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Published October 6, 2014
By Maxine Beneba Clarke
Hyperlinks have been provided for this article in accordance with journalistic requirements. But a trigger warning is extended in relation to both the contents of this article and provided links, regarding racist language and behaviour.
The white ute draws level with me, slows down. It’s around 2.30pm and the traffic on North Road is almost bumper-to-bumper.
“Fuck off, you black bitch,” the ute driver screams from the open window. “Go on, fuck off. You make me sick you fucken black slut. Go drown your kid! You should go drown your fucken kid. Fuck off will you!”
My baby daughter thinks it’s funny. She’s chuckling down in her pram, kicking her fat legs in glee at the loud voice coming from the vehicle.
I look straight ahead, trying not to pick up pace too much. The turn-off for my son’s school is a few hundred metres away.
In 2013, the newly elected Abbott Government announced their plan to abolish section 18C of the Commonwealth Racial Discrimination Act, which makes it unlawful to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” a person or group because of their “race, colour or national or ethnic origin.” Attorney General George Brandis proclaimed: “Australians have the right to be bigots” and that the relevant section was a fetter on freedom of speech. Widespread community opposition, sustained over a number of months, eventually led to the abolition of this proposed amendment and it evidenced broad public consensus that the kind of behaviour is unacceptable.
As an Australian of colour, coming up against this overt racist vitriol is not a daily occurrence, but neither is it an altogether infrequent experience. In the past, such incidents of verbal violence have been witnessed primarily by the victim and immediate bystanders, but the rise of video recorders in mobile phones has enabled the broader public to bear witness to the scope and frequency of such attacks.
In April 2013, a Melbourne train commuter was filmed launching a sustained racist rant against a fellow traveller: “It’s my fucking country,” she slurred, addressing a passenger of African descent, “black cunt”.
In early 2014, a Sydneysider was filmed racially abusing a young Asian woman on the train, shouting racist insults and loudly mimicking her accent. She then verbally attacked an Anglo-Australian man she presumed to be the woman’s partner.
While the community response to the changes to section 18C, and the widespread public condemnation of attacks such as these are to be commended, Australians are also in danger of viewing this blurry YouTube footage as the most common manifestation of racism in contemporary Australia. Such incidents, which can be condemned whilst simultaneously being pegged by the broader public as some kind of working class hooliganism, do not exist in a vacuum. The sense of entitlement underpinning these public verbal assaults is a product of a more complex racism – one which commences with the silence, inaction and wilful blindness of the individual towards lesser slights, and continues with institutionalising and normalising these ingrained attitudes and behaviours.
The interviewer looks quizzically up from her desk.
“Oh. You’re … Maxine? I’m uhhh … I’m really sorry I kept you waiting. I thought you must be here for someone else. I uhhh … didn’t think … you didn’t. You don’t look like you sounded in the phone interview.”She laughs nervously, staring at my smart black dress-suit and crisp white shirt as if she can’t quite believe her eyes.
“Well, come on through and let’s get started.”She motions for me to follow her. Beyond the doorway of the legal recruitment firm is a smartly decorated open plan office, circled by several plush interview rooms. The five or so staff working in the open area stare over at us as the woman ushers me into one of the interview offices.
“Take a seat.”She gestures to the armchair facing the window, taking the chair closest to the door. “Did you bring your resume? I’m really sorry … I mean, you get a certain image of someone in your mind when you interview them on the phone. It’s silly, I know. Your English is just so … you’re very well spoken.”
“We cannot be uncomfortable with being labelled racist, while at the same time refusing to acknowledge our racist behaviour or engage in a dialogue about the real state of race relations in this country.”
In his autobiography Long Walk To Freedom, Nelson Mandela explains what compelled him to fight against racism and apartheid: “I had no epiphany, no singular revelation, no moment of truth, but a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities and a thousand unremembered moments.”
Last month in Australia, Beyond Blue, an organisation which aims to combat anxiety and depression nationwide, launched a television campaign aimed at combatting racism against Indigenous Australians. The advertisement presents concrete examples of these everyday indignities, and goes some way toward capturing their cumulative impact.
