In this analysis, we identify the normative tendencies in conventional self-care rhetoric, discuss how to undo the unequal distribution of care in our society, and explore the potentially transformative power of illness and self-destructive behavior. Read here.
<h1>Bordering on contempt: Operation Fortitude and the right to exclude</h1>
<span><a href=”http://theconversation.com/profiles/patrick-stokes-10346″>Patrick Stokes</a>, <em><a href=”http://theconversation.com/institutions/deakin-university”>Deakin University</a></em></span>
<p>One detail you might have missed in the recent uproar over the <a href=”https://www.border.gov.au/australian-border-force-abf”>Australian Border Force</a>’s involvement in “<a href=”https://theconversation.com/the-border-is-everywhere-the-policy-overreach-behind-operation-fortitude-46860″>Operation Fortitude</a>” was the ABF’s understanding of <a href=”https://www.border.gov.au/australian-border-force-abf/protecting”>what a border is</a>:</p>
<blockquote><p>We consider the border not to be a purely physical barrier separating national states, but a complex continuum stretching offshore and onshore, including the overseas, maritime, physical border and domestic dimensions of the border.</p></blockquote>
<p>That language set ABF up for obvious lines of parody (“the border is just a state of mind, <em>maaan</em>…”) and the inevitable “It’s the vibe of the thing” memes. It all sounded a bit too, well, <em>philosophical</em> for a government department, let alone a <a href=”http://www.theage.com.au/comment/putting-the-muscle-into-border-enforcement-20150831-gjbxaj.html”>newly-uniformed and armed</a> organisation.</p>
<p>It’s certainly an unfamiliar thing when governments start to sound like philosophers, though there is precedent. In the middle of last decade, for instance, the Israeli Defence Force <a href=”http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/the_art_of_war/”>experimented with</a> strategies based on Critical Theory and twentieth century French philosophy, particularly the work of Deleuze. It wasn’t a success, <a href=”http://carl.army.mil/download/csipubs/matthewsOP26.pdf”>reportedly because</a> “Not every officer in the IDF had the time or the inclination to study postmodern French philosophy.”</p>
<h2>Imaginary lines and real lives</h2>
<p>But waxing philosophical about borders is a perfectly reasonable thing to do, for borders, in the literal sense, are inherently abstract. They are the legal and cartographic expression of historical, cultural, and political contingencies. Not surprisingly, imposing these abstractions on the physical world sometimes leads to absurdity.</p>
<p>For instance, as a result of a complex set of Medieval treaties and land purchases, the Dutch municipality of <a href=”http://ontology.buffalo.edu/smith/baarle.htm”>Baarle-Nassau</a> contains a patchwork of Belgian enclaves (Baarle-Hertog), some of which themselves contain parcels of Dutch territory, nested like Russian dolls. There are cafes that straddle the border; at one time, when Dutch law imposed early closing time on restaurants, patrons sitting in the Netherlands would simply get up and move to a table on the Belgian side of the room.</p>
<p>Elsewhere, an interminable dispute between Egypt and Sudan over which of two century-old borders is the right one means that <a href=”http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/bir-tawil-1″>Bir Tawil</a>, an uninhabited 2,060 km2 patch of desert, is unclaimed by any nation: Egypt insists it’s part of Sudan, and Sudan insists it’s part of Egypt.</p>
<p>And for every such piece of quaint geopolitical trivia, there are uncountable tragedies connected with or occasioned by borders: tragedies of separation, of deprivation, of conflict, of death. We <em>should</em> be thinking hard about borders. They may be abstractions but their impact is desperately real.</p>
<h2>Sovereignty and control</h2>
<p>In December of 2014, the newly appointed Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Mike Pezzullo, gave a speech on <a href=”https://www.border.gov.au/newsandmedia/Documents/sovereignty-age-interdependency-04122014.pdf”>“Sovereignty in an Age of Interdependency”</a> in which he attempted to do just that sort of thinking. It’s <a href=”https://theconversation.com/tracing-the-far-reaching-changes-in-immigration-and-border-protection-36427″>a significant speech with far-reaching implications</a>, one that both puts his department’s conceptualisation of borders into context, and unwittingly exposes the very conceptual problems at the heart of how we think about migration.</p>
<p>Pezzullo declared that while the mission of DIBP’s predecessor institutions going back to 1945 had been one of nation-building, now it was one of negotiating the tension between the openness required by globalization and the post-Westphalian state’s “ancient coding as a vehicle for territoriality and exclusion”:</p>
<blockquote><p>I see them [borders] as mediating between the imperatives of the global order, with its bias towards the flow of people, goods, capital, data and knowledge, and the inherent territoriality and capacity for exclusion which comes with state sovereignty.</p></blockquote>
<p>In the simplest of terms, modern states demand the right to determine how they will live within their own boundaries, but also seek the benefits of open movement of goods and people and of a rule-governed international order. The tension here is that we claim the right to make rules for ourselves while living in a broader environment that requires us to subject ourselves to external rules if we are gain certain benefits.</p>
<p>In that context, ABF’s “complex continuum” model of the border makes more sense. But it also draws our attention to what that border really amounts to.</p>
<h2>Our gift (not) to give?</h2>
<p>The language of ‘border protection’ is useful for governments, as it conjures
