I recently discovered that my family role in my maternal village within Tailevu, Fiji is the Bati, the Warrior. Given my passion for defending my beliefs surrounding racial equality, climate justice, my ancestral country, and my people, it makes sense that it was in my blood to be a fighter.
I spent most of my childhood in the South-Western suburb of Lakemba. I have fond memories of devouring manoush and homegrown fruits provided by my elderly Lebanese neighbour, who insisted I call her Tayta. I remember navigating Yangoora Road during the busy time of Ramadan just to catch the 450 bus to school. Growing up in a predominantly Middle Eastern neighbourhood had its perks and challenges as an Australian-born Fijian man. As an adolescent, I began to notice the social differences between my family and everyone else around me. Tayta would wear her hijab everywhere, even on hot days, while she tended to her garden, whereas my parents would be doing chores in a sulu and an old t-shirt. Tayta’s iftar leftovers that she offered to us over the fence were a stark contrast to the suruwa or the rourou my family would make. I grew to appreciate these differences and the wealth of diversity I was exposed to early on.
Years later, I found myself navigating a different type of community, at the University of Technology, Sydney. Although it was generally a positive experience, there were occasions where my interactions were different because of the colour of my skin. I remember how at the beginning of each semester when students were paid to hand out flyers for discounted textbooks along George Street, they’d avoid me. Once, while walking with my friends Muhaimen and Mikail, they were nagged by these paid students like seagulls flying after stray chips. When these same White student workers looked in my direction, they pulled back and waited for a group of White people behind us before they continued their paper-based assault. At first I laughed it off thinking, ‘Whatevs, less paper that I’ll end up throwing in the recycling bin anyway.’ But then Muhaimen nudged me and laughed, ‘They must think you get freebies already!’ reminding me of the very real stereotype that dark-skinned people either live off government handouts ‘unfairly’ or that Pacific Islanders don’t have the capacity to pursue tertiary education, so why would I need the discounts?
Microaggressions like these were just what I experienced on my way to university; the racism I was subject to inside its walls proved much more subtle yet ever-present. In my third year of studies in my Bachelor of Science with a major in Environmental Forensics, I was tasked with writing an essay for a class called Climate and Communications where I focused on climate justice for the Pacific. My tutor, a young light-skinned Indian woman, was generally strict but fair. In my essay, I wrote about Kiribati and how climate change is affecting the low-lying atoll nation severely. When I received my essay back, I realised that I was deducted marks for not clarifying that Kiribati was a country and not a company as my tutor had thought. I’m not sure why she thought it was fair that I had to lose marks for her ignorance she perceived as my own.
Reminiscing about university life isn’t all about gargantuan textbooks and tedious lectures. The parties were something else: great vibes and loads of students looking to let off some built-up stress through alcohol, loud music and Lord knows what else. For the most part, these parties were fun, however being one of the few Pacific Islanders, I was often fetishised. I recall a party held on a cruise where a clearly inebriated blonde-haired woman approached me, swaying back and forth with the rocking of the boat and rubbed my arm.
She whispered in my ear, ‘I love your skin.’
Giving her the benefit of the doubt, I responded, ‘Uh, thanks? I use coconut oil.’
She laughed and introduced herself as Sarah before slurring clumsily over her plastic cup of vodka cranberry, ‘Is it true what they say about Black guys?’ Sarah proceeded to slither her hand down my thigh. I jumped back shaking my head and told her I needed to use the bathroom.
The fetishisation of men with dark skin is a form of racism. Too often women, in particular, White women, approach me with the sole intention of ‘trying me out’ as a way to add another colour to the spectrum of bodies of their sexual conquest only to grow bored when the ‘jungle fever’ wears off. Whether racial-based fetishisation is a result of optimal outbreeding or a subconscious non-consensual race-play, my experience has lead me to feeling oversexualised and put in the awkward position of having to explain that dark skinned men are people and not just an object for White women to go ‘Black guy crazy’ in the words of Stevie Wonder. As a Fijian man, I am stereotyped not just by my dark skin but also by the typecasts forced onto my island homeland. Mt Druitt based Tongan-Australian writer Winnie Dunn outlines in her essay, ‘Playing God with our lives and stories: the stubborn power of the Pacific muse’, that the West has constructed fantasies of the Pacific as nothing but, ‘palm trees, oceans, fresh air, fit Brown women in coconut bras and large Brown men yielding spears’ that speaks to a long history of a colonial, imperial, capitalist and patriarchal construction of exotic primitivism, otherwise known as the ‘Pacific muse’. It is the stubborn and racist power of the Pacific muse that has shown me how White women often think of me as an answer to their desires—a mix of Pornhub fantasy and tropical getaway romance.