In the Beyond Blue advertisement, Racism is personified by a tall scruffy-looking man with shoulder-length black hair and a disturbing half-sneer. Racism is suspicious, sneaky, and scared. Racism wears a black skivvy and jeans. He randomly materialises out of nowhere to whisper in the ear of those he’s about to inhabit: urging a young Anglo-Australian man to edge away from the black man who just sat down next to him in the shopping mall; telling a young woman to walk past the empty bus seat next to the Aboriginal bloke who’s kindly moved his bag to allow for extra space; sitting on the windowsill at a job interview and asking the interviewer if she can really trust the young Aboriginal woman seated hopefully in front of her.
As a non-Indigenous black Australian, the Beyond Blue advertisements are excruciating to watch. I’ve been there: in that interview room; indiscreetly followed around David Jones by a suspicious shop attendant; palms sweaty, heart beating through my temples, rage drying my mouth. I’ve experienced the nuanced, at times subconscious, racism of middle class Australia. The kind that’s easier to deny.
Australian people of colour, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, largely lauded the Beyond Blue advertising campaign for capturing a small slice of their everyday reality. The advertisement also immediately kicked off a wave of defensiveness amongst some Anglo-Australians, culminating in a racist social media storm. One YouTube commentator joked that there was a black voice inside the head of Indigenous men, urging them to rape white women. “Ever thought that perhaps the person on the bus was going to get off at the next stop? Maybe the guy at the counter was making sure he restocked the milk? Maybe the girl wasn’t as qualified for the job as someone else,” insisted one tweeter. There were the inevitable reverse racism cries: “This advertisement is encouraging subliminal racism and hatred towards white people.” Anti-Semitism crept into comment stream: “Jews created racism.” Then followed the challenging of the Aboriginality of some of the fairer skinned actors.
When charged with a racism that is not so violently obvious as to invoke mass public outrage, defensiveness has proven a trusty fallback.
“Racism may be a fearful thing to tackle, but our silence is what allows that fearful thing to propagate.”
When I’m handed my class participation mark for the second year law subject I’m dismayed, shocked by the 12 marks out of 20 my law lecturer has awarded me. The participation mark is worth 20 per cent of the entire course mark, based on class attendance and contribution to discussion. I’ve missed only one lecture, and have been an active participant in discussions.
Less than a week later the only other black student in the class, a friend of mine, who’s been ill and barely attended tutorials, mentions she was given 18.5 out of 20 for her class participation mark. We both agree on what’s happened. All instinct – and extensive previous experience – tells me not to rock the boat.
Try as I might, the outrage refuses to dissipate. After the next class I wait for the professor outside the lecture hall.
“Hi, I’m wondering if you have a minute or so to chat.”
“Yeah sure, no worries.”
“I’m Maxine. I’m in your Tuesday tutorial, and I’m wanting to speak to you about my class participation mark.”
“Yes, well, umm, I was given a 12 out of 20, and I haven’t really missed any classes, and I always participate in discussions …”
“I mark the students off. In every class.” She looks at me as if I’m trying to pull a fast one.
“I know.” She shuffles the papers she’s carrying.
“Well. It’s just that, um, another, um, student, who’s, uhh … been away quite a lot … told me she got quite a high participation mark.” I mention the other student’s name. “I was wondering if maybe …” I don’t want to say it out loud, wanting her to suggest the error herself.
The lecturer stops adjusting her papers and looks up at me. I can see it slowly dawning on her what’s happened, can tell that she’s just realised she’s been marking me off as the other student for the entire semester. I smile reassuringly, to try and show it’s not a big deal, that I’d just like to get my real mark back and that’s all I’m here for. Her face closes over in panic, shuts down like stone.
“I don’t know what you’re getting at” she says, “but if you wanted a better participation mark, you should have come to class more often, and participated more often.”
Before I can open my mouth, she’s already started walking away.
One of the inherent problems of tackling this kind of racism is that, for complainants, taking it on often means taking on an institution, rather than an individual. Then too, even if the behaviour in question is uncontested, whether or not the behaviour actually clearly constitutes racism often is.
