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Warning! Racist language

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Confrontation is not always the better way, but we can’t ignore our shared responsibility to those being victimised, writes Lyn Bender.

Warning: Racist language!

“You bloody fucking black bastard!”

The half empty Melbourne tram swayed and shuddered as these words boomed through the carriage.

I froze. Thoughts came fast. "Danger. Don't confront an enraged crazy drunk man.”

The target of this venom was a friend from Bangladesh. His round dark face was etched in fear. This face made him the object of saliva-laced words of hate.

I was standing beside him and, to this day, I regret intensely that I failed to defend him. Would it have made things worse? Nobody came to our aid. I felt vulnerable. Instinctively, we both lay low, choosing the freeze response over fight.

Finding no response, the angry racist's vitriol soon ceased — but souls were harmed that day.

'A rose by any name would smell as sweet.'

Rancour, hate, bigotry and racism all too have a distinctive odour.

Arguments may rage about whether the "ape" taunt and subsequent booing of footballer Adam Goodes were by definition racist — but the taste of it was acrid. It burned like bitter bile that wounded many hearts.

Including that of the 13-year-old girl who had spat out:

“You Ape!"

The term “racism” is shorthand and an attempt to capture, in a name, a vast array of expressions of bigotry and the marginalisation of individuals based on ethnicity, religion or stereotyping.

Racism has been used time and time again as a political tool.

A word like “ape” or “monkey” is code for “subhuman” — or inferior unevolved untermenschen. So too are words like towel heads, bung, nigger, poofter, kike, dago, gook, goyem, shiksa, wop, slant-eye…. The list of slurs is long.

There are also phrases that can be termed “us and them” or casual racism.

Insert group here….They don’t fit in, they throw their children overboard. Playing the Muslim card. Those people eat weird things, should not cover their faces and hair, or eat halal, what ever that is. They don't intermarry. They speak a strange language. They huddle together in groups. Live in slums. Should assimilate. Aren't like us, because….

We all know what is in a “name” or phrase when it is aimed at a whole people or classification of people. It carries a poison tip that is not present in a person-to-person taunt that is related to particular bad actions.

For example, it is not racist to say that Hitler was a hideous homicidal maniac. But….

But when membership of an ethnic or religious group is the only “crime” that attracts a curse, or derogatory remark or action — then that is racism.

There is no doubt that Adam Goodes did nothing to deserve the insulting epithet of “ape”. In fact, quite the opposite.

He has championed his people and used he profile for good. So the word and the booing were aimed at his deepest self and his connection to his family and ancestors. Adam has said that he felt gutted and deeply hurt. It took him back viscerally to memories of being bullied at school and on the field. Racism can also be infused with jealousy of what is perceived as the advantage of a group.

Perhaps envy of Adam Goodes good looks, strength, skill and success as a footballer, and his being honoured as Australian of the Year, fuelled envy. Add to this, he was finding his voice, and able to articulate the suffering and pride of his people.

As a psychologist and in my own life, I know that trauma is transmitted through the generations.

Trauma remains in our memory. My mother has described a caricature in Poland, in the 1930s, depicting Jews as “rats”.

In her 95th year, she remembers a childhood taunt:

“A boy at school told me you Jews killed Jesus!”

She points an angry finger to show me his gesture.

“Imagine telling a kid that? I asked my father what it meant?”

Those who have not suffered directly have nevertheless been raised in the shadow of those damaged by abuse. The pain of the Stolen Generations has been bequeathed as an inheritance to their children and grandchildren.

Witness the tears of Indigenous people of successive generations, as they listened to then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's “Apology” to the stolen generations in 2008, delivered in the Australia Parliament:

Can anyone be left in doubt about enduring and transgenerational trauma?

Racism and trauma go together. Violence and genocide is its most extreme expression.

In 1938, Indigenous Rights leader William Cooper understood what was happening to Jews in Germany. It had happened and continued to happen to his people. Cooper, aged 77, along with members of  The Aboriginal League, marched for three hours to bring a petition of 2,000 signatures to the German Embassy in Melbourne.

They were protesting against the persecution of Jews in Germany on Kristallnacht.  The “Night of Broken Glass” gained its name from the shards that strewed the streets after firebombing attacks on synagogues and Jewish businesses perpetrated by the Nazi Party in November 1938. It said, loud and clear: Leave! Jews are not wanted.

Cooper’s petition was not accepted, but he had taken a courageous stand.

It can take guts and clarity to not be complicit, or a bystander.

After the allied victory in 1945, the German people were regarded as collectively to blame for the Holocaust and forced to view the corpse-strewn death camps.

But many courageous people in Germany did resist and some had ended their lives in those very camps. One of the most famous for his courage was Oscar Schindler, who saved over a 1,000 Jews.

Yet, who amongst us can be sure that we would have dared to oppose. Most of us in Australia, myself included, still benefit from the seizure of aboriginal lands. Aboriginal people still suffer the long-term impacts of genocide, displacement and ongoing structural disadvantage and racism. Among several disturbing indicators are that Indigenous life expectancy is around ten years lower and suicide rates are double those of the non-Indigenous population. One third of Indigenous people die before the age of 65.

So, passive acquiescence is not morally tenable.

Recently, as I walked in busy Melbourne, a visibly drunken man began a torrent of vile abuse towards a man of Asian appearance.

I first saw the look of fear and then turned to see the hatred on the face of his assailant. I attempted to diffuse the situation. I moved in front of the drunken man, my arms wide, as a barrier between them.

“Hey how are you going? Not having a very good night”? 

“No," he slurred. "Nearly got arrested for drunk and disorderly.” 

His friend nearby was grinning. “Take him home,” I suggested.

We cannot remain bystanders. Confrontation is not always the better way, but we can’t ignore our shared responsibility to those being victimised. Whether it is Muslims, Indigenous people, refugees or any marginalised group, we must stand, ride, speak out, or be with them.

In the words of activist Vanessa 'Van' Badham:

“We should be unambiguous in our condemnation [of racism]."

And, by the way, bigotry is not alright, Mr Brandis.

You can follow Lyn Bender on Twitter @lynestel.

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