Last Tuesday, after attending a Race Relations Week event, I was at the public garden with my children, still wearing traditional Indian clothes. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon, just four days after the massacre in Christchurch. That day, I was approached several times by random people, all trying to to find nice words to say. Comments ranged from ‘what you are wearing is beautiful’ to ‘what happened was a tragedy, how are you feeling?’ Others simply smiled, perhaps looking for something meaningful to say. I had never experienced such a tangible collective desire to connect and express love.
I came back home in the evening and I asked my husband whether he was experiencing the same. After all, he is more Indian than I am. He said he didn’t. I looked at him, in his formal suit, thinking about what could have made the difference. Is a formally dressed South Asian man less perceived as a victim than a woman with two young children wearing colorful ethnic clothes? If it does, it has nothing to do with our own identities.
In the aftermath of the Christchurch attacks, we have witnessed this eagerness to feel close to the victims while making sense of what happened. We know that the attack targeted not just specific individuals, but a community as a whole, a community that we now see as marginalised. But who is that community, and who gets to identify it?
The way Kiwis identify ‘the victims’ is perhaps not the same way in which the people they identify as such see themselves. When narratives of victimhood are defined from the outside voice of the dominant white majority, the risk, once again, is to create stereotyped images of the Other.
Terrorist violence is a dramatic act performed for an audience. Tarrant chose a symbol – the mosque – for what it meant to him and his culture. In Western culture, the mosque has been portrayed as a main symbol of Islamic terrorism since 9/11. For a Muslim who attends it, however, the mosque is likely to mean something entirely different. Similarly, the hijab is another symbol of how the West perceives Muslim women, but Western people may have little understanding of what that means to a Muslim woman.
Our symbols of the unknown ‘Other’ tend to be more rigid and much more fixed than the diversity and fluidity of identities and experiences that they are supposed to represent. Though victimhood narratives today are a symptom of a desire to show love and compassion, if we really want things to change, what we need to address is those stereotypes that we have constructed ourselves.
After all, it is quite easy to show compassion towards ‘victims’ until they do not challenge the status quo. But genuine solidarity needs to see beyond paternalistic victimhood narratives. Would you love them when they no longer fit your image of victimhood? Or when they no longer look vulnerable? Will you hear their political voices when they are different from yours? Will you support them when they demand not your help, but to act and speak on their own terms?
So what to do, then? Is solidarity wrong? Certainly not! Demonstrations of love and solidarity are extremely important in a time like this, and I am very proud of New Zealand’s response. I am not writing this post to stop that. On the contrary. I hope that this desire to connect and build bridges between us does fade away anytime soon. I am writing to bring it forward, because community bonds are the most powerful means we have against any kind of violence, but only if we use it to see beyond those stereotypes.
Stereotyped images that portray groups as vulnerable victims that need to be rescued by white saviors do little to end paternalistic relationships that keep depriving people of their agency. Here is the thing. Among the people you may see as ‘vulnerable’ you will likely find incredibly resourceful and resilient individuals that will make a great addition to your community, and perhaps to your inner circle.
So if you are eager to connect, go ahead. Just remember to do it with the mindset of breaking free of any preconceived notions, not to ‘teach’, but to learn something new.
How? Here are some suggestions:
- Focus broadly on inclusion, rather than targeting a specific group you identify as a victim. In this way, you will not need to create new categories of ‘Otherhood’. After all, hatred discourses affect many more sections of the society. Exclusionary discourses such as Islamophobia are likely to be linked to other exclusionary sentiments against groups defined by their skin color, ethnicity, religion, language, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, class, and ability.
- Build genuine relationships based on mutual trust and respect.
- Listen! If you are unsure of what you should say or do, let the other person let you know.
- Allow yourself to be vulnerable if needed. Establish relationships on equal terms.
- Respect the other person’s boundaries.
Keep connecting, do not stop now. Build real relationships and allow yourself to see things differently. Keep building everyday peace.
If you are still in doubt, and want to discuss how to put these ideas in practice, we are here for you. Contact The Everyday Peace Initiative and let’s build peace together!