The Stuart Highway, near Kulgera NT 2016

Discriminating about Race

I begin with a quotation from “Multiculturalism and its Discontents.”

I am an atheist with an affinity for non-fundamentalist religious believers whose faith has made room for secular knowledge. I am also a political liberal. I am not, however, a multiculturalist who believes that all cultures and religions are equally worthy of respect. … I cannot accept a multiculturalism that tends to excuse, under the rubric of “tolerance,” religious and cultural practices that violate universal human rights.

The writer is Susan Jacoby. She quotes Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Nomad)

Here is something I have learned the hard way, but which a lot of well-meaning people in the West have a hard time accepting: All human beings are equal, but all cultures and religions are not.

The context in which I read this is one of disappointment and alarm. In the recent federal election in Australia, members of both major parties propagated essentially racist, anti refugee rhetoric. They were careful to call them boat people, rather than refugees. The Labor Party was perhaps slightly less blatant about this, and more inclined to restrict its attack to “people smugglers.” Prime Minister Gillard took time to remind us the factoid that it would take 20 years to fill the Melbourne Cricket Ground with boat people at the current arrival rate. By contrast Tony Abbott made “stopping the boats” a key plank in Liberal Party advertising night after night. This particular advertisement was sometimes pared down as a short spot that focussed solely on stopping the boats.

The boat people are granted refugee status in the vast majority of cases. They are genuine refugees. They are far exceeded in number by visa over-stayers, who number in the tens of thousands, but about whom we seem quite unworried. After all, they are mostly Anglo Irish, or at least from Europe. We all suspect in Australia that if boatloads of white Zimbabwean farmers appeared over the horizon, we would welcome them without question. The trouble with the current boat people is their race and colour.

Race and colour is a major issue in Australia. Some people in Western Australia have been angry to discover their successful Liberal candidate is Aboriginal. He has received racist hate mail.  People are delighted to teach black refugee children how to be nice little Australians, but oppose the election of their parents to Church Council. We welcome the dollars of Indian students in Adelaide, and then rip them off, and beat them up when they drive taxis.

Racism is a deflector. It is one of a clutch of issues we can use to avoid and deflect the real issues of life. In what many called “the race to the bottom,” political parties used race based fears and hatreds to deflect attention away from their impoverished policy platforms. In an era of uncertainty, racism provides a convenient Other, an enemy we can see, onto which we can project and place our half formed fears and anxieties. Something is wrong. We are losing control of our environment. Blaming people who are easily identifiable as “different,” and thus defining an enemy, provides us with an appearance of control. We can see, and name, and act against the problem.

In reality, since the problem we identify is a false diagnosis, we are making matters worse. We breed resentment and anger for the future, while the real cause of our fears goes untreated and unchecked. We respond with more race based strictures, and the whole situation becomes worse in a positive feedback loop.

I also read Jacoby in a context where the place of religion in Australia is changing. Australia is a secular nation. Not only do we lack a formally “established” religion, but far fewer people attend religious worship than in, say, the USA. Until recently, religion was barely a political issue, or relevant to one's public life.

The fact that a previous governor went to mass each week was irrelevant. It was a curiosity, I think, because although elderly, she usually walked instead of being driven! If anything, until recently, religious affiliation was likely to be an electoral handicap if it were too public or too strident. It was just something some members of parliament did. Most people had no idea if their elected member went to church, and cared less.

This too has changed with the creation of religious affiliated parties like Family First, and Fred Nile’s Christian Democratic Party, and the apparent resurrection from the electoral dead of the Democratic Labor Party. The previous Prime Minister is devoutly Christian. His successor is an atheist, which has attracted some criticism. The pretender to the throne- we are well and truly hung at the moment- is an ex-trainee priest who is still staunchly Roman Catholic. For some folk this rise of the “Christian” politician is just in time to meet the “rise of Islam.” Personally, I think much of the rhetoric is well described by Paul Griffiths in his ABC published article “Impotent Religions And The Violence Of The State.”

He bluntly assigns many religious adherents to the role of “hobbyists and cheerleaders, ” whose primary loyalty is to the state. Cheer leaders as such because “so far as the question of the relation of their Christianness … to the state comes to mind, they will think of it as one of unambiguous and enthusiastic support - that is, as cheerleaders….”  The noisy “Christian” lobby in Australia a vociferous supporters of the conservative social status quo in Australia, and tend to discount any other Christian engagement such as the Uniting Church Greens candidate Lyn Hatfield-Dodds.

