By Randa Abdel-Fattah
July 3, 2013
Anglo-Australians are a bunch of drunken bogans. They wear wife-beater Bonds singlets, drive around in utes with bumper stickers such as ‘Real Aussies drive utes’ or ‘F off, we’re full’.
When they’re not marinating their barbecue meat in VB, they’re at the pokies or bumming around at the beach, or posing for a photo in front of a Holden while draped in an Aussie flag, posting status updates about Aussie pride.
Pretty offensive, isn’t it? This kind of crude caricature is intuitively repulsive.
Imagine what it would be like if every news story about Anglo Australians contained an accompanying image of a drunkard in a ute. Actually, no, I think I can do better than that. An image of a cast member from The Shire.
Imagine if every racist, sexist, rat bag named and shamed on the online site, the anti-bogan press, was the visual representation and dominant marker of Anglo Australian identity.
Now imagine you are a Muslim and belong to any one of the countless ethnic backgrounds that characterise the Australian Muslim community. Or imagine you are an Arab. The most persistent images of Islam and Muslims that we are bombarded with in our popular culture and media are the Shire equivalents in Muslim communities.
If you don’t believe me, just switch to Today Tonight, which regularly churns out the ‘angry bearded Muslim man’ story.
All the research demonstrates that since the 1990s and certainly post-September 11, Muslims and Arabs are our ‘folk devils’. The vitriol and Islamophobic diatribe Ed Husic (Australia’s first federal parliamentarian of Muslim background) was subjected to yesterday for choosing to swear an oath on the Koran was not surprising.
Being Australian and Muslim is considered an oxymoron.
Muslims are accused of failing to ‘fit in’ (code for abandoning one’s Muslim identity) or, as part of larger moral panics and discourses surrounding Islam, are viewed as a clandestine group attempting to subvert the nation from within.
When you type a text in your smart phone, the predictor text function automatically inserts a word that overrides what you intended to write. I believe that even the most well-meaning ‘I’m-not-racist-but types’ have failed to develop an immunity to the predictor text function.
Because we are living in a time when any and all discussions about Muslims and Arabs start from several default positions, namely, that a) Islam is intrinsically incompatible with Western values; b) Muslims and terrorism are inextricably linked and c) Islam oppresses women.
And so in the public imagination you try to say ‘Muslim’ but what you automatically get is ‘terrorist’, ‘extremist’, ‘radical’, ‘fundamentalist’, ‘Islamist’. You say Muslim woman and you get a woman in a black burqa. You say Muslim man and you get an angry, hairy bearded guy frothing at the mouth.
But wait! We should reassure ourselves, we are told ad nauseam, because the Italians, Greeks and Asians had their turn. Is that supposed to make us feel better about our experience of prejudice? We just need to wait until we can hand the baton onto another group and breathe a sigh of relief that the focus is off us.
The only thing that Australia’s ‘cycle’ of victims tells us is that Australia is fundamentally a racist country.
One of the most insidious aspects of the racism we see in Australia is how deeply entrenched it is in the language we use in our public space and discourse, and how such language threatens the capacity for Muslims as a diverse and nuanced group to be treated as legitimate citizens.
By language I mean words and representations and the values and meanings we ascribe to particular communities. I mean the way we visualise Muslim otherness.
Countless studies have been carried out that demonstrate both the overt and subtle dimensions of racism that exist in this country.
Underpinning it are moral panics about so-called boat people, ‘Islamic’ extremism, creeping shariah, the burqa debate, a clash of civilisations, angry men as ticking time bombs.
I am just as interested in subtle racism as I am in the overt. While subtle racism is systemic and pervasive, it is easily disguised and denied and represents a symbolic violence, challenging people’s status as legitimate social participants. Its banality renders it less embarrassing to the dominant cultural elite and so it doesn’t really provoke much fuss.
Yet while I am utterly appalled by our government and community stance on asylum seekers, for example, and see that debate as a clear example of how effectively some politicians and media commentators can exploit the politics of fear and racism, I am also concerned by the white-washing of our popular cultural content on TV as another example.
Trivial? Perhaps, but nonetheless an example of the dangers of systemic and subtle racism. Our popular culture and media can disenfranchise and delegitimise human beings who are literally liquid papered white in our cultural, artistic and political production.
The ‘ethnics’ and Aboriginals are relegated to SBS while commercial TV is still predominantly white. Neighbours practically imploded when an Indian family arrived on Ramsay Street.
Our hospital and medical shows are also largely white even though anybody who’s been to the ER department of any Aussie hospital knows it’s the Aussies of Indian and Asian descent who run the show.
I see this as a cultural white elite desperate to retain the delusion of a monocultural society against the reality of our clearly diverse population. As for our indigenous population, they are by and large invisible.
After all, as anthropologist Ghassan Hage argues, Australia constituted itself physically through a racist act. It exists as a territory because of an act of appropriation of a land and the decimation of a people who were defined racially.
The ‘us and them’ project continues, perpetually against indigenous Australians, and cyclically against various kinds of ‘brown or third-world looking people.’
Australia’s culture of racism can only be challenged when we acknowledge and address the systemic, shameful racism that persists against our indigenous population, and cure the racism that deprives agency and dignity to the indigenous people of this country.
This is fundamentally about honestly rejecting our colonial mindset, understanding and owning up to dominant group Anglo privilege and reinventing ourselves as a nation.