t really do it for L, since his circumstances are quite different. And the truth is, I don’t need to read a paper about his country to know him and know what would work for him. But some cultural and contextual information doesn’t harm (that is, so long as it’s not used as the basis of simplistic generalisations…of the “Africans in conflict zones won’t response to individual therapy, they’re all collectivist and need to do these full-on rituals involving their whole family” sort). Ultimately though, in pondering cross-cultural attitudes towards healing (from brain science to fire rituals) I’ve come to recognise a truth about myself: that my health and wellbeing are also intricately wound up with the health of my relationships. I think most people in the world – including us ‘individuals’ in the west – realise that we can seek to heal ourselves by healing our relationships, even if the standard clinical and medicalised approach to health doesn’t always make room for this (with the exception of certain types of relationship/couples therapy). I think that’s why, as I wrote in my last post, lying to my father tears me apart so much. Because it undermines our relationship and is causing a lot of unhappiness (and health problems, my dad in particular has not been well in the last few months).

Stress caused me to isolate myself last year. This year is all about health, healing and connecting with others.

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Filed under Cultural Difference, Interracial Relationships, Race, Western Privilege

You are in Australia yaar, why don’t you get with a white girl?

Ok, so maybe the Indian guy on the bus didn’t put it that bluntly to L.

But he did put it pretty bluntly.

L and I started going out towards the end of 2007. NYE o7 was one of our first ‘proper’ dates. That morning I’d missed a flight from interstate back to our home city. Catching the late plane instead, I rushed from the airport to meet L around 10 pm. Now I usually feel very uncomfortable in make-up and jewellery, but those first few dates I did make the effort to look nice and dress up (a bit). So that night, running from the plane to the train to the bus in my jeans, red hoodie and old sneakers, I wasn’t feeling particularly glamorous.

As it was too late to find a quiet, romantic hideaway by the time we met up, L and I crammed into a bus heading towards the waterfront for a view of the fireworks. An Indian guy was sitting in front of us and he struck up a conversation. We started with the usual questions: “Where are you from?”, “How long have you been here?” etc.

One thing that always alarms me when speaking to South Asians – despite having a South Asian family myself – is how quickly a ‘general’ conversation becomes inundated by questions that are considered highly personal by  western standards. To give this guy some justice, he had very recently moved from India and I know over there it’s not necessarily rude to ask questions like, “what visa do you have”, “how old are you”, “are your parents strict with you?” This last one always irks me when I’m with L because we are obviously a couple and the underlying question really seems to be, “because if they’d raise you as a good Indian girl you wouldn’t be traipsing around with a black guy”.

Or with a white guy. I’ve had hotel staff in India directly ask me if my parents raised me strictly and – grrr – whether I’m a virgin (!!) when I’ve checked in with white male friends. Obviously no good unmarried Indian girl would go to a hotel with a white guy and therefore I’m a whore. I’m not ok with this, but at least when it comes to comments with white guys the insult’s on me. With L, with a black guy, there’s the added, “how can you even stand being with this guy” attitude. L and I once had a south Indian man, at a church BBQ, ask us whether we’re going out, ask if my parents are strict, and then say proceed to tell us that his daughters are ‘good girls’ who will only marry Indian men, “not from Africa or anywhere else”. Geez what a way to be insulting and racist. (Fortunately L is not as sensitive as I am to such South Asian comments, otherwise I doubt he could stand being with me).

But I’m ranting and digressing. Back to the guy on the bus. There I am trying to have a romantic NYE with L, not feeling my best-looking, when this guy asks L with a smirk and head waggle, “Have you ever slept with a white girl?”

Mate, I’m right here.

Clearly I don’t fit the ‘hot’ white beauty ideal (an ideal so impossible most women – black, brown, Asian, white and beautiful – struggle to meet) but can’t you hold your tongue? Firstly, it is insulting and makes me feel completely inadequate. Secondly, seeing you’ve just implied I’m a whore for being with L, it goes beyond double-standards to ask if L has slept with a white girl, and then tell us victoriously that yes, he has claimed the prize. Shut up.

