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Friday, May 30, 2014

The term "People of Colour" (POC) in an Australian context

This essay is a work in progress. I intend to provide links to cite sources for some of my historical and political claims. I will repost as I get to these.

I have written this essay on the lands of the Wurundjeri and Bunurong people of the Kulin Nation, in the urban centre of Melbourne, Australia. I acknowledge that my presence is the result of the targeting of the owners of this land for genocide, and I acknowledge the responsibilities I have as a migrant settler to change this. I acknowledge all Aboriginal elders, past, present and future, particularly to any Aboriginal person who may be reading this essay. May any merit generated from this essay be in the service of racial justice for all people of colour locally and globally, and may I be held accountable for any mistakes I have made along the way.


POC in Aus

I find the identification with “person of colour” simultaneously empowering and fraught with political tension, not only in relation to a white majority in Australia (who may or may not find the term confronting in its reminder of white racial culpability for colonial and genocidal crimes), but also in relationship to a dominant U.S.American sensibility.  I mean this not only in terms of the design and implementation of racist and capitalist superstructures (which the USA is well-known for internationally), but also in international resistance movements.

More simply:
As a gay man of Malaysian Chinese heritage living as an Australian citizen in Melbourne, Australia, I am a “person of colour” not only because of white supremacy, but also because of American supremacy in delineating the contours of my anti-racist struggle in Australia.

To all my American friends, family and allies: This is not an admonition or a “blaming”. As I’ve mentioned early on in this essay, I find the term “person of colour” empowering in many ways. It intends to demarcate a category within which a diverse range of racialised people can respond to white supremacy. What I think it may suffer from, as a category, is in its primary construction of race as being related to colour which is true in many dominant conversations on race in an American context for multiple generations of African-descent communities, many of whom can trace ancestry to slavery and who are known by “blackness”. The term “people of colour” is more fraught as a designation when it comes to thinking about multiple forms of racialisation which are related to colour (and white supremacy), but are not necessarily bound by it. For example, I consider indigeneity in settler societies (such as Native Americans in the USA, First Nations folks in Canada, and Aboriginal Australians), or the oppression of Muslims (Islamophobia) and multiple forms of language-based oppression. All of these, while properly referred to as being about race and racism, are not necessarily strictly about colour, and the people who are most affected by these forms of racism and colonization may not necessarily choose to organize on the principle of colour.

Here is what I am NOT saying…:
I am not speaking on behalf of all racialised people. I am simply mentioning some of the people that I may unwittingly exclude from any term at all, and choose to focus on the term “people of colour” because of my own critical investment in its potential for ongoing work in Australia to challenge racism and white supremacy.

In my Australian context, I notice that the term “people of colour” seems to center on the struggles of racialised migrant settlers, largely, in my sphere of awareness, of South Asian and African descent. I rarely see other East/Southeast Asian people who connect strongly with this term in Australia, nor indeed, of Aboriginal Australians either, except for those of us who have lived in the USA (such as myself) or who connect strongly with an American-dominated blogosphere. It also does seem to be visibly age-segregated, with younger people more likely to identify with the term, compared to older people.

One thing I like about the term “person of colour” is its adaptability, about its invitation to multiple meanings which are contextually dependent, and which themselves are evolving and changing. One thing I find fraught about it is that, in a call to coalition within an Australian context, we are dealing with an unfortunate history of racism which is both similar to and actually quite distinct from a North American context. In Australia, the terms “black” and “blackfella” (racialised terms which reference colour) are largely synonymous with discussions of indigeneity and the colonisation of Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islander people, whereas these two terms (“black” and “indigenous”) would be differentiated in the USA.

