Continuity and Change in Australian Racism (Ghassan Hage)

Journal of Intercultural Studies
Volume 35, Number 3 (2014)

In Australia, while there is no doubt that we have seen newly ethnicised and/or racialised groups arriving and new communities forming, what is new and what is old about the racisms that mar the Australian social landscape is not clear. And it is definitely worth thinking about.

Let me begin by saying that this not one of those ‘Is Australia Racist?’ questions. I have never found this question useful to ask let alone answer. I am often left wondering: how is one supposed to deal with a question like this? And what does it mean to answer it by a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. Is one supposed to approach it empirically? If so, and even if we optimistically assume that we can have decent statistics about the number of people who are racists, what percentage of Australians need to be racist for ‘Australia’ to be racist or not racist? I take it for granted that racism circulates in Australia, like it does in most other countries of the world, in different forms and with different intensities and the important task is to try and think about how it does so: how it circulates and how it ‘captures’, hurts and sometimes even destroys people. It is in that sense that one looks at continuity and change in Australian racism, not in the mode of the ‘more or less’.

So with this in mind, let us begin by reflecting on one area where one can detect some change in the type of racism that is being deployed. Australian racism, and I am speaking specifically of anti-immigrant racism here, has historically taken two forms. The first, the one I have examined most in White Nation (1998), is what we can call ‘numerological racism’. This is a racism of numbers in the sense that it always comes with the category ‘too many’: ‘there’s too many Vietnamese’; ‘there’s too many Asians’; ‘there’s too many Muslims’. It often starts with a story told by a white person relating how well they got on with the ‘one’ Vietnamese family that moved down the road from them. Then, the story moves to tell us how the good relation goes sour when the Vietnamese brother and then the uncle buy houses in the street such that now there are ‘too many’. The second form of racism, which we can call ‘existential racism’, has been powerfully described by Jean-Paul Sartre: it involves a sentiment of disgust from the very proximity of someone experienced to be ‘from another race’. Clearly, most post-Second World War racism towards immigrants takes the form of the former, and we are less familiar with the disgust of ‘existential racism’. This racism of disgust was a far more prominent sentiment towards Indigenous people during the invasion of Australia and towards Chinese people during the Gold Rush in the nineteenth century: you can see it in the very portrayal of Indigenous and Chinese people in the racist cartoons of the time. It became much less prominent from the middle to the end of the twentieth century. Even the more outwardly vile forms of racism exhibited by people such as the members of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party were more grounded in numerological racism. I think that this is where, today, we can detect some change. While numerological racism remains the dominant form of racism, existential racism seems nonetheless to be on the rise. Its main victims have been the relatively new immigrants from Africa and India. This most probably has to do with the complex ways in which the racist English colonial imaginary of Africa and India has seeped into White Australian culture as part of its cultural inheritance.

Another important space where one can look for continuity and change is in the form Australian racism is delivered; the way it is performed in practice as a mode of interaction. Pauline Hanson’s racism is often treated as a kind of ideal type of Australian racism because it has come to dominate our living memory. This is not entirely true. Of course, Hansonite racism is the inheritor of the long history of Australian anti-Asian racism and, as such, has inherited many of its features. It shares for instance a kind of ‘egalitarian’ ethos that is a common feature of Australian working-class racism and that stands in opposition to the condescending type of racism of the middle classes. Hansonism does not look down, vertically at the people it racialises, rather, it look at them horizontally, eye-to-eye, and says: ‘it’s either you, or me pal. I hate your guts. You’re taking over my place and I want this place for me’. This ‘egalitarianism’, I would say, is very typically Australian. But there are also ways in which Hansonite racism can be said to be very un-Australian. This is particularly true of its open, ‘in your face’ and organised nature. Australian racism generally is far less overt and direct, and far less easy to delineate. In that sense, it is also less capable of operating as a platform for a political party.

I think that Hanson [in The Celebrity Apprentice] as a third rate TV star represents Australian racism more than when she was actually the leader of a racist party. Poh-Leen [Pauline] Hanson versus Poh-Ling Yeow is where the struggle against racism is really happening! While White people can watch Pauline Hanson on TV and normalise her with a kind of ‘isn’t it cute, we had a racist political leader before and now we have a harmless TV figure’, some people I know sit uncomfortably and think ‘hey – this is not enjoyable, this woman has seriously hurt me in the past’. But when everyone around you thinks they are having fun, to come and say in their midst: ‘this is not funny, this woman is a hurtful hating racist’, what you will get is a condescending ‘get a life mate, don’t be so bloody serious, we’re enjoying some light entertainment here, and you wanna talk about racism?’ That’s more like classical Australian racism; it hits you and disallows you to say ‘hey that’s racism’. More often than not, it works in a ‘relaxed and comfortable’ way.

