Part 4 transcript
- Belinda Probert:
Thank you very much John. And I’d now like to introduce our third speaker who is Professor Ghassan Hage and he is a future generation professor of anthropology and social theory at the University of Melbourne and one of our most prominent theorists about racism and multiculturalism in Australia and active in the Cronulla events as well, not as a participant but as a ... (audience laughing) well actually as a participant. Among his books that I know many students read and discuss as well as those of us who are older are White Nation, Against Paranoid Nationalism, and most recently, Waiting. Ghassan (audience clapping).
- Ghassan Hage:
Let me begin by saying that I’m not a great believer in a consortium of white, mildly white, or mid-white people sitting together and deciding for themselves whether they are racist or not, and whether white Australia is racist or not. I think there is a certain amount of self-indulgence in this ... which is actually part of a wide international cultural current that was manifested in Durban at the United Nations conference on racism. There the great nations that brought you scientific racism, colonial slavery, colonial racism, colonial extermination decided that it’s up to them to work out who is and who isn’t racist. And to inform third world looking people and third world cultures that they have got it wrong. Basically what they said is: leave it to the superior race to determine who is racist and who is not.
I’m not saying we’re doing this here but I think there’s a whiff of it. I think there is a certain sense of that, yeah, we, white Australians, academics who are part of white culture etc, can somehow decide on our own without speaking to those who are subjected to racism and interrogating their subjectivity whether really we are or we are not racist. It’s on a long continuum of the amazing things that white people and white culture come up with from time to time. For a superior culture and a superior race, white people have certainly produced a lot of idiots and a lot of idiocies, if you ask me. And you have to, when white people engage in this sense of superiority when dealing with racism, remind them why isn’t there a bit of humility, given your history, when you are asking such questions. And I think this is what I would like to talk about: it’s about the culture of racism in Australia. It’s not really about how many Australians are racist and how many are not. It’s a different question to ask, are Australians racist? I don’t think Australians are more or less racist than anybody else. I don’t think the people who are racist are racist all the time. I don’t think white Australians have a monopoly over racism. I think sort of like Lebanese, Greek, Vietnamese are quite capable of doing a lot of racism themselves. So racism as a behaviour is not a white disease of some sort or another. That’s a different question.
My question is: is there a culture of racism in Australia? And what are we doing about it? Let me put it to you this way, Australia has constituted itself physically through a racist act. As a territory it is the product of an act of appropriation of a land and the decimation of a people who were defined racially. We are the inheritors and the beneficiaries of this foundational act of racist theft and so to my mind, if we start by asking ourselves: to what extent Australia today still has a racist culture? We start by being self‑indulgent. Our starting point should never whether we have a racist culture or not? We do. How much are we doing to deal with it? How much are we doing to minimise the fact that we are a racist culture? That is the question. Anyone who starts from a position of ‘let’s debate whether Australia is racist or not’, to my mind, is already racist. Australia is racist. And remember, I’m not saying Australians are racist, I’m saying Australia has a racist culture and so the starting point is, what do we do with it? Are we doing enough?
When I say we are the inheritors of an act of theft, I think I’m just saying the obvious, I’m not trying to be sort of like controversial, I think it’s an obvious fact, we are the inheritors of an act of theft. The value of Australia’s wealth today is not equal to the value of what was stolen. Sure. I think people who have come after the act of theft have built Australia’s wealth whether they are from England or from Lebanon or from Greece. All have increased Australia’s economic wealth. But that does not change the fact that there is a proportion of the wealth of Australia, the economic wealth of Australia which is what I will define as a black economy. It’s a black economy in two ways, it is a black economy in the sense that the source of this wealth is indigenous.
It is also a black economy in the sense that it is an economy of theft. We are all complicit in the circulation of stolen goods and we are part of this black economy.
Now, to my mind, when I see the intervention, the issue is not really whether the intervention is racist through what it is doing or what it is not. Sure, we have these debates, they’re important: are people doing the right thing? But when I say I’m talking about the culture of racism, I don’t mean to question what is done as much as how it is done. Is it done with a sense that we are returning some stolen goods? Is it done with a sense of humility? Is it done with a sense that we are telling indigenous people ‘we owe you and what we’re giving you is not even one hundredth of what we owe you’? Or is it done with a sense of ‘we’re so great because we’re trying to deal with our indigenous problem’? I think if it’s done with humility, if it’s done with a realisation and a sense that no matter how much money we put in the indigenous sector, it’s nowhere near what we should be putting, nowhere near, not one hundredth, simply in terms of economic value, then, we will be on the road towards dealing with this issue, we’ll start looking like we are attempting to deal with this primary racism. Any self-congratulatory stuff is simply a reproduction of this racism. Likewise this original primary act has shattered indigenous psyches and has shattered indigenous society, that’s what racism does: it shatters. In what way are we trying to help indigenous people recollect themselves? Such that the effect of this shattering is not reproduced. That is an issue.
Australia not only has constituted itself territorially through this primary racist act, it has constituted itself symbolically through another racist act: it has defined itself through the White Australia policy, it has defined itself and its imaginary has come into being against indigenous people, through the oppression of the indigenous presence as part of one’s identity and through the negation of its racialised surrounding: through not wanting to be part of a third world looking environment. This is a racial mode of imagining one’s identity. Has this changed? It’s not enough to say we used to think that we don’t want third world looking people, now we’re very happy to have third world looking people. This can still mean ‘we white Australians’ are happy to have third world looking people in Australia. It does not change the nature of our racialised imaginary of ourselves. When we think ‘we Australian’ and start having (associating with it) images that are not white, then we are talking about changing our racialised identity. As long as when we say ‘we Australians” we think that ‘we’ is white, even when we also say, we are fantastic, we’re having all these kind of like non-white people around, look at us, we haven’t challenged the racist foundation of Australian identity.
So, likewise then when we speak about the culture of racism, we speak of the spirit in which things are done. Today there’s a debate about the asylum seekers, I’m not very qualified really to deal with this issue, despite the fact that 99% of the Australian population appears to be qualified in deciding sort of like what is happening with asylum seekers and what is the right policy. But I know for a fact that you can reject people in a racist way and you can accept them in a racist way. And you can reject people in a non-racist way and you can accept them in a non-racist way, I don’t think rejecting or accepting asylum seekers is what determines whether we’re doing it from a position of a culture of racism. When we say there is a culture of racism in this country, it means back to the basics, it means do we think of others instrumentally? Whether we think of them as good or bad, if you think of them only instrumentally, you’re still steeped in racist culture. Do we think of them as a life force? A life force, that’s very important in racism, in existential racism, that is when another person or another being is next to me, do I feel that their life is important for my life?
Does their life propel me or do I look at their life and I feel that it is diminishing my life, simply by mere presence? That is core existential racism and this seeps into all kinds of policies, all kinds of very nice policies as well as nasty policies. It is to my mind, when we want to start to deal with racism as cultural, this is where the game starts, and we’re nowhere near ... nowhere near dealing with this issue. Thank you (audience clapping).