I have a sensational circle of friends, colleagues and acquaintances.
Many of them, if they’re not winning accolades for their artwork in internationally recognised forums or being cast in high-profile film, television and theatre productions, are building hugely effective grassroots movements for change, or fighting tooth and nail in the legal system for the underprivileged. They’re PhD candidates, doctors who put their lives on hold to do research, or fly out to work in areas that jeopardise their safety. They’re entrepreneurs working on the coalface of their industries, creating magnificent small exchanges that make people’s lives better moment-to-moment. They’re authors whose work gives my week breath. They’re poets, lecturers, meditation teachers, chefs and astoundingly good journalists.
Yes, I’m one of the very lucky few who lives with the privilege of safety, sanitation, nourishment, education, social equality and free speech. This is something that I exist with an acute daily awareness of. I have the freedom and ability to enquire. To criticise. To ask for change. To demand a more rigorous democratic system. To decry the lack of social and government attendance to those less privileged than myself and my rare little circle of inner-city operators.
For many years, I have taken it as my key responsibility and burden to stand up and howl for such change. In fact, I have felt that to do so is of more urgent priority than engaging with my own work. I have not made it my life’s work deliberately. Full-time activism is not something that I have chosen vocationally — I’ve just sort of… felt obliged to put it before anything else.
You see, just as much as I live with the gift of privilege in our society (I speak the dominant language, I am able-bodied, do not suffer from mental disability nor mental illness, my social behaviours conform with the dominant culture, I am cis-gendered, educated, fed and live in a heterosexual relationship), I am also a person who is identified by the mainstream majority as “other”. That is, I am a woman and a person of colour. (I also don’t follow a football team which in Melbourne, Australia is possibly the greatest cause for social ostracisation, but that’s another difficult matter altogether.) In fact, I am a woman of colour building a career in a heavily white, male-dominated industry. Heavily.
For many years, I’ve felt it my responsibility to be not just a voice, but in many ways a mouthpiece of blanket activism for the representation of people of colour, people of cultural and linguistic diversity, women, and then to a certain extent — all those groups who are otherwise similarly marginalised by the mainstream. Because of the very fact of my privilege, I’ve taken on the role of speaking out, of being a go-to girl, of being someone who will take the social and professional fall in the face of a workplace devoid of political awareness or activism.
To be clear, my arm hasn’t been twisted the entire way. Most of the time, I’ve been a willing participant in the articles I’ve written, the speeches I’ve given, the panels upon which I’ve sat, the meetings I’ve held or attended.
But a few years ago following burnout, I quit it all. I ran away and chose a different profession. One away from the spotlight; from the arts entirely. I tried to escape formal activism in my industry, or at least the bearing weight of responsibility and brutality of the fight that I felt up against every day.
A yearning to make art again slowly over the course of several years drew me back to a renewed and re-focussed practice. One with less of an emphasis on the fight, and a greater emphasis on the work. However, disconcertingly I’d found that the issues of discrimination, marginalisation and lack of representation hadn’t really shifted from when I’d left off. In fact, in many ways it had gotten worse. There was more lip-service paid, but greater fear and more hard feelings, too.
And of course, I was slowly drawn back into the fray. Trying at every step to keep an arm’s length from the heat of the fire. Allowing other younger, more energised voices to do the heavy lifting. But the guilt crept in. I should be “representing” again, shouldn’t I? In order to earn my place in this ecosystem, I needed to put myself out there on the front line, to protect other, more vulnerable, less vocal candidates from suffering disadvantages to their careers. I shouldn’t take my privilege for granted. I was used to the slings and arrows. Why not just slip back into my default combats, because that is what people now knowing I was back were already asking of me?
I have watched while many of my white friends have zoomed ahead in their careers, and now wonder whether it isn’t just because they have had the privilege of being “white” in a world where that social identity is preferred, but also because they don’t need to take the time or energy to engage in activism on behalf of a group that arbitrarily they have been associated with. And perhaps also because they aren’t professionally sidelined for not only being different, but for being different and vocal, and therefore “difficult”.
This isn’t a scientific analysis by any stretch, but there does appear to be some common-sense correlation between the time and energy one takes to speak out (in my case, quite a bit) necessarily negating the time and energy left to invest in one’s own, non-activist work.