up images of patrolling a physical frontier, of keeping a walled populace safe from a hostile world without. That we’re now being told this wall is in fact a “continuum” that exists all the way to Flinders Street (even if Fortitude is what the ABF regards as a “behind the border” operation) gives the lie to this imagery. Entitlements to remain in a country aren’t created by borders, but the other way around: borders exist <em>because of</em> such entitlements. They are functions of a right that states claim for themselves, a right that Pezzullo sums up as being “able to determine who and what has the right, or gift, of entry or exit, and under what conditions.”</p>
<p>As <a href=”https://theconversation.com/drowning-mercy-why-we-fear-the-boats-16394″>I’ve argued</a> here before, part of what makes the problem of asylum seekers so disturbing for us in the developed world is that these people’s very existence calls into question our assumed entitlement to live where we do, as we do. What moral rights does the mere accident of birth bestow upon us? Why should I be rich and safe and the other debased and imperilled? How do we derive rights of territorial exclusion from such sheer contingency?</p>
<p>The more fundamental question raised by this concept of the border is not how to balance sovereignty against the demands of global commerce; the question is what entitles us to make – or withhold – a gift of something we haven’t ourselves earned.</p>
<h2>Community and contingency</h2>
<p>You might reply that rights of abode derive from certain forms of connectedness to the community. The taunt of “I grew here, you flew here” is meant to convey that the speaker has the relevant kind of connections, and so an entitlement to be here, while the ‘newcomer’ does not. But simply being born here doesn’t automatically mean you’re connected to the community, while as the current case of <a href=”http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-08-08/mojgan-shamsalipoor-rally-against-removal-brisbane-student/6682842″>Mojgan Shamsalipoor</a> attests, connection to the community is no protection against the threat of deportation either.</p>
<p>Even if we could establish such a right on the basis of concrete connections, we’d still be left with the more fundamental challenge of whether we have a right to insist on ‘sovereignty’ ahead of our duty of concern for the other. In his speech, Pezzullo speaks of border protection as giving governments the “space” to be “compassionate” towards asylum seekers – phrasing that suggests compassion is somehow one policy option among others rather than a standing moral demand.</p>
<p>He points out that the sheer scale of the global refugee population means no one nation or even group of nations can take on the whole burden themselves. Yet nations already do take on that burden – asylum seekers physically have to be somewhere, after all – so what this really means is that <em>developed</em> nations cannot <em>comfortably</em> take on such burdens. But why simply assume we have a right to be comfortable? What grounds such a right? And just what flows from it?</p>
<h2>Confronting our assumptions</h2>
<p>If our current policy settings are to be believed, almost anything is licensed by our ‘right’ of exclusion, up to and including offshore detention in conditions so horrific it is clearly meant to be a cruel deterrent to anyone who would dare challenge us, not a bureaucratic mechanism for the orderly flow of people across borders.</p>
<p>The spectre of uniformed quasi-police checking papers in the middle of Melbourne rightly disturbed enough of us that it caused an immediate backlash. And while Australia continues to pull its hair out over relatively tiny numbers of “irregular” arrivals, Europe <a href=”http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-24583286″>continues to experience appalling tragedies</a> as it <a href=”http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34108224″>struggles to deal</a> with incoming refugees and migrants.</p>
<p>Both these events confront us with what – if anything – underpins our claimed right of exclusion, even in the face of suffering and death. We should indeed be thinking about borders. We just might not like where that thinking takes us.</p>
<img alt=”The Conversation” height=”1″ src=”https://counter.theconversation.edu.au/content/46926/count.gif” width=”1″ />
<p><span><a href=”http://theconversation.com/profiles/patrick-stokes-10346″>Patrick Stokes</a>, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, <em><a href=”http://theconversation.com/institutions/deakin-university”>Deakin University</a></em></span></p>
<p>This article was originally published on <a href=”http://theconversation.com”>The Conversation</a>. Read the <a href=”https://theconversation.com/bordering-on-contempt-operation-fortitude-and-the-right-to-exclude-46926″>original article</a>.</p>
When I was a student at university doing my undergraduate degree, I worked in retail to support myself. While the job itself was perfect for a uni student trying to work shifts around classes and coursework, every single year when November rolled around, I would start to dread going into work. With the Christmas panic shoppers and the endless carols about snow being played over the sound system when it was 35 degrees outside, every shift brought a new kind of hell. Even now, the scars of working in retail during a Christmas lead-up run so deep that I am known to avoid all shopping centres, supermarkets and chain stores for the duration.
Back then though, it was safe for me to venture out in public and finally grab some groceries come January. Yet as the years rolled on, January started to become a no-go zone for these places as well. You see, back when I left retail in 2002, Australia Day was barely a blip on the national calendar. Certainly, the only thing I associated it with were protests in the Aboriginal community. Just last year, I was incredibly pleased to see Invasion Day protesters in Melbourne interrupting the government-sanctioned Australia Day parade. Yet compared to 14 years ago, you can’t now walk into a supermarket without being confronted by a range of products emblazoned with the Australian flag. You cannot turn on the TV without some bloke barking at you to buy lamb. You cannot go to beach without seeing a group of flag caped-crusaders drinking beer.