Religion is on the political agenda. It too, allows us to categorise, exclude, and project our problems. Religion as a marker, is conveniently aligned with race by many people: the boat people are all Muslims. We overlook the fact that many of them are not. Some are Mandeans fleeing Muslim persecution. Some are Baha’i fleeing Muslim persecution. Some are Christian. Some are Muslim fleeing Muslim persecution. Some don’t even care about religion.

Ignoring the fact that there are Muslim boat people, fleeing Muslim persecution, often partly bankrolled by groups external to their own country, such as Saudi Wahhabi, amounts toa  willful blindness of convenience on our part. Our categorizing this as a “Muslim problem” and hence somehow indicative of inferiority, while forgetting our recent Catholic Protestant prejudices and violence would be funny if not such an inconsistency in our discriminations.

Despite all this, Australia with its desire for “a fair go,” is remarkably tolerant. We want justice. We do uphold the understanding that all people are equal. We do want action against injustice.

We believe religion or political agenda or commercial interest, should not perpetrate injustice. And that such biases should be controlled and halted.

I make these statements as “motherhood” statements, with which almost all Australians would agree, in principle. It is in the application of these ideals that we come unstuck. All people are equal… but there are some exceptions.

Most of us would agree with Susan Jacoby’s article where it says we should not tolerate “religious and cultural practices that violate universal human rights.” The application is less clear.

Culture vs. Practice
The first very clear understanding which needs to be gained is that between cultural practices, and culture. In one place in the article, Jacoby speaks of culture. In another she speaks of cultural practice. Even if we say, with Jesus, that by their fruits you will know them, (Matt 7:16) and try and defeat prejudice in this utilitarian manner, deciding the worth of one culture over another is a huge judgment.

For one thing, in this globalised age, what is a culture? I have a Bosnian born friend, who is a devout Muslim of 25 years residence in Australia. Is she Bosnian, Australian, Muslim, Eastern European, Slavic, Westerner or what? Is my dog’s vet, he of the unpronounceable and enormously long Sri Lankan name, who was born in Australia, and speaks with disconcertingly broad Australian accent for those expecting something else from his obvious genetic heritage, more or less Australian than the pretty blonde Dutch vet who came here as a child, and speaks with a Dutch accent? How do we apply the label of a “culture?”

I’d rather have any three of these people as next door neighbour over the two Anglo “Christians” recently prohibited from preaching their “xenophobic, homophobic, racist and sexist” shouting and screaming in Rundle Mall. The violence they inflict- I've found it quite distressing- makes a mockery of claims that our culture is superior. It's taken months for someone to complain enough to get the issue before a court.

Working at the level of a “culture” pretends to a homogeneity that does not exist. Culture and religion do not overlap. Female circumcision is a cultural practice, not a Muslim belief. Some families which practice this may be Muslim. Other Muslims are revolted by the practice. Culture and nation and religion and practice may have little correspondence. My Iranian Baha’i friend was beaten and disabled by Iranians who were Muslims. Indeed, among refugees were are more likely to find people who are not typical of the ruling elite of their country. And the ruling elite may or may not be part of a religious or cultural majority; Saddam Hussein was part of the Sunni minority in Iraq. The Afrikaners were a numerically racial and cultural minority in South Africa.

Judgment according to culture also blinds us to our own sins. I said my Baha’i friend from Iran was beaten and disabled by Muslims from Iran. But my Australian clergy colleague was attacked and terrorized by white Anglo Australian racists. In what way, based on these two examples could we say one culture is superior to another?

We could claim Western American/Australian culture is superior to Afghani culture, and base this on the fact that women are more free in Australia. They don’t have to wear full covering clothes. The are not penalized in the way the Taliban attacks women who step outside their behavioural straitjacket. Certainly, I’d rather be a woman here than there.

But we have, in making this claim, immediately returned to a cultural practice of one (the ruling elite) group within a nation. To compare the cultures we should be comparing everything, if we claim one is superior. Consider aged care. My tribal aboriginal family was horrified that we put old people in homes. We should also consider family and community support. Our Australian individualism, and refusal to help each other, offends Indian and Pakistani friends, who support each other here even though their countries exist in a state of armed tension. They help each other out, although poorly off, with a generosity which shames the “guilty until proven innocent” attitude of CentreLink. In many places in the world, the Elders are revered for their wisdom. Here we ridicule them while still using them for free child care, lay them off early, and ill treat them. Elder abuse is a growing problem. As we compare the whole of a culture, as far as that is possible, the superiority of the west is less clear.

