RACE RITE

Ruby Ha­mad on Fraser An­ning and racist pol­i­tics

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page -

THERE IS NO SEP­A­RAT­ING RACISM FROM THE REST OF AUS­TRALIAN SO­CI­ETY. EX­AS­PER­ATED AS WHITE PEO­PLE MAY BE TO HEAR ABOUT RACE, AGAIN, YOUR FRUS­TRA­TION PALES NEXT TO THOSE FORCED TO LIVE IT AND FIGHT IT.

Oh, but doesn’t Aus­tralia have a lot of them? These wa­ter­shed mo­ments of lines crossed and pol­i­tics for­ever changed, where the bar set for pub­lic dis­course is not so much low­ered but dis­pensed with al­to­gether.

This week it was cross­bench se­na­tor Fraser An­ning, for­merly of Pauline Han­son’s One Na­tion and now of Kat­ter’s Aus­tralian Party, out-Han­son­ing his old boss by us­ing his maiden speech as an op­por­tu­nity to ex­tol the virtues of the White Aus­tralia pol­icy and call for a “fi­nal so­lu­tion” to the Mus­lim im­mi­gra­tion “prob­lem”.

Ter­ri­fy­ing stuff. Ex­cept… we were al­ready primed for this. Cast your mind back to just two weeks ago, when a cer­tain syn­di­cated colum­nist, la­ment­ing the “coloni­sa­tion” of Aus­tralia, by which he meant plain old im­mi­gra­tion, de­cided one of the prob­lem in­vaders was Mel­bourne’s Jewish com­mu­nity. So much for Aus­tralia’s “Ju­daeo–Chris­tian val­ues”. Openly se­duc­ing the bur­geon­ing neo-Nazi move­ment seemed a bold move even for An­drew Bolt, but that col­umn pro­vided the first gen­tle nudge to­wards this new pub­lic dis­course, a dis­course that un­crit­i­cally cat­a­pulted a neo-Nazi – whose hith­erto great­est achieve­ment was a re­mark­able skill for self-owns on Twit­ter – onto tele­vi­sion screens and that cre­ated the space for An­ning’s care­fully se­lected words to un­ravel one of the most sa­cred so­cial con­tracts of the mod­ern world: Never Again.

There were other hints, of course. Tele­vi­sion host So­nia Kruger de­fend­ing her call in 2016 for an end to Mus­lim im­mi­gra­tion. The let­ter to the edi­tor of The Aus­tralian, sug­gest­ing that per­haps – and the writer was only ask­ing a ques­tion mind you, just putting it out there – the an­swer – to what, ex­actly? – was to round up all Mus­lims and put them in in­tern­ment camps.

You could ar­gue those last ex­am­ples are not quite the same thing; that a tele­vi­sion per­son­al­ity and a let­ter to the edi­tor, though pub­lished in the na­tional broad­sheet, is not the same as a mem­ber of par­lia­ment chan­nelling his in­ner Adolf Eich­mann.

But hold on, was it only a year ago that Han­son bravely an­nounced her in­ten­tion to never let a burqa be worn on the floor of par­lia­ment … by be­ing the first per­son to wear a burqa into par­lia­ment? Was it only

22 years ago she made her own ex­plo­sive and roundly con­demned maiden speech, shortly af­ter be­ing bun­dled out of the Lib­eral Party, be­fore be­ing bun­dled out of pol­i­tics al­to­gether, only to cha-cha-cha and fox­trot her way onto our tele­vi­sion screens and back into our na­tional con­scious­ness like a grotesque par­ody of a na­tional sweet­heart.

Or per­haps it was John Howard who set us on this course, with his in­fa­mously false provo­ca­tion, “I don’t want in Aus­tralia peo­ple who would throw their own chil­dren into the sea.” Or it could be his pro­tégé Peter Dut­ton, and his in­fa­mous speech in late 2016, pro­claim­ing Le­banese im­mi­gra­tion to be a mis­take. That could have been a teach­able mo­ment, if only we could have found the gump­tion to de­cide, “No, this is not who we are.” Ex­cept, of course, this is who we are.