I think if one looks cyclically at Australian racism, whether it is directed towards Indigenous people, towards Asians or towards Muslims, one finds an interesting pattern. You always have an aggressive moment, such as colonisation, or the violence during the Gold Rush, or the symbolic violence of the One Nation party, or the Cronulla riots, then it is followed by the more prevailing and long-term ‘relaxed and comfortable’ moment, where the violence recedes and what is left is a more gentle mode of normalisation and routinisation of racialised forms of interaction. In an important sense we can say that John Howard’s rule was precisely this process of ‘relaxing’, ‘routinising’ and ‘normalising’ the violence of Hansonism. Implicitly, Howard was always saying: ‘we in Australia are not racist this way. We don’t go in parliament and say “I’m not going to serve my Indigenous constituents”. No. We do it in a less obvious and a more relaxed and comfortable way’. So, with John Howard, Australian racism was completing the cycle returning to its more enduring form: serious, deadly, making you experience claustrophobia and misery, and yet, you can’t really put the finger on what is happening to you, or you can, but find yourself unable to point to it publicly for fear of ridicule. It’s a bit like your ‘best mates’ calling you a wog. If someone tries to point out that this is racist, your best mates will laugh at them, and most likely, you will laugh at them too, despite the unease you might feel about being called a wog. To do otherwise would be to betray ‘years of mateship’. It would also show that you don’t really know what real mateship is about and that you are a ‘real wog’ after all. So you join your mates at telling the person who thinks that using the term wog is wrong to get a life, and that ‘if friends can’t playfully call each other wog, life is not worth living’. But when something happens that make one of your ‘best mates’ resent you such that he wants to get at you, like you getting a job he was after, or you and he disagreeing about something important, suddenly the tone with which you are being called a wog radically changes and it starts having a different effect on you. Then you know why you have always been feeling uneasy about being called a wog despite the light-heartedness of it all. And yet, unless you are willing to break ‘the bonds of mateship’, you feel caught out, and unable to bring the source of your unease out in the open.

I want to now move to another form of racism that I would argue is on the rise in Australia. I will call this ‘the removal of the space of commonality’. To think about this space, I just want to take you to Lebanon and explore with you a routine social interaction that one still encounters in some Lebanese villages.

In these villages class division is delineated by family belonging. That is, the rich and the poor are so according to their family belonging. There are rich families and poor families and the families that are rich and those that are poor have been the same since Ottoman time. And the members of the poor families work, and usually would have worked, for the members of the rich families as servants, as agricultural labourers, as cattle minders, drivers, etc. also since Ottoman time. You might visit the village on any day and you will see a member of a rich family sitting having a coffee with a member of a poor family who works as his chauffeur or his aid or both. Let’s say you’ve met the man from the rich family before so you say hello to him. He will say hello and will want to introduce the man from the poor family sitting next him, let’s say his name is Jeryes. There, he will say something that might sound either odd, or artificial, or even hypocritical to you if you know that the man is in fact largely his servant and that his grandfather was probably the servant of the rich man’s grandfather as well. He will say: ‘Please let me introduce you to Jeryes, our families have been like one since anyone can remember and Jeryes and I are really like brothers’.

This is a very interesting situation that requires a specifically anthropological disposition to fully understand. I mean here a disposition to think from outside your cultural norms. This is because, from a Western, even from a critical Western point of view, what is happening here might appear as quite obvious: this person is using kinship categories to hide relations of domination. The critical Western analyst might say:

sure ‘like brothers’ indeed, ha ha, who does he think he is kidding? I can see through this language of brotherhood and recognise that underneath it is a relation of domination. Nobody is going to fool me with any mumbo jumbo about brothers.

A Western Marxist might say: ‘here we have a situation where kinship terminology operates as an ideology that mystifies the relations of exploitation that exist between the master and his servant’.

