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Racism? Bigotry? Discrimination? No worries, mate, she'll be right!

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As shown recently, Australia does actually have a few "worries, mate" — such as our fear of the "other", which can no longer be dismissed by an idle wave the hand and a nonchalant "she’ll be right", says Adam Booker.

SITTING in the dreary outer suburbs of Oakland, California, my mind drifts from the task at hand to musings of my homeland. My instinct flickers to respond and manage the inevitable, but before I’m able, my impulse ignites and Facebook opens. I am now committing the procrastinator’s greatest sin, yet I continue another social media journey in the hope of feeling connected.  

My timeline is littered with much of the melodic slang synonymous with the homeland. ‘No worries, mate’, ‘too easy,’ and ‘she’ll be right’ catch my eye as contents of various threads, offering a reminder of a unique culture that Australians celebrate. However, I am uneasy. I begin to wonder what we really mean when many of the casual colloquial "Australianisms" are exchanged? Where did they come from? Are they grounded and developed by the rich wartime mateship that apparently founded modern Australia? Or is there something more sinister lurking behind our "easy going" identity?

Consider this, since its colonial beginnings Australia has "racialised" certain groups in an effort to maintain "white" power structures. Australia is a country of rich with natural and economic resources. Rupert Murdoch knows it, Gina Rinehart knows it, Harry Triguboff knows it — and they all want to ensure they continue to profit from it. In order to do so, they must maintain access to resource and income, concentrating the majority of Australia’s wealth amongst themselves. How, though, can this be managed when there are roughly 24 million people in this "democratic" country, most with a right of vote? The secret lies within those Australianisms we all hold so dear, and the package deal they’re sold with.

The deal takes form through an unholy alliance between the nation’s powerbrokers, politicians and participating media representatives. Together, they shroud the community in rhetoric emphasising middle class access to social infrastructure and civic rights. These "privileges" are sold as markers of an active and aware government that operates to ensure social advantage for hard working Australians. To further entrench this "top only" system of resource distribution, the traditional, "hard working" Australian myth is offered free as part of a two-for-onedeal that renders the middle class immobile and politically docile, while allowing them to believe that the harder they work, the greater their chance of climbing the social ladder. Finally, the staged rhetoric is bundled up and gift wrapped for the masses with the accompanying bow that reminds them of the "other" — an ever present, lurking threat to their social privilege and right to "make a go of it". Racial minorities are typecast, racial divisions are entrenched, and the middle class is managed — walking out the door with a ‘cheers, mate’ and package under their arm.  

A recent and compelling example is the en masse public treatment of Australian Football Rules player, Adam Goodes, following his post goal celebration during a game against Carlton. Goodes is of Indigenous heritage and, during the AFL's "Indigenous Round", chose to perform a war dance consistent with his tribe’s cultural customs in celebration of having scored. The dance was short, performed before the opposition team's support section and involved the feigned throwing of a spear — a common custom for Indigenous Australian tribes.

The public’s reaction to Goodes was immense. He endured heckling and backlash that survived the remainder of the AFL season, manifested itself in continued, racially inspired social media denigration and culminated in Goodes' retirement from the sport. 

The justificatory rhetoric was awash with the usual Australianisms that accompany and validate the kind of entrenched racism rampant within white Australian culture.

One insightful social media commentator summarised the Australian publics’ reaction to Goodes in a few short lines by saying

'People boo him because they don’t like him. It has nothing to do with the colour of his skin. Since when has calling someone an ape been considered racist??? By all accounts, he’s just a crap bloke who the opposition like to boooooo!!!!'

One may instinctively inquire as to where the boos and public dismantling of Goodes’ character were prior to his decision to express his cultural heritage on a national stage? But before an analysis of one person’s ignorance can be properly undertaken and contextualised, the Australian psyche must be considered within the framework of Goodes’ experience. How could an eight second celebration by an AFL player elicit a nationwide reaction that is symptomatic of a dark and thinly veiled Australian tradition of casual racism?

Professor John Powell from the University of California, Berkeley describes it as a “status hierarchy” or a way of justifying the idea that some people matter and some people don’t. In many jurisdictions the power structure describes it as a divine right to resources bestowed upon certain people by God. If these messages are delivered to the public for long enough, they ultimately become a functioning nuance of the collective national psyche. Those sentiments have never been more prevalent than in the case of Goodes, who has been taunted mercilessly for his "insensitive" and "daring" display of cultural autonomy. Australia is a country so influenced by its colonial heritage that it has lost its ability to objectively consider reactionary vitriol that seeks to quash any social display of diversity not committed in a place of worship — and even those practices are a source of great contention.

In a more Australian specific context, Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s most recent book, The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty” considers how the Australian national identity has come to be shaped by the colonial narrative, built on a disavowal of Indigenous sovereignty. Modern politics, according to Moreton-Robinson, relies on the concept of whiteness to continue the displacement of Indigenous Australians and circumvent the fraught issues of “settler colonialism.”

Moreton-Robinson’s work is set to sell additional copies following our now dispossessed former Prime Minister’s recent public confirmation of her central thesis via his backing of a plan in Western Australia to close more than 100 remote communities and forcibly move more than 1,000 Indigenous people.

Then Prime Minister Aboott stated in support of that decision:

"What we can't do is endlessly subsidise lifestyle choices."

The prevailing sentiment channeled in so few words seems to expose a hardened disregard for Indigenous sovereignty. Yet, following public outrage from within the Indigenous community, the announcement that the Federal Government intends to assimilate an entire race by force, committing an undeniable form of cultural genocide bore no further political fall out. How then could a country allow these types of archaic, regressive and racist policies to form part of the Federal agenda? The "Australian" answer is "these blokes need to get a job and give sumthin’ back, once they do she’ll be right mate, she’ll work herself out." Those Australianisms are at the very heart of our national identity and represent precisely what it is Moreton-Robinson refers to when employing the term ‘national identity’ — a publicly maintained channel for our government to racially marginalise and discriminate the "others".

Sadly, though, cultural identity themes remain largely unexplored in an Australian context as they pose a simultaneous threat to power structures that preserve current wealth distribution models as well as the "great" Australian psyche of "having a go". That ‘she’ll be right’ ethos forged out of the flames of armed combat or dire economic circumstances throughout our history has sadly come to function as no more than a transparent veil for ingrained systemic racism then transferred onto the populace by politicians. As evidenced by our hero’s discursive social media postulation 'since when has calling someone an ape been racist', 'he’s just not a good bloke' and 'booooo' are all examples of the Australian identity manifesting and operating as an ideological justification to excuse racist behavior.

Seemingly, Australia does have a few extremely serious "worries, mate" that can no longer be dismissed via an idle wave of our hand and a nonchalant "she’ll be right". Racism is racism, regardless of an individual’s ability to properly satisfy the "Australian bloke" test. That test, like any other exclusionary process, is a dangerous tool used by the Australian collective to justify a history and ongoing practice of overt racism on a national stage.

Adam Booker is currently a research scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, producing a thesis considering the role and effect of race and crime governance on Indigenous Australians. 

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

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