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"It is a deep systemic issue of racism"

Tongan-Australian writer Winnie Dunn speaks to the Voice, Agency and Integrity Report produced by Diversity Arts Australia.

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Beyond Ticking Boxes

Date: 22 Oct 2018

In Tongan, we say: Tulou. Fakatapu atu kia hou’eiki mo ha’a matapule. Fakatapu ha’a tauhi fonua. Fakatapu mamahi’i fonua.

This means: Please excuse me. I pay my respects to the nobles and chiefs of this land. I pay my respects to the keepers of the land. I pay my respects to the workers of the land.

Every time I introduce myself in an artistic context I say something like: ‘Aye, what’s up. My name is Winnie and I’m a Tongan-Australian writer from Mt Druitt.’

The usual response I get is: ‘Wow you don’t look Fob!’ and if they’re a White person they say back, ‘Wow, you don’t look… Islander … is that the correct term?’

This type of interaction reveals a deep misunderstanding of Pacific-Australian communities. Currently in Australian Arts, Pacific-Australian peoples are vastly underrepresented. In my particular field of the Arts, which is literature, there is currently no representation of Pacific-Australian writers even though we exist.

Trust me, if you Google ‘Pacific Australian writers’, Bryce Courtenay is the first person to come up.

Currently in mainstream Australian media and art, Pacific-Australian people are presented as either violent gang members, over-staying factory workers or beefy rugby players. The current spokesperson of Tongan-Australians in this country is Chris Lilley, a White man who parades himself in Brownface to enact racist, violent and hypersexual stereotypes about my community.

Similarly, there have only ever been negative and simplistic images in mainstream Australian media about Mt Druitt, the Western Sydney suburb where I grew up and continue to live. The 2015 SBS TV series, Struggle Street was labelled as ‘poverty porn’ in its depiction of Mt Druitt as a poor, broken city filled with violence, drugs, homophobia, racial tension and misogyny.

All of these limited and stereotypical images have made it difficult for audiences and Arts organisations to support the vibrant nuances and diversities within my communities – Pacific-Australian and Western Sydney.

As seen in Diversity Arts Beyond Tick Boxes report, there is still yet to be a deeper, meaningful and committed understanding of cultural diversity in our Arts industry. The problem is that the Australian Arts sector is dominated by a cultural perspective where excellence is synonymous with Whiteness. It is a deep systemic issue of racism. I mean, that’s how Chris Lilley got to make multiple TV shows in Blackface and Brownface.

I believe that Arts organisations need to have quotas to support Indigenous and culturally and linguistically diverse artists. I also believe in the self-determination of marginalised artists to make and reclaim our own spaces. I also believe in our expectations to be supported wholeheartedly by Arts organisations when marginalised individuals and groups begin to create our own pathways.

My own pathway started when I joined Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement, a grassroots organisation dedicated to empowering groups and individuals from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds through training and employment in creative and critical writing initiatives.

I first joined Sweatshop in 2016 when I was graduating from my Bachelor of Arts degree, when I was volunteering at an inner-city arts organisation for over a year with no job prospects and when my nickname at home was still Fie Palangi, which means Wanting to be White.

During my first Sweatshop meeting, I met writers of colour from Blacktown, Bankstown, Cabramatta, Parramatta and Liverpool. I didn’t even know writers could exist in Western Sydney let alone writers who openly recognised and embraced their cultures. It was the first time in my life I had seen artists, from various cultural backgrounds that I grew up around, educating and supporting each other.

Sweatshop taught me the fundamentals of good writing and how to represent myself in nuanced ways to combat racist stereotypes whilst also making an original contribution to knowledge.

Now, I am the General Manager of Sweatshop. As part of my role, I get to run monthly writer’s workshops for women of colour, as we work towards publishing our first anthology, which will be launched at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in 2019. I also get to facilitate workshops in high schools all across Western Sydney in order to create publications like The Big Black Thing Chapter 1 and Chapter 2, which aims to create new and alternative forms of representation for marginalised communities.

This is how I have seen the self-determination of grassroots organisations attempt to transform marginalised lives and bring our experience to centre. I am not interested in how Arts organisations can measure me. I am interested in wholehearted belief and support when marginalised communities create our own pathways towards equality and justice.

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