I'll Be Your First Mate: Whiteness and the Pursuit of Good Feeling
I'll Be Your First Mate [IBYFM] is an online arts community and collaborative space where people can engage in discussions about people seeking asylum in new and creative ways. Through creativity the site aims to contribute to a cultural change about asylum seeking and global migration.
In this extract from I'll Be Your First Mate: Art, Advocacy and the Assuming White 'I' , co-founder of IBYFM, Daniella Trimboli, explores the complexities of providing platforms for new voices. To access the full essay visit the IBYFM website.
- Daniella Trimboli
Whiteness and the Pursuit of Good Feeling
Good-will moves organisations like I'll Be Your First Mate [IBYFM] and underlies multiculturalism at large. But what are the terms of this good-will? In his seminal project on Australian multiculturalism, White Nation , anthropologist Ghassan Hage argues that the needs-based model of multiculturalism was replaced by a white middle-class cosmopolitanism that positioned cultural diversity as a commodity for elitist consumption. He claims that “tolerant Australians” fighting for “good multiculturalism” may have the best intentions, but in fact there is no such thing as tolerant and intolerant practices: both perpetuate the same racist underpinnings [1998, p. 93]. ‘Those who execute [tolerant practices], “good” as they are, share and inhabit along with White “evil” nationalists the same imaginary position of power within a nation imagined as “theirs”... [T]hey enact the same White national fantasy’ [1998, p. 79]. In this sense, those fighting the cause of liberal multiculturalism cannot be easily distinguished from those that Hage terms ‘Hansonites,’ or other white Australians with overtly racist attitudes. Hage recognises that Pauline Hanson and many of her supporters really believe they are not racist. Combining an approach of ethical reflexivity and a critique of inconspicuous deployments, Hage not only considers how nationalist practices embed these ideas but, importantly, how they incorporate the ideas of those he finds less racist. Namely, what are the conditions that constitute these supposed “more or less” levels of racism? Similarly, anthropologist and cultural theorist Elizabeth Povinelli suggests that instead of writing Hanson off as racist because her ideas seem repellent, we should, in fact, ponder them seriously (2002, p. 52). Even if, to critically refute these notions. Both Hage and Povinelli are here pointing to the importance of what cultural theorist Sneja Gunew  calls the ‘shifty work’ of multiculturalism, and our need to be persistently critical of it.
In other words, we need to carefully consider what work gets done in the name of multiculturalism and cultural inclusion—a point that can be explained by something I witnessed while at a refugee rally in 2013. The rally was organised by the Refugee Action Collective and was supported by a number of asylum seeker advocacy groups, such as the excellent and tirelessly hard-working Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. In spite of all the doubts one could raise regarding the effectiveness of such rallies, I support them as much as I can, because I do believe that people-presence on the streets is an important aspect of political campaigning. It is not so much whether or not the politicians care or even notice the gathering that drives my desire to attend rallies, but how it effects ordinary folk on the streets, including myself.
I like to observe the expressions of the faces in the windows of trams, unable to move due to the flood of feet on the tram tracks; to smile extra big at the angry tram driver when he yells at us to ‘get a job’; to see the look of confusion and curiosity from shoppers walking out of stores on Bourke Street Mall. I like to imagine how these people are interpreting the scene. I figure that even those who are perturbed by the disturbance still have to reflect on the issue—and reflection is always a good thing. Maybe, every now and then, this reflection results in someone seeking out more information, asking more questions, changing their minds or even silently applauding. This possibility fuels my participation.
Finding these sites of togetherness and motivation seem all the more important to me as time goes on, and as conditions of asylum seekers and refugees grows increasingly dismal. When I stand in a crowd of people taking a stand on the issue my hope for Australia and people at large is reignited, I am reminded of the compassion within our country and extraordinary people who need our support. I leave more determined to continue campaigning for refugee rights. In short: participation in street protest makes me feel good.
The desire to feel good does not, at first glance, seem like a problematic pursuit, however, an incident at this particular rally helps to illuminate the dangers inherent in the chase of good feeling. I was standing on the stairs of the State Library, amidst a crowd of hundreds gathered in front of a makeshift stage to listen to the organised speeches. A Tamil refugee came to the stand to address us. Despite there being a PA and accompanying speakers, it was difficult to hear him speak. This difficulty was, in part, due to the quality of the sound system in use, and also due to the speaker having to talk in a second language, namely, English. Nonetheless, it most certainly would have been possible for me to hear the speaker had it not been for the small group of people chatting amongst themselves in what was a flippant yet violent disregard of this man’s voice. Donned in Greens Party t-shirts, they discussed the Labor leadership takeover. Discerning glances from a few people surrounding them did nothing to cease their passionate points. What did cease their conversation was the change of speaker—when the refugee speaker stepped aside and Greens Leader Adam Bandt stepped forward, the group fell quiet. At the end of Bandt’s speech, the group applauded and cheered loudly, commenting on Bandt’s fantastic leadership and humanity.
What just happened here? These people--well-meaning, passionate, and clearly driven to defend the rights of marginalised Others—just silenced the community they were here to give voice to. They listened attentively when [white, clear-English speaking] Adam Bandt spoke about refugee rights, but talked over a refugee actually in need of the rights. Their actions were obliviously carried out, but they hit the heart of the race politics issue here in Australia that Hage and others have traced. Namely, as the long-time managers of the national space, white Australians too easily forget their position of power, as well as their complicity in maintaining it. They choose when to listen and when to ignore.