Every time I participate in a movement, a project, an artwork, a campaign, a discussion, an interview on the subject of race, identity, representation, gender, I am not actually investing in my practice — the projects I am working on, trying to get up; my work as an actor or as a director or writer. There are of course some exceptions where the two meet nicely, but on the whole I am not particularly concerned with making art about identity issues and their attendant compatriots. I just want to make halfway decent films and be a halfway decent actor.
The other day, I was asked to take part in yet another really interesting sounding project around identity. While the energy it would take to invest in something like this would be huge, the time investment would be really quite small. Some might even say inconsequential. There was however also no pay associated with this engagement — not something unusual (and all too often, very much expected), but it perhaps contributed to my feeling that this was a straw that was about to break a certain very tired camel’s back. Of course — discussions, meetups, new blogging projects, etc, are things that on the whole, those of us with educated political bones are expected to want to participate in for their own sakes, right? Something that had been niggling at me for a while began to niggle really strongly.
But what I think socked me in the guts the most was that yet again I was being asked to speak on these issues because of what I have come to represent to the world, to my circle of — I’ll say it now, largely white — friends, colleagues and acquaintances all busy doing sensational things. I have become the race and representation girl. While there are worse things I could be, it’s certainly never something that I set out to become, and it isn’t what I want etched on my tombstone. And it sure as hell isn’t what I want to be occupying the bulk of my working days.
Now, I’m labouring under no illusions whatsoever — this is in large part, my doing. My Asian name and my physical appearance alongside my presence in the arts and entertainment industries can be blamed perhaps for the fortnightly phone calls I receive from white colleagues asking for non-white-actor casting tips (BTW, please don’t call me — use Showcast for heaven’s sakes), but the liberty of my disposal to represent on behalf of associated issues of difference is largely the result of my compliance to the identity of activist.
It is always nice to have someone available to represent a cause. You can point to them and say, “ask so-and-so”, or “it’s okay, because X doesn’t feel that way”. One gets added to bandwagons by default. One’s anger and marginalisation is often encouraged and in many ways facilitated by those with more social privilege than oneself seeking to champion political causes. There is a fine line between being empowered by one’s activism and feeling taken deeply, deeply advantage of by an unconscious ruling class.
This time, when faced yet again with a request for participation in a discussion on behalf of the identity question, my stomach sank like lead. I wanted to weep the bitterest tears into my not-very-good salad. And I felt at an utter loss as to how to respond to my fabulous, excited and open-hearted luncheon companion doing excellent things on behalf of very real issues — asking of me what didn’t seem like very much at all — and in another context, wouldn’t be.
The clincher was I was being asked to do something because of my race and associated activism — not my body of work, my expertise, my current professional preoccupations, and in that moment, I felt oddly marginalised. Not deliberately. Not through any fault whatsoever of my companion. And in a way that I had not even been able to previously articulate. But there it was.
And it was then that I realised that because this is precisely what I have allowed myself (and, yes — been encouraged) to become known for for so much of my career, it has become the focus of my identity amongst many of those in and around my profession. The problem being that if this continues, I won’t end up having a career or a body of work to speak of. I will have a series of angry rants from the sidelines of an industry that I never fully participated in.
So, I said gently “no”. And thanks to the curiosity and open-mindedness of my invitation-issuing companion, I was able to nudge around the edges in real-time of why I had to give that response, and how it means I need to change my approach and behaviours in my professional life.
It has been a huge shift for me to thusly realise that the best way in which I can be an activist now, is to focus on my own practice. To become a role-model of actually doing the thing, rather than investing huge swathes of my working days in talking about representation and identity politics in art. To remove — for a period at least — the emphasis on “representing” a group or an argument, but to allow my work and my career to slowly speak for itself. This may be a controversial choice, and indeed anger some fellow activists. But I have to make this call right now before I am swallowed whole by the resentment of wearing a role that I do not currently wish to be my life’s focus.
I will of course remain aware, keep reading and re-tweeting, and getting angry and vocal where I feel is needed and where it isn’t going to cost my time or my professional focus too greatly. But for me right now, it’s time to take the emphasis off the spotlit fight of activism, and to represent myself instead in the practice of my own work.