the fog of comfort

My feature image is of a snowy foggy morning in Noongarabal country. The fog and snow prevented planes from landing and blocked roads, and provides an easy (cheesy) metaphor for the white-out blanketting over black country that is daily life in Australia.

Bits of me are still in the north, the high north of cold and frost and crisp blue skies and mountains that always look black in the distance. The country that calls itself “Celtic”; where even the koories are rangas, and a Kamilaroi guy incorporates bagpipes into his Welcome to Country during “Celtic Week”.

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This is the weirdness where I was raised, and I have not recovered, can not recover, and the only thing that makes any sense of this crazed cross cultural tangle are Homi Bhabha’s words on diasporic cosmopolitanism.

I spent 2 weeks in July sifting through, sorting, packing, sending and shredding my childhood home. I tossed my dead brother’s clothes, and kept his Aboriginal flag t-shirt. His smell has gone, but the greasy damp of young man met my skin when I held it to my face. So many tears, which reads like tears like the tearing of fabric. There was a lot of fabric. a lot of books. A lot of paper. a lot of tears. It was NAIDOC week, so the Noongarabal neighbours were busy, and I didn’t get any time to stop and chat to the Uncle over the back fence, and spent more time growling and yelling at the dogs each time they came into the yard (to kill and hunt birds, because this is a KUJO canine culture). I don’t have any words I can wrap around this immense experience. I soak in salty Boonwarrung waters, and feed on the pale and fleeting Kulin nation sun, that ripens my indoor tomato plants, and feeds my straggling window box herbs, and warms the cat and my doona where I slowly sleepily snuggle my way into the day before the clouds come over and the wind rises again.

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I am finding my feet, finding my place in my new home, where my Mum and half a tonne of my childhood now nestle, each packed into differently discomforting boxes. Last week I made tracks to my familiar psychic homes in Melbourne. I nestled in my coats and bags at Hares & Hyenas, surrounded by friends at a poetry reading by Ellen Van Neerven.  A friend lent me a book of her short stories, after I heard another friend read it. The song of her words sings loudest around water, liminal spaces of flesh and salt, and these notes permeate and pierce and duck through her sweet and sexy lingerings on food and taste and flesh and feeling. Watching her stand and read, from Comfort Food, clutching her stomach; her spunky dyke demeanour opening up to hold her as a body speaking words from and with and around bodies. Her words swim across the liminal spaces of Aboriginality/non Aboriginality, soaking the reader/listener in the eddies of ever present identity/hope/trauma/desire/memory. Racial difference saturates every day spaces in a racist society; racially privileged people don’t sense it acutely because it feels like comfort, and privilege is a comfort; albeit a foggy one. The work of fine words is to cut through this fog and touch; touch between the bodies and experiences that are separated by racialisation.

My second night out in my new home involved me playing my activist/academic/artist role at the Abbotsford Convent. Although my daily life is more like a creatively blocked slactivist third rate teacher scrabbling on the edges of the higher education industry, the Doctor Mayhem identity enabled me to bring a group of activist artists together to discuss our work across borders. Speakers came from Writing Through Fences, RISE and MAFA, and we started with an acknowledgement of our visiting status on stolen Wurundjeri land in 5 languages. I am acutely aware of what happens when white academics do solidarity work with marginalised communities. When I try to take the voices and experiences of my friends into the spaces of academia (conferences, publications), I hope to change and reconfigure those spaces; to make them more porous; but so easily the spaces reconfigure me as an ‘expert’, a cipher, a representative of and substitute for those other bodies and voices, whose presence is more discomforting and challenging, and whose invisibility and silence is so ghastily  familiar. (Right now I am fighting not to riff off on the onomatopoia of my neologism of ghastily comfort with Castilly rock from Game Of Thrones and I’m not quite succeeding).

Back to the convent, which has been thankfully purged of the stench of wonderwax, but still retains something of catholic bodily trauma. Each of the speakers was placed alongside each other at a black dais with a microphone. We were facing out to the audience, not to each other. Before the sound check we huddled, knees to knees, muttering how to sit so we could grab/kick/tickle each other under the table during the talk. My role was as facilitator. I let the speakers continue well past the allotted 40 minutes, because I want them to speak and be heard. I want the spaces between languages, the spaces between horror and pain and words to be audible. Audible space, that is heard and seen by the palpable silence of listening. What a wonderful audience we had. I asked if a kaleidscope was an appropriate metaphor for the experience of creative work between asylum seekers and non asylum seekers. Azizeh translated my concept of Kaleidoscope for Arad, and then poetically spoke of how “art collides my background with my new experiences”.  Janet had tears in her eyes wrapping words around the image of a Kaleidoscope, fracturing and not quite reforming and retained the shards of fractured mirroring that still cut and hurt. She spoke of the cartoonist Eaten Fish, rotting and dying in offshore detention, and the campaign to have him released. Arad spoke of the distance between pain (so very big) and art (so very small).  Somehow pain and frustration and beauty and hope were held and shared. Someone said that ‘this seemed more like a conversation occurring on a couch than a formal panel.’ This was the best thing I could have heard. Afterwards we strolled into the night up to a pub where my first friend in detention, the first young man who silently sad in his hoodie as we did charcoal ‘draw off” to pictures from a Rembrandt book, now tied his wild (what do you call an Iranian afro) long locks back as he jubilantly cooked us eggplant chips and pizza and his girlfriend served us olives and showed us images of her winning piece in the Dandenong art prize.

