‘how i started writing an essay about “side eye” but then couldn’t and the essay it was instead’, by Elena Gomez

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Image by jurek. d. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

Earlier this year, our digital magazine was re-launched under the name Side Eye. We were unaware of the AAVE origins of the term ‘side eye’ when choosing the name. This essay by Elena Gomez was commissioned as a result of the discussions about language, cultural appropriation and editorial responsibility that followed our mistake.


this is an essay about the essay i could not write.

i was right there, which is here, ready to explore the concepts of appropriation, culture, solidarity, communisation, and language, and how all of these constantly need redefining, reasserting, and repositioning. there’s no use in denying, as some like to do, the impact of seemingly small, everyday matters - those of our personal relations, or representations of them. there is something larger at play, sure. capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, to name the big ones. but to denounce any efforts to reconfigure our personal relationships and interactions within and between communities on the basis of their smallness ignores how structural inequalities are reproduced and echo throughout our communities and our friendships and our professional lives and our literary and artistic lives.

the difficulty with discussion around appropriation is that for language at least (i’ll speak largely about the english language since it’s the only one i know well), time appears to erode many of the frictions that first arise when a word that is not new, but is ‘new’ to the dominant culture/social group, is first heralded, then overused, then slipped slowly into the folds of the lexicon.

it is a losing fight. i don’t want to diminish the feelings of frustration or pain felt by anyone whose language has been made ‘credible’ for the masses, especially when material changes to their overall lives are not concurrent.

‘popular’ is death. culture, books, intellectualism, all seem to fall into ruin the minute they are absorbed or adopted by the ‘unwashed masses’. pinpoint our disappointment in humanity/society on the idiocy that prevails under democracy and it sits alongside a general disdain for the poor.

this cannot be. the masses is where we hope the revolution will eventually spring from.

editors also must give up fights. we do what we can, but it didn’t stop literally from gaining a new accepted meaning i.e. figuratively, which is the exact opposite of literally. i’m not actually as upset about that as i probably should be. bringing up the rollercoaster history of the usage of literally seems like a dubious connection, to be sure, but when we think of how language interacts with status quo or dominant social groups or class, i think about how the masses drive these shifts in meaning and usage. the problem, perhaps, isn’t mass idiocy, but whiteness itself. but how to think about whiteness without skating over class? where do we even begin to unpack this?

this was going to be an essay about language. but what if rather than defining social and cultural and racial groups based on their language, we started from the other side?

we begin with whiteness.

how and why whiteness began? not asking – since there is much scholarship on this already – how inequality is produced but how whiteness has been reproduced, how it manages to contain all the fluidity and redefinition possible, while also swallowing and regurgitating other cultural signifiers until it is a vague and bloated plague on the earth? novara podcast recently did a great episode on this very topic, but the hosts admitted there were no easy definitions or solutions to the vast problems within and surrounding whiteness as a concept.

how does language fit into whiteness, and how does appropriation relate to language? there are a lot of questions, more than there are answers.

i’m a non-white sort-of immigrant, and i’m a (cis)woman and i’m communist and embarrassingly also a poet (i wouldn’t have thought this was embarrassing, except for the slightly alarmed, slightly pitying looks i meet if i ever dare say so out loud). ultimately all of this means that living in the world as it is tends to raise more questions for me than answers.

my attempt at writing inside and about language, race and otherness circled around to become writing about the word ‘side eye’, and how even though i didn’t think it was so awful that the lifted brow chose it as a name of their digital magazine, i felt uncomfortable with the dialogue that emerged, which seemed to begin with the magazine’s defensive, knee-jerk, sometimes gas-lighting and blameful approach, and which unsurprisingly left me too angry for words and too tired to do anything about it, and then it all went away.

and this essay was, for a short time, about ‘side eye’, until i came to understand why i cannot write about ‘side eye’, for the following reasons:

that i am not a black american. i’m neither black, nor american. as far as the poc pecking order goes, catholic-raised indians don’t exactly pose a threat to the smooth running of white supremacy. certain parts of the world (see, for example, south africa) have benefited greatly from certain obedient colonised groups (this is not to say that indians haven’t suffered immensely from white european colonialism).

that i am too conflicted about the english language, in the way one might love a dog that is mostly useful for keeping you fit and is heaps of fun to play with but that also likes to tear shit up when you take your eyes off it. i love the mongrel nature of english. i love that literally now also means figuratively according to the macquarie dictionary. i love that what we once referred to as dreamtime is now the dreaming. i’m a little sore about all right being spelt as one word with one l but i’ll have to get over it. i love that i can respect the vernacular of both ‘valley girl’ and aave (african-american vernacular english) in a way i don’t feel negatively affects the dignity of either, and i cannot stand when non-formal englishes are demonised or dismissed.

that the people in my social circles more readily express solidarity with black americans than they do with black australians, and that empathy with one should not negate the other, but appears to do just that.

