American actor and comedian Robin Williams describes Australia as an exotic place like any tourist who visits a foreign country does. While he was talking about his recent trip to down under on a television talk show in the US, he said Australia was a very unusual place where Australians - mostly rough people surrounded by the wilderness and wild life - religiously went to pub, and played a strange game called Australian rules football …
He bluntly said “Australians are basically English rednecks” while imitating how they spoke and causing laughter. In response to this, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd retorted jocularly that before making such jokes Williams should spend some time in the deep south of the United States, implying that there are more rednecks there.
But redneck is a stereotype like every other stereotype. It originally referred to the poor, rural, white Americans in the south with their sunburnt red necks and skin, who were considered bigoted, prejudiced and racist. When Williams described Australians as rednecks, he probably was likening some white Anglo Aussies to the American rednecks he is familiar with in terms of their appearance and behaviour - without knowing if these Australians are really bigoted or not.
But the comedian’s job is not to search for truth or create understanding, instead to make people laugh by using social and cultural stereotypes as his material. And Williams, who makes similar jokes about every nation, can easily be excused for his expression since he neither means to stigmatise Australians nor score a political point.
However, anyone from a non-Anglo background with a wounded dignity, who believes that they are treated badly in Australia, at times utters - or is tempted to - that all Australians are rednecks. Those on the radical left, mostly from Anglo backgrounds, sometimes exclaim that all Australians are rednecks as an expression of moral outrage for racism against certain groups.
And well-educated, classy Australians call provincial and prejudiced Anglos rednecks and blame racism totally on those “bogans”. Moreover, saying all Australians are rednecks is in fact no different from saying all Germans are Nazis: this expression of symbolic warfare which aims to agitate and stigmatise all society embodies the horrendous, racist colonial history of this nation.
But it is never productive to start a debate about racism with a question like “are Australians racist?” Or “are Australians rednecks?” This quickly turns into a question of “them versus us”, “Anglos versus non-Anglos”: racist, evil Anglos who are constantly oppressing their non-Anglo victims. This inflames everyone involved in the debate, who becomes either offensive or defensive, and prevents a critical understanding of racism in this country. So “is there racism in Australia?” is a much better question.
Yes, there is racism in Australia. And if we use cancer as a metaphor to explain racism, racism in Australia mainly originates from racism against Aboriginal Australians, and such racism legitimises other types of racism against other groups, causing racism spread like cancer and poison through society.
Today, the majority of Australians from all walks of life have a negative opinion of Indigenous people. Indigenous Australians are associated mostly with alcohol abuse, dysfunctional family life, crime and welfare dependency. Even foreign visitors quickly form similar negative opinions through word of mouth once they set foot in Australia and avoid certain places in big cities because “Aborigines live there”. So how can other minorities expect any respect if everyone - including themselves - treats the first Australians, who have lived in this land for more than 40,000 years, with contempt?
In fact Indigenous Australians are from diverse socio-economic and tribal backgrounds. Although there are some social and economic problems in some Indigenous communities, this does not mean that they are all miserable; many live productive lives and some are engaged in advocacy for Indigenous rights.
But unfortunately these facts are never enough to change the widespread ossified prejudices, which hamper Indigenous rights and also disguise the national anxiety about Australian history.
Fear of seeing Australian history through an Aboriginal perspective underpins racism against Indigenous people. Although Aboriginal Australians - who only got citizenship rights in the late 1960s but were previously segregated from the white society - have no wish to establish a separate state, their version of history - which reveals that almost two centuries ago the British did not peacefully settle, but on the contrary invaded the Aboriginal land and stole it from them - still deeply disturbs the national psyche.
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