This reinforcement of Australia Day as a day of jingoistic pride was, in my view, a product of the Howard years. In his time as Prime Minister, John Howard would frequently reiterate need to show pride in this country while labelling the attempts by Indigenous activists and historians to bring the true nature of colonisation to the public’s attention as being “black armband” views – just focussed on negatives.
It is additionally a hangover from an event nobody in this country should be proud of: the Cronulla Riots.
White Australians donned flags as well as slogans like “we grew here, you flew here” in a show of hostility against Middle Eastern migrant communities. That the reinforcement of “pride” has become a national norm ten years after these riots is incredibly disturbing. That groups such as Reclaim Australia and the United Patriots’ Front are now deemed so acceptable by our country that they are framed as “ordinary mums and dads” is, frankly, terrifying.
As an Arrernte woman though, I’ve digressed. To return to an earlier point, Australia Day has always been Invasion Day to me. It was the day where, as a kid growing up in Canberra, I was most likely to see people calling for land rights.
Indeed, back then the entire concept of “Australia Day” seemed to be on the nose.
The Aboriginal rights movement and talks of a treaty continued to gain momentum and we were mere years away from the Mabo ruling. That Terra Nullius, or ‘land belonging to no one’ was it was declared back in 1770 by the Captain Cook, was found to be a legal fiction in the High Court in 1993 but we still don’t have a treaty should be a national shame. Yet this remains unfinished business and every year, on the 26th of January, Indigenous people are expected to buy into the celebration of this fallacy without complaint.
As a person who takes a strong stance in favour of the negotiation of a treaty, I therefore tend to not be too supportive of the calls of many Aboriginal people and our allies to change the date of Australia Day so it doesn’t commemorate the invasion. In my reckoning, until there is a treaty there will be no other date to celebrate the birth of this nation on. And to be honest, I’ve never really understood why non-Indigenous Australia wouldn’t want the opportunity to start afresh. The 26th of January also commemorates the day some of the poorest and most desperate citizens of Great Britain were dumped on the shore of a land halfway across the world to undertake years of cruel labour as punishment for stealing loaves of bread. The opportunity to commemorate the day we come to the table, as equals, and negotiate the way this country moves forward, would indeed make me proud of this country and our ability to work toward a better future. Until then, I much prefer the idea of Invasion Day remaining a day of Indigenous protest and the assertion of sovereignty.
The answer is also not for white Australia to include more Aboriginal people in Australia Day events. It’s not to get more Aboriginal people to sing the National Anthem in public. It’s not to include a welcome to country ceremony before ignoring what this ceremony means. It’s not to misappropriate our iconography as a way of selling your meat. Doing all this merely erases our history and assimilates our identity.
The answer is for people to engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and find out why so many of us do not consider this a day of celebration.
It’s to come to our events on our terms – lend yourself and your banner-making skills to an Invasion Day protest; see our bands; talk to our elders. Mostly though, it’s to challenge yourself to stop reiterating the mistruths this country was built upon and commit to a better and more equitable future.
I have always been optimistic that in a country which prides itself on the notion of a “fair go for all”, all that I mention is not an impossible dream. I think we owe it to the future generations. But until some hard conversations are held and people start listening, it will unfortunately remain something I am unlikely to witness in my lifetime. And that truly is a reason to mourn.
|People protest against Muslim immigration in Helsinki, Finland, November 14, 2015 [MAURI RATILAINEN] [EPA]|
With rare exception, Muslims appearing on mainstream Western news outlets are asked, in some way, to apologise for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). At a minimum, they are expected to denounce and condemn the terrorist attacks in Paris – but not the one in Beirut the day before, perpetrated by the same terrorists. Some call it a litmus test, but I think it’s more pernicious than that, and it extends from the media, as most things do, into popular consciousness and daily interactions with Muslims.
For example, at a book festival, where I was discussing literature, a woman in the audience asked if I was Muslim. I don’t usually answer questions about my religion because I believe one’s spiritual inclination is a private affair. Because I hesitated, she assumed that I wasn’t, so I reflexively corrected her that I am Muslim, because I’m proud of my religious heritage, even though I resent the question. She followed up – because there’s always a follow up to that non-question prelude – with: “What do you think of what happened in Paris?” And that is not really a question either.
I’ll say here, as I said then, that I do not apologise for ISIL, nor will I answer the endless demands for Muslim individuals to condemn their attacks. The same question isn’t posed to non-Muslims, so I can only assume that I am asked to distance myself from ISIL because the belief is that I am associated with them. It follows then that the person asking the question assumes I am a monster, one who must prove otherwise to avoid being shunned or worse.
Most of the time, at least where mainstream media is concerned, those who grovel and condemn are not believed anyway, because it’s not really a question in the first place. “Do you condemn ISIL?” in any verbal form is an accusation, a linguistic affront delineating “us” and “them”. It is an insult and an offence. And I will not engage with it.