that i do hate the idea of cultural appropriation but i think it’s a concept that needs constant reevaluation and interactivity, and i hate but also can’t help that i don’t automatically trust a non-white person to speak for another non-white group.

that more than a few of my south-asian relatives and family friends have expressed visual and linguistic affinities with black american cultures in ways that might be seen as appropriation but cause me all sorts of headaches trying to deconstruct.

that i reject any sort of nationalism more than i am irked by cultural imperialism but still think we need to look at what language and race do and look like here in australia, where it matters for us.

if i was writing an essay about ‘side eye’, i would have, at this point, made a brief pause in my stream of thoughts to write here about percival everett’s erasure, a novel that is brilliant and cutting satire as inquiry into what it is to be a black writer. the narrator, thelonious monk, is chastised often for not being black enough. in the opening page: ‘i have dark brown skin, curly hair, a broad nose, some of my ancestors were slaves and i have been detained by pasty white policemen in new hampshire, arizona and georgia and so the society in which i live tells me i am black; that is my race.’ the writer’s strained relationship with his conflicting identities ‘black’ and ‘writer’ (he is a writer of ‘difficult’ novels, to make it worse!), in this novel, in a way novels are often great at doing, articulates so many of my discomforting feelings and unfinished thoughts around what and when language is appropriated. it was about questions such as: how is english black in literature? are blackness and literariness compatible or repellant forces?

everett was writing from the other side of his world’s expectations, that, well if this is the language of black writers, then this was their only language, and that is theirs, and ‘ours’ is ours.

but still. i cannot write this essay. i am exhausted from thinking about race.

i’m exhausted, though less pained, from thinking about language.

there are problems with extrapolating a larger argument about cultural appropriation based on one particular type of cultural appropriation, i.e. that of language, that of the linguistic specificities of certain black american cultures. white people adopting ‘bae’ (which might also be called stealing, but which is different depending on an individual in a social setting vs a publication) is not necessary the same as vanessa place creating a twitter profile with mammy as the profile picture and then tweeting word-for-word that much-cherished racist novel gone with the wind. one of these is a larger sociohistorical shift, the other a more contemporary expression of blackface.

i originally had here a comment about how i could not even write an essay, because i was so allergic to the structure of reasoned argument, and that this was merely a series of prompts, or ruminations of those things i mentioned at the beginning. someone reading a draft of this for me pointed out that the word ‘essay’ originates from the french meaning ‘attempt’ and that an attempt so much more clearly gets at what all my writing is. perhaps, then, i could write this essay.

i struggled for a long time over my qualifications to write this. whether i was engaged enough in race politics, whether i was learned enough in the histories of language, whether i have a complex enough understanding of the relationship between american race relations and australian race relations. but then i don’t see much of a relationship there. while australia and america are settler-colonial nations built on varying formations of slavery and white supremacy, the relationship australia’s indigenous population has to its settler population and to the overall functioning of capital is vastly different from the relationship between plantation slavery populations and the settler population. i.e., the role of each population under capitalism in terms of free labour source & slave trade source vs a largely inconvenient population whose extermination forms the basis of the settler logic of occupation. this is not to say that slavery did not exist in australia, of course, and it becomes a little clearer how many more ambiguities there are in this discussion than outright statements about race/capitalism/colony.

while there’s a paradoxical ‘coolness’ ascribed to black culture and languages that attracts white people to it, it’s also true that even though black americans experience a very high rate of murder by the state, in australia, the historical approach to indigenous blacks was much more straightforwardly about that extermination i just mentioned. and finally, horribly, that profitability might be related to linguistic appropriation: black culture has been used for profit in a way that indigenous cultures have not.

i had a really long argument with my partner about these issues and the more we talked, the less sure i felt about any of it. to that end, a meticulously argued essay would have been not only false, but impossible to compose. as i mentioned above, it’s all about the questions, not the answers.

it became clear soon enough that these sorts of conversations were impossible for me to have with other non-whites. it was only when talking to white people that i really had to figure out what i was saying. the polite ones would usually take for granted that i was right when i talked about how problematic something was racially, but the (i won’t say racist, but) less racially sensitive ones often needed a response and sometimes i felt myself getting very emotional. it made me uncomfortable at first, and while i’m pretty good at feeling emotions i’m less good at showing them to others, especially if it makes me seem less rational as a result (god forbid a conversation about race gets emotional).

i came across a facebook group called ‘thug witch’ and it was horrible and sad because i adore witches but not witches who think that ‘thug’ makes them seem ‘cooler’. thug is not linguistic appropriation. richard sherman summed it up pretty well, by pointing out that ‘thug’ is just a polite way of saying the n-word.

finally, before i reached my end point and blew it all up in frustration i did what i often do when i feel like this. i read diane di prima and found, from her ‘revolutionary letter #10’:

these are transitional years and the dues
will be heavy.
change is quick but revolution
will take a while.

Elena Gomez is a poet and editor. She co-hosts Sydney’s occasional apartment poetry series, CELL, and is the author of CHILL FLAKES (sus press).