There’s an elderly white man seated next to me, his arms are folded over his chest. He is squirming in his seat and his face seems pained.
It’s a microcosm of the discomfort the speakers, Indigenous law professor Megan Davis, American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and South African memoirist Sisonke Msimang must be used to inspiring as they unapologetically tackle questions of race, privilege and power - the topic of their session and easily the highlight of the weekend Antidote festival at Sydney’s Opera House.
It seems as if Australian organisers have learnt their lesson after interview debacles last year with heavyweights like feminist writer Roxane Gay and Man Booker prize winner Paul Beatty, prompted complaints from the bewildered writers.
I felt a sigh of relief watching ABC journalist Beverly Wang expertly chair the panel (without fuelling an international incident), providing incisive prompts and getting out of the way as the panel riffed on hot political topics – the election of Donald Trump, the rise of the white supremacy or the ‘alt-right’ globally and debates around immigration and citizenship.
The panel challenged contemporary analysis the rise of white nationalism was aberrant, but instead posited it was inextricably linked to the colonial foundations of slavery and dispossession of black and native people in South Africa, Australia and the US. They also talked about the power of myth, and how it endures in the national days and statues we celebrate, and in the whitewashing of black histories.
“American democracy was literally made possible with enslavement. You could not have one without the other. It’s said slavery was the great birth defect of this country, as though America is mostly right and did this one wrong thing.
But in fact the one wrong thing is the entirety of the thing. It’s how it was done. It’s the actual methodology of it. This myth haunt us to this day,” Coates said.
“The country never quite recovered from that, such to the extent that we have elected for the first time in American history a president who has no military experience, no governing experience, someone who if he was black couldn’t even get off the street much less access to the White House. This is who has access to the nuclear codes.”
Prof. Megan Davis said recognising Australia’s history involved frontier massacres was a conversation many Australians did not want to have.
“Leading up to Australia Day it’s become so toxic and so intense every year and we have to sit through these stories of the settlement of Australia, stories of Captain Cook and Arthur Phillip and a lot of black fellas like me stay at home. It’s nauseating. The power of social media, means there’s been some traction in Aboriginal people being able to contest these mythologies.”
Sisonke Msimang said challenging myths was key: “Myth makes it sounds like it arrived over time accidentally. It’s propaganda. These myths exist for a reason. It’s not simply about education.”
Coates said what he found “beautiful” was the work of black artists, academics and historians challenging the architecture around these symbols: “Human beings always have to justify the taking. There was nobody here so I could take it! I could enslave you because I gave you literacy and Christianity. Around these ideas there’s an entire architecture that’s erected,” Coates said.
“Symbolism is often denigrated but it’s the symbolism that justifies the taking. Without the symbolism you’re just a bandit then - a pirate. You don’t have the nobility anymore. You’re forced to face the question.”
An eagerly awaited interview with Wikileaks whistleblower Chelsea Manning was marred by an awkward introductory question by journalist Peter Greste, referencing Manning’s previous identity as Bradley Manning.
Manning who appeared via video link from Los Angeles, after being controversially refused a visa by Australian authorities on character grounds appeared visibly distressed by the question: “Please don’t deadname me,” she rebuked, setting the scene for a sometimes tense exchange.
It impeded an open exploration of Manning’s fascinating journey from American military contractor, to whistleblower, and transitioning while serving life imprisonment for leaking military secrets, before being released from prison in 2017, after her sentence was commuted by departing President Barack Obama.
But it was the audience questions, generally the bane of festivals, that saved the day showing Australian audiences' thirst for nuanced conversations around race and politics can overcome the limitations of interviewers. The sophistication of an internet savvy and You-Tube watching audience craving an ideas antidote to a paucity of satire, debate and insight in the local political and media sphere is a driver behind the packed houses and stadiums for Coates, and last week, Daily Show host Trevor Noah.
Richard Fidler’s empathetic and careful evening session with Coates was enlivened by provocative questions from the floor including a woman who asked: “Cornel West - what’s good?’ referencing Coates' stoush with the race scholar: “I read [West's book] Race Matters when I was in college and it changed my life. I know he is not a particular fan of mine but everybody is not going to be a fan of yours, that’s not how the world works. I wish him the best and in the meantime my job is to keep writing.”
She also asked about his Atlantic piece responding to Kanye West’s controversial slavery comments: “Kanye said slavery was a choice, it’s difficult to hear a black person say something like that. This was at a time people had their kids literally stripped away at the border. Kanye only had his career because of the people Donald Trump is inflicting pain on. I wanted to understand why and how someone comes to do something like that.”
It’s not enough to have diverse ideas and talent flown into Australia, but you also need the right journalists and panels to receive the ideas with an engagement that allows a deeper and probing exchange, or at least doesn’t impede one. It’s hard to believe this is not influenced somewhat by the identity of interviewers.
Changes in the demographic of Australian journalists like Wang, are a step in the right direction, and pretty essential in keeping up with the contemporary conversations audiences are craving.