This is not a racist country, but …

I’d like to thank the Coalition citizenship spokeswoman, Teresa Gambaro, for giving me a reason to write about racism this week.

The issue really blew up at the end of last week when two white men were convicted of being part of a gang of youths who had stabbed a black teenager, Stephen Lawrence, to death in an unprovoked attack at a London bus stop 19 years ago. The verdict showed that progress had been made on the racial front in Britain, but the British still have a long way to go.

So does Australia, but the reaction to Ms Gambaro’s comments to The Australian (http://bit.ly/w8vKxP)  that immigrants should be taught to wear deodorant and wait patiently in queues to help them come to terms with the local culture was swift and critical, demonstrating that we have learned something in recent decades.

The suggestion was racist in nature, and the Coalition spokeswomen, herself an Italian immigrant, should have known better. After the shock jocks and letter writers were jolted into action in Australia and around the world, Ms Gambaro quickly changed her tune, saying she had been taken out of context, and then admitted the comments were inappropriate and unreservedly apologised.

The implication that immigrants smelled reminded me of what my father used to tell me when I was growing up in West Philadelphia in the 1950s: “Don’t sit next to a coloured person on a trolley, they stink.” It’s called a stereotype, I learned later, and you can’t ascribe it to an entire race of people.

Growing up in a white neighbourhood next to a black one, separated by a playground and years of stereotypes and racial incidents, certainly led me and my friends to distrust, if not hate, our black brethren.

It wasn’t until I got to university and met African Americans, who were smarter and nicer and sweeter-smelling than me and my Irish-Catholic mates, did I realise what a load of rubbish I’d been taught over the years.  It was a valuable lesson to learn, because you’ll never stop being a racist until you admit you are one.

My parents were two of the nicest people in the world, but they had grown up in a culture where black Americans were looked down upon. The regulars in the Irish bar across the street from my home in West Philly used to call me “N-gger Lover” because I taught in the black community of Harlem, and they designated the trolley that travelled from our white neighbourhood to the city centre as “The African Queen.”

And in the 1990s, they had found a new enemy in the Vietnamese and Cambodian immigrants who had moved into the neighbourhood, angry that they had taken jobs away from whites. What the Asian migrants had done was show how hard-working they were, getting up early in the morning and driving into the markets to buy and sell produce and vegetables. And how did the white teenagers react to their get up and go? Well, they broke their car windows as they were going to work. Sounds as if it could have happened here, doesn’t it?

Which brings me back to Ms Gambaro. She and too many Australians, I’m afraid, have yet to discover how racist they are. In some cases, it won’t matter because the people suffering from the malady won’t care, and won’t want to change. She should have realised that calls for deodorant and patient queuing would have a racist element to them: “Without trying to be offensive, we are talking about hygiene and what is an acceptable norm in this country when they are working closely with other co-workers.” Her call for “cultural awareness training” for employers is a good one, but only if she was referring to “racial awareness training” for Australians as well.

Words are important in detecting racism: referring to Aborigines or ethnic groups as “you people” is a dead giveaway. I’ll never forget the new principal of a junior high school in Harlem calling an urgent meeting of staff to discuss major discipline problems. His first words to the teachers, many of whom were black, were: “It’s time to call a spade a spade.” We all fell about, laughing. The principal, who was not racist, didn’t last long. Like Ms Gambaro, he didn’t consider his words carefully.

And no matter how hard you try, there is always a racial throwback to your upbringing when you least expect it. Simon Barnes of The Times, described his racial atavism in an excellent column in The Weekend Australian last Saturday (http://bit.ly/yegVO0): “I was in Africa, 20-odd years ago, and I caught sight of the bush pilot who was to take me on the next stage of my journey … Oh God, he’s black. “ He recovered, but still remembers it. It happened to me in South Africa a few days before the first multi-racial elections in the country’s history in 1994. I was walking down the streets of a still tense Johannesburg when I heard someone running behind me, and next thing I knew a black man jostled me. I was scared sh-tless, until he said very politely: “Excuse me.” I saw a fleeting smile cross his face, as he realised how scared I was, and I felt like an idiot.

As Barnes put it: “You can have a racist thought, make a racist remark or commit a racist action without wearing a white sheet and a pointy hat; those who think otherwise are deluding themselves.” I wish I had a dollar for every time an Australian said to me: “This is not a racist country,” or “I’m not racist.” I call it the Four-Beer Syndrome as a result of pub discussions about Pauline Hanson. The conversation would begin: “Isn’t that Pauline Hanson a terrible racist?” And by the fourth beer or so, the discussion would continue: “But you know, there’s a lot of truth in what she has to say about immigrants.”

And just because you recognise you are racist, and try to do something about it, doesn’t mean you will suddenly transform the society in which you live. I remember spending a night in Redfern in Sydney to write a story about black-white relations in Australia, and took the train back to the North Shore the next morning. It was like travelling from one country to another in half an hour. Parts of Redfern have become gentrified because of high house prices in Sydney, but blacks and whites, for the most part, still live in two different countries in Australia. Writing about it doesn’t change it.

My mother, who died in 1996, lived in one of those changing neighbourhoods in Philadelphia where the whites moved out as soon as a black family moved in. When she told me over the phone that a black family had bought a house on the block, I said, without thinking and a bit sarcastically, “Congratulations, Mom.” She said: “You don’t have to live here.” She was right, as usual.

But we should do what we can. Empathise with the indigenous people of Australia, think before we speak and write about migrants, refugees, or illegal immigrants, and in the case of politicians, have someone check your comments before making them public.

The good thing about Teresa Gambaro’s inappropriate suggestions is that many Australians identified the racist implication quickly and let the Coalition spokeswoman know where she went wrong. Several decades ago, she would have had more defenders than critics.

Still, there were letters to the editor of The Australian like this one from Frank Pulsford from Queensland: “If Teresa Gambaro continues to talk common sense, she risks giving politicians a good name.”

I prefer the comment made by cartoonist Jon Kudelka on the same page of The Australian, illustrated at the top of this post.

Teresa Gambaro, please take note.

2 thoughts on “This is not a racist country, but …

  1. Dead right, Tom. We cloak our racism in multiculturalism. We kid ourselves that because we’ve pursued multiculturalism — or we used to until the last few years — then that proves we’re not racist. But racism pervades Australia’s “European” community. See Cronulla riots… Multiculturalism and legislation have repressed the worst outward expressions of it, but it’s there in any pub and club, in any decent home, where migrants are the whipping persons for every ill that troubles “real Stra’ans”, never mind that Europeans are the second wave of migrants at best. I like to think that, as each wave of migration matures into its second and third generations, and their kids grow up with Stra’an kids, then these sentiments will moderate and the people will mature. By that time, however, there will be other waves… And the cultural make-up of “real Stra’ans” will have changed. Of course, the racist grumbling really is a cover for envy and guilt, an excuse proffered by “real Stra’ans” for laziness, indolence.

    Thanks for the read.

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