I have spend over a thousand words dancing around the problem that made me opening up my laptop and logging into my blog instead of facebook. I wanted to evoke comfort, and the importance of comfort, and the critical role I see for myself in facilitating comfort so that marginalised voices can be heard and marginalised silences can be present. As a teacher, I believe my first commitment is in developing the classroom as an emotionally safe space, and cultivating an experience of trust and safety so that students can feel supported enough to encounter and sense what they don’t know or cannot understand with enough of an open mind so they can accept it.

Yesterday I was reminded of the limits of this comfort model of learning, and specifically how the comfort of some is predicated on the discomfort of others. My particular discomfort involves a hot flush of shame as I think about it right now. I am assuming that readers are familiar with the term of ‘microaggressions’. My friends of colour use it in relation to the everyday banalities of racialised encounters, such as being asked ‘where are you from’ by people who interpret their brown skin as a signifier of ‘other’ which evokes some weirdo whitey atavistic reflex of ‘me, whitey, must interrogate browney, must get information onto genetic origins’. Odd.

I came across a new term last night called “microvalidation”. It was on a blog post about critical race relationships, which also evoked a rather clunky metaphor about the white fog, being on some kind of tripartite spectrum of racial enlightenment. the spectrum wasn’t great for all sorts of reasons, but the term “microvalidation” is perfectly apt for the small behaviours that smooth over discomforts and reinforce racially charged spaces as being white dominated, or, you know… BEIGE.

My own microvalidation mishap was pointed out to me by a colleague yesterday. We were at a training day discussing the formal instructions for performing the emotional labour that precarious academics marginalised by gender, class, colour and sexuality do as a condition for our survival and that of our kind in the academy. I think some people call it ‘pastoral care’, which is a bit of an ick term. I like that the university is acknowledging and renumerating this work: contacting students, checking in with them, referring them to other organisations and agencies that can help, etc. etc. Anyway, I was in conversation with a new colleague teaching in a new subject with me from next week. After a few minutes I realised that they were A) a cis gendered straight man-person and B) they were mis-gendering our subject coordinator, not referring to someone else with the same name. Me, being the walking Doctor Doona, gently asked why the use of the unusual pronoun, to which he replied ‘oh, yeah, I’m still getting used to this’. And me, being the sitting Doctor Doona, automatically went into soothing, microvalidating mode,  “oh, yes, I did that once when I hadn’t seen them for 9 months too……….” until my other colleague said WTF. WTF!!!! and reminded me of how acutely non ok it was that two cis-gendered people were microvalidating our gendering mishaps around an absent trans* colleague. Doctor doona with foot in mouth disease. Paradoxically, Cisboy and I are teaching a subject called Rethinking Our Humanity, so our mishap has fairly significant ramifications.

It was a shock reminder of automatic tendencies to cajole and soothe and comfort cis-men, and of how I forget of the spaces that are created when my cis-gendered body does this. Despite my dandified dalliances, my body is not genderqueer and I have never experienced being hailed or questioned as any gender other than what I feel and intend to be at any given moment. Never. This means that I can do ‘lady’ in those weirdly feminised office workspaces where hegemonic henhood reigns, and that aside from the most virulent misogynists (like art historians), most cismen happily sense me as a vaguely ornamental (ie queer) mirror for their own clever complacency manifested by mansplaining, which I then vague out and forget to call them out on.Afraid to Talk to men

I have many friends who have not experienced the comfort of genderbeige. Many female friends who were chased out of ladies toilets as children, and continue to receive askew glances, and many male friends chased out of feminised spaces where they felt comfortable into the hard world of hegemonic masculinity. Chris Fleming hilariously portrays the latter in this video. There are numerous other permutations of gender discomfort (like friends of colour being relentlessly sexualised) , and this is not even touching the edges of what trans* people experience relentlessly on a daily experience; from personal microaggressions to major institutional macroaggressions, hammered to the underlying drumbeat of the threat of personal violence and psychic annhilation. Making a classroom safe, means creating a space where this drumbeat of annhilation is muffled, or silenced (if only it could be stopped – even for a moment) especially that trans* students may experience a space of safety, and be able to, you know… not drop out of university, and to be able to survive and create knowledge that enables not only other trans* folk to survive, but for gender to be reconfigured in a less fucked way for everyone. To my knowledge I have not succeeded in doing this. Despite all of my good intentions, and following the rulebook of pastoral care and support and referral for students at risk, my out trans* students have left the university. I am wondering if I need to address my classroom strategies. I am wondering if and how I should challenge Doctor Doona and the security of the comfort model of classroom learning. Ok. I am doing more than wondering. I am also asking, and scheduling spaces where myself and my colleagues can work out how to get this right. The university is still absolutely shit on LGBTIQ support. Universities can barely get past misogyny 101, so this should be unsurprising, but it is still a shock, when the only referral agencies are to “LGBTIQ allies” (I imagine hetty faghags with rainbow stickers on their workstations, or white corporate gaystreamers in some locked office somewhere). Why am I so cynical? I am at the institution that tried to sack a LGBTIQ public intellectual because of the work they do in trying to make education safe for queers. The LGBTIQ academics I know are precarious, threatened, overworked, brilliant passionate people, who exist in such liminal spaces in the academy and who are still learning, still failing, still trying to work out a way that we can survive, and people who do not look or act like the besuited university management can survive long enough to access some of the treasures of critical inquiry and knowledge formation. Like writing.

Someone asked why I continue to ‘worry’ about my internalised racism, my internalised transphobia, and my internalised misogyny etc. I have a lot more to worry about because I enjoy the privilege of knowing many people who are marginalised by dominant racialised and gendered order and who trust me enough to tell me about it. Bearing witness to the suffering of my friends means that I cannot feel complacent about this stuff ever. Bearing witness means that I am always scrabbling at the doors, trying to wedge them open, trying to wrest language and people and bodies into configurations that are less horrific than the ghastly familiarity of what we know.

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