Friday, July 31, 2015

The awful truth about Australia and racism (again)

Blurring the lines (2009) Kodakotype by Pants

It has been a vile week in Australia. I didn't especially want to write this post because many of the things I'm about to say, I've said many times before. But every week, every month, every year, things get worse in this, the birth-mother country that feels less and less like a real home and more and more like an ideological prison. This week, we really broke it when we hounded an Aboriginal man - a sporting hero and courageous activist - into silence. This post will contain no original thought but this is not a day for original thought. It is a time for simply standing up for what is right.

My personal abhorrence and intolerance of racism has been expressed many times on this blog. One of the reasons for this post is that, of the six hundred entries on That's So Pants over nine years, one of the most popular is this one. I wrote with some pride in 2007 about how Sydney had responded to the Cronulla riots by training a group of Muslim women as life guards. At the time I was living in Britain, where I had been since 1982 and was blissfully unaware of how skilled Australia is at papering over nasty cracks with a token gesture and a few reassuring words. I got played. I believed the hype. I wanted to believe it. And now things have gotten a whole lot worse since I rode back in on the wave of hope and enthusiasm generated by Kevin Rudd's apology to Indigenous people in 2008.

I have written in support of Aboriginal football player Adam Goodes before too. Now, the former Australian of the Year has taken time out and may even retire after being hounded by crowds and pilloried by the media over a prolonged period of time. Curiously, his singling out coincides with his speaking out about racism, calling for reconciliation and overtly expressing cultural pride. Journalist and football fan Waleed Aly spelt it out here - this really did need saying. And it needs repeating until we finally get it. 'Australia is generally a very tolerant society until minorities demonstrate that they don't know their place ... the minute somebody in a minority position acts as though they're not a mere supplicant, we lose our minds.'

Australia is and always has been a racist country. The degree to which racism manifests depends on 1) how regressive a government we have at the time and, 2) what's happening in the rest of the world. Right now, our political 'leaders' are a bunch of a self-serving, light-fingered jobsworths captained by a fork-tongued creep who makes a show of head-patting Indigenous people for the television cameras whilst openly plotting to cut off their essential services and hand over their lands to his mining buddies. Would you like smallpox with that blanket? (Snigger, snigger.)

And the rest of the world? Well, that's a very sorry story too. With the mega-rich hoovering up more and more global wealth, there is less and less for us ordinary folks to share between us. When that happens, we look for someone else to blame for our reduced opportunities. We can't blame the rich because they're paying our shrinking wages, so we turn to a group we've traditionally oppressed and we have another bash at them. The rich and powerful are leading by example, setting the tone. Trickle down doesn't work with money but it works a treat with oppression. Look at what's happening in Greece right now. You lean on people, they lord it over someone even more powerless.

There's an especially virulent form of racism that white people reserve for black people. White Australians have routinely directed casual racism at other fellow immigrant groups from the Chinese who came during the nineteenth century through to continental Europeans after the Second World War, the Vietnamese following the Communist victory and lately refugees from conflicts in the Middle East, North Africa and Sri Lanka. But Indigenous Australians have always been bottom of the heap. All the other groups form a buffer, so that we can occasionally say, 'see, we pick on them too.'

I agree with Waleed Aly, visibility plays a big part. Racism against black people generally is becoming more pronounced and violent whether it be towards Australian Indigenous people, African Americans or refugees waiting in Calais for the opportunity to scramble onto a truck heading to Britain. Racism in the United States has gotten worse since Barack Obama was elected president. A black man in charge terrifies the cotton socks off white men. And he's talking about racism now - finally, but who can blame him, you're no good to anyone assassinated. Many black Americans have written about the primal fear that white America has of blackness but few as potently as Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic this month.

Back home, Celeste Liddle tackled the white fear of black assertiveness in The Guardian with the challenge, So an imaginary spear is more terrifying than racism? Really? Many have drawn the obvious parallel - if the Maori Haka is routinely performed at sporting events to roars of delight, what's wrong with Adam Goodes doing a traditional war dance when he scores a goal? Is it because only one of these displays is a programmed and approved activity for which we white people have been given a full and satisfactory explanation? Two years ago, Adam Goodes called out a 13-year-old girl who called him 'ape' during a game. At the time, it was generally felt that he handled the situation with grace and sensitivity. Now, he's being recast as the villain of that situation - a grown man bullying a child who obviously isn't very bright.

So, let's accept that, as a nation, we're racist. Then we can look at the equally interesting question of why are we so desperate to see ourselves as something else entirely? This piece by Sean Kelly provides a comprehensive roundup of the many avenues of denial down which we have been merrily strolling. Why go to all the bother of enacting this elaborate charade to conceal our racism when it would be so much easier to confront it and move on? Isn't this what you're supposed to do with bad character traits? Why doesn't someone call Dr Phil and get us on a program so that we can sort this out once and for all? The first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one, right? Somewhere in the collective consciousness, we know that racism is wrong otherwise why would we bother brazening it out like a bunch of primary school kids who've been caught trying to set fire to a toilet block?

Anyone who has ever been bullied in this country will tell you that once the bullies have crushed you, they'll immediately gush with faux concern about the state of your mental health - the inference being that you must have been a bit cracked anyway to break like that. And so it is with Adam Goodes. Suddenly everyone's angsting about the effect this will have on him emotionally. Guess what fellow citizens - this is not a group hug moment. This is a group shame moment. We must act to stop racism now.

If you would like to demonstrate your support for Adam Goodes and honour his courage, please sign this petition on