The West, principally the United States, has plundered and laid waste to cities across our planet. They decimated Iraq, apparently for corporate profit. One of the most ancient civilisations on our planet, splendid and magnificent even under a tyrant, now lies in ruins, her sophisticated society dismembered and degraded in unspeakable and still untold ways. The tentacles of Western terrorism have reached to every corner of their nation, every layer of their lives, every moment of their culture and economy. The instability and denigration instigated by Western forces then marched to other Middle Eastern nations, destroying one country after another. The same has been done throughout Africa and Latin America.
But I have never, not even once, seen an Arab, African, or Latin American newscaster demand that a Westerner prove his or her humanity as a precondition for simple conversation. Most public personalities of the world seem to comprehend that doing so would preclude an intellectual and nuanced discourse, yet this fundamental truth seems to elude most mainstream Western journalists and politicians, particularly in the US.
Despite the fact that the West has visited misery across our planet, even the most simple of citizens in the world understand that ordinary US citizens are not to blame, and they seem to always welcome North Americans as visitors, immigrants and workers.
I don’t fully understand why North Americans – as a mainstream collective, but not necessarily as individuals or subgroups – persistently prove to be an exception in this regard; why they seem to be socially or spiritually impervious to the humanity of others; why they remain intellectually immune even to data, like the fact that of the nearly one million refugees who came to the US since it began its wars in the Middle East in the 1990s, not one – really, not a single one – has been involved in terrorism, and therefore the argument that accepting destitute Syrian refugees poses mortal risks is obnoxiously baseless. Or the fact that, according to the FBI, the overwhelming majority of acts of terrorism in the US are committed by white Christian males.
To some extent, I believe the answer is in culture, American exceptionalism, and white privilege – which is not always white. The epitome of white privilege is the ability to be an individual; to never be required to answer for the sins of those who belong to your socioreligious grouping, but to simultaneously share in the glory of its members’ achievements. I use this term to describe a dominant culture, which, although sometimes multiethnic, conforms to white Christian supremacy.
People of the dominant culture – typically white, Christian Americans – rarely read our books, watch our films, or examine our lives in meaningful or nuanced ways. They have little interest in our languages, music, dance, or art, and only a small proportion have ever travelled to our lands as learners or curious fellow humans.
|Demonstrators protest against letting Syrian refugees enter Rhode Island after the terror attacks in Paris [Steven Senne/The Associated Press]|
The sense of American exceptionalism, or supremacy, tends to dampen and even obviate curiosity and, ultimately, empathy. On the other hand, people of colour and people of other nations are voracious consumers of American culture. We watch Hollywood films, read books by and about white American life. We understand Western history and current affairs. We know Western poets, writers, musicians, artists, thinkers, leaders. We cry when they are hurt, celebrate their celebrity joys, and take sides in their battles. We comprehend even the nuance of their regional differences. We see Western white Christian humanity in a way they have never seen ours.
So it does not occur to us to demand that individual white Western Christians apologise for decimating the greatest seats of Arab culture; for instigating and fuelling civil wars throughout the world; for financing and cheering the destruction and erasure of Palestine; for the endless CIA coups of our elected leaders; for the installation of tyrant client regimes; for the theft of resources; for war after war after war; for torture; for drones and for pollution.
In the final analysis, white privilege is not really a privilege, and American exceptionalism is an intellectual anaesthetic. They are barriers to social and spiritual evolution, toxic things that suffocate reason and pollute discourse with frightening ignorance and arrogance, exemplified now by the ceaseless requirement that Arab and Muslim individuals perpetually prove their humanity and justify their lives on demand.
Susan Abulhawa is a Palestinian author. Her latest novel, The Blue Between Sky And Water (Bloomsbury 2015), has sold in 21 languages so far.
She is also the founder of Playgrounds for Palestine.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s
Source: Al Jazeera
As Tony Abbott makes further gains in the polls, and amidst more ‘terror’ raids in Melbourne this week and a violent racist attack on a woman on a train near Batman station, it’s increasingly clear that Islamophobia is seriously on the rise in Australia again.
In recent days, anecdotal evidence is emerging of some Muslim people being afraid to leave their houses and living in fear of attack and abuse when in public places.
As Melburnian Jews, who are currently in the middle of the period of the High Holy Days, we are attending synagogues and community institutions with heightened security concerns. Security guards are posted at the entrances and sermons speak of a community under attack. But while antisemitism is certainly on the rise (particularly in Europe), and not something which is to be ignored, everyday violent forms of antisemitism are not mainstream. The same cannot be currently said for Islamophobia.
You only need to glance at recent covers of the Herald Sun or Daily Telegraph, listen to talkback radio or tune in to a speech by Tony Abbott or Scott Morrison to realise that Islamophobia is so mainstream as to have become part of the norm of our political culture.
Unsurprisingly too, women’s bodies are forming a battleground, as members of the Government and the Palmer United Party pretend that the niqab and burka (which are not the same thing, despite what the ignorant rhetoric might suggest) are both a security threat and a threat to Muslim women’s independence.
As Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak famously put it, this is a reproduction of the well-worn colonial trope of ‘white men saving brown women from brown men’. The structure of the debate reinstates a discourse of embattled whiteness, struggling to control who is considered legitimate and how ‘Others’ should be allowed to fit within the nation.
This discourse is part of a broader history of Australian racism. Indeed, the construction of minorities as ‘Other’ – and as needing to be controlled, reduced or conditionally included – has structured much of Australian history, from the initial moments of colonisation onwards.
Our own history as Jews with family members who came to this country carrying some of the scars of the Holocaust bears this out. Even in the aftermath of the Holocaust, boats coming to Australia from Europe had quotas for how many Jews were allowed on them. Those who came were viewed with suspicion and urged to assimilate.
Today there exists a different international context, as Muslim lives are routinely seen in the West as barely grievable, and often unintelligible. Despite claims by some that antisemitism and Islamophobia are dissimilar, what’s common to both is the racialisation of religious and cultural practices. Also common is the accusation of dual loyalties, the insinuation of an insufficient loyalty to the nation. Difference, in this case religious difference, is made pernicious. Different world-views, traditions, cultures and practices are not seen as an opportunity to learn, but rather as a source of crisis.
Jews and Muslims (and others) in Australia have a common stake in defending the multiculturalism of our society, but we need to be suspicious of a multiculturalism whose primary aim is to shore up the unity of the nation-state.
The statement put out by the Victoria Police Multi-Faith Council seems to have this aim, asking us to “remember the things which have made this state great” and noting that “The security of the Victorian community is everyone’s responsibility.”
This attention to ‘security’ and ‘law and order’, and a foregrounding of the role of the police, does little to construct safety. As we have just been reminded by the ‘counter-terror’ raids and the shooting of Numan Haider, the police and the security state are key to the Government’s creation of fear and division.
An official multiculturalism states: have your difference, but don’t overstep the boundaries, and always remember that we will decide the basis on which to accept and consume your difference.
But how then can we make a real challenge to Islamophobia, and Australian racism more generally?
The left, so accustomed to debating the ‘worthiness’ and ‘genuineness’ and ‘legitimacy’ of asylum seekers coming to Australia over the past 15 years, in the name of anti-racism sometimes simply expounds alternate population management strategies.
At the anti-Islamophobia rally in City Square in Melbourne last Friday, one of the major chants of the rally – ‘Muslims are welcome, racists are not’ – made many uneasy.
Is this to become another moment where the substance of political struggle is a fight over which white people have the ability to ‘welcome’, ‘to decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come’?
We hope that the ‘left’ response to the current wave of Islamophobia is able to exceed the limits of what Ghassan Hage called ‘rituals of white empowerment’: ‘seasonal festivals where White Australians renew the belief in their possession of the power to talk and make decisions about Third World-looking Australians’.
As Mohamad Tabaa has similarly pointed out, much of the rhetoric of tolerance and multiculturalism represents only the flip side of bigotry rather than a challenge to racism’s underlying logic.
The real issues of a multicultural society are buried and distorted by a government and political culture based on fantasies of white domination and control. Multi-ethnic coalitions, built against fear and racism, and rejecting the false homogenising unity of the nation-state, now seem more necessary than ever.
Alternatives to Alternatives: the Black Grrrls Riot Ignored
by Gabby Bess
AUG 3, 2015
Nineties nostalgia has transformed the Riot Grrrl movement from the alternative underground to a mainstream obsession. But just like before, black women are being left out.
NYU’s Riot Grrrl Collection, curated by Lisa Darms, is impressive by almost every measure. Spanning from 1989 to 1996, the archive contains diaryesque zines, documents, and ephemera from the movement, chronicling a huge part of history written by women–girls–that you can sort with your hands. Combing through carefully scanned pages of zines that were passed from teenage girl to teenage girl, documenting their lives as they lived them, feels like reading letters from long lost best friends. Every duh and sk8 brings on a thick wave of nostalgia. But the archive is also notable for a less inspiring reason: Amongst the hundreds of documents is only one issue of one zine that tells the story of one black riot grrrl. There are other zines, like Chop Suey Specs or Bamboo Girl, that critique Riot Grrrl from the perspective of Asian American girls within the scene, but it was striking to search through the listings and find only one zine by one black girl, Ramdasha Bikceem. Riot Grrrl’s Black Friend. Put in that position so often, I knew I had to find her.
Bikceem was introduced to Riot Grrrl after an older friend of hers moved from Bikceem’s home in New Jersey to Olympia, Washington; the friend became roommates with the soon-to-be drummer of Bikini Kill, Tobi Vail, and started mailing zines to Bikceem back east. Living in the New Jersey suburbs, Bikceem was already into punk (the members of the Bouncing Souls went to her school), and she couldn’t help but identify with these missives from the West Coast. “I was into punk music and I wanted to start a band and they were doing all the things I wanted to do,” she said over the phone. “They started to write me letters and then it just evolved into pen pal friendships with people.” Soon after reading zines like Girl Germ and Bikini Kill from her pen pals, she started a zine of her own when she was 15. Initially “just pictures of [her] friends and song lyrics,” GUNK was born.
