Decolonization and Alienation: Why I Find My Peers’ Politics Unrelatable
A friend on Tumblr, of South Asian descent who’s spent time in Europe and who’s pretty vocal about both fandom and politics, recently made a short comment about how the discussions of race representation in Harry Potter reminded her too much of her qualms with the discourse around decolonization — originally a means of solidarity with Indigenous peoples whose lands were occupied by Colonial forces, and now expanded to reflect all kinds of efforts of reclaiming local heritage and culture. To her, decolonization politics seemed like it wanted to uphold a “correct” or “ideal” way of being a particular race, and she felt that it didn’t really represent or support people like her who straddle cultural borders and who may actually find their Westernization liberating. (I haven’t linked her post here because I’m not sure how she feels about being linked outside of Tumblr; this post is a reworking of my reply to her & some others.)
I really appreciated her comment, as another South Asian currently based in Asia who “fails” everyone’s race expectations and who finds some comfort in “Westernization”. I am surrounded by rhetoric about decolonizing everything from yoga to architecture to diets to anti-racism itself— and yet so much of it feels inaccessible to me.
Decolonization politics are huge within a large chunk of my social circles — much of whom are Western-born-and/or-raised queer/women/of color social justice activists and allies. They constantly talk about how if we could decolonize ourselves and go back to our “homeland” culture then we’ll be better off, or something. About how it was colonization that oppressed LGTBQoC and if we can decolonize our queerness we can go back to our ancestral genders and sexualities. Ancestral everything. Reclaiming culture, reclaiming heritage, reclaiming home.
As someone who was born and raised closer to these fabled “homelands”, and who has just returned after 10 years abroad I seem to be Living the Dream. I’ve returned to homeland! I get to be in touch with my culture! The country I’m in defeated colonization! So clearly I should be completely on board with decolonization politics!
Instead, I can’t relate. Instead, I find that much of decolonization politics really weirds me out.
Sometimes efforts at decolonization come off as exotifying or romanticizing the homeland, or reducing it to particular unrepresentative facets. For instance, South Asia often just gets reduced to a particular cultural area of India that’s Hindu-centric and I think also limited to a particular caste. I once pointed out to a friend — a very well-respected QWOC writer and activist who is part South Asian — that while she meant well when she talked about how our South Asian ancestors would practice yoga every morning and thus we have a deeper connection to yoga than other cultures, it was also erasing South Asian Muslims, Christians, and other faith groups who have been around for centuries and who wouldn’t have yoga as their daily practice because it’s a Hindu thing. (Meanwhile people are shocked when they find out that my first time trying out yoga was at college in Australia because they offered free classes.)
Then there’s the fawning over traditional outfits, the racebends that always go back to a historical version of a particular culture (rather than anything contemporary), the constant efforts to “reclaim the bindi” and “we’re beautiful in our culture!”. Over here barely any fashion store in Malaysia carries my size (inflated from M in the West to XXL at least because I am busty), I get parsed as a man walking around my parents’ Bangladesh because I’m wearing a shirt/tunic & jeans rather than a salwhar khameez, people accost me with skin-lightening products all the time, and bindis have become so commercialized that people here aren’t that worried about appropriation. I am more likely to see someone that looks like me being represented as beautiful in the West than I ever would over here. Hell, I had a TV presenting gig in Australia — that would have never happened here in Malaysia, I’m too “dark-skinned” for TV, even though those were my words that their light-skinned VJs were reading off the teleprompter when I worked at a major music TV channel in KL some time ago.
Sometimes this shows up when my decolonial activist friends come to the homelands to visit or to move permanently. Maybe they’re planning to do so, especially when their current town has become too expensive and isolating. They speak about the homeland in such loving dulcet tones, marveling at how easy the food nourishes their soul, how everyone looks just like them, how they feel at peace because they are back to where their ancestors were. They’re home.
And here I am, guaranteed indigestion when I eat anything in Dhaka and too scared to venture alone into Malaysian restaurants that serve pork because while I don’t care the authorities do and they may give me a hard time for not eating according to my Identity Card. My first “where are you from?” and “what are you?” and “go back to your country!” were not in Brisbane or the Bay Area but in Johor Bahru. I only became a citizen of my birth country on my 26th birthday; all this while I’d been carrying the passport of a country I was supposed to represent and whose assumptions determined everything about the way I was treated, but which I barely knew.
Must be nice to find home. Home’s a place that I have never known. I’d gladly swap places with them, take up their spot in San Francisco or Toronto or wherever, being able to eat whatever I want wherever I want, talk about who I am more than what I am. Their home felt more like home to me than mine ever did.
I run with a lot of witchy-woo-inclined people, including a lot of QPOC magick practitioners & Pagans, and I really don’t get the whole ancestral worship thing a lot of them seem to base their entire spiritual practice around. Any spiritual advice is often peppered with “ask your ancestors! They will guide you! Tap into your ancestral wisdom!”. There are lots of efforts to research and revive spiritual traditions from countries of ancestry, a greater push towards following your ancestors’ spiritual path rather than the Christianity of the colonizers.
