When my father left his mortal coil Good Friday last year, my head lay on his chest, I was bereft. I had been by his side 21 days in vigil. My mind raced with memories, many of them were of my childhood, with some of these memories of the racism we had felt from far too many around us. In fact, I would grow up to understand that we had lived in constant fear of racism. It is a corralling of people. Racism, is haunting, a shadow that follows you.
As a young child, my father said that the racism we endured would one day subside, that I would grow old into a more understanding society, where we would be many but one. He also said that someday I would discover that there were others on this continent whom were devastated by racism worse than anything that any migrants had endured. I remember thinking that these people he was referring to must be enduring something unimaginably cruel. He was referring to the First Peoples. He said that till we get the justice right for the First Peoples we will get it right for no-one.
Yesterday, Good Friday, I was at a vigil for Saeed Hassanloo, who is dying at Royal Perth Hospital. He is a 24 year old Iranian who along with his brother Majid has languished six years in Australian immigration detention. Saeed has had enough, his soul is hurting, the inhumanity around him burning. He has been on a 42 day hunger strike. He despairs so deeply that he is willing death. I stood there among a hundred people praying for him, thinking that this is not the Australia I expected that my father said I would grow up in – where our Government is okay with letting a young man die.
Racism cannot just be addressed by a set of laws, but by our example. Everything is about education. Example is everything, it is our only immortality. More than four decades later, some of the racism is being understood but other racism flourishes. Racism is not singular it has many veils and layers. It is not understood by everyone, and cannot be understood by those who have never experienced it. You cannot just watch racism from the sidelines and know it. Its pluralism means for the many who experience it, that many experience it differently. Of all that is psychosocial, racism is the worst, for both the perpetrator and the victim – it is an abuse and an ignorance that tears apart the core of an individual, it is devastating to the self-esteem and self-worth of both the perpetrator and the victim. Resilience is a steely resolve but it comes at a high price and with a mistrust and distrust of others, with an internal response system, a watchful eye – all this is exhaustive.
I have lived racism all my life. My father, my mother lived racism from whence they set foot on this beautiful continent. We lived in a state of constant alert to others – not to upset them, not to make them hate us more, not to cause them and us any grief – and in those days grief for us came in any number of ways much of which no longer occurs as extensively or as deeply today. I dedicated my life to working in ways forward from the racism, not just for myself but for the many. My academic work was spent on unveiling racism, yes in understanding but primarily in the cause for the ways forward, for all of us; not to keep anyone hostage to it. Two Masters and doctoral research in racism, four decades later and Australian made racism continues. There is still a long way to go.
People have the right to migrate to wherever they want to in this world, and nothing should impede transmigration. However, we live in more divided times than before despite statistical narratives telling us otherwise. But give it another century and much should change, these are transitional times in terms of addressing racism. It takes time, education, people engaging with each other and particularly through their children and through their children’s children. It takes relationship building to churn into myths the near eugenic like lies of ‘the other’ that keep us divided and rail us against each other. You can create all the racial vilification laws in the world, they still mean jack when we have to go into the heart of us.
I am surrounded by racial vilification laws, I am surrounded by anti-discrimination laws but they have never protected the majority of us. It is us ourselves in our own interactions coupled with time that will make the difference. We must differentiate the racism of today from the barbarous racism of Australia’s apartheid past, of South Africa’s former apartheid regime, of the United States’ evil slavery and era of segregation. That type of exploitative racism had to be fought by standoffs and blood on the streets where civil rights protesters stood solid, but today’s racism is of another nature – and it cannot be fought in such manners. It is about working towards the day we can all look each other in the eyes and just see ‘us’, not ‘them’.
You cannot understand racism unless you have endured it. The racism I was born into still manages a hefty say to this very day even if its ugliest forms are supposedly not as pronounced as they once were. Much of the overt racism that was the norm of my childhood is no longer acceptable but racism is still etched into so many people that still to this day it does its dirty business. That racism, well hidden but pernicious, steers through society, splitting hairs, working through every interaction. Racism does not just disappear because of a set of laws. If the racism rests in the recesses of the mind then it is part of the functions of the mind, doing the damage.
Racism must be understood as a nonlinear logarithmic apparatus. Its calculus can be measured but most people do not grasp its measure, and cannot see it other than as some haunting apparatus. All of us have the potential to understand the math to racism but unless we live the pain we cannot comprehend. There are some experiences that only those who have endured them and who have reflected upon them can speak to. Imagine the deepest well, and then imagine a haunting precipice to the darkness, as if an abyss of near blinding darkness, and then imagine that you cannot imagine further. That which you cannot imagine is not known to you. This is what racism feels like, but you cannot feel it, know it or understand because you have not lived it. The best academics cannot find the words. Let only those who know racism speak to it.