And this is the un­der­ly­ing is­sue Aus­tralia re­fuses to ad­dress. We claim to re­ject racism even as we re­ject any no­tion of Indige­nous sovereignty. The only set­tler­colo­nial na­tion in the world to refuse Treaty with the land’s Indige­nous pop­u­la­tion, we in­car­cer­ate Indige­nous chil­dren at the world’s high­est rates. While we jeal­ously de­bate our own free­dom of speech, in the back­ground, hid­den from view, are those other chil­dren – de­tained and blood­stained in in­def­i­nite de­ten­tion, so trau­ma­tised they are re­fus­ing food and wa­ter, pre­par­ing them­selves to die be­fore they have even be­gun to fully live. This, Aus­tralia, is ex­actly who we are.

We dis­cuss An­ning as if he emerged sud­denly, a fully formed aber­ra­tion, un­touched by the so­ci­ety that pro­duced him. But these mo­ments are no sur­prise to Indige­nous and PoC writ­ers, artists and ac­tivists. If any­thing, there is a pal­pa­ble deja vu with each one of these racist erup­tions, which have a knack for ex­plod­ing ev­ery time it seems we are get­ting some­where in our ad­vo­cacy. How of­ten we may be poised on the precipice of a break­through – where Aus­tralia seems ca­pa­ble of fi­nally ac­knowl­edg­ing the deeply em­bed­ded racial struc­tures that en­sure the Indige­nous wealth and health gap, that dis­crim­i­nate against Arab and Chi­nese job­seek­ers, rel­e­gat­ing their ré­sumé to the pile of in­stant re­jec­tion, and that al­low colum­nists and politi­cians to fear­mon­ger about non-ex­is­tent African crim­i­nal gangs ter­ror­is­ing Mel­bourne din­ers – and then along comes a po­lit­i­cal speech or a col­umn or a car­toon, and be­fore you know it we are, once again, de­bat­ing the mer­its of be­ing nice to Nazis.

Of all the debates we had thought to be set­tled, you’d think it would be that one.

Of all the con­ceits af­forded to that por­tion of the pop­u­la­tion that qual­i­fies as white in a Western so­ci­ety, per­haps the most pe­cu­liar and most dan­ger­ous is the one that lets them be­lieve that the con­cept of race can be sep­a­rated from the rest of everyday life. That racism is just an­other in­con­ve­nient event or un­pleas­ant ob­sta­cle, like a late-run­ning bus or a swoop­ing mag­pie, that once caught or swat­ted can be for­got­ten and life re­sumed as nor­mal. If we, as a coun­try, are ever to get some­where, this is a non­sense of which we must di­vest our­selves. There is no sep­a­rat­ing racism from the rest of Aus­tralian so­ci­ety. Ex­as­per­ated as white peo­ple may be to hear about race, again, your frus­tra­tion pales next to those forced to live it and fight it. As La­bor MP Anne Aly tear­fully ad­mit­ted this week, we are tired of fight­ing. Tired of claim­ing our hu­man­ity. Tired of wait­ing for white peo­ple to change. Tired of re­mind­ing you of our worth. Tired of won­der­ing what is wrong with you and why you still make ex­cuses for this on your watch.

What more can peo­ple of colour do? More than union­ist and writer Ce­leste Lid­dle, who drew 50,000 Mel­bur­ni­ans to an In­va­sion Day rally two years ago, at­tract­ing a big­ger turnout than the of­fi­cial “Aus­tralia Day” cel­e­bra­tions? More than jour­nal­ists such as Amy McQuire? More than Louise Tay­lor, who has just been ap­pointed the ACT’s first Indige­nous ju­di­cial of­fi­cer?