In July 2014, an interviewer for Australian magazine Surfing Life wrote up an article about Indigenous surfer Otis Carey. “With his apeish face and cowering hair curtains,” he wrote“I expect little more than co-magnan grunts from his mouth. I am caught off-guard by the clarity and eloquence of his speech.”After an uproar from readers, the magazine issued an apology. “Upon the original edit of the magazine,” they responded, “we read the offending term as a jibe at the stereotypical surfer — and failed to see the racist connotations … on a personal note, our Editor Wade Davis is a man of colour whose maternal family immigrated to Australia from Africa …” Surfing Life made no apology for the assumption the interviewer made about his subject’s intellect, and attempted to water down the initial racist slur by referring to the ethnic background of a co-worker as a mitigating factor.
In May 2013, in response to an incident in which Indigenous AFL star Adam Goodes was racially abused mid-match by a screaming 13-year-old girl, Collingwood AFL’s club president Eddie McGuire made a racist joke on public radio.
Black Australian footballer Heritier Lumumba (aka Harry O’Brien), also a star Collingwood player, stepped forward to condemn the words of his club president. “In my opinion race relations in this country is systematically a national disgrace and we have a long way to go to reach a more harmonious and empathetic society,”he observed.
The failure, in both of these instances, to understand what racism actually is, and to respond to the initial incident swiftly, with unequivocal condemnation, despite the public nature of both the initial incidents, illustrates the depth of the problem.
In 2003, I undertook an internship with the New South Wales Anti-Discrimination Board, as one of two work placements to fulfil the requirements for my undergraduate law degree. In addition to drafting a set of plain English guidelines for the racial discrimination provisions of the New South Wales Anti-Discrimination Act, I spent considerable time sitting in on face-to-face mediations, and with the team fielding initial phone inquiries.
This experience laid bare the brain of white middle class Australia: jam-packed with prejudice, writhing with racism, steeped in denial.
I heard shocking reports of discrimination within the workplace and in other areas of public life. But in addition to these reports, there were many phone calls which evidenced just how misunderstood the general public was about what racism and discrimination actually entailed. There was the Anglo-Australian man, who phoned up to complain that his call centre boss kept “hiring Asians”.
“I’m ringing up to find out if there’s anything you can do about it,” he said hopefully. An Anglo-Australian father, concerned about his teenage daughter’s Tongan boyfriend, phoned for advice on how he might officially intervene in the union.
“She was a good girl,” he kept saying. “She’s never given me any trouble. She has a university degree and everything. She was such a good girl.” You could hear his voice wavering as he shook his head in despair.
In face-to-face mediations, a vilified Indian school teacher of colour sat down to a “good faith” mediation with a pair of highly experienced Education Department lawyers, and a sacked factory manager similarly sat down to talk with his ex-employer’s expert legal counsel about the alleged discrimination he’d encountered. In both cases, the distressed complainants, on recounting their experiences, were met with denial and a barrage of intimidating legal jargon. On no occasion did I witness the alleged individual perpetrators of racist discrimination brought to direct account for racist behaviour, or asked to address their alleged actions in front of their complainants.
The internship was a largely defeating experience for an impending graduate majoring in Anti-Discrimination law, but highly illuminative in understanding the behaviour I’d experienced frequently in my then 24 years of growing up in white, middle class Australia, and the privileged, institutionalised power systems that continued – and continue – to underpin those behaviours.
I understood, more clearly, the baffled look on the face of my grade five teacher when I complained about another kid in the class consistently calling me Blackie.
“Well, that’s what you are. You can call him Whitey if you like.” Her matter-of-fact reply suddenly made more sense.
The lack of understanding around the very concept of racism and discrimination amongst the general public that I encountered in my time at the Anti-Discrimination Board validated my ongoing reluctance to call out behaviour that was clearly racist; my attempts to avoid the further trauma of additional racism, continued denials or even genuine confusion, by completely disengaging with the perpetrator, at least in circumstances where it was possible to do so.
In July this year, I attended a book club at The Sun Book Shop in the gentrified inner-west suburb of Yarraville. The book, short stories about disenfranchisement, migration, refuge and racism, had been thoroughly critiqued, and the conversation between the 20 or so readers turned to the hows and whys of Australian racism.