In this neo-colonial context, projects like IBYFM emerge easily enough because they come from the white national space. The obvious problem, of course, is that in standing in the centre and offering those on the margins an invitation to join us here, the unequal and racialised power structure is maintained. The refugee is bestowed friendship, tolerance, and good will, in such a way that she cannot survive on her own terms. In this structure, the refugee remains at the mercy of the white manager.
Hage’s  comments on the online campaign #illridewithyou further explain this situation. The #illridewithyou campaign was instigated on 15 December 2014, following the siege of a Sydney café by a man who brandished a flag with the shahādah creed printed on it, suggesting an association with Islam. Several people were held in the café as hostages; two of them eventually killed by police gunfire. The incident was immediately regarded as an act of Islamic terrorism, despite this being disproved soon afterwards. Following the event, a Sydney woman, Rachel Jacobs, tweeted about seeing a young Muslim woman taking her head covering off on a train. When they disembarked, Jacobs ran after her and said: ‘put it back on. I’ll walk with u.’ Her tweet instigated a fellow Tweeter “Sir Tessa” to tweet: ‘If you reg take the bus b/w Coogee/Martin PL, wear religious attire, & don't feel safe alone: I'll ride with you. @me for schedule.’ The hashtag #illridewithyou was born: twitter and facebook users began tweeting their public transport routes, offering to ride alongside Muslim Australians who felt threatened by non-Muslim Australians. On his social media page, Hage compares the campaign with an old French anti-racist slogan and movement: ‘“touche pas a mon pote” (don’t touch my mate) of SOS racisme.’ He argues that these kinds of projects are important in so far as they act as ‘transitional anti-racist movement[s]’:
Detangling Relations of Protection
When we approach IBYFM in this critical lens, it feels as if we have backed it into a corner. If IBYFM enters territory of white managerialism, should we cease the project? We have deliberated on this question many times, but always we have decided that the answer is no.
The answer seems to lie, instead, in figuring out ways to disrupt the territory of white managerialism that the project draws on. Or, following literary and postcolonialism theorist Gayatri Spivak’s suggestion, to acknowledge that the structure of racialisation is so pervasive that it has the ability to corner even those in a position of power, to lead them to a dead-end where they decide to give up. In an interview with Gunew about speaking “in the name of” migrant Others, Spivak [1990, pp. 62] explains:
Spivak [1990, p. 63] adds that while it is always a risk to speak about the ethnic Other, the alternative, namely, to avoid critique, ‘is salving your conscience, and allowing you not to do any homework.’ IBFYM is committed to doing its homework, to the task of learning ‘what is going on […] through language, through specific programmes of study, but also at the same time through a historical critique of [our] position as the investigating person[s].’ We hope this commitment allows us to add to the discourse of refugees and asylum seekers in a way that is constantly self-reflexive. More importantly, we hope it allows IBYFM to be a point of entry into a much wider conversation that becomes increasingly fragmented and opened up by non-white voices, perspectives, and criticisms. Juliana Qian illuminates this strategy in her incisive response to Elizabeth O’Shea in an Overland debate on privilege. She argues that tools are required to rethink the commonplace binary constructed within activism between ‘advocates and adversaries,’ tools that enable the competing philosophies and political tactics within advocacy to surface.
In a comment about #illridewithyou, Hage [2014, online] summarises the need for advocacy campaigns to be a starting- rather than an end-point:
Conclusion: What’s in a Name?
We were being quite tactical when we named the project I’ll Be Your First Mate—playing on words associated with seafaring and also trying to re-deploy the notion of Australian mateship in a tongue-in-cheek manner. Our task as facilitators of this project is to now try and push its advocacy beyond the structure of white paternalism; essentially, to pull apart, invert, and dissect the statement: ‘I’ll Be Your First Mate.’ We still have a long way to go, but, looking ahead, our aim is to make the ‘I’ featured in the statement ‘I’ll Be Your First Mate’ a very slippery subject, an ‘I’ that is difficult to locate. By accepting a range of different art forms from a range of different people, we hope that the ‘I’ is opened up: at any one moment the ‘I’ might be the refugee, the so-called boat person, the white refugee detention centre worker, the volunteer lawyer, the migrant community, the gallery space, the young Lebanese-Australian girl in school.
The word ‘first’ implies essence, origins and cultural authority—and we know the many and troubled connotations of ‘mate.’ But we pushed on with the name I’ll Be Your First Mate because we wanted to keep alive the attachment to boats and to the oceans that, despite their incredible vastness and increasingly active patrols, are crossed persistently by people in search of survival. The first mate on a boat is not the captain, or the person in charge. The first mate is the person that uses their relative authority to support the captain, or the skipper. The first mate is actually second-in-charge.
Hage, G 1998, White nation: fantasies of white supremacy in a multicultural society, Pluto Press, Sydney.
Hage, G 2014, profile page, Facebook, 16 December, accessed 14 October 2015, Available: https://www.facebook.com/ghahagea
Povinelli, E 2002, The cunning of recognition: indigenous alterities and the making of Australian multiculturalism, Duke University Press, Durham and London.
Qian, J 2014, ‘Should the Left check its privilege? A debate between Elizabeth O’Shea and Juliana Qian’, Overland, issue 215, Winter 2014, pp. 15-23.
Spivak, G & Gunew, S “Questions of multi-culturalism” in The post-colonial critic: interviews, strategies, dialogues: Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, S Harasym [ed.], Routledge, NYC & London, pp. 59-66.
Cover image 'Leaves with Red' by Michael Fikaris