That’s not going to fly with my ancestors — they were Muslims for centuries, they wouldn’t have been down for me incorporating them into whatever witchy woo spirituality I have! If I asked them for advice they’d just tell me to go read the Quran and get away from shaitaan or something. (Which is totally valid, but is not where my spirituality lies.)
Even if I wasn’t really asking them for deity advice, they probably would think I’m some weird fruit in the family tree. They may love me like my relatives currently do, but they may also not know what to do with me — just like how my relatives often find me “interesting” but a little hard to relate to sometimes.
I could try tapping into some kind of Hinduism, but I’d have to go all the way back to pre-7th-century, pre the arrival of Arab traders: my family has enough trouble trying to trace back one or two generations ago. Instead, I find more connection with tech witchcraft and pop culture paganism, using contemporary culture and society to build my spirituality — even if much of it is created in and by colonizer countries.
My soul seeks the future more than it yearns for the past.
There’s people like us, like me and the friend who inspired this post, people who are way more comfortable being “Westernized” despite being born and raised in the “homeland”. (At least I have the excuse of being born and raised as a child of immigrants, but the cultures of my parents and of my birthplace were way more similar than say Asian vs Western.) Local media and culture had no space for me, if anything they kept saying someone of my race and sexuality and interests were “wrong” and “evil” and “the tool of the oppressors”. I was already deemed a Westerner before I ever had any say — why not explore and embrace it?
It was through exploring Western culture — in person, through media, getting to know people — that I found more representations of people like me, people who would accept me, people whose experiences I can relate to. Unlike the stories we had to read and write for Malay Literature classes, where at the end the protagonists either die from cancer or repent and return to Islam, the media I encountered from abroad didn’t always shame me so hard for being who I am. If anything, they actually reflected me better than any excuse for a mirror I could find around here.
Has all of Western culture been so relatable? Not at all. Are there plenty of examples of people like me being poorly represented in Western media? Definitely. Are there positive portrayals of people like me in local culture? Probably —but they’re hard to find, mostly because the authorities here have very strict ideas of what sort of culture one can consume without being a thread to national security. At least Westwards there are way more choices —including choices from writers and artists and performers and creators who come from similar cultures to mine but are based elsewhere, maybe knowing how hard it can be to get away with what they make back here.
A common topic with my decolonialist friends is sexuality and gender: there are plenty of discussions about how homophobia or transphobia are colonial inventions, how there was greater diversity in queerness and transness before the British came along and destroyed everything, about holdover laws such as Section 377. Decolonize and we can take back our gender expression, our sexual orientation, ourselves!
Yet what these activists seem to fail to realize is that if they ever came here, to their “homelands”, and tried to “decolonize sexuality and gender”, they would immediately be seen as colonists. Why? Because right now our “homeland” society is being told that anything outside the dominant heterosexual cispatriarchy is an agent of colonization. Our government thinks we are part of “extremist and liberal groups”, equating LGBTQ people with ISIS, and says that universal human rights are not for Muslim countries like Malaysia. To decolonize, in the eyes of the people that run this country (and the people that support them, which are many), is to eradicate LGBTQ people altogether, because we’re clearly just a Western colonial invention.
And it’s not just about being queer or trans. Being a feminist, being an activist, being an artist, being an apostate, being a convert to the wrong religion, being a journalist, being young, being vocal — that all makes you A Tool Of Foreign Zionist Agents and next thing you know the State has sponsored a musical warning people about you.
Decolonization activists in the West, including people of my acquaintance, are obsessed about hijabi rights in the West, but do fuck-all for their sisters fighting back against Islamic oppressors in power where were are. They want to decolonize gender and sexuality but complain about the use of “third gender” and “the transgenders” by people in those communities in non-English-dominant countries, because we’re somehow enabling improper language. They speak about ancestor worship and going back to your cultural roots but don’t help people who are facing dire threats to their lives because they want to change or drop faith openly for any reason. They want to decolonize relationships, but I never exactly saw queers of color lining up around the block to date me, probably because I still ping as too normal to be queer (despite being the queerest thing in town around here).
And yet if we say we’re more comfortable being “Western”, if we feel that there is more space for someone like us in the West than in the East, if we point out that when they come to our side of the world their Western-ness never really leaves them and they’ll be seen as more “white” than they want to admit, suddenly we’re the colonized ones. Hell, even just not caring that much about what a Westerner does is suddenly suspect: I once had a WOC non-South-Asian burlesque performer tell me that I was somehow complicit in the subjugation of South Asians because I didn’t think it was a huge deal that Dita von Teese was wearing a sari in India made by an Indian for a major Indian event and objected to all the non-South-Asians white-knighting supposedly on our behalf.
If you don’t fit into the US-centric racial discourse, if you have any questions or qualms about any tactic or strategy, if you find your perspective on anti-racism to be subtly different than the norm, you are colonized. Decolonize your brain. Decolonize yourself. Decolonize the Western Activist way.
Hmm, maybe the decolonization activists need to look at how colonial their approaches really are.
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