It took me almost six years to research and write my most recent book, The Street Sweeper, a novel that deals with, among other things, history and various kinds of racism. One of the things I did for my mental health as much as for my physical health during those six years was to jog or at least walk, pretty much every day.
One morning, unusually early for someone so frequently in the merciless, tepid yet unforgiving grip of insomnia, I was pounding my way down the road when I noticed a tradesman of some kind inside the cabin of his ute with a fork in his hand, focusing his attention on the fork and the contents of a transparent plastic container. The man had black hair and brown skin. He looked thin. There are so many places on earth he could have come from and now he was in my neighbourhood.
As I got closer I tried to see what it was he was eating. It was early enough for it to be the man’s breakfast, but the dust already on his clothes allowed the possibility that, even that early, he had been working for some time. So perhaps it was his morning tea? And I wondered, what was that in the transparent container? Was it a traditional dish from whatever far-off place he had come from that he was savouring in the early hours of the morning, temporarily away from the worksite of his employer whose house the black-haired, brown-skinned man could never even aspire to for himself and his wife?
As I drew level with the driver’s door, I looked into the cabin of the dark-skinned tradesman’s ute to see precisely what he was eating. Going too fast to satisfy myself with any certainty as to his food, I was there just long enough to see the man’s face. And that’s where I saw the sequelae of the disease we identify as racism.
Having seen me coming as I ran on the road towards him, his face was a cocktail of embarrassment, apprehension and defiance. Why was he embarrassed? Because, I surmised, he’d been caught eating his ‘wog’ food, some kind of weird concoction we don’t yet eat. Why was he apprehensive? Because a white man was running towards him, possibly with hostile intent. Why was he defiant? Because he’d been in Australia long enough to know that he had to be?
He’d been here long enough to organise a car and a job, so whatever his first language, whatever difficulties he had with English, he’d heard strident rants perhaps on a building site and cascades of invective about the foreigners on talkback radio. Perhaps, like the rest of us, he hears simple language used over and over to frighten us, used like a drum that never stops beating. ‘Stop the boats! Stop the boats!’
He knows it’s not really the boats that are the problem. Why has a nation of some 23 million been obsessed for the last ten years or more with a problem that sees, at most, 6000 desperate people caught trying to come to Australia without permission? It can’t be the number itself because 6000 out of 23 million is insignificant. Let’s be honest with each other. We know, just as the man in the ute knows, it’s the kind of people who are trying to get here. What kind of people are they? They’re brown, they’re Asian, sometimes they’re black, they’re poor, they don’t speak English. This is not really a national problem deserving of the almost relentless attention it’s been getting in the Australian media for more than ten years: more attention than the Indians who get bashed and sometimes murdered on our streets; more attention than the massive disparity in life expectancy, educational and employment opportunities between indigenous Australians and the rest of us; more attention than the fact that our farmers are getting squeezed till they can barely afford to stay on the land and the country towns they’re from are losing their young; more attention than the fact that 47 per cent of adult Australians are functionally illiterate; more attention than the exporting of jobs offshore; more attention than the destruction of our manufacturing sector to the point where we don’t really make anything here but lattes and hairdressing appointments; more attention than the disguised unemployment that sees just under two million people wanting to work full time now or in the next four weeks having either no work or too little; more attention than the more than two million Australians who live in a household where no-one has a job. These are among Australia’s real problems. These problems really matter. Then there are the environmental problems that are just our own and the existential problem we share with the rest of the world—climate change.
But despite these very real and pressing problems Australia faces, we’re more likely to wake up to the chant in the media: ‘Stop the boats! Stop the boats!’ And we keep hearing that because both major parties find these other problems so difficult they don’t even acknowledge the existence of most of them. But they know that there are votes in the exploitation of the latent xenophobia in most of us. And so they compete with each other in their exclusion of the weak and persecuted with a different skin colour or different religion.
A few mornings after I first saw the brown-skinned workman eating something in the cabin of his ute, I was pounding the streets when I saw him in his ute again. This time there was a child beside him, a little boy looking every inch the boyhood version of his father. While his father instinctively looked away as I came towards the ute, the little boy’s attention was captivated by the person running in a regular rhythm and getting closer and closer as I came towards them. Children are not born hating or fearing other groups. We teach them that. In fact, children don’t even know who’s in their group and who isn’t. Ask a six-year-old to name the kids in his or her class and he or she will give you a list of names that includes many nearly unpronounceable ones without realising that any of those names are unusual.
The little boy’s black eyes widened as I drew level with him and his dad inside their ute. He smiled, and when I waved he gave me a cheery wave back. Will he grow up with an experience of life in Australia engendering a ready-made expression of embarrassment, apprehension and defiance whenever a stranger looks at him? Or will he keep smiling and waving? The default expression he acquires, between now and the time he grows up, will be determined by us. Which is it going to be? It’s entirely up to you.
This is a speech Elliot Perlman gave in February at the Wheeler Centre Gala 2012 in Melbourne.© Elliot Pearlman 2012