“I live in Footscray, and when I see a Sudanese person walking down the street, I do stare at them,” one reader confessed. “That’s not because I’m racist, it’s just because I’m interested – because they are just so tall and so, so dark and I’m intrigued. But I don’t want to be called a racist for that. It’s not racist.”
A few in the room nodded, most shifted uncomfortably in their seats.
“I don’t understand,”another woman piped up, “where this racism comes from. I mean, why do we all do it? Where does it originate?”
“Well, there’s slavery,” I pointed out. “As a starting point that’s hundreds and hundreds of years of one group of people being the property of another, being bought and sold and killed and raped at whim. It will take hundreds of years to recover from that kind of intergenerational trauma and even longer to dismantle the economic and power systems that kind of free labour and oppression supported. And here, there’s the genocide of Aboriginal people, the White Australia Policy, which wasn’t abolished very long ago.”
Some people in the book club nodded furiously, others looked confused.
“I mean, I know that awful things happened to Indigenous people here, but we weren’t even alive then. Nobody I know is racist. How is it still happening?”
A gentleman spoke up from the back of the room, frustration in his voice. “It’s in our psyche,” he said. “It’s just there, all around us, in everything, in all of us even if we don’t know it. And in Australia we never talk about it, so it never gets dealt with.”
The room fell silent for a moment.
“Australian political leadership has, for the most part, erred on the side of racism.”
Racism is a very difficult subject to broach in Australia not just because our history of race relations is so complex and decidedly unjust, but also because we are a young nation, and these injustices are so very recent – some within living memory of a large number of us.
Australia is a country colonised by a United Kingdom which owes a large part of its wealth to the brazen and systematic exploitation of people of colour, both through centuries of slavery and otherwise. We are a nation founded on the genocide, degradation and dispossession of black Indigenous inhabitants. We are a nation which enacted unthinkable assimilation policies on its Indigenous people, and which still continues to fail Indigenous people in areas such as health, education, literacy and life expectancy. For many decades we lived under the White Australia Policy – a system, only dismantled some 40 years ago – which openly preferenced immigrants of European origin over immigrants of colour. Queensland’s Aboriginal Protection Act (1897) provided the blue-print for South Africa’s racial segregation laws: put simply, we are the country which exported apartheid to South Africa.
Australian political leadership has, for the most part, erred on the side of racism. In 1919, then Prime Minister William Morris Hughes, hailed the White Australia Policy as “the greatest thing we have achieved.” Two decades later, after the outbreak of the Second World War, then Prime Minister John Curtin reaffirmed its validity, proclaiming: “This country shall remain forever the home of the descendants of those people who came here in peace in order to establish in the South Seas an outpost of the British race.”
This official stance started softening when in 1949, Prime Minister Harold Holt allowed 800 European refugees and a number of Japanese war-brides to stay on in Australia despite the White Australia Policy, and by 1966 the White Australia policy had been completely abandoned. Significantly, however, it was not until 1975, one year before my own West-Indian born black British parents arrived in Australia, and three years before I was born, that non-European immigration to Australia actually increased.
In 1988, after a decade in which it seemed Australia might finally be on the road toward casting off our appalling legacy of racism and xenophobia, then Opposition Leader John Howard sold us “One Australia” –a concept which was opposed to the recognition of Indigenous land rights, and which advocated the slowing down of immigration from Asia. “One Australia”, in fact, sounded disturbingly similar to the current liberal government’s recently adopted catchphrase “Team Australia”.
When political leaders in Australia continue to incite fear of the “other” – of non European migrants, Indigenous people, asylum seekers and people of non-Christian faiths; when they insist upon the potential threat these people pose against the livelihood, lives and liberty of Anglo-Australians; when racism is the official, government-sanctioned position, this influences not only the machinery of justice, but individuals in wider society. Local police see nothing wrong with practising racial profiling. Legislatively, we see such schemes as the Howard Government’s Northern Territory intervention, which specifically provided for the suspension of the federal Racial Discrimination Act to allow laws which would otherwise have been deemed discriminatory to be directly targeted at Indigenous people. Right wing commentators proliferate hate-speech despite the existence of legal prohibitions and the government responds to the legal curtailing of such hate speech by attempting to repeal the human rights legislation itself. Despite living in a purportedly secular democracy, politicians feel free to condemn outward manifestations of religion with which they feel uncomfortable.