As we’d just started dating and were kind of nervous around each other, L and I never spoke about it at the time. But lately I’ve been thinking more and more about beauty standards, probably because I’m on a bit of a downer with my self-esteem and most days feel puffy-eyed, grumpy and ugly. So I asked L last week what he’d really thought about that guy on the bus. It took a bit to prod his memory – L didn’t react to the guy as harshly as I did. But he admitted that when he first moved to Australia, he also found white women desirable. “If you’re from Africa, or India, or anywhere really, you’re taught to find white women attractive. They’re all over tv, in the media, in the magazine. It’s not unusual he thought like that. I wouldn’t take it personally” – easy for a guy to say – “And it’s not just men. Even women in those places are taught to strive for white features. Look at all the skin whitening creams all over Asia and all the hair straightening products in Africa”.

It’s the mainstream beauty ideal men are taught to desire and women are taught to emulate.

There are obviously all sorts of beauty ideals and fetishes out there, all kinds of things we’re taught about desiring the exotic other. L’s line is, “maybe migrant men are excited to be in a country with heaps of white women when the first come, just like white guys might be excited to be in Thailand or Latin America or somewhere, but I think everyone gets over it pretty quickly. You realise people are just the same”.

I’ll just go with that then.

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Filed under Beauty, Feminism, Interracial Relationships, Race, Racism, Western Privilege

The Aftermath Part Two: A Disastrous End

This is the second of two posts describing what happened while my parents were visiting me and L last week.

OH SHIT

It’s no secret in Blogland that L and I are having difficulties lately, a lot of it related to things outside of our immediate sphere of control (e.g. structural racism). The last two months we’ve not had any fights – largely because L has pulled himself together. Me, well, I’m not sure yet whether I’ve managed to unlearn all the bad habits of the past 6 months…the screaming, the smashing, the whole-body trembling, the reactions so physical and so violent L almost thought I was possessed by demons.

I’ve been through three therapists in three months trying to sort myself out. It hasn’t always helped. But one message that has come through consistently is: It is normal for him to lapse. Lapsing is a process of learning your limits and learning your boundaries and pulling yourself together with the knowledge required to handle whatever comes your way. In this sense, lapsing during recovery is “good” (as long as you don’t relapse into another destructive cycle).

Oh, and it’s most likely to occur in emotionally turbulent times.

So there I am sitting in the counsellor’s office – got it, don’t lose my head during a lapse.

But it’s been going so well for two months and my dad at least likes him so far and is happy for us and did I ever in the name of anything consider the possibility of a lapse while my parents were visiting?

God no.

I got the panicked call from L while my parents and I were hiking on our fourth day (the morning after we’d had a massive fight). I was surprised I had reception because we’d been out of range the whole trip, but fortunately he called me just as I was standing on top of a hill. I’m the kind of person who freaks out after an emergency rather than during it (as in, I’m kinda freaking as I write this…), so we quickly came up with a plan of action and a story to tell my parents. All I can is, the situation was bad. I was due home with my parents that night and there was no way he wanted them to see him in that state, so he arranged to stay a friend’s place.

My parents believed my story (lie) the first night but when L was off the scene again the next day and night (completely inconsistent with our original story) so that he wouldn’t even be there the night they were flying out, they really smelt the fish.

You’re hiding something from us, aren’t you?

To make matters worse, my car battery went flat because it hadn’t been used in 5 days (we’d hired a larger car) and it all just added to the stress as we were catching buses everywhere and running around.

Plus there was obviously some bad omen in the air because as I went to sit in a park trying to evade my parents’ ears and discreetly talk to L, the stitching at the back of my shorts completely split. A few hours later Mum got a massive tear in the back of her skirt. Great.

Despite all this, I did my best to distract my parents that last day. Took them on a breezy ferry ride and to a stunning pub right on a beach on the edge of the peninsula. But they were worried. My story morphed into: I don’t really know what’s going on, I’ve never seen him like this before (that’s kind of true, my parents have never visited before), I guess I’ll find out when I see him.

To my parents’ credit, they never once came out with, “See, we told you this black boy is trouble” (not even Mum). Instead, they gently let me know I have their support if anything goes wrong, and the decision is up to me but I have to think carefully about my future. Do I really want to be with somebody who can be emotionally unstable, even if it is because of unfortunate circumstances he has experienced in the past?

