So every year about this time – I find myself having this discussion about costumes, and appropriation. It runs from now til after the Christmas and New Years parades are all done. It gets messy. I often get told that I’m over-reacting and that costumes are innocent (particulary when we are talking about children’s costumes). It’s draining – but for the reasons outlined below, for me, it is so important. I’ve outlined the facts in many previous blogs, how it impacts on identity, how it is linked to sexual violence against Indigenous Women, and although many appreciate the issue of MMIW (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women – probably the saddest acronym there is) – there seems to be a disconnect when it comes to how they relate. I’ve run out of ways to make that connection – and all I have left is my own story. Warning – this deals with issues of sexual assault. I share it with hope that it will help – just as other brave women who have shared their stories have helped me. Mauri ora.
I think I was probably about 14 when I first felt racism and sexism at the same time.
You see this was Australia in the 80s. Pre-Mabo.
You stepped on a square of concrete and it had “black germs” for the rest of that day. You walked onto a balcony and the other children would scream and run off, apparently to escape those same “black germs”.
Those were the younger years.
But now I was 14, it was the late-80s, and things started to change slightly. One of the boys who had been particularly cruel in the earlier years had changed his tune somewhat, and one lunchtime, as I walked past their table, he declared to all in earshot that he intended to make “cute black babies” with me.
This memory has stuck with me so clearly, because it signaled a shift in my experience of racism. I had been attacked before in many ways but this was the first time I became conscious of a peer, of my own age, declaring his entitlement to my body, based on my race. Not even my skin colour because truth be told I’m not that dark in skintone but all that mattered here was that I wasn’t “white”.
Here’s the twist: I was bothered, yes, but I was also weirdly relieved.
Because THIS – I recognised.
I recognised it because I’d already been sexually assaulted from the age of about 5, and from that very young age I’d already started to make mis-associations between these expressions of entitlement to my body and admiration, even love.
I didn’t, at the time, realise that there were so many other girls out there, like me, who had also been sexually assaulted, and that in fact being Indigenous in racist lands made you more of a target because, in the predator’s mind:
– You are less likely to report it
– You are more likely to “want” it
– You are less likely to be listened to
– You are less likely to be believed
– You are less likely to have your complaint actioned
Which all adds up to you being a very attractive target.
So I didn’t know that there was this ocean of girls experiencing this process alongside me, each in our silence. And it took me a long time to process this, it’s been a long path and that path included costly lessons. Lessons about the difference between sexual liberation, and sexual oppression. This path, and my life experience, also taught me that violence could be excused, and that it was ok to place yourself in the path of danger again and again, because violence was a form of passion and that was a kind of love. This twisted reasoning around love, violence and sexuality led to some very dark places. Places where my body paid prices. Permanent prices. My abdomen is so full of internal scarring that if you touch my belly button now, I feel it about two inches deeper, and lower, about where my uterus used to be.
And this became a kind of self perpetuating cycle where someone saw me as an object and treated me as such – a fad that could be picked up and played with. An Indigenous adornment that could be worn then tossed, and I internalised that, I validated it within my mind as just “how the world was”. I wore my hair in braids, as my Nannies had before me, and I was called “Poke-a-ho” which of course shamed me away from wearing my hair like that. I didn’t see this as a pervasive system back then, though – I just saw it as “how the world was”, that blonde girls could wear braids but I couldn’t without being labelled an Indigenous whore, and this is just how the world was. Tiki lounge “luau” parties featuring “exotic south sea maidens” was just a way for people to have fun. When your world is saturated with these messages, the unjust becomes very normalised.
I also didn’t know that this was a uniquely Indigenous experience of sexism. I didn’t have anyone who could sit me down and say “Listen Honey, there will be men in this world that will treat your descent from Hine as if it’s a piece of tacky lingerie – they won’t even know they’re doing it, and it will be all over television and in your workplace and in the costumes people wear and the language they use and the choices they make – it’ll be in your face every damn day”. White women couldn’t unpick that for me – their experience of sexism was different and didn’t include having their own inherited sacredness robbed by colonizers, and in any case it’s largely white women wearing Indigenous Women as a fun costume, imitating us with their casual accessories, or donning us as a sexualised cosplay.
No, it took Indigenous women to unpick that for me, and with me. Women who carried my scars, my experience, my pain and my commitment to survive. It took Indigenous Women who had walked this path, and reflected on it, to help me view the myriad of ways in which these outcomes are predetermined, right from childhood, and to understand clearly how an innocent child can innocently wear a harmful costume – and it can still do harm.
(an incredibly powerful testimony by Holyelk Lafferty)
Because those children communicate to all the other children around them, that culture can be explored through casually wearing it. By wearing it in this way, they give permission to separate the costume from the bodies, souls, beliefs and lives that it belongs to, and that this, in some way, honours the people. They grow up with a sense of entitlement to another people’s appearance that is rooted in colonial mindsets, and cultivated in a context of rape culture, and it creates more work for me, and for my sisters, to unpick these ideas before they do harm. Before they get a job in media, or social services, or the police force. Before they become the boy taking our daughters out on a date. Before they casually declare that they want to impregnate our mokopuna so she can make him some “cute black babies”.
And it took Indigenous Women because we are the ones who live the specific intersection of sexism AND rape culture AND racism every day. At the hands of white men, but also at the hands of white feminism, and also at the hands of Indigenous brothers. I am numb to white male oppression, I am weary of white feminist oppression, but I am very much still pained by the patriarchal oppression visited upon us by our brothers, and on behalf of our brothers. The internalising of patriarchal power norms must be addressed, NOBODY can assume they are exempt, and it can only happen through allowing this discussion – this messy, painful, sensitive discussion – to take place.
I really want to celebrate our brothers who are engaging in this discussion with each other and are actively seeking to deconstruct their own patriarchal inheritance as a pathway to decolonization.
The deconstruction of the cisheteropatriarchy and its specific impacts/influences for each of us is vital in our decolonization journey.
And sisters. Speak. Defend your sacred. Refuse to be silenced by those who say that costumes don’t matter. Your sacredness matters. Your body matters. Don’t let anyone tell you different. To all of my Indigenous sisters that have helped me along this path of learning, who have bravely shared their pain and journeys – from the bottom of my heart, I thank you. You helped me move from a space of “this is just how the world is” to see not just how it could be, but how it SHOULD be – and from that grew my commitment to making it so for my daughters, and mokopuna.
And to everyone…
Please, please don’t wear us as a costume.