This is where the issue of racism in Australia becomes chicken and egg; it is virtually impossible to quantitatively ascertain whether our elected representatives and their policies are merely indicative of the racism of the voting majority, whether the voting majority is influenced by the xenophobic agenda espoused by our leaders, or a combination of both.
The public rejection of the Abbott Government’s proposed amendments to section 18C of the Federal Anti-Discrimination Act suggests that the current government is out of step with the broader community when it comes to racism, human rights and the various protections afforded to the vulnerable under current legislation. The Federal Government’s abandonment of the proposed changes, though accompanied by rhetoric and spin, was a defining moment in human rights law: an admission that an Australian government had got it wrong, had misread the opinions of the Australian electorate at large. Perhaps, as Attorney General Brandis pointed out, we have the right to be a nation of bigots, but there is now solid evidence that is not what we want to be.
In order to have a full and open discourse about racism in Australia, we need to recognise racism and bigotry in all of its guises – beyond section 18C, and the ute driver hurling violent abuse; beyond the angry foul-mouthed woman on the tram. We need to see it in the factory worker who does not want Chinese colleagues; in the father whose only criticism of his daughter’s boyfriend is his ethnicity; in the academic who does not bother to tell the difference between students of similar ethnic backgrounds; and the interviewer stunned that a person of colour could speak English better than her. We need to dissect our preconceived assumptions about the class, ability, background, life experience, trustworthiness and capacity of people around us; to lay bare our deep-seated fears, and our shameful reservations.
Racism may be a fearful thing to tackle, but our silence is what allows that fearful thing to propagate.
These are the kinds of conversations we, as Australians, need to be having. Australia must move beyond defensiveness and denial in order to dissect what it is about the Australian psyche that allows such behaviour to grow and flourish. We must recognise that racism, in its many manifestations, diminishes us all of our humanity.
We cannot be uncomfortable with being labelled racist, while at the same time refusing to acknowledge our racist behaviour or engage in a dialogue about the real state of race relations in this country.
In the early 1900s, English legal theory coined the phrase “the man on the Clapham omnibus” to describe the “reasonable person” against whom prudent behaviour could be measured – Clapham being at the time an average English town; omnibus being a now outdated word for a public bus. Australian courts have rephrased this variously as: the “man on the Bondi tram” or the “man on the Bourke Street tram.”
The common person on the Bourke Street tram – the vehicle gently lurching from side to side in the grainy YouTube footage of this essay – is a work commuter. He is most likely white, middle-class and reasonably well educated. The most common person on the Bourke Street tram is not that one person screaming racist abuse at another passenger, nor is he the rare bloke who can be seen to the side of the frame, defending the victim of the racist attack. The man on the Bourke Street tram is not the person holding his mobile up and recording.
He is the bystander who averts his eyes and steps quietly off the tram. He will continue on to his office. There, he will hold his tongue when his co-worker makes a racist joke next to a black colleague. He will let the slights and indignities accumulate around him, mount, become a part of his everyday life. He will reason that he is not the problem. One day, he will sit on an interview panel, and a greasy-haired man in a black skivvy will whisper conspiratorially into his ear as he interviews a young Chinese-Australian graduate for the position. And by then, the man from the Bourke Street tram will be primed to listen.
All it takes, for racism to flourish, is for the man on the Bourke Street tram to do nothing.
Maxine Beneba Clarke is an Australian writer and slam poet of Afro-Caribbean descent. She is the author of the poetry collections Gil Scott Heron is on Parole (Picaro Press, 2009) and Nothing Here Needs Fixing (Picaro Press, 2013). Her critically acclaimed first fiction book, Foreign Soil, won the 2013 Victorian Premier’s Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. She is the recipient the 2014 Hazel Rowley fellowship for her forthcoming memoir The Hate Race, about growing up black in white, middle class Australia.
Editor: Hector Sharp
This project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.