A Love Letter From New York: Randa Abdel-Fattah Writes Home


In New York for a conference on racism, Randa Abdel-Fattah has a message for her fellow Australians.

I’m writing this in a café in New York. Just outside, a homeless man claims title over a folded-out cereal box. He is one; and he is one among hundreds of others like him.

I have walked through gentrified suburbs and boroughs that, like tooth-whitening paste, have steadily bleached the houses, shops and streets, erasing the stains of the poor and black.

I have posed in tourist selfies in front of university buildings in campuses funded with endowments from rich, White families whose rich, White children then attend to be taught curriculums overwhelmingly set by White academics.

I have sat in a conference and been addressed by a critical race theorist who has contextualized the most recent protests at Yale, Harvard and Princeton, ‘historically white colleges and universities’, as a symptom of the racial order of things in the US.

I have heard political calls for internment camps and a rejection of Syrian refugees.

I have walked the streets of Manhattan and admired the beautifully crafted, proud historic buildings, now cleaned and serviced by a racial underclass of Mexican and African-American workers.

There are ghosts everywhere I turn: ghosts hundreds of years’ old; and ghosts days’ old, killed by drugs, guns, poverty, incarceration, state violence. Injustice, domination and oppression circulate relentlessly, against a soundtrack of a top twenty countdown, police sirens, news bulletins on drone strikes followed by celebrity gossip, and snatches of conversation about whose turn it is to cook dinner.

I am writing this on my Macbook Pro in a New York café painfully conscious that I too am complicit in the oppression of others.

My thoughts turn to home, where we, too, efface our histories of colonialism and white supremacy. Instead of doing everything possible to address the pervasive structures of privilege and inequality, and prioritise delivering justice and land rights to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians as reparation for violent colonization, dispossession, genocide and discrimination, we callously deepen the wounds and collectively ignore the ongoing injustices, deprivation and oppressive practices subjected upon our first peoples.

new matilda, sydney
(IMAGE: Jason James, Flickr)

Then there is the war on terror, the stage on which we assume lofty moral high grounds with dazzling arrogance.

The barbarians are over there, in countries swarming with brown, uncivilized bodies. Leaders suffering dementia, memories frozen on a calendar date that loops only from 9/11, decide to bomb people into ‘civilization’.

The ones who don’t die as ‘collateral damage’, who survive and seek to escape the violence, we lock up.

We are all facing the consequences of games started by leaders long gone now. Leaders who played parts of the world like a game of chess, never caring that their murderous, despotic pawns would eventually be challenged by the populations they brutalized into surrender. Too conceited to imagine that our ‘freedom fighters’ would become our ‘terrorists’.

Our leaders have empty-rhetoric Tourette’s syndrome. They shriek ‘equality’, ‘freedom’, ‘morality’, ‘progress’. Worse, they believe their own rhetoric. Human progress has been one big meritocratic project. The ‘developing world’ has only itself to blame for its poverty, corruption and conflicts. The developed world earned its wealth, security and freedom.

Genocide, slavery, colonization, theft and exploitation are historical misdemeanors over which we may, if we’re feeling generous, cry occasional crocodile tears.

As for our current neo-imperialism, human and environmental destruction, we make no apologies. Not because we are ‘evil’. If only we were; things would be so much clearer. No, this is a problem of fear. Fear so raw that to retreat for a second would mean facing up to the enormity of the threat. And what is that threat?

Look around. It’s happening. The fantasy of ‘West’ and ‘Rest’ has crumbled as the refugees we helped create turn to us for safety. This segregation was always a conceited myth; a cover-up for histories of encounters via colonialism, enslavement and dispossession.

Our wealth is another country’s poverty. We are they, and they are we. The enemies we fought yesterday, we fight alongside today. The enemies we fight today, we armed yesterday. The terrorists we will face in the future, are the children who are now weeping for the families we killed today.

There is not enough outrage because we have been conditioned to turn our rage inwards, against ourselves, against our ability to stop the bombs, stop the blatant lies, stop Aboriginal deaths in custody, stop lower life expectancy for Aboriginals, stop the intervention, stop the detention centres, stop the hypocrisy, stop the environmental destruction.

(IMAGE: Chris Graham)
(IMAGE: Chris Graham)

A collective of people consumed with inrage will see the problems as insurmountable. Disgusted by their impotence, they will surrender the one power every government truly fears: the ability to imagine an alternative reality.

The temptation to inrage must be resisted. The outrage must be embraced. And so I’m going back to where I came from, to Australia, not despondent, but outraged and never for a moment think that change comes via those who hate this country.

It is love that makes you invest; inspires defiance and an imagination stoked by the potential that we have it in us to learn what it would take to create a healthy political realm.

We are a country small enough for pebbles to create ripples. We do not realise how our size, our insignificance in this world (‘you’re from Austria?), may in fact be our blessing, not our curse.

The racial gaps in every dimension of American life are there as a larger model of what exists here today. We should be mature enough to own our settler-colonial identity and to face up to the work that needs to be done to truly right the avoidable wrongs of today and the past. Because what happens in our country, and by our country, happens on our watch.

Nothing terrifies governments and racists more than people who refuse to internalize despair and hate. People who embrace an ethics of outrage based not only on mere opposition, but on a belief in the power to imagine an alternative Australia.


Randa Abdel-Fattah is a third year doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at Macquarie University researching Islamophobia and everyday life from the point of view of the perpetrators. Randa practiced as a lawyer until 2012 and is also an award-winning author of ten novels. While conducting her PhD research, Randa was inspired to write a novel on the side, enabling her to translate some of the theories and academic themes she was researching into a fictional work for a young adult audience. The novel is due for release in 2016. Randa is also working on the film adaptation of her first novel, Does My Head Look Big in This? and is keen to use her intervention into popular culture to reshape dominant narratives around racism and multiculturalism.