While living in the UK it wasn’t unusual for the red bus swinging through into our narrow London street on the way to Camden to be so full it did not even stop.
One fine weekend when, after a long wait, we eventually squeezed onto a bus, frustration soon subsided, but not for one middle aged bloke. He started ranting at the top of lungs as the bus swung around the streets of north London.
He was a solid fellow, but not tall, and looked like a hard life had taken its toll. His face was red and hair grey. He was yelling at a young slim African woman dressed in traditional Muslim clothing and seated right in front of him. It was apparently her fault there were no seats for this oaf. It was the fault also of all Africans, that the city didn’t work as well as it should.
She looked shocked and uncomfortable. Before I really knew what I was doing, I shouted at him that he should shut up and that nobody on the bus was interested in what he had to say. Almost picking my accent he accused me of being Australian. I corrected him (as I’m a Kiwi).
He then wanted to know whether I had a job. Of course. I then told him to “put a sock in it and pick on somebody your own size, you fat git”. I was fairly happy with the blast except for that “fat git” bit. The rest of the bus applauded. The man got off shame-faced.
It wasn’t an act of VC-worthy bravery or anything. But I was reminded of this recently when a young French woman was nastily intimidated on a bus in Melbourne. A crowd of men started abusing her and her friends for singing French pop songs and demanded that they speak only English. Nobody on that bus spoke up, but somebody did put it on YouTube. The perpetrators were outed and roundly condemned after the fact. Maybe these men live in environments where this kind of behaviour is normal.
It could also have been reinforced by the latent, vicious racism that infects our public discourse. Consider the past week’s news. Tony Abbott has described several thousand asylum seekers as a “peaceful invasion”. This is disgraceful rhetoric. It implies a malicious intent. It is as ridiculous as it is disgusting.
Then the Gillard government says they’ll receive visas but won’t be allowed to work for a living. Further punishment, for what misdeed? Does it really need repeating that it is not against the law to arrive in a country and seek asylum?
Do we really think that depriving them of a job will stop them coming? Besides, most of this is lost on the audience. They see the punishment, they assume a wrong, they hear the language of “unauthorised arrivals” and cast judgment.
But wait, there’s more. Let’s make them “work for the dole”, cries Abbott, after all young Australians on the dole have to work. So let’s refuse to let refugees work, then let’s paint them as bludgers.
Can’t wait for the first stories on A Current Affair about the dole-bludging refugees. But don’t think the conservative side of politics has a monopoly on stridency. The “don’t take our jobs” anti-immigration union brigade use the same dog whistle. Fred’s out of work? Blame the immigrants over here stealing his job. Get angry, be afraid.
Consider too the utterly bizarre campaign running in The Age in the last week or so that equates Asian investment in real estate with sub-standard development. Have you had a look at the poor job Dutch-based ING Real Estate did down at Melbourne’s Docklands?
People in Britain and Australia often assume that I, as a white English speaker, will side with the aggrieved domestic population. I might assimilate better than others, but I am still a migrant. There are sounds, smells, words and memories born of decades in New Zealand that are very dear to me. This is every migrant’s experience.
To my shame I don’t usually put these misguided bigots in their place. I hold my tongue, change the subject and write the speaker off as a fool.
Each time one of us does this we put another brick in the wall between our communities. It is not surprising that nobody spoke up on that bus.
The sad truth is that far too few people are put in their place. There is not much of an example to follow from anyone.