This

Life

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Lifelines - Patrick Mccabe

AFRICAN-AMER­I­CAN civil rights ac­tivist Jesse Jack­son once re­marked: ‘‘There is noth­ing more painful to me than to walk down the street and hear foot­steps, and start think­ing about rob­bery, then look around and see some­body white and feel re­lieved.’’ I was re­minded of this one night as I ar­rived for my weekly game of so­cial bas­ket­ball. I am not or­di­nar­ily prone to pon­der­ing the adages of civil rights lead­ers at these games — al­though, that said, Martin Luther King’s as­ser­tion that ‘‘one has a moral re­spon­si­bil­ity to dis­obey un­just laws’’ is of­ten ap­pli­ca­ble to my at­ti­tude to the travel rule.

What caused me to so pon­der on this oc­ca­sion was the sight of this week’s op­po­si­tion. The team con­sisted of young in­dige­nous men, all tall and fit, stand­ing in a group, a few of them bounc­ing balls. They glanced in our di­rec­tion as my team­mates and I walked into the gym, cast­ing our less-thanthreat­en­ing shadow across the court. It pains me to ad­mit it, but my first in­stinct was to feel threat­ened. My sec­ond in­stinct was to feel guilty about the for­mer in­stinct. I felt guilty be­cause I knew my un­ease stemmed not from the op­pos­ing team’s height or fit­ness but their race.

While I am no Jack­son, I like to con­sider my­self some­one who goes out of his way to try to meet those out­side my usual so­cial cir­cles. I have been a keen vol­un­teer, help­ing at church soup kitchens, an im­mi­gra­tion de­ten­tion cen­tre and an Abo­rig­i­nal land rights or­gan­i­sa­tion, among oth­ers. I thought these ex­pe­ri­ences, along with my own re­flec­tion, would re­move any in­stinc­tive racism I might have pos­sessed. Racism, I thought, was the pre­serve of red­necks, a dis­ease suf­fered by peo­ple un­like me, who I didn’t know and who didn’t know any bet­ter. I didn’t en­joy sud­denly be­ing forced to ques­tion this com­fort­ing myth at my so­cial bas­ket­ball game.

Jack­son was also made to ques­tion that myth. His words speak of a des­per­ately tragic re­al­ity in the US: a long his­tory of ir­ra­tional prej­u­dice against African-Amer­i­cans has caused that prej­u­dice to be­come, in some per­verse, lim­ited sense, ra­tio­nal, even for cham­pi­ons of African-Amer­i­can rights.

Call­ing my own fleet­ing racism in any sense ra­tio­nal would be over-gen­er­ous. For a start, I was on a bas­ket­ball court, not in a dark alley. Yet it is true that many years of ir­ra­tional prej­u­dice against Abo­rig­ines have left us with a so­ci­ety where Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple are dis­pro­por­tion­ately rep­re­sented in crime sta­tis­tics, and nonA­bo­rig­i­nal peo­ple such as me al­most never cross paths with Abo­rig­ines. These pre­con­di­tions in­evitably lead to a so­ci­ety where even those who pre­sume to be above vices such as racism can dis­cover we are mis­taken. While I do think vol­un­teer­ing can help re­dress this ten­dency, there ad­mit­tedly is a power im­bal­ance in­her­ent in any vol­un­teer­ing, which per­haps ex­plains why my vol­un­teer­ing ex­pe­ri­ences didn’t stop me from feel­ing a mo­ment of ap­pre­hen­sion.

Pre­dictably enough, my team was trounced by an em­bar­rass­ing mar­gin. The op­po­si­tion main­tained the high­est stan­dards of sports­man­ship throughout. One player even took the un­prece­dented step of apol­o­gis­ing for a way­ward hand that hit my head. Aside from the usual slightly dented ego, I also took home from that night’s game the re­al­i­sa­tion that we ought never be too com­pla­cent about our own im­mu­nity to ir­ra­tional prej­u­dice.

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