• Van Jones talks about the 'whitelash' of progressive America on CNN (CNN)Source: CNN
COMMENT | Brexit, Hanson and now Donald Trump. Luke Pearson considers the political trend of one step forward, two steps back.
10 Nov 2016 - 4:02 PM  UPDATED 10 Nov 2016 - 4:02 PM

Brexit, Hanson, 18C, and now Trump – are we at peak ‘whitelash’ or is it just getting started?

In the midst of the confusion, outrage, anger and celebration of Donald Trump’s surprise victory in of the U.S Presidency last night, CNN contributor Van Jones brilliantly articulated what many others were thinking and feeling when he described Trump’s win as a “Whitelash against a changing country”.

This phrase, a ‘whitelash’ seems to perfectly describe much of what has been happening recently in the Western world; Britain with the Brexit vote, in Australia with the rise of Hanson and the increased attacks on 18C, and obviously, and now, in America with its new President who intends on building a wall to keep immigrants out. This is not to say that only white people are in these camps, or that all that white people who are in them are overtly in favour of white supremacist rhetoric, but the exceptions don’t disprove the rule either. Just as the racist Reclaim Australia campaign was quick to point to a handful of pictures of non-white people who attended their rallies as proof they weren’t racist, the same can be done for Trump, or for pro-Brexit voters, but that does not mean that racism was not a critical factor in all of the above.

Others have shared similar sentiments to Jones, in that what we are witnessing is a return of popular white supremacist views and voices that many had wrongly presumed had largely disappeared within politics and popular culture, or at the very least were on a steady decline. Some pointed to the historic responses to civil rights, relaxed immigration laws, and broad public support for multiculturalism that led to Jim Crow laws, to the rise of ‘white genocide’ conspiracy theories, and to the seemingly impossible belief that in this new world it is actually white people who are the most disadvantaged and disenfranchised. I’m not sure how such a view could sustain itself in light of the popular resurgence of such overt racist attitudes, but I have no doubt that it will find a way. It always has in the past, regardless of how many obvious facts point to it being absurd. Case in point, I fully expect that white people will still talk sincerely about how being labeled racist or sexist can have a detrimental impact on a white man’s career opportunity while actively ignoring the damaging impacts racism and sexism can have on every else’s career opportunities.

Many people on Australian social media last night spoke about how ‘lucky we are’ to be living in this country. As our resurgences of popularised racist attitudes appear less severe than the U.S Election or Brexit, it is understandable to see how people feel that we have dodged a bullet in the midst of these shifts, but I fear it may not be a very well placed assertion.

Here's what people have been Tweeting about Trump's victory
“Gamil Doori Gomeroi Thaay, America!” many Aboriginal Australians pleaded, "Don't f*** us on this, America!"

Australia’s move from a Prime Minister who saw fit to give a national apology for the wrongs of the Stolen Generations to a Prime Minister who actively opposed such an apology, and the very existence of the Stolen Generations speaks to this. The way in which Tony Abbott won his election was not too dissimilar to the way Trump won his, even if Abbott’s was not quite so overt, or so crass, in the racist, sexist, or xenophobic rhetoric Trump used to secure his victory. Even though the move from Rudd to Abbott may not seem as severe as the move from Obama to Trump, it is a scary indication of what might follow if we ever do have an Aboriginal Prime Minister in this country. I think many of us, in the past, have viewed such a day as being a sign of ‘progress’ for our nation, but to be confronted but the very real possibility if we ever do take that ‘step forward’ it might be followed by a giant leap backwards is a very scary thought. 

Even though the move from Rudd to Abbott may not seem as severe as the move from Obama to Trump, it is a scary indication of what might follow if we ever do have an Aboriginal Prime Minister in this country.

To date our changes of leadership can only really be seen as a shift between varying degrees of covert and overt racist rhetoric, as both major Australian parties actively supported the denial of basic human rights to Indigenous Australians and to asylum seekers while in power, and both still do. At the moment, both still feel it necessary to lean towards the covert, couching their support for this removal of rights in humanitarian language – ‘preventing people from drowning at sea’, ‘closing the gap’ etc., but with the returning to power of groups like One Nation it is reasonable to think that even this superficial lip service to humanitarianism may be on the way out as well.

The increase in political capital that was required to get 18C back on the agenda speaks to this shift in the landscape. The previous attempts to see it amended or removed entirely were clearly premature in their ambition – Australia just wasn’t ready for phrases like ‘people do have a right to be bigots’ and shied away from the campaign once these infamous words had been uttered. I am not so confident that if these same words were uttered today, a mere two years later, that it would have such a damaging outcome on the campaign. Not to mention that the anti-18C campaigners have  become so bold that court cases being thrown out are held up as evidence that we need to change the laws, rather than as working in their favour is an indication of how little any of it actually has to do with concepts of ‘free speech’ or censorship. That we actually had a senator, elected this year, who praised aspects of the White Australia Policy in his maiden speech to Parliament shows just how much these facades are dropping while still rarely being called out. 

The idea that politically disenfranchised white Australians are being conditioned to conflate a denial of other people’s rights with a strengthening of their own is something that should worry everyone, not just those whose rights are being stripped back. If it is to change though, it cannot just be viewed through a lens of the resurgence of racism and white supremacy, even though that is the most accurate way to describe it. This depiction, no matter how accurate, will not speak to those people who support it but who do not recognise it in those terms. I’m not sure how many people are among those who are consciously aware that they are bringing back overt racist practices and policies, and how many people are ignorant of it but I suspect that reversing this trend is heavily reliant on being able to speak to the latter and reengaging them in the national dialogue.

I have never seen it as a personal strength (or even a personal goal) to be able to convert ‘well meaning’ white people who are ignorantly promoting racist rhetoric, but I do think that if the only people speaking to them are those who would happily exploit their disenfranchisement and their fears then we will only see the whitelash continue to grow. The recent trend of major parties responding to the increase in racist rhetoric with silence or ‘Racism Lite’ style responses has played a major part in the extreme right of politics infiltrating and slowly replacing the centre. This trend will not be reversed unless there is a concerted effort to appeal to people’s humanity, to promote empathy and respect, to stand up for ‘the little guys’, and to strive to finally bring meaning to Australia’s self-proclaimed love of the ‘fair go’.

I’m not sure how the election result will play out for America, how Brexit will play out for Europe, or how 18C and a return of One Nation will play out for Australia. What I am sure of though is that it would be a huge shame if the basic human and civil rights that that were won within living memory leave our respective countries before those who won them do.

Luke Pearson is the Senior Digital Producer and Editoral Lead at NITV and Founder of IndigenousX. Follow Luke on Twitter.

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