I’ve spent over half my working life in a cross cultural context. Some of this was time spent in another culture, while the rest was working where key congregational members were recent immigrants to Australia. I have taken some grief from people for standing up for non-Anglo rights and justice. My sensitivity has been heightened from living years as the minority culture and from living on the outer as a kid. Yet I am astounded at how deeply, deeply ingrained is my sense of cultural superiority.

I need constantly to watch I do not speak down to non white non Anglo-Saxon friends. It distresses me that with English, or German, or Finnish friends this is never a problem. As soon as colour enters the equation, something changes. I struggle with good hearted and generous, loving parishioners who seem completely unconscious that they are making the same distinctions. Conscientising people to this is a pastoral issue.

I’m also aware how much wearing clothing that appears oppressive, or odd, can be a choice for strength. We only have to look at Emos or Goths to get a hint of this. As a kid I was profoundly discomforted coming to the city from the farm. I couldn’t sleep for the noise. I found the traffic and the attitudes, especially the social superiority and sense of entitlement that bore no relationship to the realities of land and climate, deeply alienating. So I went out and bought RM Williams’ moleskins, Country Road shirts, elastic sided Cuban heals and a tweed coat.

No one at home wore pretentious shit like that. But now, by wearing it, I was immediately “at home” in the city. Facile depiction of burqas and niqabs as oppressive completely miss the point, and opposition to them will only increase the desire of some women to wear them (and perhaps the insistence of some men, that they do.)

Making judgments of justice based on “culture” is simply to take a short cut out of a complex situation. It too easily allows our inherent racism to enter the process. It allows the deliberately racist to enter the discussion at an advantage, because we will already have begun a race based argument.

Instead we must make very careful distinctions between unhealthy and unjust practices and racist assumptions. I say racist here, not to claim ill will is necessarily involved, but to mean where our judgment has been based on race/culture rather than the facts.

This works at two levels. At a surface level our inherent assumptions of cultural superiority can skew our judgment. This is a sort of “unreflecting” decision, mostly formed by “knowing” our way is better.

But even after reflection, things can go awry. Families who have been in Australia for generations, with all our comforts, look askance at families who have an 11 or 12 year old care for the younger children while Mum is out. Child welfare agencies are likely to get involved. Yet that 12 year old child may have been the man of the family for several years in a refugee camp, and be far more mature, capable, and security conscious, than the nice 18 year old baby sitter with whom we have no qualms. The same mum (I ‘m conflating experiences across the years, here) could be the one who leaves her spotless house each day for a urine stenched, yet certified, aged care facility, and comes to me in horror and distress at the abuse she sees.

If we judge according to our standards, or according to the inflexible norms written down in departmental guidelines, we are likely doing some people injustice. Practice, context, and background are all relevant.  A label like "Somali," or God forgive us, "Afrikan," is simply unjust and misleading.

Or, perhaps labouring the point,  I can gather my courage and ask a woman if she is physically safe. “You know there are places you can go… away from this,” I say. And she smiles at my try-hard innocence, and says Australia is wonderful. “He knows he has to behave here. He is afraid. He can’t just kill me and nothing will happen.”

A conclusion
What all this suggests to me, is that as a nation, we need to grow up. As we struggle with the uncertainties of the future we need to recognize there are no set rules. There are no laws set in concrete, on which we can depend. All the migrants and the boat people are doing is making this more evident.

The anxieties we feel are not the fault of the incomers. Our anxiety is the realization, even if largely unconsciously or inarticulate, that the hard and fast rules of our growing up are a myth. Life and society and culture are not static. We are on a pilgrimage, working out how to become human. It is hard work.

Many people do not want pilgrimage. They want to be there already, settled and safe. It is ultimately the fear of un-safety to which our racist politicians appeal.

The church is in the business of pilgrimage. Pilgrimage is good news, for pilgrimage implies life and culture can be better. Whatever God is, is bound up in justice for all people; bound up in the actual embodiment of the principle that all people are equal. So Christians must not remain silent about, let alone endorse, cultural practices which lessen people’s humanity.

Disagreement with an unjust action or practice is not racist. It is disagreement with, or criticism of, or action against, a racial or cultural group as a whole that is racist. When we prejudicially assign the action or practice of some people, to a cultural group and use it as an excuse for discrimination, that is racism. Racism is always somewhere lying about the real situation.

Andrew Prior Sept 2010
At the time of writing, Australia still has a caretaker government.

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