Isha Karki interrogates white tears, milkshake victimisation, and how to resist apathy in the age of Anything Can Happen and Things Will Get Worse
A few days ago, I watched Theresa May’s resignation video. Nothing she said particularly resonated with me; what struck me were her unexpected tears. I turned to my sister and said, ‘She seems like somebody’s grandma.’ As soon as the words were out, I knew something was off about them. As the day wore on, I thought about conversations around white feminism, its myopia and elitism, about the weaponisation of white women’s tears, eliciting sympathy and avoiding accountability. I thought about May’s legacy. As I write, I am thinking about how I’ve begun this essay by focusing on May’s tears – and how telling that is.
I can’t say I started off from a place of hope when May came into power. Despite proclaiming herself a feminist, she was never, and will never be, a feminist to me, even as I acknowledge the gender discrimination she faced whilst in power: the gross scrutiny of her body and her clothes, the ‘Maybot’ moniker, and the hyper-focus on her lack of emotions. Yet, she held the most powerful position in this country. She will have a cushy life, and will no doubt go on to do more damage.
The focus on May’s tears, and by extension her ‘humanity’, diverts from her legacy of violence and austerity.
When we demand sympathy for her, we are centring a white woman’s tears in a conversation that should instead focus on her legacy of harmful immigration and detention policies, the Windrush scandal, the Grenfell tragedy, the dehumanising conditions of Yarl’s Wood, the funding cuts that continue to target the poor, working-class, and the differently abled. May’s co-option of the most superficial language of feminism – highlighting her position as the second female Prime Minister – asks for sisterhood by paying lip-service to the idea of feminism. May’s policies did systemic anti-feminist work and showed an utter disregard for the dignity and lives of the most vulnerable. Her elite white version of feminism is not my feminism.
The focus on May’s tears is like the milkshake discourse all over again. The constant focus on The Wrongs of the Milkshake is draining and demoralising. It seems more attention is paid to the decency and humanity of those who spout hate speech than there is to the real violence of their fascist ideologies.
The Wrongs of the Milkshake narrative detracts from the structural oppression of the marginalised, from the normalising of white supremacist rhetoric.
Instead, this narrative confers a badge of victimhood to the ‘injured’ party and offers them a platform to speak on that victimhood – after all, their freedom of speech must be protected at all costs. So, the likes of Nigel Farage get their own prime time radio shows, and a whole Newsnight feature is devoted to Tommy Robinson in his favourite guise of victim. Meanwhile, ‘funny-tinged’ black and brown bodies are, as tokens, invited on stage to Question Time and Good Morning Britain debates to prove the existence of racism or the personhood of immigrants. Media bastions like the BBC and Sky continue to evade criticisms of legitimising abusive atmospheres, even when claimed by figures like Diane Abbott, whilst still expecting the Afua Hirsches of this world to, once again, take on the burden of explaining racism. How to nurture hope when the loudest voices in the country, with the largest platforms, financial backing, and political clout, wilfully appropriate and perpetuate the Milkshake narrative?
May’s resignation has led to yet another liminal space of uncertainty – and dread. While we’re waiting at the cusp of change, I can’t help thinking of my upcoming trip to the States. I have the privileges that come with a British passport – all I had to do was apply for an ESTA that costs $14 – and yet I am conscious that I will be entering Trump country for the first time. We all know that border spaces are notorious for racialised profiling. To not be nervous that Something Could Happen is a privilege that, as a brown woman, I can’t afford. The political limbo we’re in, in which we wait for a new Prime Minister and for the exact terms of Brexit to seal our own borders, evokes the same deep unease.
Who will be the next ‘leader’? A huge part of me does not care. One of the leading options is a man who thinks Africa would fare better under colonial rule and calls Muslim women in burkas letterboxes.
With the Brexit vote, Trump’s election, Farage winning more than 30% of the vote in the EU elections, we have seen that Anything Can Happen and Things Will Get Worse.
I write from the same place of Not-Hope as when Theresa May became the second female Prime Minister. Having seen the establishment launch a divisive campaign fuelled by racist propaganda in the service of party interests, I am filled only with contempt and disillusionment. Before I cast my vote for the EU elections, I thought: what does it matter? Now as we wait for the next leader, I think: what does it matter? The conversations happening in mainstream politics are so removed from my everyday life that it is easy to ask that question and concede to apathy.
And yet I want to resist apathy. I know it is important. Apathy, too, is a privilege – though I appreciate that for some it is survival.
How to then contain that sense of helplessness and hopelessness? I believe it is important to hold on to anger. To think about our everyday impact. To focus on the little things. I will continue writing, dissecting politics and popular culture with my sister, having difficult conversations with family about right-wing views. I will consciously support loved ones – and myself – through mental health struggles. I will amplify marginalised voices, support alternative media outlets, ask others what they need, read critically, and always say This is Not Good Enough.
I write from a place of Not-Hope and disillusionment with the establishment, but I also write from a place of hope for the rest of us in our everyday lives.
Isha Karki is a writer and freelance editor living in London. Her short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed Magazine, Mslexia and The Good Journal, and is forthcoming in On Relationships, Rosalind’s Siblings and Sunspot Jungle. Her work interrogates the politics of race, cultural identity and sexual violence, and is informed by her Nepali immigrant experience. Her story ‘Love’ is forthcoming in the anthology On Relationships. Support the Kickstarter here. She can be found on Twitter @IshaKarki11.