When our preoccupation with 90s nostalgia aligned with the development of NYU’s Riot Grrrl Collection, a subsequent book of the same name, and a Kathleen Hanna biopic, the most tangible result was the revitalization of the Riot Grrrl movement’s visibility in the press. As it’s remembered, Riot Grrrl–born out a frustration with a society and a music scene that reinforced the idea that, as the “Riot Grrrl Manifesto” says, “Girl=Dumb, Girl=Bad, Girl=Weak”–was the culmination of DIY punk culture and third-wave feminism in the early part of the decade. The myth of Riot Grrrl is often told through first-person accounts from its foremothers (most notably that charismatic Bikini Kill frontwoman) who have to be up for the challenge of defining a fragmentary movement that didn’t really exist in one time or place. But for all the struggling to distill what Riot Grrrl was and remains in the past and present, there’s one thing that can be agreed on: Somewhere among the grafs remembering “revolution grrrl now!” the history of Riot Grrrl is inevitably written as “predominately white,” glossing over the contributions of black women and other women of color.
The typical Riot Grrrl, as outlined in an infamous 1992 Newsweek article that defined the movement for the mainstream, was ‘young, white, suburban and middle class.’
The typical Riot Grrrl, as outlined in an infamous 1992 Newsweek article that defined the movement for the mainstream, was “young, white, suburban and middle class,” and in her intro to The Riot Grrrl Collection, Le Tigre’s Johanna Fateman confirms this descriptor. It wasn’t all white she explains, but “how could girls–drawn from punk’s predominantly white demographic, who relied on that scene’s resources and aesthetics–forge a truly inclusive, revolutionary agenda?”
In contrast to this ironclad narrative of the white Riot Grrrl, black women did participate in the movement. Few and far between, maybe, but they participated nonetheless, and they deserve more than to be swept under a rug of whiteness. What’s more, despite Fateman’s apologetic assertions that punk and the punk aesthetic are white culture, there were black women who imbibed with the spirit of punk in their bones outside the Riot Grrrl movement as well. These women carved their own feminist pathways into the hardcore scene, precisely because they were rendered invisible by the Riot Grrrl movement.
Ramdasha Bikceem’s zine “GUNK” issue number 4
Multiple essays in GUNK attempt to articulate the double burden of being a black girl who has to deal with the white girls in the scene on top of being a girl who has to deal with the white boys who dominated the mosh pits at punk shows. Talking to Bikceem, I felt her frustration at having to be the Black One, both in dealing with racism at the time and in retrospect. At one point during our conversation, she sighed and said, “I just hesitate to talk about Riot Grrrl like this because I become a footnote all the time, for reference.” But Bikceem and GUNK are more than an obligatory example of “diversity in Riot Grrrl.” In her zine Bikceem illustrates the intersection of race and gender in Riot Grrrl so perfectly, as only an angsty teen girl could. An essay titled “I’m Laughing So Hard It Doesn’t Look Like I’m Laughing Anymore” in GUNK #4 distills the politics of being a black grrrl, often only seen as a skin tone:
White kids in general, regardless if they are punk or not, can get away with having green Mohawks and pierced lips ’cause no matter how much they deviated from the norms of society their whiteness always shows through. For instance, I’ll go out somewhere with my friends who all look equally as weird as me, but say we get hassled by the cops for skating or something. That cop is going to remember my face a lot clearer than say one of my white girlfriends. I can just hear him now… ‘Yeah there was this black girl w/pink [sic] hair and two other girls.’
In a later passage, a journal of her experience at the first Riot Grrrl convention in D.C., Bikceem again notes this lack of awareness of intersectionality within the scene:
They had a workshop on racism and I heard it wasn’t too effective, but really how could it have been if it was filled up with mostly all white girls. One girl I spoke to after the meetings said the Asian girls were blaming all the white girls for racism and that she ‘just couldn’t handle that.’ Ever heard of the word Guilt???… The overall experience of the Riot Grrrl convention showed me a lot of different things and I’m sorry to say most of them were not very good ones… Don’t get me wrong I am totally for revolution grrrl now… but maybe it shouldn’t just be limited to white, middle-class, punk rock grrrls ‘cuz there’s no denyin’ [sic] that’s what it is.
It was disheartening to see how few of the stories in the annals of the Riot Grrrl Collection were by black women. The archive importantly preserves an alternative history of secret notes and public zines shared among girls–a narrative that never would have come from the perspective of power. But as I was looking at the history of Riot Grrrl in front of me I was left wondering: Where was the alternative to the alternative?
Sista Grrrl’s Riot in 1998. Courtesy of Honeychild Coleman
In the late 90s, hardcore musician Tamar-kali Brown was surveying the punk scene and wondering the same thing. Eventually she would found Sista Grrrl Riots, a string of one-night blowouts for and by black women who fronted bands or rocked solo. It was one black woman’s alternative to both the male-dominated punk scene and the white-dominated Riot Grrrl.