Needless to say we had a long talk: them doing their best to get me to open up and me doing my best to hide the painful truth. When Mum went to the bar Dad said to me, “You probably don’t want to tell us everything, because we’re your parents and you think we’re just going to oppose him no matter what. But that’s not true. I know your mum can get really angry and upset without saying properly why she’s upset, maybe that makes you feel like you can’t tell us things”. He gave me a deep look. “But you can tell me.”

It took so much not to cry.

Dad continued, “I don’t think either of you have done the wrong thing by being together. In life some things work out and some things don’t. We’re your parents, we’re concerned about your happiness, we’re not concerned about judging you or telling you off. But we expect you to be honest with us. If you’re honest with us and it goes wrong, that’s ok. If you’re not honest, if you’re hiding the truth to save him, then that’s not ok”.

Jesus Christ, how does he know what I’m up to even at 25? (If you’re not aware of the complex I have at the suggestion that I’m with L just to save him, read this).

Even Mum, when she came back with the drinks, said, “I get angry easily with you guys and I probably shouldn’t, maybe it’s menopause” – certainly not, I remember you having a fearful temper since I was a toddler! – “but when I worry about you it’s from the bottom of my heart, I really want you to be ok”.

They also somehow picked up on the fact that I don’t have too much support up here, because they kept asking how many friends I have and how often I get out of the house to do something fun.

The worse thing about all this is how my parents have given me all the room I need to open up completely and honestly. But I can’t. Because to do would require me to describe the intimate side as well, why I’m still with him. I’ve never been that close with them (I could barely look Dad in the eye when he said that he was happy I’d found a life partner), there is no way I could delve into such intimate details to give them the full picture.

But if I have any duty as a good daughter, isn’t it to let them be good parents?

The ball is in my court and by hiding the truth I am betraying them as parents. For Dad I know that being a good father means being there for his kids, giving them the space to be completely honest without feeling like they’re going to be judged. He would be so hurt if he knew the actual truth. Or more accurately, the extent of my lie. Mum is much more suspicious and much more on the ball – she knows and expects that I’m hiding more than I’m revealing.

It was a long day made longer by their 2 am flight. Only after I’d seen my parents through the departure gates could I drive home, lie down, and finally cry out all the tears of the last 3 days like a baby.

Do you know that beautiful song Shelter Me by Australian band the The Waifs? That’s how I’m feeling right now.

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Filed under About, Family Acceptance, Parents, Race, Racism, Western Privilege

The Aftermath Part One: From Smooth Sailing to Choppy Waters

This is part one of two posts describing what happened while my parents were visiting me and L.

A FANTASTIC BEGINNING

It started off so well.

So well, in fact, that I spent the first few days dreaming of the victorious blog post I would write when my parents left – “We should have never worried about a thing!”

Before they got here L and I spent hours cleaning our unit. Actually, L spent hours cleaning our unit…he scrubbed all the crevices between the bathroom tiles with an old toothbrush and wiped out all the light shades and ceiling fans, poured boiling water over all the walls and scrubbed out the stains…geez he even took apart his keyboard and tapped out the dust from under each key. Being a more homely person than me, he had bought a few essentials we’d been living without until now, to make sure my parents had a comfortable stay: a microwave, some glasses (we’d just been drinking everything out of mugs), a shower curtain (we were never bothered by a bit of water on the bathroom floor), and more cutlery.

They were arriving in the middle of the night and we both drove to the airport. Mum and Dad seemed really pleased to see both me and L, and the drive home was pleasant chatter. Phew! That was the first hurdle down. I was afraid my mum would be cold towards L at the start. At one point during the drive home she did give out this massive, frustrated sigh (I was driving with her in the front seat, and Dad and L in the back). When I nervously started chewing my nails she turned around sharply and asked, “What’s wrong?”, but apart from this there were no tense moments.

We showed them around the first two days and it was all family fun: Dad insisted that L get in every photo, and the second night L totally won them over by cooking a killer chicken curry. We even sat down and went through some photos of his family – his brothers, his parents, and his brothers’ children. Considering my mum has been known to say things like, “One good thing about Australia compared to the US is that you don’t see as many black people around”, looking at photos of L’s little black nephews and nieces was important to me. Because you know, her grandkids will probably be black.

