No More White Tears: Do Tragedies That Affect White People Matter More?
Why did people care more about Notre Dame burning than the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka? Where was the sympathy from the white New Zealanders who still had ‘They Are Us’ frames on their profile pics?
It’s a funny thing. When you start paying attention to how the deaths of people of colour affect white people, you can never unsee it. To me, when it comes to news coverage and media about tragedies that affect people of colour, it feels like the volume gets specifically turned down. Cathedrals that burn but kill no one, like Notre Dame on 15 April are loud. Their destruction rings out across the world, touching everyone who’s ever stepped foot in Paris, and many who haven’t. Corporations basically throw money at the relief effort. But brown people in a developing country dying in their hundreds? It hits different.
Watching how white New Zealanders responded (or didn’t) to the 21 April Easter bombings in Sri Lanka felt similar to when the dust had settled about two weeks after the Christchurch attacks, when we relaxed back into the country I liked much less, but knew much better.
To me, when it comes to news coverage and media about tragedies that affect people of colour, it feels like the volume gets specifically turned down.
I’m not from Sri Lanka in the same way as my mother is, but my trip there a year ago was, for me, a moment of returning to somewhere I didn’t know I missed. For the first time in my life, the food we ate at home was everywhere, as were other de Silvas, and I saw my face in people I’m not even related to. Or maybe I am, idk, I have A LOT of cousins.
It’s actually still unclear to me just how many bombs were set off on 21 April in Sri Lanka. Western media told us that eight of them tore through significant locations in Negombo, Batticaloa and Colombo. But when I called my cousins then and in the days following, I heard about at least three other bombs in Colombo alone being defused, something they shared with me drily while my mother and I sat inside clutching each other and shaking. I guess, at a time like this, there’s something to be said for suffering a 30-year civil war. As Sandani Hiranya, a Sri Lanka New Zealander puts it, “they have coping mechanisms”.
Jason Bandara, another Sri Lankan I spoke with, “grew up in Sri Lanka when the guerilla movement was happening and the war was happening in the late 80s”, and postponed his emotional response when he heard about the bombings for this exact reason, and because he has “seen the way the government handles media”.
But similar to both Sandani and myself, Jason spoke about this sense of chickens coming home to roost, of feeling suddenly naked in the middle of this country that our families had been building lives in. “[The Christchurch terror attack] was raw in our minds at that time. It still is. But especially weeks after, the shock. We felt that right? We’re minority communities: second, first generation migrant communities. We felt exposed after Christchurch. We felt like we were under attack.”
Part of why this all seems straight-up unfair is because it just isn’t the way things were meant to go. Our parents and grandparents came here to New Zealand with us, or came here and had us, they sucked it up, and paved the way. We were supposed to be moving towards something brighter, some kind of beautiful multicultural future where everyone loved each other and “curry-muncher” was a compliment. But instead we got New Zealand’s largest recorded mass shooting and watched people who looked like us die. We got promises of this country being ours too, of our pain being shared and therefore eased. Then one month later maybe a dozen bombs tore my ancestral home to pieces and no one here cared.
I scoured my feeds on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram trying to find any sense of outrage or sadness from people who still had ‘They Are Us’ frames around their display pics. But it was like the news in Sri Lanka had just missed them.
An increased sense of isolation was the shared experience for every Sri Lankan I spoke to for this piece, including Sandani. “Our town (Negombo) was the worst affected for kids. That’s where the most children died. So it was like a mass grave. I talked to my mum after, and on every second street there was a funeral.” One town lost dozens of their kids, but I still saw more on social media about that fire in Europe that damaged some cathedral and killed no one.
So where do we channel our anger? Azlinah Hamid, a Sri Lankan Muslim New Zealander living in Australia, said she “just shrivelled up, I didn’t really talk about it”. Azlinah’s parents even had a Sri Lankan friend who “started becoming more overtly fearful and even a little bit racist” after the Easter bombings, accidently cc-ing Azlinah’s parents in on a mass email about not supporting Muslim businesses.
No one at Azlinah’s work brought up the Easter bombings with her, Sandani found herself “sitting there alone, hearing about bomb after bomb going off, just sitting there”, and Jason felt like he and his whole community were exposed. I scoured my feeds on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram trying to find any sense of outrage or sadness from people who still had ‘They Are Us’ frames around their display pics. But it was like the news in Sri Lanka had just missed them.