A good anthropologist, however, while perhaps agreeing with the Western critic at one level, will want to also understand the significance of this designation ‘we are like brothers’ from the point of view of those living it. Here something else emerges. The anthropologist might note that Jeryes is not at all mystified by the language of brotherhood. He knows all too well that he is the servant of the rich man and that his family is and has always been dominated by the rich family. Nonetheless, and here we come to what is important, Jeryes will also be genuinely grateful that his rich master chose to call him his brother rather than his servant. In calling him his brother his master is recognising that there is more to him than just being his servant. There is something that his master is leaving him with that remains outside the relation of domination. This something, in the language of the Lebanese village, is called honour. You can enslave people and dishonour them and you can enslave people leaving their honour intact. There is such a thing as healthy relations of dominations and they are so in so far as they maintain people’s honour intact, or to put it differently, as far as one leaves out a symbolic space where the humiliation of relations of dependency and exploitation does not apply: this is what I will call the space of commonality.

When we talk about honour here in Australia, we only mention it in its negative patriarchal manifestation. This dimension is certainly present but it is not the only one. ‘To maintain one’s honour’ also means to continue existing with others in a space where some of the most basic elements of one’s humanity are preserved. My point though is not Lebanon-specific. I want to argue that maintaining this space of commonality might take different forms in different cultures but it is an instinctive guiding principle in the conduct of any desirable intersubjective relation. We do it all the time with people we care about despite being differently positioned in hierarchical structures. It is precisely when we do not care about having a qualitatively human relation with someone that we work actively to ensure that we do not share such a space of commonality with them. This is why racism can often take this form. As I said, I believe that this form of racism is on the rise far more than ever before. It is so because it particularly and strongly marks the relation that the Australian Government and many Australians want to have to asylum seekers. Indeed, far from being limited by a concern with maintaining this minimum necessary space for the psychological and existential well-being of asylum seekers, government policy seems to pursue the opposite policy of laying bare people’s wretched conditions in such a way as to completely and utterly dispirit them.

I will now move to the final area where I think there is change in the way racism is expressed. This form of racism has existed for a long time but the mention of it is often disconcerting to some. It is the area of what I call racist anti-racism. This is where in opposing White Australian racism some sections within a racialised ethnic group do so by promoting a different racism internal to their own community rather than promoting a non-racist society. There are people who are subjected to racism and who react by saying ‘it is unfair that human beings should be treated this way’. But there are also people who, when subjected to racism, react by saying ‘are you being racist to me? ME!?… I mean, I don’t mind you being racist against somebody else, but me? Come on, give me a break – can’t you see how superior I am?’ This is the discourse of people who reject racism directed against them not because they think racism is bad, but because they think that it does not apply to them. They say things like ‘haven’t you heard of my ancestors and my culture’ and use a kind of defence against racism in which they are really trying to say to the racists: ‘My culture is a superior culture, how dare you be racist to me, I’ll be racist to you, you idiot!’

It is very important today to realise the difference between being anti-racist in order to create a non-racist society and being anti-racist in order to highlight the wonderfulness of your group’s degree of civilisation. It is people who have this sense of civilisational entitlement, people who think they, as a group, are entitled to better treatment than other groups, who are often the promoters of this racist anti-racism.

Racist anti-racism, in fact, comes from the same tradition that has brought us fascist politics. Its ethos is perhaps the single most important cultural difference between the workers who joined the communist parties of Europe and those who joined the fascist parties. The workers that joined the communists and the fascists felt that life ought to offer them more than the misery and the injustice that they were being offered. The difference between them was that the communists saw in their suffering an unjust world and aspired for a world where such injustices did not exist; the fascists on the other hand, saw only themselves being treated unjustly and aspired for a world where they as ‘members of a great nation’ received a better deal. Knowing the difference between anti-racism and this form of racist anti-racism is crucial for us who analyse racism not simply for the sake of being critical but because we think that the struggle against racism is only one instance in the wider struggle for an alternative mode of social existence.

Works Cited
1. Hage, G., 1998. White nation: fantasies of white supremacy in a multicultural society. Sydney: Pluto Press.

About @ndy

I live in Melbourne, Australia. I like anarchy. I don't like nazis. I enjoy eating pizza and drinking beer. I barrack for the greatest football team on Earth: Collingwood Magpies. The 2018 premiership's a cakewalk for the good old Collingwood.
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2 Responses to Continuity and Change in Australian Racism (Ghassan Hage)

  1. Scott says:

    I would like to see Ghassan Hage comment on this:

    ISIS threatens to send 500,000 migrants to Europe as a ‘psychological weapon’ in chilling echo of Gaddafi’s prophecy that the Mediterranean ‘will become a sea of chaos’ (Hannah Roberts, Daily Mail, February 19, 2015).

  2. @ndy says:

    Then why don’t you write him directly? Not much point spamming my blog.

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