Check out Episode 1 and 2 of my new two-part race podcast ‘In My Shoes’ exploring race and identity in modern Australia featured on ABC’s Radio National program ‘Earshot’ here. You can also stream the podcast on itunes. Click on the hyperlink and scroll down to Episode #37 and #41 to play.
Here’s the accompanying piece where I talk about the inspiration behind the program.
Sarah Malik reflects on the life experiences that led her to produce In My Shoes.
‘Migrants are ruining this country,’ he hissed. The words dropped like acid and felt like a punch in the gut. I turned to my desk, staring blankly at the screen, my ears burning with embarrassment.
I walked outside and ordered a coffee, staring at the cloudy foam swirls before going home to vent to my sister. He was an old man, irrelevant, a dinosaur, we fumed.
Perhaps it was a valuable insight to observe the last gasps of a Trumpian type in his natural habitat, we reasoned.
Now, against all predictions, the impossible has happened. Donald Trump is in the White House. There are reports of hate crimes being perpetrated against minorities across the US.
It feels like a slow corrosion of the soul to know these types of people have been emboldened by assent from the top.
I’m a journalist by trade. I also grew up as one of five children of Pakistani migrants in the western suburbs of Sydney.
I ate biryani with my hands and dutifully wore figure-concealing shalwar kameez. I left home at 20, entering the outside world in a kind of Muslim version of the Rumspringa.
But I always return; how many can resist what is familiar? It’s complicated negotiating the strange pull of what you love.
I was like a high-wire walker, trying to navigate traditional, working class Pakistani roots, a conservative religious culture, a largely white-dominated working environment — at the mercy of the changing political winds of a society that provided no mirror to my experience.
It felt like I was living two, three or four different lives, each with their subtle and sometimes strict codes of conformity.
My maladaptive default mechanism has always been to bury fear and unease deep inside, letting it coil up until I have the words to make sense of it, rather than risk confrontation and ostracism.
This was as true growing up within a cloistered culture as it has been living in a wider society that makes judgemental and clueless assumptions about that culture.
It has always felt unsafe, depleting and ultimately useless to risk confrontation with people I care about, people with power and people who will never know what it is to like to live with a constant sense of dislocation from my environment.
As a journalist I thought I had become inured to the weird and wacky, brushing off bluster with a laugh, but the rise of the far right feels personal.
All the individual kindness, consideration, art and thinkpieces in the world seem obsolete the world of Pauline Hanson, Trump and Brexit.
The In My Shoes documentary is an attempt to make sense of the experience of negotiating race in modern Australia. My intention is to put you in the shoes of the people bearing the brunt of this.
The interviews are an attempt to explore how to navigate these fissures in a personal and creative life. I wanted to explore how this discomfort can be isolating, but also provide fuel for anger, art and storytelling.
It’s about using my own position within this sphere to open up a conversation between friends and equals about difference. The second episode focuses on women and the dual challenges of responding to misogyny and racism, both in wider society and within communities.
The documentary was inspired by my own experience of navigating disjuncture.
I have spent a career trying to go ‘beyond’ myself. As Stan Grant opined, ‘I wanted the right to explore the whole world.’
I saw my activist friends enmeshed in community and identity politics burn out, fuming at a media cycle in which they existed always as subjects, refracted through the gaze of power. I want to be the power, not its subject.
But in the current political landscape, to go ‘beyond myself’ feels like a negation, a continuation of the shapeshifting I have done my entire life. I had perfected the code-switching dance of the chameleon, reading the cues of an environment, morphing into what I needed to be to survive, amputating myself in the process.
I have fantasised about being a white person, enjoying the ease of a seamless life, affirmed by my environment. The ultimate luxury: to be free of a political and personal landscape that at every turn forced me to question, guilt and doubt myself.
The only times I have ever experienced alignment and relief are the rare moments I have been brave enough to be myself, existing uncomfortably within all those different spaces, at times to my detriment.
This ability to shift and change registers has made me sinewy and curious, interested in the other. I have an intimate understanding of being that other. That’s a plus for my work, and ironically allows me to easily adjust and connect with different kinds of people.
I wanted to have the kinds of conversations I have in private, out loud, with people whose work has illuminated the tensions I’ve experienced.
The people I interviewed in this two-part series have been a source of inspiration to me. They emphasise the power of words, art and scholarship to validate, create new understandings and challenge old ones.
These conversations gave me solace. I know there are others in this in-between space, anxious and struggling to speak about an experience they have no precedent or roadmap for.
They also showed me how my insider/outsider status can be a useful place to deconstruct power. Who knows its contours better than the person at the receiving end of its indignities and silencing?
As British writer Hanif Kureishi said: ‘It could be, the stranger, with a mixture of naivety and knowing, might be in a position to tell us the truth about ourselves, since he sees more than we know.’
This article and the podcast was originally featured on ABC Radio National’s Earshot website on Thursday 16th November, 2016.