Just over a year ago, a handful of students marginalised by white supremacy came together on the New Law Lawns. My name is Ekanayake Mudiyanselage Shiran Illanperuma and I was one of them. I am a 4th year International Student, a Sinhala Sri Lankan, born and raised in the UAE.
Before 2013, I had never substantially participated in campus societies, collectives or politics. All that changed when I took the course ‘Race and Representation’ by Professor Jane Park. From there, I found myself at the sixth meeting of Critical Race Discussion Group (CRDG); then, at the first meeting of EPOC; then, as an unofficial Office Bearer of the Students’ Representative Council (SRC); and then, as an editor of ACAR Honi.
Contrary to popular perception, ACAR was not the first autonomous space on campus to be drawn along race lines. There was Klub Koori and the Indigenous Collective, which were recognised by the SRC three years ago, but existed in various capacities prior to that.
Equally, women of colour were often hidden in many of these discussions. “The work of Wom*n of Colour (WOC) is often invisibilised and erased… The hard work of community building is so often done by WOC,” ACAR Officer Oscar Monaghan told me, while cobbling together this piece.
A more immediate precursor to ACAR is the Wom*n of Colour (WOC) Collective, created by Tabitha Prado in March 2013. According to former Wom*n’s Officer Jaya Keaney, “it was an offshoot of a lot of stuff that went down in Wom*n’s Collective (WoCo) that was shitty”.
The race tensions in WoCo in September last year resulted in the alienation and exodus of many WOC from the group. ACAR Officer Bridget Harilaou elaborates, “It was really important because WoCo was becoming this racist mess and a lot
of WOC voices were just being silenced or criticised and derailed”. Tabitha characterises the WOC group as “the most positive online space I’ve ever seen”.
Credit must be given to radical WOC like Deeba Binaei for speaking out publicly against the uncomfortable biases that, in the past, defined the Wom*n’s Collective for being predominantly ‘White’. “It’s a little satisfying to remember that I provided the impetus to shut down WoCo for months before they built up the collective and its policies from scratch,” says Binaei.
Elsewhere on campus, CRDG was founded by Tabitha, Jaya, Oscar and Sophie Steains. The group had its first meeting in late August and the topic of discussion was, appropriately, intersectionality. While the discussions themselves were non-autonomous, autonomous caucuses were held at the end of every meeting to provide POC a safe space to vent. This space was extended online when Oscar created the “Critical Race Discussion Group – Autonomous POC Space” on Facebook, in late July. For me, CRDG was a life-changing space. I still recall approaching Oscar after a workshop with awkward intensity to say, “I want to be more involved,” and later, breaking down in an autonomous caucus over my rage and helplessness at being newly sensitised to oppression.
While EPOC did some heavy lifting in the realm of student politics, WOC Collective and CRDG were vital precursors. It is the communities built by WOC involved in these projects that bolstered ACAR’s ranks and made its presence on campus viable. Tabitha for example, was a founder of WOC Collective, CRDG and an OB for ACAR. Her contributions alone to race and gender activism on campus are immeasurable.
Fahad, Oscar, Tabitha and Jaya had all been involved in autonomous organising with WoCo, the Queer Action Collective (QUAC), or both prior to ACAR.
“I’ve been involved in a lot of collective organising… and throughout them have noticed some absence in terms of race being something people talk about in a non-tokenistic way,” says Jaya. Oscar echoes this sentiment: “QUAC has always been super White, WoCo has always been super White. There’s been a lack of space for conversations about race.” Their experiences in these spaces undoubtedly shaped the political framework of a fledgling collective.
On September 6 2013 –the beginning of SRC campaigning season – SEX for Honi, an editorial ticket running to edit the student newspaper, posted their policy statement to Facebook: “We’ll work to raise the voices of those who aren’t always heard: in addition to Wom*n’s and Queer, we’ll add an autonomous People of Colour Honi”, they declared.
SRC Queer Officer Fahad Ali’s rebuttal on Facebook was scathing: “It’s incredibly patronising to suggest that POC have to rely on a White majority editorial team in order to get our own autonomous edition of Honi Soit. Moreover, whether this is something that we desire as an Ethnocultural community is another question that must be answered only by our community and none other.”
As it turns out, it was a POC on the ticket that had championed the notion. “It was my idea to have… an autonomous POC edition. I came into that based on my great appreciation of the Wom*n’s and Queer Honi… I thought this was a natural extension of that,” said Justin Pen, whose correspondence with Fahad culminated in the creation of the EPOC Facebook group just over a fortnight later. In the following weeks Fahad and a growing collective of students (including myself) spearheaded a campaign to get EPOC recognised by the SRC.
It is expected that a collective like ACAR should be met with a degree of opposition. What was unexpected – and indeed, hurtful – was that this opposition came not from overt racists but from the so-called ‘Anti-Racist Collective’, or ARC. Shortly after our decision to contest the position of Ethnic Affairs, I received a call from Adam Adelpour of ARC. I recall being sickly anxious, I had no experience with “stupol” and was the least equipped to defend ACAR’s position.
I clumsily directed Adam to Oscar, who was my strongest link to this strange new world. Soon after, meetings were held between ARC and EPOC.
“I remember a few meetings with ARC that were really frustrating and upsetting. I remember crying in one… It was quite antagonistic… I think up until and including reps elect when stuff went down around the OB positions we were quite wary of them”, says Oscar.
In the end, EPOC was forced to split the Ethnic Affairs position with the non-autonomous ARC. Fuming over the SRC’s decision, Bridget said “If you vote in a non-autonomous OB for Ethnic Affairs, but not for Wom*n, not for Queer, not for Enviro… It is racism.”
“2013 wasn’t a great year for race-relations on campus… There was the racist Day of the Dead party… the failure to consult Indigenous students about Indigenous Festival… the sale of Native American headdresses by the USU… A lot of events that created a sort of race awareness”, says Justin. Rafi Alam summarised this mood in an Honi article aptly titled, “Race-based activism on campus leaves much to be desired”.
Hopefully ACAR has fulfilled or will fulfil those desires.
“I think it’s very hard for new collectives to establish themselves,” says Oscar, “I think ACAR has done a good job of that”.
“I feel like we’ve made a really solid start to something that will hopefully go on for as long as it’s needed… I’d like to think that it will be a foundation for radical race politics for years to come”, Tabitha says.
“I’m really blown away by how far ACAR has come in the space of a year”, says Fahad. “If this is only the beginning, one would be excited to see where else we’re going.”
As for me? Well, as an international student I feel I was just passing through. In less than two weeks I will be stepping down as an unofficial OB. In less than two months I will be leaving the country altogether. It’s been an honour to be a part of ACAR.
Image: Jennifer Yiu.