There is racism the world over – racialisation – and there are the cruelties of horrific brutalities – from Rwanda in ’94 to the horror upon the Rohingyas, to Tibetans setting themselves alight – but despite my travels the world over there is an Australian made racism that is unique. It is cruel but it is relatively quiet, it is very damaging. It is not a fast coming blow but a meticulously slow knifing. It has become uglier in recent times – we can see this with the cruelty to asylum seekers and refugees, by the land grabs and repulsive assimilation policies on First Peoples. But it is the marginalised and impoverished racialised underclasses of migrants – first and second generation – and of First Peoples throughout this continent that are concerning. More than a quarter of Australia’s homelessness is comprised of First Peoples. More than 30 per cent of Australia’s homelessness is comprised of people born overseas. Therefore homelessness has underlying racialisation drivers. Nearly a third of Australia’s prison population is comprised of First Peoples, but they are less than 3 per cent of the national population – this is racism. The nation’s suicide rates are racialised – with horrifically disproportionate rates for First Peoples and for Australians who were born overseas or who have parents born overseas. Australia is still a long way from being kind to all those who walk the land.
I engage with everyone, including the racists, including those who are repulsed by the colour of my skin or because of the cultural norms of my parents. It is the only way forward. There was a time I could not engage with many of them because it was too dangerous. Today I can respond to racists whereas in my childhood and adolescence this would have led to repercussions – not only ostracisation, persecution but physical attacks. We lived in a constant of fear. My father was a strong man, my mother a strong woman, they had their pride, they were hardworking, they were communitarians, they headed one social justice cause after another, but they also knew what to keep to themselves, what racial slurs they should not respond to, and at times effectively to dance to the White Man’s Song. My parents, all those of their generation who were from abroad, lived in fear of what to say and not to say, but in time – as a result of interactions through the children, some of their children partnering with the children of those who were racists, the racism became less, and people became more who they should be, themselves – freer.
Many of my colleagues – First Peoples, those born overseas and those with parents born overseas – do not engage with racist vitriol that is sent to them by email or social media. I respond to every single email or online comment to any article that I write. I was never able to or allowed to respond when I was a child. I remain as I always have, civil. I know I am a controversial and polarising person – often described as a radical – on so many issues but that is on issues, and my language can be colourful, but when it comes to engaging with people either face to face or one on one by email or through social media I remain civil and understanding. I choose to step into the shoes of those who are racist, trying to understand their lot. Some of these interactions for me today are the opportunity to vent the past, for my father, my mother, for that whole generation of migrants I grew up around, for my First People mates I grew up with, but it is also because I know that I have to treat others, whomever they are and whatever they do, as I had so desperately wanted them to treat my parents – with manners, courtesies, respect and decency. This is how I had wanted my parents and myself treated when I was a kid.
Australian made racism is still quite a commodity, and it is much bought. If anyone thinks a set of laws will down racism they are deluded. Australia is yet to have the conversation on racism it should have had long ago. However that conversation cannot be led by those who think they understand racism, only by those who know it, who have lived it.
Addressing racism is a cognitive experience.
In the meantime Australia’s racism will more than likely take the life of young Saeed. This is a tragedy. If we have the conversations that we should, engage with each other instead of pitchfork standoffs there will eventuate less racism, and fewer racists will finish up in our Parliaments.
– “The White man articulated one justification after another; their Courts enabled law after law, to justify racism, to turn human beings into chattel. To this very day and long into the future, we feel the effects. Generations to come will still not be free of racism.”
– Australia is an oppressively White dominated society – White dominated economy, White dominated parliaments, White dominated media. For anyone Black, Brown, Yellow to score a gig in White dominated Australia, if I may write (and say), you have to do a lot of quickstepping, kowtowing, backslapping, and arse licking – you have to dance to the White man’s song, and you have to buy into their racism.”
– “Certain emotional experiences, certain situational traumas drown the psyche, crippling psychosocially the self.”
– “Please do not speak to me about racism as if you are an expert on racism if you have never endured racism, because when you do, you reduce racism to something that was never brutal, never oppressive. When you have not lived racism and you speak to racism as if you know it then you reduce racism to something that was surmountable. Racism is insurmountable. You cannot beat racism, you can only survive it. Many of us become resilient but we do not become free of it.”
– “Australia’s conservatism and racism can be found not only in an examination of The White Australia Policy, in the first half a dozen decades of our Federal Parliaments, and in much of the media of the day, but it can also be seen in any examination of our Prime Ministers, Premiers, and legislation during the last several decades. Johannes Bjelke-Petersen who was Queensland’s Premier from 1968 to 1987 typified the dominant Anglosphere, working only its exclusive interests. He typified Australian racism even in the face of modernity.”
– “More than a quarter of Australia’s population was born overseas. More than an eighth of Australians were born in Asia. More than half of Australia has a parent who was born overseas. Australia does not reflect any of this in its Federal Parliaments. Therefore our Parliaments do not reflect Australia but instead of a particular section of Australia – and this layer remains the Anglosphere. Till Australia’s political parties and our Governments remedy this predicament our Parliaments in effect discriminate.”