Tamar-kali Brown, or just Tamar-kali, as she’s been known throughout her decades-long career as a musician, has a Labret piercing and a shoulder’s worth of tattoos; for now, she wears her hair in long braids wrapped up in a scarf. According to her scandalously sparse Wikipedia page, she borrowed the hyphenated part of her name from the Hindu goddess of war and power. Needless to say, she’s very cool. So cool, in fact, that in 2006 she was chosen as the face of Afro-Punk, a documentary on contemporary black musicians in the punk scene. But back in 1997, New York’s black punk and hardcore scene existed in a bubble, without a film, a festival, or a lifestyle blog to bring together the disparate group of musicians that took part in “the other black experience.” Being a black woman in the scene was even more isolating. “I had been in the scene feeling like an island, dealing with all these boys and their penises,” Brown said. “Not personally, but just they way they insert them into life and into the air and the space around you.”
Somewhere among the grafs remembering ‘revolution grrrl now!’ the history of Riot Grrrl is inevitably written as ‘predominately white.’
A self-proclaimed “tough girl,” Brown had always had to deal with boys and their penises. For Brown–a black girl going to school in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, during a time when a 25-year-old black man named Yusef Hawkins was attacked and killed by a mob of up to 40 white kids while walking through the neighborhood–becoming a “tough girl” wasn’t so much of a choice. The crime was so close to home that the sister of Hawkins’s killer attended Brown’s school. Brown became the “tough girl” to prove that she could both hang with the boys and defend herself from them. From there, her taste in music mingled with her attitude. Brown had loved rock music from the moment she stole her dad’s Bad Company T-shirt, but her musical leanings became progressively harder in high school. She shaved her head bald, claimed straightedge, and was careful not portray herself as “fuckable.” Tough girls don’t get fucked–they fuck shit up.
Brown went off to college in 1991. That same year, inklings of Riot Grrrl were cropping up in New York, Olympia, and Washington, D.C., but Brown could only find herself unimpressed with the movement. “I was aligned philosophically in terms of understanding, but I still felt on the out because it was a white-dominate scene,” she said.
“Being in this urban jungle, I was a different type of girl,” she continued. “I was hearing what they were saying, but I was living in an environment where people were getting stabbed. Riot Grrrl felt like a bubblegum expression. I was bald, and I would get a lot of negative attention that bordered on violence, so I wasn’t in the world of [baby voice] ‘You just think I can’t play because I’m a girl!’
“I was just like, ‘I have to survive. I have to defend myself.’ Riot Grrrl felt really playful, and I wasn’t playing,” Brown said, again underscoring the friction between being forced to identify as black before being allowed to identify as a woman.
Where Bikceem, perhaps unknowingly, attempted to transform Riot Grrrl’s discourse on race from within, Brown was unconcerned with what these white girls were doing. If it’s any indication of what type of punk rock girl Brown was, if not a playful one, her favorite zine was Hothead Paisan: Adventures of a Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist.
Brown spent most of the 90s in New York identifying with the boys who were informed by black, alt-rock acts like Fishbone; she was hardly aware of any women like her in the punk scene. She was, indeed, an island, and she was about to become even more so as she thought about quitting the (almost) all-male band she fronted, Song of Seven. When she tried to break from the band, she noticed that “all those kids that dug what we were doing didn’t have interest in a woman as a solo artist, whereas if one of the guys [went solo] they could probably pull the same people.” With a new chip on her shoulder, it was then that she met one of the first black female musicians she could identify with, Honeychild Coleman.
Riot Grrrl felt really playful, and I wasn’t playing.
Coleman grew up as one of the few black girls in her suburban high school in Kentucky–the only black girl amongst her punk outcast friends who listened to Blondie and The Clash-and she had ideas of New York as being full of artists, punks, and weirdos like her after seeing the film The Smithereens. “I just knew that I had to move to New York and find other artists like me,” Coleman told me over coffee. “I knew I couldn’t be the only one. I was tired of being the only one.”
When I sat down to meet her, Coleman was wearing a Blondie shirt and colorful leggings that covered up the Cat in the Hat tattoo on her leg, which anyone who knows her uses as a descriptor. Across the table, I imagined her to be an enlarged version of her as high school student in the mid-80s, sans the Nona Hendrix hair, or even a version of my high school self. A fellow expat of white suburbia, I knew what she meant–what it felt like to always think that your people were nebulously “out there.”
For Coleman, they were. After a stint in art school and then following a boyfriend to California, as one does, she moved to New York City to start her music career in the mid-90s. Describing herself (accurately) as musically somewhere between “PJ Harvey and Björk,” she started playing in the subway and dabbling as a DJ. “I was always doing it on my own,” said Coleman, “but I didn’t know where to go. I didn’t have a scene because I wasn’t a part of the music scene before and I didn’t know how to get in.” Like Brown, she was an island.
Unable to find any women doing what she wanted to do, she quickly fell in with a crew of boys, most notably DJ Olive, the maestro of Brooklyn’s illbient scene who would later collaborate with Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon. Then, fortuitously, Coleman’s roommate brought Brown home for dinner. Upon meeting and finding out that they were both hustling punk musicians, Brown and Coleman were shocked that they had never met before, knowing so many men in bands in common. The two islands in a sea of penises had finally found each other. They quickly became inseparable, often skateboarding around Brooklyn together.
