Having lunch with an old friend last week, I realise that I had never heard his immigration story. We’ve known each other a long time, more than half our lives, and it was only when talking generally of refugee policy and some of the horrific stories coming out of Manus and Nauru, that I ask him for the first time about his own refugee history.
He tells me that he came here with papers, that members of his family, including older siblings came by boat and paved the way for his own safe journey. He was five at the time.
His partner, sitting across from me, is also a refugee. She tells me that her mother smuggled her across the border, that she was 11 months old at the time, still just an infant, that she had to be given sleeping pills. “You know,” she explains, “so I could be silent.”
Over the next week, I keep returning to this idea of silence. The silence that keeps us safe, the silence that keeps my friend and I from enquiring about each other’s stories over two decades of friendship, the silence that keeps us from telling them.
When someone I don’t know well (regardless of whether they are a person of colour or if they are white) asks me why my own family moved to Australia, I get kind of prickly. My body tenses, my ears perk up, I listen for any tell-tale inflections of their tone. I search their eyes for intention and then quickly look away. I have sat with this for a long time, and tried many times before to examine it – what is it about this question that makes me feel so uncomfortable?
Usually, I say something elusively general, something trite and not too revealing. I am searching for a response that is empowered and non-sensationalist; I am trying to not epitomize a stereotype, to not be a figure of pity, or to feed a white-saviour complex. I am trying for authenticity, but in doing so, I am reactive. For the most part, I do not want them to know who I am. For the most part, I am silent.
I am silent because I feel unsafe, because I don’t want to show vulnerability, because I don’t want to play into any stories that are already said about me, based on my skin, or the slant of my eyes, or my stature, because silence is the status quo, because I want to respect my family, my parents who carry the trauma of matters we still don’t speak about. Because I don’t think that you’d understand, that they’d understand, or that I even understand.
When I started thinking about this project, I wanted to create a safe space for people of colour to share their experiences, their triumphs and their trauma. I wanted to ask people: what does it feel like to live inside your skin? I ask this not just because I’m curious, but because I wanted to learn how to live in my own skin. I wanted to learn how to speak because this silence is becoming heavy.
I know that this isn’t a safe space, that you can’t make a space safe by just declaring it so. There is no safety in white supremacy. There is no way to talk safely about racism in Australia. Yes, silence is heavy, but disclosure is also heavy. And disclosure can be dangerous, and make you vulnerable, and those who you choose to disclose to, have to earn it.
When I don’t ask you about your story, it’s not because I don’t care, but because I’m afraid. Because you have your own reasons for silence, and I have my own privilege that I sometimes don’t think about, don’t disclose, and don’t check. Because I probably don’t know the first damned thing about you, because I also make assumptions based on what I’ve been taught to be truth. Because I don’t want this to be another tool of oppression; I’m still unlearning, and learning to get this right.
I’ve been talking to folks lately who have incredible stories; stories of courage, of incredible resilience, of happiness and grief and trauma, of hilarity, warmth and love and so much heart, and I think about the heaviness of silence and the heaviness of disclosure, and how lucky I am to have them share these things with me.
Dear friends who are sharing their stories with Colour Yarns, I hope to honour your stories, I hope to make you proud to hear them. I hope I get this right.