A Note on Racism in Australia

Thursday, 18 February 2010 17:18

Each year I avoid the worst of the English winter by spending those three months in Australia. The place has changed enormously since I lived there, but some things go on forever. When I arrive I am sure to find that the newspapers are covering a story or two about the goings-on of a dishonest business man or politician, and there is an account of someone being beaten up for reasons that might be linked to racism. Sometimes these attacks become major news stories. In 2005 there were the Cronulla riots, and in 2010 the attacks on Indian students in Melbourne.

These latest attacks were big news back in India where parents pay a great deal of money, often borrowed money, to send their son to Australia for a tertiary education. There was much in the Indian media about a boycott of Australian universities. World-wide, universities need overseas students in order to balance their budgets. The possibility that universities in the state of Victoria could lose this money stirred the Victorian State parliament into action. Something needed to be done, but what? Politicians and community leaders pondered what measures could be taken to show people that racism was wrong. They reported on their deliberations with the usual platitudes.

Ever since Governor Phillip arrived at Farm Cove white society has been divided into a hierarchy of classes. Initially it was the governor and his aides at the top, followed by the free settlers, ex-convicts, convicts, and, right at the bottom, were the aboriginals. My mother, born 1896, and the grand-daughter of a convict, was not unusual in the way she regarded the aboriginals as being not quite human. Wealthy foreigners might be tolerated, but foreigners without money, like the Chinese who arrived during the gold rushes and the migrants who arrived after Second World War, were regarded with great suspicion. It was not considered reprehensible to refer to these migrants with derogatory names like ‘dago’ and ‘wog’. Finer distinctions between the classes were made as the shame of being descended from a convict suddenly vanished, because this distinction enabled those who held it to feel superior to those migrants who had arrived only in recent years. Fear of being looked down on by the British, known as ‘colonial cringe’ no longer exists, and now many Australians believe in their superiority as Australians with the same strength of conviction that the Pope believes in his own infallibility. Meanwhile, the migrants from countries other than the UK brought their own forms of racism. The Bosnian War continues to be fought between Serbs, Croatians and Bosnians on the playing fields of Australia.

Such beliefs cannot be changed with platitudes and government directives, but they can be changed through more subtle means.

In this world of great uncertainty we all need to feel reasonably confident that we can cope with our everyday life. We need to be able to value ourselves, and to expect that other people will value us too. However, many people do not possess such a modest but essential degree of self-confidence. It may be that they lack the education to earn a respected and secure place in society. Or they may, in childhood, have suffered too many slights and rejections that, no matter how confidently they present themselves and whatever they do to value themselves, a worm in the bud eats away at what little self-confidence they have. This is the voice inside that says, ‘You are valueless; you are not acceptable.’ To survive they resort to telling themselves a comforting lie, ‘I might be of little value, but I am better than those people.’ ‘Those people’ are not a motley collection of individuals whose behaviour has been shown to be morally and legally reprehensible. ‘Those people’ are simply some other racial/ national/ class/ religious group.

A multi-racial society like Australia offers a wide choice of people to be seen as ‘those people’. A person chooses a particular group to hate for special reasons over and above that of compensating oneself for feeling inadequate.

NOTE: What follows here is an explanation of certain behaviours. Always remember, an explanation is never an excuse. We always have the choice to interpret matters differently and so behave differently.

Indian students are intelligent and well-educated. Australians who doubt their own value and acceptability, and who lack education might envy these students. When we see someone with something we want we can feel envious. When we feel that there is no possibility of us getting what these people have we can come to hate them. Envy, hate and anger can lead us to feel justified in attacking those who have something we want but cannot get.

Across the world, and throughout history, whenever one group of people seize the land of those who have held that land for thousands of years, those who have seized the land proceed to denigrate those whose mere presence is enough to provoke feelings of guilt. When my mother was a child there were still aboriginal people living in the Hunter Valley, just as there are aboriginal people living in outback towns today. Until well into the 20th century in the UK many members of the middle and upper classes believed that there was no point in providing the working class with a bathroom because ‘they would only keep coal in the bath’. Similar sentiments are expressed by racist Australians about aboriginals. There is, however, an additional theme in what is said.

Of recent years the Federal government has spent a great deal of money in trying to improve the health, educational and living conditions of aboriginal people, often with limited success. Without trying to understand the complexities of the situation, white Australians who denigrate aboriginals produce the complaint that children often produce to and about their parents, ‘It’s not fair.’ These adults are saying, ‘I’ve been good and the government doesn’t reward me. I’ve paid my taxes and the government gives my money to these lazy aboriginals.’

Then there is the hatred that many heterosexual men have towards homosexual men.

Homophobia has at its core knowing something about ourselves, denying what we know, and projecting what is inside us on to other people whom we then hate. We see in the other person something we hate in ourselves but whose existence we deny. For homophobic men the worm in the bud is their sexual and affectionate interest in other men, not necessarily a predominating interest but something that we all have to some degree in our relationships with members of the same gender. The amount of time men spend with one another, not just in work but in sport and hobbies, and the value they place on being with men all testify to this. Men who have the self-confidence to accept the complexity of their own sexuality know this, but men who lack such self-confidence feel that they must demonstrate to a watching world that they are not homosexual. When they choose to denigrate gays, or attack them they hope that, with every word and blow, they are proving that they are not homosexual.

Exhortations and platitudes urging people to be good achieve little, especially when the causes of our bad behaviour lie in our feelings of inadequacy and our fears of rejection. Only when in our society it becomes acceptable to talk about feelings of inadequacy and fears of rejection can we be brave enough to examine our our thoughts and feelings, and so change. Such massive changes in attitudes have occurred in Australia in the last thirty years. When I was a child in the 1930s the advice given to new parents had only two features – the benefits of a good hiding, and the necessity of never letting a child to forget who is boss. It was not until the 1970s that those attitudes began to be questioned. Now, when I watch the interaction between mothers and their small children in shops and on the beach, I think about how very different my life would have been had my mother been as wise and patient as these young women. Similarly, attitudes to grief and trauma have changed. Prime Minister Curtin might have visited the survivors of a terrible bushfire, but he would have merely shaken the hand of a stony-faced man, whereas we all saw on television Prime Minister Rudd hugging a man while the man, slowly and visibly, wiped away his tears.

Parents have had to face up to the difficult question of how what they say and do affects their children. An equally difficult question is how our hidden, and often unacknowledged, feelings of inadequacy can burst forth, often in most reprehensible ways, and how the lies we tell ourselves about these feelings can lead to racist and homophobic attitudes and behaviours. What politicians can do about racism and homophobia is to have the courage to start the public discourse about our feelings of inadequacy, and what can follow from such feelings.

Last modified on Tuesday, 17 May 2011 05:12