Fate seemed to snowball. The women that Brown had been searching for kept materializing now that she was looking. Soon after meeting Coleman, Brown met Maya Glick, who played “more traditional rock ‘n’ roll
To hear Brown describe first meeting Glick in the audience of one of her shows is like someone describing finding religion–or just another black woman that they could finally relate to. “A good friend of mine had started playing with this sister named Maya,” Brown said. “I remember when I went to go see her, she did a Betty Davis cover. I almost lost my mind because I found out about Betty Davis when I was 19, and this was before she became a thing. When Maya did ‘I. Miller Shoes’ I ran up to the stage and I started banging on the stage and I totally freaked her out. I was losing it. I was just like, ‘Oh my god, she’s so awesome.'”
From there, Brown knew that Honeychild Coleman and Maya Glick had to meet, so she arranged for them both to come to one of Brown’s shows. “But when I get there to load in my stuff for the show, there’s this beautiful girl on stage with a violin playing this haunting song and I’m just transfixed by her. I thought she was an angel. Then she put the violin down and starts playing the guitar! Meanwhile, Honeychild’s at the bar, and she’s just like, ‘That’s my friend Simi [Stone].’ I’m like ‘YOU KNOW HER?’
“After that show we were kicking it and just like, what the fuck,” Brown continued. “We need to start doing shows together on some sista girl shit.”
So they did. On Friday, February 14, 1997, Tamar-kali Brown, Maya Glick, Simi Stone, and Honeychild Coleman threw a fucking riot. For the first time, the four women and their respective bands would put on a night of performances–a Sista Grrrl Riot. Since a riot needs rioters, the four of them excitedly staged a photo shoot and printed an official flyer announcing the bacchanalia, according to Brown. “The first one was crazy,” Brown said of the flyer. “It was a lipstick heart with our silhouettes in it, like Charlie’s Angels, and we had weapons. I brought my father’s machetes and BB guns for our shoot.” But unlike the flyer’s silhouetted BB guns and machetes would suggest, the riot’s real ammunitions were electric violins, bass guitars, and the raging voices of women who were lifelong punk outsiders. On this momentous night at Brownies, a now-defunct rock club on Avenue A, these four women had found their place, playing to a packed crowd who could finally see versions of themselves onstage.
If you bore passing witness to this night, you might have casually referred to Brown, Glick, Stone, and Coleman as Riot Grrrls, if you didn’t know any better. They were girls. They were angry. They were tired of playing shitty gigs and taking a backseat to the boys. But these women would scoff at the thought of designating themselves “Riot Grrrls,” or just plain correct you. “You had Riot Grrrl,” Brown explained, “and this was a Sista Grrrl’s Riot.” That distinction was crucial.
Flyer for the first Sista Grrrls Riot. Courtesy of Honeychild Coleman
when I sat down to talk with the co-president of the Black Rock Coalition, LaRonda Davis, she reiterated the importance of sheer visibility, not just for black women in punk music, but for black women, period. “I never looked at a magazine and thought that that was what I was supposed to look like,” Davis said. “On one hand, it’s actually kind of liberating to not be what this standard of womanhood is. That standard put a lot of women in boxes, and they spend their li[ves] trying to get out of the box. Black women were never allowed in the box. I wasn’t looking at TV saying, ‘Oh, that represents me.’ I wasn’t listening to music telling about my experience. I had experiences that told me I wasn’t concerned with these things that the happy songs were about.”
On one hand, it’s actually kind of liberating to not be what this standard of womanhood is, Davis said. That standard put a lot of women in boxes. Black women were never allowed in the box.
The Riot Grrrl box may have been decidedly off-limits in the eyes of Brown and other black women who couldn’t see themselves in the movement, but as Davis points out, these women shirked boxes, created their own wave, and reclaimed rock for black women. After all, rock music is black music. While the Sista Grrrls didn’t see themselves in Riot Grrrl or in the men they had been playing with in bands, they saw themselves in each other. “I got what Riot Grrrl was about. I didn’t think it was exclusive, but it didn’t feel inclusive to me,” said Brown. “I didn’t see myself or my story, and so that’s why Sista Grrrl came about later on–out of other women of color that I knew who were punk rock and navigated that scene and had similar feelings about it. Sista Grrrl was my response to Riot Grrrl because it just felt super white.”
After that first riot in 1997, Brown, Coleman, Stone, and Glick and their bevy of bands threw riots every couple of months, bringing out other female musicians as openers, making it one big grrrl party, inclusive of all women of color who needed a stage. The Slits’s Ari Up even opened one of the riots as a Sista Grrrl ally.
Brown attributes the rapt attendance at the riots to the fact that her “breasts used to fly out all the time”–unfortunately, Brown notes, some men were only there for the spectacle–but Coleman isn’t so glib about the impact the Sista Grrrl Riots had. “The thing that was really kind of heartbreaking and awesome was that none of us had ever played to so many black people in one room in our lives until we threw that first riot,” said Coleman. That night, they could just play music, for once. As women, as black women, and, most of all, as unapologetic punk rock musicians. “Wow,” Coleman remembered thinking as she stared out into the crowd, “This is a whole different game.”