I have brief moments of curiosity when I catch my reflection in a mirror, when I’m with friends. I’m different – my friends are white, and I’m brown. Neither of these things has any bearing on my identity, or theirs, nor does it impact on how deeply I love them. It’s a fleeting bit of nothing, and I forget it as quickly as it popped into my consciousness. At least, I used to.
Since last Sunday, I’ve had to dwell on the feeling of being defined solely as a viral surge, smothering Sydney suburbs, as espoused by Senator-Elect Pauline Hanson. Six days prior to writing this she said, when asked about 1996 claims on Australia being ‘swamped by Asians’, that:
“You go and ask a lot of people in Sydney, at Hurstville or some of the other suburbs. They feel they have been swamped by Asians and, regardless of that now, a lot of Australians feel that Asians are buying up prime agricultural land, housing,”
I’m Asian. South Asian, specifically. I was born in London, and my parents are Gujarati. When I was 7, travelling in a train across the UK, a bunch of teens ran alongside, screaming ‘Paki!’. My family was visibly distressed, but they didn’t say anything, which at the time I assumed was out of sheer politeness.
When I was in high school, after having migrated to Australia in 1994, a bunch of kids screamed ‘HEYYY CURRY MUNCHER!‘ in mock-Indian accents as I walked past the canteen. I couldn’t speak, but my stomach tied itself into ridiculous knots and my legs were shaking when I got back to the year 10 area. I remember trying hard not to throw up as I quietly ate my lunch.
Recently, an anonymous anti-wind farm group took to labelling me ‘Rogan Joshi’, when I worked in the wind industry – a lame pun on my skin colour and my name. When I went to drop off a laptop at the repair store, the guy spoke in slow, simple English before I’d had a chance to properly outline why I was there.
When I was out with friends, wearing my favourite Carl-Sagan-inspired outfit, I was re-branded ‘Carl Sikh’n’ by a friend-of-a-friend. Not to my face. He muttered it as a joke to his friends, out earshot. I didn’t say anything to him when I was told about it, but I fantasised for weeks about the various eloquent and aggressive ways I could have challenged and embarrassed him. At the time, I just stood there and my legs felt weak.
I’m lucky. I’m male, and my parents worked hard when I was growing up, so I had a good education, a roomy house and a comfortable existence. I have had advantages in life that I don’t deserve, and that I didn’t earn. Plenty of migrants kids didn’t get the same luxuries that I did, and discrimination still dominates Australian society in a variety of other formats, beyond racism.
Still, for the past week, I’ve become different. This is a piece of my life that emerges because those gazing at me see an incoherent brown blur, rather than a sentient organism.
Being a writer and an analyst means I relish considering ideas and arguments with a level head. Being racially abused means this option is disabled as your being shuts down: every single faculty of thought and speech seizes up. Being the target of discrimination leads to a horrible, painful cocktail of rage, sadness and paralytic helplessness.
The re-election of Pauline Hanson has been attributed to a scream of disaffection; with elites, with politics, with economic uncertainty. There is a sizeable push to avoid labelling the resurgence of One Nation as a movement of racism, and a parallel call to avoid mockery and disregard of Hanson and her supporters. Margo Kingston wrote in the Guardian that:
“Hanson is also a nice person. She’s a Liberal who’d always worked very hard in small business and was surprised to have been expelled from the party for racially charged remarks. She had no idea that what she’d said about Aboriginal people was racist”
In her piece, Kingston appeals for calm, and for a considered approach to what feels like an incoming onslaught of racist discrimination. Mark Ludlow, from the AFR writes:
“The more journalists and the political chattering classes lampoon her for her views, the more it boosts her support base of disaffected, middle class voters who feel left behind by the major parties, the political system and the economy”
Michael Bradley from Marque Lawyers concurs, urging we avoid using the term ‘racist’:
“Does being scared of specific other people, not because of anything they’ve done or threatened to do but because of a label you’ve applied to them along with the ingredients you believe that label contains, make you a racist or a bigot? Or does it just make you a sad, self-alienated outlier in our multicultural society?”