Can we do more than high­light, year af­ter year, the lack of rep­re­sen­ta­tion af­forded to peo­ple of colour in par­lia­ment, in busi­ness, in the me­dia? More than that re­cent spate of Abo­rig­i­nal and Arab and South-Asian women who have some­how over­come unimag­in­able odds to get elected to par­lia­ment? Or more than women of colour jour­nal­ists such as Bhak­thi Pu­va­nen­thi­ran and Sarah Ma­lik, who have found a way into the white­dom­i­nated ed­i­to­rial spa­ces in im­por­tant and in­flu­en­tial mast­heads like Crikey and SBS? Just when it seems women and men of colour are lev­el­ling the play­ing field, not just in vis­i­ble po­si­tions but in de­ci­sion-mak­ing po­si­tions, along comes an­other “aber­ra­tion” to take us right back to the de­bate over whether or not it’s ac­tu­ally okay to be racist. Progress is so slow, yet re­gres­sion hap­pens in an in­stant.

It’s fright­en­ing rhetoric but it’s also a dis­trac­tion. Racism is not just these erup­tions; racism is the en­tire sys­tem that makes ev­ery facet of life eas­ier for a white per­son – not nec­es­sar­ily al­ways easy, but eas­ier than not be­ing a white per­son.

White supremacy – by which I do not mean the Ku Klux Klan or in­deed neo-Nazis, but sim­ply the sys­tem we live in, con­structed on the at­tempted de­struc­tion of the First Na­tions, which “priv­i­leges white peo­ple at ev­ery con­ceiv­able op­por­tu­nity”, as co­me­dian Aamer Rah­man notes in his fa­mous stand-up rou­tine – needs these ex­trem­ists to keep func­tion­ing. It needs these sup­posed out­liers, the truly un­con­scionable voices to press those lim­its of what can be and what is said, so that the oth­ers may look rea­son­able by com­par­i­son. An­ning may have been elected to the se­nate with just 19 votes, but the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem our coun­try built has a habit of el­e­vat­ing these al­legedly mar­ginal fig­ures to po­si­tions of un­earned power. Steve Field­ing, any­one?

It’s hard to see all of this as any­thing other than a game – a way of shift­ing the cen­tre, edg­ing it ever to­wards the right un­til any­thing short of an ac­tual “fi­nal so­lu­tion” is up for de­bate. And so, even as the ghosts of all the hor­ror of the past 230 years silently haunt us, taunt­ing us to reckon with them, we choose in­stead to fab­ri­cate the eas­i­est test for de­cid­ing what makes a “good” and non-racist per­son: do you con­demn An­ning’s words? Very well then, you pass.

And, sud­denly, racism be­comes a white peo­ple’s is­sue again; some­thing to be solved by merely de­nounc­ing the most geno­ci­dal of racist in­ten­tions, without hav­ing to ac­tu­ally do any­thing about the so­ci­etal con­di­tions that cre­ate space for such state­ments and poli­cies. And so, we are treated to the spec­ta­cle of po­lit­i­cal fig­ures such as Han­son and Mal­colm Turn­bull as­sum­ing the role of Good Cop in con­trast with An­ning and Kat­ter’s Bad Cop.

It is an ab­surd state of af­fairs that Han­son – her­self cas­ti­gated by Ge­orge “peo­ple have a right to be big­ots” Bran­dis – now gets to oc­cupy a moral high ground by de­nounc­ing An­ning’s “ap­palling” com­ments. Like­wise Turn­bull, who still pre­sides over those refugee tor­ture camps where chil­dren are wast­ing away even as I write this, and who him­self not so long ago scolded the Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion of western Syd­ney for its high “No” votes in the laugh­able postal sur­vey that his govern­ment foisted on us af­ter years of drag­ging its feet on mar­riage equal­ity, but who now gets to claim pride in Aus­tralia’s “suc­cess­ful” mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism.

What a sight to be­hold as these politi­cians fall over them­selves to pass the most ba­sic of moral tests. In these end­less cul­ture wars, race is a cher­ished weapon, each side play­ing to its base, trad­ing barbs in par­lia­ment and in the me­dia, each pre­sent­ing them­selves as the real bene­fac­tor of the baf­fled “coloureds” con­signed to the side­lines. But here is the thing about the good cop/bad

• cop trope – at the end of the day, they are all cops.

RUBY HA­MAD writes about race, me­dia, and cul­ture for SBS.

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