Fortunately there were no references to skin colour, unless you count an innocent sunscreen error. My Mum has much fairer skin than the rest of us, coupled with a number of friends who’ve had close calls with skin cancer. Growing up, we were never allowed to leave the house without a healthy dose of sunscreen and a good hat. Dad has always resisted wearing a hat and sunscreen, and while we were lathering up on our first day out on this trip he asked if it was absolutely necessary. Yes Dad, the sun is really strong here. Then he looked suspiciously at L and proclaimed, “But you’re not wearing it!” No no, L explained, I just have sunglasses. And that was that 🙂

When I took them to the local fresh fruit and veggie market they bought an expensive bottle of homemade chilli-sauce for L, insisting that he’ll like it because he likes hot food (I’m not so much of a chill person) – and this was while L wasn’t even with us!

Also they insisted on buying me a present. Now one thing about South Asian culture is that there is an ever-present ethic of giving gifts to your daughter, especially once she’s moved out of home, and often in the form of jewellery or household appliances. They’d been asking me for weeks before coming up what I wanted, and I kept replying nothing because they were already spending a lot of money to come and see me. Of course they decided to buy a gift while here and guess what it was? Nothing personal like jewellery or nice shoes or a new dress or anything…but an esky set!! “So you and L can use it when you go for picnics”. This was another win, to have them gift the two of us, which is really an acknowledgement that L is a part of their daughter’s life.

Then Mum, Dad and I went away for a few days. L couldn’t come along because he didn’t get the time off work, and I was really afraid the trip would be all fighting. But no, the first three days were surprisingly smooth sailing – we were enjoying being together after not seeing each other for a long time.

A ROCKY MIDDLE

It went rocky with my parents on the third night. Or more accurately, it went rocky with Mum.

When they first told me they were visiting, about 4 months ago, I had offered for L and I to have a civil marriage while they were up, assuming that they’d be uncomfortable with us living together. At the time they had not warmed to the idea, and Mum had suggested that I “stay with him for a while before jumping into marriage, take you time to get to know him” (in the hope, obviously, that I’d get to know him and then choose the break-up path rather than the marriage path). She asked me what our plans are regarding marriage now. I replied, a bit defensively, that because she’d rejected the idea and I had only really offered to get married for her sake (L and I aren’t religious and getting married is not really a priority at the moment), we haven’t thought about it any further. “But we’re still planning to be together long term, we just don’t want to get married”.

Mum and Dad had both discussed my offer at the time, and decided it was not a good idea to get married with just L, me and my parents present. As if we’re hiding from the rest of the family (Dad’s brothers have also moved to Australia over the years) and doing something wrong. “A wedding isn’t something you hide from everybody, it’s something you should celebrate with everybody. So if you ever decide you do want to get married, we’ll do it properly, and openly”.

Ok, I’m glad we’re on the same page there.

Dad even said: “I know why you offered. You were offering to get married for us, so we would be ok with you staying together and so you could receive us into your home. But we don’t want you getting married for our sake, if you’re going to get married, it has to be for your own sake. We’re mainly concerned that you’re happy with him, whether you’re married or not. To get married just for us would be wrong.”

I was really touched by this but Mum kind of ruined the atmosphere by muttering “Speak for yourself…”

Then she started. He’s not the right age. Nothing has happened yet (i.e. we’re not married or pregnant) so we can safely call it off. It’s too much of a risk committing to someone if you have no way of finding out about their background.

I blew up, of course. L has spent days cleaning for you, even attacking the floor with a toothbrush. He speaks of you with the greatest respect yet you won’t even acknowledge his existence, much less mention his name, when we speak on the phone. He has no family in Australia and he’s always hoping that you will become family for him.

Fortunately Dad backed me on this one. When Mum said it’s too risky to be with somebody who’s background you can’t investigate (i.e. ask friends of friends about L and his family, as per the arranged marriage system), Dad pointed out that “it would be even riskier to leave him.” He added, “L seems like a real gentleman. It’s a big thing for you to find a partner. I can see you’re happy with him, and that’s all we care about”.

Again, before I could thank him for his empathy Mum took over with her raving: When you were going out you lied to us about staying over at his place. I’m so hurt by what you’ve done to me. (Uhmmm…what have I done to you?). I don’t need to say it now, you know what I mean. And on and on it went.