A Queensland MP also urges some understanding and kindness:
“I think that, I spent time in Cairns, Townsville, MacKay and Gladstone during the campaign and there is a noticeable economic downturn in those places. So it’s really wrong to look at people who voted for Hanson and say they’re all racists”
Derek Barry, editor of the North West Star, writes:
“I am no fan of Ms Hanson’s political views however when I was working for the Gatton Star newspaper in 2015 I had the opportunity to cover in close detail her campaign to win the state seat of Lockyer.
I ended up with similar feelings and a similar respect for Ms Hanson that journalist and author Margo Kingston had for her after she covered her (Pauline’s) 1998 campaign to win the seat of Blair, a story Ms Kingston recounted in her book “Off the Rails”. Ms Kingston could see, as I could too, Pauline Hanson had a great way with people and formed quick bonds with everyone she met on the street”
Tracy Spicer and Wendy Harmer have published some stern warnings:
There have been some dissenting voices, too. Osman Faruqi tweeted:
Fatima Measham from Eureka Street wrote:
“As Ronald Brownstein writes in The Atlantic, the affinities drawn by Trump are cultural in nature, shaped closely by attitudes regarding immigration and diversity. Whatever economic anxiety is felt by white voters, it really only goes as far as blaming non-whites. That is, obviously, not an economic argument”
Sekan Ozturk writes in Pr4thePeople:
“More “conversations” or ways to “understand” racist fascists will not add anything to this debate. That is pure middle-class fantasy that lives on a dream that a cup of tea and ‘talking civilly’ can solve the world’s great evils”
‘Lana’, on Twitter:
Sushi Das, a journalist, writes:
“Racism, in all its overt and insidious ways, has the capacity to sear its mark on a person. It matures into self-loathing. It doesn’t always hurt so much when it’s actually happening. The pain comes in adulthood, when you look back at the wound and realise it’s bigger and uglier than you thought”
[Edit 10/07/2016 – also see this great piece from Ruby Hamad: “Those of us in One Nation’s firing line don’t have the luxury of focussing on economic disaffection, on humouring Hanson’s followers, and looking for common ground”]
Did you noticing the same disparity between the two groups that I did? With the (sort of) exception of Guardian writer Jeff Sparrow and Ryde councillor Justin Li, the people advocating a level-headed ‘battle of ideas’ (and weirdly reasserting Pauline Hanson’s ‘niceness’ and various other virtues) aren’t likely to be the targets of racist abuse.
Racist sentiment inspired by economic anxiety and political disenfranchisement is still racist. Wounds created in the flesh and soul of coloured kids don’t heal any quicker because they were inflicted by people converting economic worries into a hatred of immigrants. Racist abuse is not an acceptable conduit for the expression of economic anxiety. We’re the ones who’ll be cut and torn and silenced when people safe from harm urge the normalisation of this anxiety-racism conversion.
I have some sympathy for Kingston et al’s views. My history in the wind industry taught me that discontent manifests in strange ways – the phenomenon of ‘wind turbine syndrome’ was clearly a cry of disenfranchisement, and it remains incumbent on the industry to empower local communities better than they have. But this fact does not mean misinformers spreading pseudoscience are justified, nor does it mean they should be respected. The misinformed deserve empowerment, respect and economic support. The misinformers deserve to be mercilessly debunked. Cruelty is no less cruel when it emerges as a proxy for something else.
We, the living and forever-marked targets for Northern discontent, are not allowed a voice in this dual interaction, between two groups of people who have never felt their legs quake in fear and anger, and never felt the instant paralysis as their skin colour becomes a channel for abuse and harm. We’re told to respect this emotional transference – that we should politely engage with people who are obsessed with the wavelength of light our skin absorbs, because their job isn’t as secure as it was before, or something.
I concur that something needs to be done to address the anxiety inspired by economic strife. This makes sense – address the root cause. And, of course, choosing abuse as a response is foolish no matter the context. What is required here is a crystalline identification of what it takes to respond unequivocally and strongly to the emergence of racism. I don’t care how nice the advocates of racism are. They hurt us, and they don’t care.
Don’t ask people who know what it’s like to feel the somatic vocal paralysis of racist abuse to shut up and take it, and stay paralysed. It isn’t right.
Header image – Nathan Paterson, who was given a full write-up and profile in the SMH, after having his photo taken at a racist rally.