Racism and the journeys of heroes

Watching the premiere of the SBS miniseries First Contact was a strange experience for me. The first few minutes my focus shifted between the program and my own thoughts, because I had a strong sense that I’d already watched a show like this. It was driving me crazy for a good fifteen minutes: I needed to know where I’d seen this before. It came to me finally during the first ad break when my attention wandered over to a print hanging on the wall depicting an ox on a boat.

It’s a visual pun, you see: boat + ox = botox. Yeah, I don’t think it’s very funny either. Anyway, the connection to boats made me realise that First Contact is strikingly similar to another SBS series, Go Back to Where You Came From, which ran from 2011-2012.

First Contact is an SBS/Blackfella Films collaboration that aims to ‘shine a light on the deep divide’ between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia. The way they go about this is by rounding up six white Australians and ‘immersing’ them in Indigenous life. It is also hosted by Ray Martin for some reason. Blackfella Films has produced some superlative television, including First Australians (2008), Mabo (2012) and most recently Redfern Now (2012–13), an anthology show about the titular inner Sydney neighbourhood, and one that is genuinely world class (as opposed to most Aussie TV). In contrast to its earlier work, Blackfella Films has copped a bit of flack for First Contact because of its focus on whiteness, but also its portrayal of certain communities and its framing of Aboriginality as a problem.

I’m surprised not much discussion has focused on the similarities to Go Back to Where You Came From, a show that took six Australians and exposed them to the experiences of asylum seekers. The format is almost exactly the same: identify social and political issues concerning a marginalised group, find some white people with ignorant attitudes toward said group, send them on a ‘journey’ to better understand the marginalised. What Go Back to Where You Came From does with asylum seekers, First Contact does with Indigenous Australians. If you haven’t seen either program, you need only watch the trailers to recognise their resemblance:

SBS exists primarily as a conduit for ethnic or social subcultures to have their stories told and concerns addressed. So it is probably safe to assume that regular SBS viewers are at least open to listening to the experience of cultures not their own. But here we run into a problem with the good intentions behind programs like First Contact and Go Back to Where You Came From: namely, the audience will pretty much already be sympathetic to the marginalised group. Of course that doesn’t mean they understand said group or that they are doing anything specific to mitigate their marginalisation but it would be a rare SBS viewer indeed who closely resembled the racists featured in these two programs.

I didn’t monitor social media too much for First Contact, but I remember Go Back to Where You Came From inciting plenty of lamentations. The most constant complaint was that the ignorant people who most need to see the show probably wouldn’t because it was on SBS. If these programs were on Channel 7 or Nine, the reasoning went, it would be better for our national discussion.

Television’s ability to reach vast numbers of people is often invoked as a sort of liberalising panacea to marginalisation. More representation of minorities means more people understand their experience and more liberal attitudes eventuate. In the US, it’s often claimed that Modern Family’s gay husband characters Mitchell and Cameron have at least partially contributed to the growing acceptance of gay marriage, while Orange is the New Black is touted as an important step in representation for women of colour and transgender people.

While representational ‘moments’ like these are significant, they’re often presented on the terms of dominant culture. Modern Family’s gay husbands share very little physical affection – indeed, they seem the only adult characters in the show actively stripped of sexuality. Similarly, Orange is the New Black needs a white woman as a gateway to the other identities represented on screen. Indeed, this was a deliberate ploy by the show’s creator, Jenji Koha: she wanted to tell the stories of women of colour in a prison, but to sell the show she knew she needed a caucasian lead as a Trojan horse.

Such programs have to smuggle the message that people of colour, gays and lesbians, transgender people, and women are actually humans. Smuggling decent representation is an understandable tactic, but it also reinforces the sense that the marginal is contraband.

The obvious political aim of a series like First Contact or Go Back to Where You Came From is a transformation of cultural dynamics by raising awareness and ‘changing minds’. By the end of both series, the rampantly ignorant among the ‘contestants’ have softened their attitudes towards the marginalised. Going through a Campbellian ‘hero’s journey’ returns them home as different people, free to share their apparently progressive ideas with their communities and the audience.

If only life worked out the way Joseph Campbell presumes stories work out.

Putting aside the tiresome trope of the ‘white tourist’ learning something from marginalised people, the format presents itself as a way to change culture by changing the assumptions of both the contestants and the audience. At first glance, changing minds seems an admirable and intuitive way to change dominant culture, but the tactic has significant shortcomings, mostly stemming from a misguided view of dominant culture.

This way of approaching cultural change has been de rigueur since at least the 1970s and is more pronounced in the era of neoliberalism’s ascendance. Racism is understood merely as a character flaw, something based solely on ignorance or inexperience with ethnic groups not your own. First Contact is explicitly aimed at getting white people to understand Indigenous life. While this might ameliorate some racist opinions, it makes little more than a dent in the structural racism that suffuses our culture. The changing of hearts and minds assumes dominant culture as a sort of grand parliament of atomised individuals, each with an equal ‘vote’ or say on an issue. If we just lobby enough members of this metaphorical assembly, we’ll get the cultural change we want.

Unfortunately, culture rarely works in such an orderly manner.

There is not one clear cut process of cultural change. Culture changes in various ways, sometimes slowly, sometimes suddenly, often messily and invariably in ways one person or group is unable to predict or direct. As critical theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak suggests, ‘change is incessant’ in culture and largely out of our own individual hands. It is paradoxical to claim you can change culture: it’s always already changing of its own volition.

We are baptised by culture, forged in it, moulded by it, or whatever other metaphor you want ham up your fist with. Culture exerts far more influence on the individual than the individual exerts on culture. To believe otherwise is to truck with the risible notions associated with the ‘great man (sic) of history,’ whose singular will is supposedly the engine of linear development.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying that individuals ensconced (or trapped?) within dominant white culture cannot or should not try to change it. But Howard Zinn’s observation about the emancipation of the slaves in the US is instructive here: ‘Liberation from the top would go only so far as the interests of the dominant groups permitted.’ Sure, slavery was abolished but the racist culture that underpinned it still persists. Change from within dominant culture will, of course, always be on the dominant culture’s terms – and that’s something of which to be wary.

Arguably, First Contact (like Go back to Where You Came From before it) is a conversation starter but the conversation will only bear fruit when we accept it is not just individual prejudice that needs changing for fundamental shifts in institutional, political, social and cultural thinking are needed – shifts that will always be suspect if driven by or capitulating to dominant culture. Changing people’s minds is no easy task, but changing a racist culture is going to need more than TV shows about white people making the sudden discovery that non-white people are actually human.

Matthew Sini

Matthew Sini is a writer currently based in Melbourne. He has published essays, plays, screenplays and fiction in both Australia and overseas.

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