After a second night of violent rioting in suburban Sydney, Australian Prime Minister John Howard has stated to the media, “I think it’s important that we do not rush to judgement about these events,” and “I do not accept there is underlying racism in this country. I have always taken a more optimistic view of the character of the Australian people.”
I accept the fact that the leader of any country must present an optimistic view of political events – we see evidence of that in all kinds of instances, and, on occasion, we see the benefits of it, do we not? Nevertheless, shouldn’t leaders also exhibit more of a sense of realism than Mr. Howard has displayed in the above statements, given the fact that riots appear to be worsening, and spreading throughout vast areas of suburban Sydney? After all, it’s clear that there are serious problems right now in Australia, just as there are problems in any country that has large groups of immigrants trying to create new lives for themselves in established communities.
Here’s the basis of my objection and the reason for writing this. Racism is not new in Australia. Indeed, it’s no newer than it is in France or the US or Britain. Racism, even in subtle forms, seems to exist everywhere. If we pay attention, it’s amazing what we see. Look, for example, at The Sydney Morning Herald‘s report on the riots this morning:
Sydney erupted in a second night of racial violence last night as Middle Eastern mobs fired shots into the air, attacked women and smashed shops around Cronulla, while up to 600 young men – armed with guns and crowbars – prepared for a battle.
Note that the Middle Easterners are described as mobs and the others – presumably Anglo men (and possibly women) – are described as “young men.” Since they arrived in dozens of cars, armed with baseball bats, I’m not quite sure just how gentlemanly these young men were! This, by the way, is Sydney’s premier newspaper and that is its lead story. May I say that, as an almost fifty year-old woman, who is partly of Italian descent and who spent my first twenty-eight years in Australia, none of this comes as a total surprise.
That’s why I was astonished to read the following, from the latest AP report:
Australia has long prided itself on accepting immigrants — from Italians and Greeks after World War II to families fleeing political strife in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. In the last census in 2001, nearly a quarter of Australia’s 20 million people said they were born overseas.
However, tensions between youths of Arabic descent and white Australians have been rising in recent years, largely because of anti-Muslim sentiment fueled by the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in the United States and deadly bombings on the Indonesian island of Bali that killed 202 people, including 88 Australians, in October 2002.
Is that so? I thought. That’s simply not the picture I have in my mind of suburban Sydney from when I was growing up in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. I was born in Cronulla, the suburb where the riots are taking place this weekend. My family shopped in Caringbah and my best friend lived in Brighton-le-Sands. They’re suburbs to which the riots have now spread. My Italian great aunts lived in Redfern, the inner city suburb where Australian Aborigines rioted in 2004 after an Aboriginal teenager was killed in police custody. They are all areas I know well in this extremely widespread city.
Several years younger than my big sisters, I came along in the mid ’50s, when my parents could afford to buy a house in the new southern suburbs that were built after World War II. By contrast, my sisters were born in the more crowded neighbourhoods of inner Sydney, for a time sharing the home of my Italian grandmother. I was lucky to grow up among big families, to have a big backyard, to live on a street on which we could all play ball and ride bicycles, to live near the school bus that drove us all to the local public school together, and to even have a swimming pool around the corner from our house. Cronulla, that beautiful beach suburb where the riots are now taking place, and where I was born, was a short train ride from our home.
It sounds idyllic, I hear you saying, and to some extent it was. But here’s the problem. Until I was about nine or ten, besides another family which was of German descent, we were the only ones who were not “Australian,” which meant White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (another Italian family arrived then). My mother actually was an Anglo Protestant – which is probably how we came to be reasonably well accepted in the neighbourhood. My father, now ninety years-old, played cricket and lawn bowls (very English), and never ate pasta or anything remotely Mediterranean. The only thing he did, very quietly, I should add, was go off to church at 6am on Sunday mornings.
But none of this stopped the slurs toward the kids of German descent and me. “Come on you Wogs!” we’d hear all the time (“Wops” was the word reserved for people of Greek descent, which I heard when we went into the inner city to visit some of our relatives).
My favourite expression aimed at me to this day was: “You’re not a Catholic; you’re a ROMAN Catholic!!” indicating a minimal awareness of my heritage but an absolute ignorance of my religion.
When finally it was time to go to high school, I remember begging my parents to send me to an Anglican girls’ school, rather than the local high school, which I think they initially found strange (since I never told them about any of this) but finally they agreed to, mostly because my best friend was going there and I think they thought she was a good influence upon me.
There, among approximately four hundred Protestant girls, I was one of two Catholics. The other girl, Gail, was of Maltese origin. She and I were not allowed to go to the weekly religious classes, but instead used to go to the library, which made us perfectly happy. Even then I was amused by the fact that each day, school opened with an assembly where we said the Anglican version of The Lord’s Prayer, and yet, Gail and I were not excluded from saying it, Catholics that we were.
Does the story end there? If so, mine would possibly be considered a fine example of subtle racism, the kind that indicates the fear of difference that people all over the world demonstrate and experience.
It doesn’t, however. I left Australia in 1985 and have since returned only intermittently. Nevertheless, each time I’ve been struck by the comments that I’ve heard from different white Australians all over the country:
* about Aborigines: “they’re all on welfare”; “they’ll never change”
* about Asians: “those Japanese are coming down here and buying up all our good real estate, pricing us out of the market”; “those Vietnamese carry knives!”
* about Middle Eastern people: “you can’t trust them”; “they never speak English”; “who’s to say they won’t do to us what they did to the Americans?”
I hate to say this about my country, a country that I love very much, and recognise as merely sharing the same problems as other places. I won’t lie about it, though. If we do that, then we don’t face facts and recognise that something has to be done to challenge people who think that they’re better than others because of where they were born, the language that they speak, and the colour of their skin.