During lock down I have started educating myself in the work of anti-racism. This work is crucial, but without a doubt it is uncomfortable, and challenging.However, the most productive work often takes place in the most uncomfortable of spaces. I feel fortunate to have lots of people around me who are willing to engage in this topic. A group of us are working through Layla Saad’s book Me & white supremacy, meeting in a formal setting (on Zoom), as well as informally. Both book and support group format are highly recommended. We support, question and challenge each other as we work through each week’s contents, and conversations are frank, honest, intense, and at times emotional.
To my shame and discomfort, I found that I – a bi-racial person with a pretty good understanding and knowledge of how racism and colonialism has impacted on my own ancestors – too have unconsciously held and perpetuated some of those same racist prejudices, or been complicit in them through my silence.
You may ask what this has to do with my work, or with Hinterland. When I started work on Hinterland 5 years ago, it was to process my grief at the death of my father, and to understand more of who, and what, I had lost. As the project evolved, I came to see the ancestral traumas in my family, and the silence surrounding those traumas. I started researching the particulars of the historical events in the former Dutch East Indies that my ancestors got caught up in, and saw the ugly truth of colonialism, racism, slavery, patriarchy and war – all played out in my family line. My ancestors and I are the (great) grandchildren of Dutch men and indigenous Indonesian women. We are the children of colonialism.
Back in 2016, I could not have known the level at which making this body of work would open up new lines of personal enquiry, and the extent and depth to which I would come to question my identity, my race, and my unconsciously held beliefs. Before I started on Hinterland, I thought of myself as neither Dutch, nor Indonesian, but somewhere indefinable in between. Now I know that I am, in fact, both, and that both the oppressor and the oppressed are present within me. This is accompanied by a huge amount of inner conflict that I have absorbed and carried with me all my life, and am only just beginning to see and unpick. It is painful to admit to myself that I have unconsciously absorbed some of the colonial mindsets of my white ancestors, as well as simultaneously knowing and feeling in my own body and psyche the impact of these very mindsets on my Indonesian ancestors.
I am writing this to highlight the level of subtlety and complexity in being unconsciously complicit in racism. I have come to see that I have been a chameleon, able to lean into my relative whiteness when it benefits me (i.e. most of the time) or my Asian-ness whenever I want. This is a privilege that marginalised communities of Black, Indigenous or People of Colour simply do not have, and this is something I cannot now un-know. It is a long and confrontational process to de-condition ourselves from our inner racism and prejudices, and I am incredibly grateful for and appreciative of the resources that are, and continue to be, made available. Many of these resources are offered by the very people who are marginalised and oppressed, I cannot ever fully know the personal cost to them of this act of generosity. This work is a learning, or rather, an un-learning. I am going to make mistakes along the way, I know this, but I hope I will have the courage, grace and honesty to admit to them.
All this has coincided with the start of a formal correspondence with fellow 3rd generation Indo artist Eric Kampherbeek. Eric lives in the Netherlands, and through his work, is looking at the legacy of colonialism with the same critical eye, and is asking himself the same uncomfortable questions about race and identity. These letters will, among other things, form part of his exhibition ‘Wij zullen verdwijnen/Kami akan hilang (We shall disappear). It feels helpful and so damn good to be able to share this complicated mix of thoughts and feelings with someone with the same bi-racial background as mine, and whose family has endured similar experiences in the same particular context.
In final related news, I have managed to trace and make contact with my long lost relatives in Indonesia, which is opening whole new lines of questioning, and is tremendously exciting. I feel very welcomed by them.
If you got this far; thanks for reading!
With love (& rage),