After uni, I had plans on becoming an environmental consultant because I wanted to ensure that large companies and projects such as WestConnex, Cimic and Acciona adhered to strict environmental standards. As a Fijian, I was raised to understand the importance of the ‘vanua’. The Fijian word vanua doesn’t have an English counterpart and by trying to translate it, the sacred word loses its value. Commonly, vanua is defined as the land, however it is more accurate to say vanua is the identity which one belongs to that interconnects the land, the culture, and the belief system of our home. The land is not just a physical space in Fijian culture, it is part of our who we are. This is why I had hoped that I could work protecting the environment while earning enough money to be able to support my family and community. Unfortunately, the reality was far from what I had imagined. I found myself working to find loopholes around environmental legislature in order for companies to save money, which often came at a cost to the environment. My part in helping companies destroy the environment weighed heavily on my heart, as I was failing to protect my vanua. The last straw was when I was having a discussion with my overqualified colleagues of the African diaspora. It was discovered that many, if not all of them, were not getting the same pay and opportunities as their colleagues of European descent. In protest, I quit without any real plans for the future.
As I was figuring out what my next move would be, I spent a lot of time attending footy games in order to be around my community. Nothing brings us Islanders together quite like footy—45% of the NRL is made up of players of Pacific Islander heritage. It was during a Rugby League Pacific Test Match in Campbelltown that I found my future in the form of the grassroots organisation, Pacific Climate Warriors. Under the 350 Pacific brand, Pacific Climate Warriors set up a stall in the concourse area of Campbelltown Sports Stadium. I was drawn immediately to the familiar clear blue images of water and palm trees associated with island life because I could see actual Islanders working in the stall surrounded by those pictures. Pacific Islanders, some with skin as dark as mine, asked passersby like me to ‘Take the Warrior’s Journey’ of peaceful protest to fight for the sinking islands at the hands of the West’s pollution. I listened intently as a Tongan man named Joseph-Zane spoke on a portable mic about how the Pacific Climate Warriors wanted justice for the island nations who were having to tie down their valuables just so they wouldn’t get washed away by the tide. He talked about how storytelling could bring about change. Their public protest spoke back to the generations of Bati that I come from. Since then, I have dedicated my life to fighting for climate justice and to dismantling the systems of oppression that limit us from achieving it.
Countries across the Pacific are facing the full force of this climate crisis, and they are the first to be hit yet we contribute the least: approximately 0.03% of global emissions. Scientific reports, like the one from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, warn that if we do not take serious action towards mitigating the effects of the climate crisis within the next ten years, the world will face irreversible damage. This means catastrophic damage for the Pacific Islands is inevitable unless immediate action is taken now. With great scientific consistency, it has been proven that this climate crisis will happen to the Pacific Islands first, resulting in the loss of our land and our culture. The Pacific Climate Warriors taught me that I didn’t have to see myself as lesser for the racism I have faced in my life. Their work allows me to see myself as human. It is the regaining of my humanity, given to me by my diasporic Pacific community, that allowed me to realise that the climate crisis isn’t just an environmental issue, it is a human rights issue. The Pacific Climate Warriors taught me that our people are not drowning, we are fighting.
The Pacific Climate Warriors actively look for ways to engage with community. Whether we are engaging with churches, footy fans or schools, the aim is to begin with talanoa, meaning open dialogue. By empowering every day Pacific Islanders to speak their own truths and to own their own stories, we believe we can effect change.
Right now, this has been difficult: with measures in place to counter COVID-19, activist spaces have had to find new ways to mobilise and engage with our communities. Although campaigns such as Stop Adani , Our Islands Our Home and Don’t Frack the NT were a priority before the pandemic, measures taken to ensure public health and safety have resulted in Zoom protests, webinars and social media spaces being utilised for peaceful protest. The Pacific Climate Warriors are also currently undertaking a Pawa Up Fellowship, which aims to upskill people from all over the Pacific and the Pacific diaspora communities in areas of engagement, storytelling and campaign organising.