One evening I went to a vigil in Aotea Square with my Indian buddy and about 40 others. Pretty much everyone was Sri Lankan. This is the same Aotea Square where just a month earlier, hundreds of white people had stood in solidarity with our Muslim community, letting their presence tell us that they cared and were sad. I didn’t really want to entertain the thought, but as I stood in the rain, surrounded by Sri Lankans asking each other if their families were killed, I wondered: Is the outrage and sadness only shared when the white majority is trying to convince us they’re not culpable?
Because, in a way, that was an effect of the Christchurch attacks. Suddenly people listened to us a bit more. All the things we had been saying about how racist this place is suddenly landed, just for a little bit. It really took a mass shooting to get people to believe the visibly Muslim women who had been saying it for years – they are not safe in this country. The outpouring of grief and sympathy from non-Muslim New Zealanders – cards, on-air pleas, a concert, donations, vigils overattended at mosques around the country – reinforced this idea of the total improbability of an attack of this magnitude happening: Look HOW much these people care! Look at them! They are showing up in their thousands to prove they condemn this act! The days after the tragedy were filled with white people suddenly putting their money where their mouths were.
But, after scratching just below the surface, and as immigrant POC (People/Person of Colour) we often need to, we saw proof of very different feelings. The comments under videos online: Anjum Rahman suggesting we put measures in place to stop this happening again, and literally hundreds of white folks (many still using those damn Facebook frames) replying that New Zealand has done enough for Muslims and if they want things to be more ‘familiar’, they should go back home.
If you kept looking, you would have read about the man standing outside Masjid Al-Noor in April, wearing a “Trump for New Zealand” shirt, screaming abuse at those inside, and walking away without being arrested. On Twitter you might have read about the gardens at a Hindu temple in Auckland being destroyed. Or if you were me you would have seen, while standing in a police station to report threats being made to the physical safety of a (POC) friend of mine online, an over-six-foot, heavily muscled, extremely Aryan-looking man put in an application for a firearms licence.
Pairing all that with the tears and expressions of sympathy was jarring to say the least.
Jason talked to me further about the double-hit of the mass shooting and the bombings: “It didn’t matter who committed what, it was the act itself, the very thought that people could be capable of harbouring that much hatred and direct it so destructively at another group of people.” The Muslim community of New Zealand were the ones targeted in Christchurch. Catholics were murdered at Easter in Sri Lanka – but us immigrant POC have always known that, to white people, there isn’t much difference between us. We have always known that Islamophobia is real and is inextricable from white supremacy. That a Sikh man covering his head is a target for the same kind of abuse as a Muslim person. That ‘They Are Us’ is less to do with religious differences and more to do with a promise about racism defining us less as a country than it did on 15 March.
Is the outrage and sadness only shared when the white majority is trying to convince us they’re not culpable?
The immigrant POC is someone that white New Zealand hasn’t really wrapped its head around, although it thinks it has… New Zealand definitely prides itself on its diversity, and on how much better we are at this stuff overall than Australia. But at the same time, most of us use ‘Asian’ when what we mean is Chinese, think Singapore is a developing country, and feel that eating ‘ethnic’ food is about the extent of what needs to be done to show care. Whereas many immigrant POC are out here breaking their backs to make this new life fly: “We try so hard as immigrants to fit in and assimilate, I don’t know just work hard and do all the things. We try so fucking hard and it just sometimes feels like it’s not good enough,” as Sandani puts it.
Of course, this is the dominant narrative with Asian migrants, this idea of the model minority. Quiet, hard-working, smart. It still doesn’t mean we’re anywhere close to being what New Zealand considers a ‘Kiwi’. Our hard work is different, it’s like we owe it, like it’s the least we can do if we are granted the honour of migrating here. Ours is not the honest sweat of a Pākehā. Sandani sees things her flatmates don’t – “I live in a house full of white people and I’m not saying they don’t get it, but it’s just like they get it in a different way.”
The first half of this year left me confused and pissed off, honestly I still don’t know how to process it. I know that relatively small attacks on my community can rile me up for days following: Trade Me flatting ads which plead for no Indians; comedians who fake sexual messages in broken English from ‘cricket fans’ (Indians); any non-South Asian person around me saying even a word in a mock Indian accent. These were things I used to be able to handle constructively or maybe even laugh off as pathetic, which now send me into shouting fits, and furious spirals of tears.
This is a real price we pay for having the safety of our communities shattered: so much less brain space to manage the little things. And they don’t really feel little anymore, they just feel like precursors to something bigger. I know that I wasn’t supposed to be angrier here, now, than the people who came here to create a better life for me. But for that anger to go away, I’m either going to need a bit more time to let my own dust settle, or I’m going to need white New Zealanders to stay as vocal and dedicated to the cause as they were before the spotlight went away. I’m hoping for the latter.