Other differentiations include that, in the USA, a lot of work on irregular or “undocumented” migration centers on Latino/a people who, in some constructions of the US census, are actually constructed as “white”, whereas in Australia, the “peril” of migration still largely centers on Asia, and of irregular/undocumented asylum seekers from Middle East/Central Asia and Africa who are largely Hazara, Somali, Iranian, Ethiopian, Sri Lankan, or the stateless Rohingya people. Migrants are racialised with a particular form of “unbelonging” in the crossing of oceanic borders, rather than land borders, and also with a much more recent sphere of influence. This is given that Australia’s White Australia Policy (various forms of legislation which barred non-European / non-Anglo people from migrating into the country or being naturalized as citizens) was only dismantled in the 1970s. This is in contrast to the USA’s removal of explicit reference to race-based quotas in immigration in the 1950s (while maintaining particular national quotas).

There is at least a full 20-year difference, in this regard, when thinking about Australia’s relationship to racialised migrants of colour in modernity, compared to the USA. In many ways, this is regressing, with the Australian Federal government's explicit disavowal and racist damnation of asylum seekers, some of the world’s most vulnerable people, who happen to arrive on our shores by boat.

An additional factor is that large swaths of the USA were part of Mexico (also colonized by Spaniards) prior to being under the jurisdiction of the American Federation. In other words, there were already a critical mass of Latino people on U.S.American soil even during racist apartheid in the USA when only white men were seen to be citizens. This is in contrast to the relatively small numbers of non-White migrants in early colonial Australia, such as Chinese migrants during the Gold Rush of the 1800s, who, unlike Chinese communities in the USA, largely expatriated from the Australian continent back to Asia after the rush, and small (but significant) numbers of Pacific Islanders who were enslaved and then forcibly expatriated after Australian Federation in 1901.

When thinking about race, Aboriginality, and settler colonialism, I necessarily need to hold the term “people of colour”, in an Australian context, accountable to a range of responsibilities that are not immediately accounted for in existing American-dominant discourse on race and racism. I am wary of a term which, in its current use, centralises the experiences of migrants of colour while not adequately addressing the ongoing displacement and disenfranchisement of Aboriginal Australians.

At the same time, it is worth reminding myself, as a queer person of colour, how people of colour, regardless of our actual “colour” are not only victims of political turmoil, rape, genocide and enslavement, but many of us are also the progeny of love and fruitions of justice because of our ancestors’ struggles and will to survival.

I offer this essay in order to highlight some of the distinctions between organizing in anti-racist coalition in Australia as someone who is targeted for racial vilification or exclusion from many aspects of public cultural production as an Asian-heritage person, compared to the USA. When I call myself a “person of colour” in Australia, and am accepted as such by others here who organize similarly, we are demographically distinct from groups of people of colour who may organize in American settings, and the sorts of racial issues that arise in Australia will need to account for a whole set of issues for which available online American-dominant language on “people of colour” will do no justice for.

We will have to produce and evolve our own languages, and I must cultivate a strategic patience, for the relative lack of political will or critical mass to coalition among diverse racialised communities compared to what I witnessed while I was in the USA. Anglo-specific white supremacy is much stronger in Australia compared to the USA, with some folks of European background, such as Italians and Greeks, who can trace still-present and ongoing generational memory some of the horrors of racism upon arrival.

I want to be mindful in considering the potentially exclusionary nature of a term like “people of colour” to many racialised Australian communities who may be resistant to a simple borrowing or adaptation of American-based anti-racist coalitionary work.

Personally, I continue to love the term “person of colour” and I acknowledge the struggles particularly of black, brown and other Asian folks in the USA who, to my knowledge, are the originators of this term of coalition. I simply wish to highlight the fraughtness of simple “mirroring” American-derived language in operating within an Australian colonial context. There is so much more woerk to be done, and the contexts that we are shaped by and that we shape will need to account for home-grown language that suits (or properly revolutionises) the ecology of our existing environs.


Many thanks to J.N., M.S. and R.B. for support and friendship, sharing in anti-racist work with me and for inspiring these ongoing inquiries, and also to N.G., a new friend.

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