“I am Sangeetha Thanapal, a Singaporean-born woman of ethnic Tamil-Indian ancestry. My forefathers were brought to Singapore as ???coolies’ or indentured labourers. Indentured servitude is a form of labour in which people are employed against their will, under threat, due to debt bondage—it was almost impossible to fulfill or escape from. Indentured labour came about after the abolition of slavery in England. People often did not understand the contracts they were signing, and were shipped off to the colonies (in our case, Singapore) under conditions similar to slavery. My ancestors remained in Singapore and my parents and I were born there. I was educated in Singapore and then the United Kingdom, and now live in Melbourne due to threats to my safety and freedom by the Singapore state. I am—to some extent—an asylum seeker who had the capital and ability to come here on a plane, for which I will be forever grateful.
My creative practice is quite specifically political—it’s meant to challenge and build consciousness. Current global race discourse is a) American-centric and b) white vs the rest—this is not my material experience, where my direct oppressors are Chinese. When I started my anti-racism work, it was to theorize how racism functions in a country like Singapore, where those holding all the economic, social and political power are not white, but people of colour themselves. I created the term ???Chinese Privilege’, which situates institutionalized racism within Singapore.
I write fiction and nonfiction work as well; my themes often deal with questions of race, revolution, gender, diaspora and the body. I am also trained as a Bhrathanatyam dancer, as well as in hip-hop and jazz. I see dance as quite a political practice, especially in terms of how transgressive the movement of certain racialized and Othered bodies can be in any given space.
This has been one of my long-term criticisms of the term ???Asian,’ as well as People of Colour (PoC) spaces; proximity to whiteness ensures that the most light-skinned and white-passing amongst us end up with the most visibility and representation. When the term Asian is monopolized by East Asians, where does that leave South and Southeast Asians, who are predominantly Brown?
The word ???Asian’ becomes synonymous with East Asian, despite the fact that East Asians are complicit in wanting to maintain the cis-hetero-patriarchal white supremacist structure, and often are just as discriminatory towards brown and black people, sometimes even more so, in a bid to assimilate into dominant white culture. East Asians buy and promote the ???model minority myth’ which is often used against other PoC. So why should they be the face of Asia?
We need to to realise that Asia is a huge continent with thousands of cultures and languages held within it, and simply boiling it down continuously to East Asians is erasure. I think it is important to push back against the domination of East Asians in Asian spaces, and to start centering Black and Brown Asians within them.
I think authenticity is such a loaded word. It is both exclusionary and redemptive at the same time, which means it occupies a fairly interesting position. To tell the truth, I don’t grapple with issues of authenticity the way many Asian Australian artists do, and that is because I grew up in Asia, with easy access to my people’s culture, language and religion. I speak my second language fairly fluently, and it took me a long while to realize that this was not the common diasporic experience. My connection to my people and my ancestral land is very strong, especially in terms of my understanding of our culture and history. Growing up Tamil in Singapore, there is a strong influence to assimilate into Chineseness, but I have never succumbed to it.
I believe authenticity is an issue borne out of disassociation. There’s this idea that those who grew up outside their motherland must feel some sort of distance from it, which then festers and manifests in them trying to be more ???authentic.’ Like Dominic says, this comes out as selling yourself to whiteness and white capital in your work. It is definitely a trope, and white people love to consume what they believe to be ???authentic’ culture, no matter if it is or not, and we ultimately become complicit in selling it.
I think a lot of POC in the West love rediscovering their culture, especially as a way to resist white assimilation, but at the same time, they cannot help but come to it through a colonial viewpoint—even if they are actively resisting the demands of whiteness.
I am interested in authenticity without a gaze, without seeking or requiring validation; within communities and people, in a loving and non-judgmental way, bringing those seeking their roots together with those who have never been uprooted.
I find allyship discourse at the moment to be quite boring. As it stands, it is now seventy percent cookies and thirty percent self-flagellation, and neither one of those things appeals to me. Where are the accomplices, the collaborators, the disruptors? That’s what I consider as my responsibility to Aboriginal peoples.
I think about the fact that I came here seeking asylum, and Australia gave me a way out of that situation. I am grateful for this, and I???m not going to pretend that I have not immensely benefitted from the Australian government’s preference for the ???right’ sort of migrant.
At the same time, I am cognizant that it is not the people of the Kulin nations that invited me here, and it should have been. I think it is possible to hold two narratives at one time; that, for me, colonial Australia—which is a country founded on and that continues to function on the genocide of its Indigenous people—saved me from certain imprisonment in Singapore. However, I am incredibly critical of whiteness, white supremacy, settler colonial complicity, and our duty to Aboriginal people. I think my biggest job is to speak to my own, which means to always speak out against anti-Aboriginality amongst Asian and settler populations, and then to support organisations like RISE, which staunchly backs Indigenous rights to this land and want to build a long-lasting relationship with its native people.