Finally, exhausted, she became sullen and quiet and slipped into bed with the doona pulled above her head. Dad could see I was really upset by this stage, and tried to calm me down. “All we care about is your happiness. Your Mum thinks this too, she just doesn’t know how to say it. If you show her over the next couple of years that you two are fine and you’re happy together, she’ll come around too.” He paused. “But don’t just show that you’re happy of course, don’t put it on for us. We need to know that you actually are happy”.

I almost broke down at this. L and I didn’t have to put on a show these last few days, but we have had some huge difficulties since we moved in together, as we grapple with all this stuff related to racism and how it affects our relationship. Two months ago, our relationship would often turn into a microcosm of everything that is wrong with the world when we both lost our tempers. But when I’d just converted Dad into accepting L, and while Mum was lying there openly hostile, how on earth could I blurt it all out? A part of me so wanted cry out, “It’s been really difficult, please teach me how to have some strength and empathy and patience”, but instead I crouched down near my mother and asked if it was true. “Will you really be happy if I’m happy? Because I am, and it hurts me that you’re not recognising it. And that, worse still, you’re personally offended by happiness!”

That’s a pretty desperate cry right, to ask a mum to say something nice?

No such luck. Instead she said angrily, “We’ve done our duty towards you by bringing you up and graduating you, now you have a duty towards us”.

Grrrr…what fucking duty?

But she wouldn’t say.

Now I don’t know much about what goes in my Mum’s head, but the fact that she wouldn’t say it in front of Dad makes me think it has a lot to do with the whole sex before marriage thing.

You may have noticed my parents have rather different approaches to parenting. Mum has always been a strict disciplinarian, while Dad is more of a gentle, understanding, flexible type. This characterises their clash of personalities when it comes to their entire relationship, really, and the argument was quickly becoming as much about them as it was about me and L. That’s the problem with family fighting and family politics, everything becomes about everything else and instead of solving it all in one go you end up amplifying it all. I dashed out of the room before bursting into tears, not bothering to respond to the one, reconciliatory “good night” from Mum.

Later Dad called me into their room. “Your Mum wants to say something”. I walked up to the bed and he nudged her. “Tell her”. But again she simply muttered something about not being able to say things she doesn’t mean, and pretended to sleep. “Sorry, she said she would say that she’s happy for you. But even if she doesn’t say it, that’s what we both mean”.

Thanks Dad. I want to thank you for all your support and being a great father but I can’t. I’m choking again.

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Filed under About, Arranged Marriage, Family Acceptance, Interracial Relationships, Parents, Race, Racism, South Asian Marriage, Western Privilege

Colonial Fantasy, Sexual Desire and Saving the Exotic Dark Other (aka Why Are You With This Guy?)

One of the most insightful articles I remember reading during undergraduate anthropology was by an English literature scholar examining western fascination with the ‘exotic other’. He described how the white tendency to fetishise and ‘study’ colonised populations was driven not only by the need for expanding markets at the economic level, or the need for greater territory and military prowess at the political level, but also by sexual desire for the exotic at the psychological/unconscious level. Indeed, he suggested that cross-cultural interaction and influence during the colonial moment (which is ongoing in many parts of the world) spreads through a limited number of ways – namely, language and sex (I can’t remember if he included trade). He often referred to colonial anthropologists and geographers who were well respected in their home countries and professional fields, despite of (or because of?) their wide-ranging sexual relations with ‘the natives’. Such sexual desire for ‘the natives’, according to this writer, was underpinned by a sense of adventure and conquering the unknown, and a drive to realise and strengthen one’s own civilised whiteness and identity by saving the exotic other from the dark throes of savagery.

Thankfully, ALL the people he referred to were male and white. In fact, the entire article was about white male sexual desire and how it is indulged through colonial relations and the western missionary/saviour complex.

Phew! thought the starry-eyed humanitarian in me. I’m not white, I’m not male, I don’t have a penis which can hide my brain when it doesn’t want to work, or a libido that can be titillated by a brown-skinned girl in a coconut bra. So my desire to help all those dark people in all those poor villages is not at all related to white colonial sexual fantasy and an unconscious saviour complex, right?

