Sometimes it seems like public racism runs on a timetable in Australia, from vicious rants on commuter trains to drunken vilification on school buses. We even import different forms of public racism, like the Indigenous affairs adviser to the prime minister who arrived at the Central Australian Beef Breeders’ dinner dressed in a Confederate flag. Yet one of our most recent newsworthy outbursts seems particularly Australian, a sort of public racism which is grounded in this place and space.
Speaking on the Today show, former member of the New South Wales Parliament and Olympic medallist Dawn Fraser condemned the ‘childish’ behaviour of tennis stars Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic at Wimbledon, yet in doing so she fell back on that old racist chestnut: ‘If they don’t want to be Australians’, said Fraser, ‘then maybe they should go back to the country where their parents come from.’ It’s the poor cousin of ‘love it or leave it’.
The sentiment is common, even if the frankness isn’t. Few Australians would be willing to admit their private thoughts on public television like Dawn Fraser did. Few could do it with the same irony too (Fraser’s father is from Scotland). But what’s more interesting than the sentiment, frankness or irony is the history underpinning the idea that those who aren’t performing the Australian identity should return to ‘where their parents came from’.
For many non-white Australians the traditional markers of Australian identity are never enough. Compare Kyrgios with the equally fiery Lleyton Hewitt, one is condemned for his arrogance on court while the other is celebrated for his Aussie larrikinism. The double standard is frustrating: what’s good for white players is not good for non-white players, their identity is always contingent on behaving properly at any given moment.
It’s a tactic as old as racism itself. It also serves a very clear purpose: to protect the power and privileges of the Australian identity. Fraser’s comments are bad code for the sort of attitudes which will protect the Australian dream against intrusion from the outside, excluding the Other to protect the settler. If the Australian identity is kept tightly defined – whites are in, browns are out – then it helps maintain existing power relations in Australia.
Just as Indigenous people were excluded from the Australian identity to preserve the myth of terra nullius, recent immigrants are also excluded to bolster white Australia’s claim to this land. The ‘social antagonism’, as Marx might say, between supposedly authentic Australians and recent immigrants helps generate an Australian identity that thinks of itself as native, even Indigenous.
When Fraser told Krygios and Tomic to go back to where their parents came from she did so from the implicit position that she, and those like her, are the natives in Australia. (Like terra nullius, it also erases the actual Indigenous people). This is the reality of modern racism: shaped by history, carried out by otherwise well-meaning people and almost impossible to name.
How do you explain to someone that Fraser’s comments are racist because they preserve existing power relations by excluding those who could threaten to disrupt them? I don’t think the left has an answer. Even if we did, would Australia listen? Centuries of accumulated power will not redistribute just because we’re making elegant arguments.
Michael King, the celebrated New Zealand historian, would often argue that Pakeha (white) culture was the country’s ‘second Indigenous culture’. King argued that Pakeha culture’s ‘focus on the country and culture of occupation rather than the country and culture or origin’ makes it Indigenous. It’s an argument with enormous rhetorical and political power. I regret that it’s spreading to Australia.