It’s unfortunate for both of us that I spent half my philosophy lectures at the uni pub. If the beer hadn’t been so cheap, then (a) I’d remember more of that costly education and (b) you’d now be reading a helpful sentence about the recurring nature of historical events. Because, I really do remember this was a big thing for certain philosophers: history can form bad habits.
History, if you like, can pick its nose just once, and then refuse to quit for centuries. Millennia, in fact. We can go back to the last days of Roman Empire, for example, and find very strong parallels between these and the US “empire” of the present. Many private citizens were deep in debt to powerful lenders, and leaders, who wore crispy looking things on their heads, were all, “Those Barbarians. We’re going to build a big wall to keep them out!”
It’s difficult to say to history, “Stop picking your nose, you grub.” This may be due, in part, to the fact that students of history and its methods are too often at the pub. It probably has more to do with a Western delusion, going on for three centuries now, that things just get better and better.
But, geez. Neither my whiteness nor my feeble eyes prevent me from seeing that racism in Australia is not just “underlying”, but, in fact, the very foundation of our national identity.
This idea that we learn and improve over time would be helpful if only it were true. It’s not. Sure, some things are better—for example, cheap, refrigerated beer on tap. A load of others, though, are worse. Poverty-related deaths now occur across the world at a proportion unprecedented in history. It’s a difficult number to assess, given that the impoverished nations in which such deaths are likely to occur are very unlikely to have well-paid statisticians, but conservative estimates start at 18 million deaths by poverty per year.
There are some folks who like to hold on to this myth. As bombs fall and as children throughout the world die of preventable illness, the say stuff like, “Things are just dandy, stop complaining!” Or, they might say, immediately following an obscene display of violent racism, “I do not accept there is underlying racism in this country”.
My accent is Skippy, my skin is white and my eyes, which don’t work very well, are blue. Therefore, I will never be subject to racism, either of the overtly violent or underlying sort. But, geez. Neither my whiteness nor my feeble eyes prevent me from seeing that racism in Australia is not just “underlying”, but, in fact, the very foundation of our national identity.
Look. You don’t just go and brutally pinch someone’s land, pretend that they weren’t there in the first place, make special laws for the people you are still pretending were never there, live for decades of the twentieth century with something colloquially called the White Australia policy and then get all thingy when someone suggests, “Maybe we shouldn’t be celebrating that one day you came and pinched another person’s land” and STILL get to say, “Racism. Nup. Not here.”
Fixed it, did we? It’s just a coincidence that much of the wealth in our nation is owned and managed by white people, is it? Aboriginal kids are incarcerated in such great number because they “asked for it”, I suppose, as did every high-school hijabi who has her scarf ripped from her head?
All this hatred I recount has been enflamed by politicians. Usually, when they want us to look somewhere other than the rotten mess they’re making of the economy.
To return to our history-as-nose-picking metaphor, to insist that Australia is not systematically racist is to stick your finger deep inside a nostril, remove an enormous nasal treat and then, when someone says, “Oh, that’s gross” claim that you were only scratching. Come on. We’ve all done it.
It’s a bad habit. And, it’s one we have to address. And this doesn’t mean giving yourself a hard-time and having your racism painfully removed. It is simply a case of learning to recognise history’s bad habits when they repeat themselves.
There was our foundational act of racism in 1788—what racism, no one is here?! In the mid-nineteenth-century, Chinese Australians copped it. In the mid-twentieth-century, European migrants had their turn and after that, frankly, I lose count. Russians are bad. No, it’s “the Vietnamese”. Now, it’s Lebanese people. Now, it’s Muslim people. Oh, those Indians. And, honestly, it’s not just us Skips doing this. All this hatred I recount—oh, and look, we’re hating Russians again, just like in the good old Menzies days—has been enflamed by politicians. Usually, when they want us to look somewhere other than the rotten mess they’re making of the economy.
Today, it’s the turn of people with Sudanese heritage, a bunch of Australians who already had a taste of it ten years ago. Because a few of the blokes alleged to have committed offences against people and property in a Melbourne low-income, high-crime suburb were “of African appearance”, we’re all supposed to be buying the “we’re not racist, just realistic” line for the umpteenth time in our history.
Look, I should have studied harder. I should have studied my way into learning, really, how to make this propaganda stop. But I didn’t. So, instead, I’ll just tell our politicians: stop picking your nose. We know you’re not scratching.