Ummm…wrong, according to my therapist.

To backtrack slightly, L and I are having some pretty major issues right now as he goes through a rough patch. To deal with all of this, I booked myself into a counselling session, because I don’t really know what else to do besides cry tears of frustration and slam all the doors in the house until they disintegrate into cracked splinters. (Oh, and blog).

The therapist took one look at my situation and saw western-wannabe-humanitarian-meets-black-boy-in-distress. She gently explained to me how, sometimes, people with a human services orientation meet somebody ‘interesting’ and initiate a relationship with that person not for who they are, but because of who they represent, because of all the potential in them to change. Or, more accurately, the potential in them to be changed (i.e. be saved). She reminded me that “He is not a project; he is not a member of population you are interested in studying; he is a human being who can only help himself”.

Yup, thanks for reminding me that my partner is a human being.

Forgive my sarcasm. I just can’t help but feel completely misunderstood and patronised. I know she was well-meaning and concerned for my welfare, but implying that I am with somebody for all the wrong reasons and that I am incapable of loving somebody outside of my professional and academic commitments, is hardly conducive to healing. And the more sinister implication that I am with L only to realise an aspect of my own identity (western saviour to this ‘traumatised’ black boy) was absolutely devastating.

(I guess my therapist, if she ever read this, would read a lot into my defensiveness here. But whatever).

I fled that counselling session and am yet to get up the courage to go back. Maybe if she had asked questions about how we met, how long we’ve been together, the nature of our relationship and how we feel about each other, she would have realised that I am acutely aware of this dynamic. It took me almost 3 years to agree to go out with L because I wanted to make sure my feelings were genuine. I would never have been that careful had he been a white guy; I would have plunged into the relationship, ‘given it a shot’, and sorted out the issues later. Yes, I treaded water carefully because of his personal and cultural background, even tolerated things that I would not have tolerated had I been with the guy-next-door. But ‘giving way’ in such a relationship (where there is an imbalance in racial privilege, at least publically) – or even BEING in such a relationship in the first place – does not automatically call into question one’s basic reasons for loving their partner.

These thoughts have arisen in response to a great conversation amongst South Asian intercultural relationship bloggers about balancing their ‘gori’ identity with their partner’s culture. Some, like Sara at A Little Bit of that Too, went through a stage of enthusiastically courting South Asia. Others have never felt the need to embrace their partner’s culture so enthusiastically.

Adding my two cents worth, I commented on a number of posts that I would never overtly embrace the markers of L’s culture, or even directly express interest in the cultural differences between us. If I did, L would think I was just being a middle-class, confused white person who doesn’t truly understand cultural difference at all (and worse still, a try-hard white person because I’m not actually white: trying to be white by trying to be ethnic!). On the back of his interactions with westerners here and in Africa, he very much associates this fascination for ‘other cultures’ with white fantasy and colonial exoticisation (in Australia, it’s certainly true that most people’s perceptions of and questions about Africa are based more on personal ideas/fantasies than on any real knowledge of what life is like over there).  So, if I expressed interest in his culture, for him it would be more about me using it to explore an aspect of my own identity (Eat, Pray, Love style), rather than actually understanding where he’s coming from (even though I LOVE learning about other cultures, and from my perspective it’s about understanding others as well as myself). And in so far that I have the privilege, education and resources to make such dips into another culture to ‘discover myself’ and ‘have a spiritual awakening’, yes, the process is inherently exploitative and tinged with racism. In the extreme version of this argument, embracing Africa would simply be a tool to solidify my own sense of self as an enlightened cosmopolitan westerner (the ‘trying to be white by trying to be ethnic’ thing isn’t a joke).

A lot of this stuff also comes from my own experience of fielding ‘culturally sensitive’ comments and questions from people in Australia who, despite their good intentions, come across as infuriatingly ignorant. But it’s best not to get started on this…

Until now I have felt just a wee bit smug populating the blogosphere with my clever commentary. The “I’m so enlightened and cosmopolitan and suave that I don’t even have to embrace another culture to prove my enlightened-cosmopolitaness” type of smug.