The natural prowess of Pacific storytelling, which I believe stems from oral narration, is a powerful tool in activism. To evoke emotions and take the listener along a journey using only one’s imagination is an under-utilised skill in this space. Change is made by the ability to show people how to perceive things in the world with nuance. As the people most at risk to climate catastrophe, it is imperative that all activism in Australia, especially environmental and racial activism, begins with the consultation of Indigenous people. Indigenous people have been the custodians of their lands for thousands of years. We are the experts in our field. We are the authors of our own story.
My time with the Pacific Climate Warriors strengthened my identity within the movement beside my people. However, manoeuvring that very identity though predominantly White climate activism spaces has proven difficult. I have been spoken over, spoken for and spoken about without my consent. In many well-meaning activist spaces, I am erased. In trying to model meaningful allyship, many of my self-proclaimed White comrades cross over to perpetuating saviour complexes. Generally, when a straight White man speaks up about an issue, he is praised and applauded, but when a person of colour does the exact same thing, they are persecuted and labelled as angry and resentful or seen as complicit or helpless. Indigenous people and people of colour in activist spaces have the added pressure of needing to assess our every move so we don’t reinforce negative stereotypes wrongfully enforced upon us by the very same people who are trying to ‘save’ us. These ‘saviours’ are doing more harm by centring themselves in an issue that doesn’t necessarily concern them. As prominent African-American writer Teju Cole would say, ‘If we are going to interfere in the lives of others, a little due diligence is a minimum requirement.’
In 2019, I was invited to attend a Climate Conference for the Climate Reality Project, organised by Al Gore. A workshop was organised to detail the importance of working with First Nation communities. This workshop was run by non-First Nations people and many well-meaning White people began to use the workshop as space to talk about how they would like to ‘fix’ the relationship between Australia and the Pacific. When told that was an ignorant way to look at the problem, which blamed the victims of the climate crisis instead of the actual perpetrators, a White woman began to cry, ‘It was just an idea!’ and the rest of the workshop, already problematic with its poor management, was spent consoling the White woman’s fragility. So often perspectives and voices like mine are seen as a threat and subsequently minimised. Over my years in activism, I have come to realise how draining educating White activists are. Dr Joseph Flynn, author of White Fatigue: Rethinking Resistance for Social Justice, describes this feeling of draining as a consequence of not having ‘a deeper understanding of how systemic and institutional racism functions, [so] we end up kind of talking past each other.’ It got me wondering, just how much energy is expelled on pitying White people’s ignorance rather than solving an impending climate catastrophe that affects us all?
In a similar vein of denial, Prime Minister Scott Morrison alleged that Australia has never had a history of slavery. To be clear, this is a false statement and highlights just how shallow Australia’s understanding of its own history in racism is. To ignore the atrocities happening in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities at the hands of law enforcement is dangerous. To ignore Australia’s history with Blackbirding is dangerous. The Australian economy wouldn’t be what it is today without the kidnapping and indentured labour of Indigenous people. It make senses that a leader who believes that ‘if you have a go, you get a go’ would willingly erase the dark past of this land where Indigenous people weren’t exactly ‘given a go’ or rather even given a choice. It is a myth that Australia’s colonial history is in the past—stolen and indentured labour of the Pacific is still happening today under the Pacific Labour Scheme. I speak from the position of an Indigenous colonial-settler on stolen lands when I say that we must all do better to be educated and informed about how systemic and institutional White supremacy functions in order to begin to dismantle it so we can create a better future, with First Nations voices at the forefront.
I was not given a choice in taking up a Warrior’s journey. I was born into it, the Bati passed down to me from my ancestors. The Bati is not, as colonial representations imagine us, Brown men holding spears, it is a sacred ancestral role of working for and looking after the vanua. The work is hard but it is work that needs to be done. I am a warrior who pushes back against being erased and I fight by being present, by speaking up and showing up. My ancestors arm me with my voice and my intellect as we fight against injustice in all its forms in these rising hot waters.
Isaac Nasedra is a young man of Fijian descent born and raised in the South-Western suburbs of Sydney, and acknowledges that it is land that was stolen from the Dharug people. He is currently employed in the environmental industry and volunteers as an organiser with the Pacific Climate Warriors in Sydney.