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).