Then I remember how hurt I felt when my own motives for being with L were bluntly questioned. And how angry I felt when we were typecast into a saviour/other script that, at least in my mind, ran with the more extreme points of the exoticism and colonial desire argument; without once acknowledging all the love, frustration, joy and anger that goes on between us as two people, independent of any historical and psychological meta-narrative we may fall into.

Having spent much time at university examining patterns of racism, exoticisation, white fantasy and colonial guilt in western culture and politics, it’s been easy to project these same patterns onto other people’s intercultural relationship experiences, based on this-or-that post which I just happened to read. What’s been harder, I’ve discovered from hurtful personal experience, is to let go of my assumptions and understand people’s experiences from their point of view rather than my own.

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Filed under Blogging, Cultural Difference, Interracial Relationships, Race, Racism, Western Privilege

Western Privilege and Interracial Relationships

Sara over at A Little Bit of That Too has been sharing a number of humorous and informative posts about her intercultural relationship and personal identity journey, which she is satirising via the Partner of a South Asian (POSA) Identity Development Model.

Her posts and comments by fellow bloggers made me think about the role of racial privilege in interracial relationships. I’m sharing these thoughts here as many of the twists and turns between me and L are very much associated with our relative experiences of racial privilege/disadvantage:

I would love to hear more about other people’s experiences of white privilege in their relationships, because it’s been such a source of tension between me and my partner. While I’m not white, I’m certainly ‘whiter’ than him. I’ve grown up in the west with all its privileges, including material wealth and stability. I’ve never experienced racism in finding employment, in dealing with bureaucracies or police, in obtaining visas and moving freely around the world etc…. My partner on the other hand, is a black African guy in a country where (African) blackness is still rare, poorly understood and exoticised.  He has not only experienced prolonged institutional racism via the immigration system, but also everyday racism, often from people in positions of power associated with governance institutions (especially police), not to mention the racism he’s faced in finding employment.

All this has made L very suspicious of what he calls ‘white’ institutions – governments, police, schools, employment organisations,  welfare organisations…the list goes on and on. He sees all of these as instruments of control and gets extremely frustrated with me when I show any kind of trust in them (e.g. an African friend of his went missing for a bit once, and my immediate reaction was to go to the police). It reminds him that I’m in a position where I can work these institutions to my advantage, whereas he feels targeted by them.  And it exposes the gulf between us – while I may be critical of these institutions and institutional racism in theory, I can remain aloof to them in practice. He has no such luxury.

For a guy as well, I guess it can be quite emasculating to struggle for things that everyone else (i.e. those with ‘white’ privilege) takes for granted – like finding employment and securing a stable income. (This is some conjecture on my part – he is quite vocal on issues of racism but silent on issues of masculinity). When these frustrations really build up, he can express some pretty intense anger towards white people, and their taken-for-granted privilege; an anger which is directed at me in our heated debates. “You have such a white colonial mindset, thinking you know better than me what’s good for me”. I’ve asked him to please not bring global race relations and world politics into our personal arguments, but again this request is a function of privilege – the privilege of assuming that racial power relations play out in a political realm that is somehow independent of our personal lives and every day existence. Geez, my reasoning sounds pathetic even to me: “I don’t go around saying that you have a black mindset, so please stop commenting on my race” (read: “I can’t help that I’m privileged, just like you can’t help that you’re black”).

As he gets so personal and argumentative when discussing politics, I’ve deliberately stopped conversations on current events. Palestine/Israel; the west’s hypocrisy in focusing on China’s human rights record given their own doubtful human rights record; the west’s recent vilification of Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi…these have become NO GO topics, even though we actually hold very similar political views.

Anyway…blaaahhhh…I guess all I’m trying to say is that I find this a very difficult issue to negotiate!

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Difference of Culture, Difference of Class, or Neither of the Above?

So soon after claiming that I wasn’t ready to write my own posts, here I am, writing my very first post. I don’t want this post to set the tone for this blog, as it’s gonna a bit gloom-n-doom (read: a reflection of the state of our relationship). But hey, I started this with the hope that writing and reading may lighten the mood, and I guess I won’t know until I’ve given it a shot.

My partner, L, has been engaging in some pretty self-destructive behaviour recently, both psychologically and physically. I can’t reveal the details over the internet – despite my care to remain anonymous – without betraying the trust that ultimately holds us together, but let me just say that it extremely painful to watch somebody you love hurt themselves REPEATEDLY in a way that undermines all their chances of achieving the things they have been working hard for; and thus in a way that defies all rational thinking.

