Thursday, April 28, 2011

How do you Unlearn Supremacy? Field Notes on Sri Lanka, Sinhala supremacy and Third-world radical solidarity

I'm a 23 year old Sinhalese woman in Minnesota by way of Dubai by way of Sri Lanka. I am a Womanist, and part of my womanism is figuring out how to be in solidarity with my transnational sisters worldwide. I'm a daughter, a sister, a partner and a writer. I'm a brown girl who knows Shakespeare by heart and devours anything Toni Morrison. I believe in radical, revolutionary living and loving.  I blog at Irresistible Revolution.

I've started and abandoned this post many times in the last year. Sometimes, I wouldn't even get as far as typing words, I would just bury the thoughts in my head. Other times, I would stare at the screen while my brain refused to activate my fingers. Recognizing that hate has been planted deep inside you, that somewhere along the way you learned to see a people as less than human, is far from simple. This is why many white people live their whole lives vociferously denying racism, because to admit its existence would necessitate a long, hard look into the hate they are taught to live, breathe and perpetuate everyday. I've written a great deal about whiteness, race and privilege, and yet I keep shrinking from an honest examination of my own ethnic privilege relative to my home nation, Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka has been racked by the longest Civil War in South-east Asia, and yet as a country we are barely a blip on the radar of the Western world. The only time we are allowed to appear on the hallowed screens of the BBC and the CNN is when increased violence allows ample fodder for First World viewers to objectify more brown bodies and cultures, to feel sorry for us. I say 'us' even though I and my family have never been placed in a concentration camp, lost someone to a suicide bombing or been forced off our home by the military. Do I have a right to say 'us'?

During the increased military progress into Jaffna two years ago, I got into a few heated arguments with family members. I was of the opinion that the military should lift its ban on journalists so that we could have a true account of what was happening in Jaffna. Many of my family members retorted that if we get caught up on "human rights issues" and "protecting civilians", "we" would never win this war, and that civilian deaths couldn't be helped because ultimately, ensuring an "end to war" was more "important". How do we unlearn hate that's been bred so close to home?

I understand why Sinhala people might bristle when "human rights" are mentioned: the phrase has been codified as a Western imposition, whereby nations like the US and the UK get to wag their fingers at the uncivilized brown people, but gleefully set up camp in Guantanamo and sell arms to Darfur and aim cannon fire at Palestinian youth armed only with rocks from their decimated homes. But I shrink from this collective urge to model ourselves, our nation, after the brutality of the colonialists who stole from us for centuries, so that we might be successful and "developed" according to their standards. If we reject their paternalism and hypocrisy regarding human rights, why then can't we also reject their blueprints for genocidal nation-building?

But I'm going macro again when I wanted to keep this micro. I know, we cannot dissect internalized racism and bigotry without paying attention to institutions, but I want to hold myself accountable to decolonizing my mind without abstracting my personal responsibility in the process. Because unlearning my Sinhala supremacy and finding ways to be in solidarity with Tamil women, MUST begin at home, with me and those I love. At the end of the day, I can wax eloquent all I want about anti-colonial solidarity between Third World sisters, but if I'm not actively seeking to repudiate colonialist patterns of hate that I, personally, have subscribed to, I'm only lip-servicing solidarity without actually being willing to do the work. And isn't that what I get down on white feminists for ALL the time?

A heroine of mine, transnational, black, Canadian-based feminist Jacqui Alexander, has this to say: "We are not born women of color. We become women of color. To become women of color, we need to become fluent in each other's histories... "

What little I know of Tamil women, and the history of Tamil struggle, is distorted through Sinhala supremacy. Even as I write this, I feel that supremacist resistance welling up, insisting that the version of Sri Lankan history I grew up with is THE only one, and that the Tamil counter-narrative is nothing but lies and exaggeration. This resistance feels almost visceral, like the supremacy has been grafted onto my bones, configured to my DNA.

This is how we perpetuate hate, by allowing it to be both invisible and ubiquitous, like the blood in our veins and the air in our lungs. We live with it inside us for so long, that we don't even realize it's part of us.

I'm not sure how to end this post, because it's something I know I will, I must return to. But as my words wind down I find myself returning to the phrase "fluent in each other's histories". I must become fluent in the history of those whom I wish to be in solidarity with, and I need to commit myself to this education. Unlearning supremacy seems so threatening to the entire worldview of the supremacists, that we often cower under history and refuse to act. Sometimes, we just need to take a first step.