Which brings me to my point: it’s so hard for me to make sense of his behaviour, and because of this my responses to him have been resentful, aggressive, critical, harsh…i.e. all the things that just fuel addictive, self-destructive behaviour even more.

And the more we become tangled in this the more I fear that it’s due to incommensurable differences in not only the way we think and view the world (‘the way we act in the world’), but our very experience of the world (‘the way the world has acted upon us’) – if I can be so naive as to draw this dialectic in the first place. I’m fumbling here to articulate something that goes beyond ‘culture’ (our socialisation, our value and belief systems, our sense of personhood and family obligations) to what I’m calling, for total lack of imagination and a better word, ‘class’. I don’t mean ‘class’ in the economic/Marxist sense…I just mean that L and I come from such different ‘status’ backgrounds. Another way of saying this is that I’ve had, relatively, a much more privileged life than him – and this is linked very closely to race.

What has been a struggle for him has not been a struggle for me. Not to say I have no way of understanding where he’s coming from. My parents moved to Australia at a time when there were very few migrants here from their home country. Life always seems normal when you’re young, but in retrospect I realise how much they sacrificed for us kids by staying in Australia, because they did, and still do, face isolation and a degree of structural racism that has often placed the family under strain (again, through certain types of self-destructive behaviour, though not the same extent as L). Unlike L however, who moved here by himself over 10 years ago from a country that still has no significant migrant presence, my parents bore the brunt of the racism for me. I am very fortunate to have grown up in an Australia where people from my background aren’t generally stigmatised or looked upon as some sort of exotic specimen (creepy old men might be an exception to this…but they are in every country and prey on anyone!). Unlike L, I have not: survived a civil war (he won’t talk about his personal experiences in this time), been detained without charge, been harassed by police and bouncers on a regular basis, faced discrimination in the workplace…you get the gist. So where he sees social barriers or a problem that seems ‘intractable’, I see a problem that is, yeah, undeniably a problem, but not something to despair about to the point of shooting yourself in the foot.

Cos where’s the logic in that right?

But unfortunately people’s responses to pain aren’t always logical and that’s the rub – I try to understand what he’s going through at the ‘logical’ level, but despite this understanding, when I’m upset and see him doing something I think is S-T-U-P-I-D any ‘rational empathy’ flies out the window and bubble forth all my (irrational) resentful emotions, chastising him for being unable to cope with a type of pain I can try to understand, but never actually FEEL. And because I can’t feel that pain, emotionally if not logically, I expect him to respond the same way I would, based on how I’ve experienced the world – that is, just get on with it and deal with it. It’s not that hard.

[Now let me shift the topic slightly to deflect any more self-criticism…]

On another level, I’m increasingly beginning to feel like our differences also affect the type of lives we imagine living, which makes me feel insecure about our future together. For instance, I have a passionate interest in travel and particularly foreign cultures; an interest which is largely channelled through what L calls an “academic/intellectual” curiosity because I studied anthropology and would absolutely LOVE to pursue these studies further. For L this curiosity is, at best, bourgeois (read: spoilt western arts student with time to ponder on exotic others) and at worst, outright colonial (read: spoilt western arts student with time, money and power to subject underprivileged ‘others’ to exoticising study). He has even refused to go on a mini-holiday I suggested because, he explained (half) jokingly, he suspected me of only wanting to go to “take photos with Aboriginal kids and post them on Facebook” [!!]. Where I saw a fun excursion doing and seeing something different (cos frankly, where we live, there’s not much to do), he saw insidious and suspect motives.

It’s funny, L and I have been together for over 3 years and only now am I starting to realise just how different we are. Not to say that the only thing holding us together this whole time has been the false impression, on my part, that we’re the ‘same’, but I can’t help feeling like the terms of our relationship are shifting and I don’t really know how to handle it…

Sorry for the long-winded post. I would appreciate any comments about how you see differences between you and your partner – are they cultural differences? Something else? Are they intractable? Or do you see difference as something that enriches your relationship?

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Filed under Cultural Difference, Interracial Relationships, Race, Racism, Western Privilege