I spent much of my childhood in a north-western suburb of Adelaide that was, for decades, predominantly white and working class. Waves of eastern European migrants formed the foundation of its initial settlement throughout the 1950s and 1960s, before it underwent a significant transformation in the 1980s, when the new influx of migrants and refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and China settled there in large numbers. Mansfield Park also boasted an extensive collection of public housing, which ensured that underemployed Anglo Australians—like my parents—were well represented.
It was here that I became ashamed of my family’s racist attitudes. Some on the migrant-Greek side felt that anyone who wasn’t Greek was a lowlife, including Anglo Australians (they called me and my father ‘doggas’), while the Anglo side was more selectively racist: for them, it all depended on the context. My father and stepmother used racist language privately, but got along well with our neighbours, all of whom were Vietnamese or Chinese. They referred to these as ‘the good ones’, while unknowns were not to be trusted. Slopes and nips were not taboo words in our household, yet my parents would have denied that they were racist for using them. To their minds, the language you employed did not define you.
I suspect that the shame I felt about my parents’ racism sprang mostly from experience: the bulk of my friends were Vietnamese and Chinese, and their families seemed more admirable than mine. My attitude was, therefore, a product of intimacy and experience rather than abstract notions of morality or equality. I had an opportunity, as a child, that my parents—who had grown up poor among working-class whites—never had.
I also had the chance to see myself through migrant eyes, and what I saw was often confronting. Poor whites were scorned by more than a few of the Chinese and Vietnamese migrants I came to know, especially the hard-working, self-sacrificing parents who were deeply invested in their children’s education and upward mobility. They made it clear that I was not the kind of friend they wanted for their sons.
The experience of being deemed undesirable and unworthy even by new Australians is a peculiarly lumpen trial. For me, it was eye-opening. For others, it’s an unutterable humiliation.
When I was 13, my parents began whispering with noticeable regularity. I assumed that I was in some kind of trouble—I had much to feel guilty about—and kept my head down. But instead of summoning me for punishment, they grew oddly concerned about my safety. Violence had broken out, sporadically, in local public areas, including my high school, ‘The Parks’, which doubled as a community centre. There my classmates and I watched a lengthy, bloody brawl between tens of adults—all Asian Australian—from a few feet away. For us, it was a god-given interruption to a dreary school day, but my parents were distressed to hear about it.
When a young adult male of Asian appearance kicked me off my bicycle as I rode along the footpath near our house—behaviour that I took to be insulting but not especially scary, since I’d already been threatened with knives in the schoolyard—my parents responded in a surprising way. They made appointments with the public housing trust, and lobbied hard to be moved across town. They claimed that hard drugs were being sold by our new neighbours, and that ‘Asian gangs’ had replaced the predominantly white criminals who had formerly ruled the roost. This, they believed, was reason enough to be terrified.
They were not alone: scores of students of all heritages were pulled out of The Parks, which closed down a few years later. Within a decade much of my old suburb was demolished and redeveloped, including the house we lived in and my primary school. One of the more galling aspects of lower class life is that your history is routinely erased. Sometimes you wonder if you were ever really there.
My experiences with the migrants and first-generation Australians of Mansfield Park were mostly happy ones, but for many of the white adults, like my parents, ‘Asians’ had turned their neighbourhood into a frightening and uninhabitable place. It appeared no more dangerous to me than it had ever been, but I enjoyed a comparatively privileged perspective. I grew up in a multicultural world, so its ‘alien’ aspects barely troubled me. My parents, however, did not grow up in such a world. They had never been wealthy enough to travel or to experience other cultures on their own terms. As a consequence, the creeping advance of a multicultural society—a reality-shift that they had no control over—frightened them.
At the time, I was ashamed of my parents’ warped hostilities. But after migrating into a middle-class lifestyle I’ve become less judgemental. Here I’ve discovered that, unlike my parents, very little is imposed on me. I live in a predominantly white, middle-class suburb. I eat Asian food and attend cultural festivals when it suits me. The people of colour whom I call friends are all university educated and English-rich, and they share most of my basic interests and concerns. If they are registered as ‘other’, it is a very diluted form of otherness.
My son goes to a school where multi-culturalism is embraced in the spirit of empathy and generosity, and as an extension of the liberal, middle-class values that most of us share, rather than urgent social and economic need. We are never confronted by aggressive people as we go about our daily business, and we enjoy a prevailing sense of safety and certainty. For precariously employed, unskilled labourers, the prospect of competing against a recent migrant for a job is inevitable, while for middle-class people it is only a remote possibility—and our competitors are typically required to undergo extensive and onerous retraining, which puts them at a significant competitive disadvantage. In short, our empathy and values are largely untested, and our livelihoods rarely, if ever, come under threat.
Levels of general hostility to migrants are, I suspect, partly contingent on class experiences like the ones I’ve described. At one end of the spectrum, professional or middle-class migrants enlarge the dimensions of what it means to be a professional or middle-class Australian, in a relatively controlled, seamless and enriching way; at the other end, poor and criminal migrants enlarge the dimensions of what it means to be poor and criminal in Australia, in a relatively chaotic, fragmented and sometimes frightening way. In the first category, these expansions are largely for the better; in the second category, these expansions are just as often for the worse.
Middle-class progressives have no qualms about exercising their natural right to determine the moral values of our world. Yet a fairer approach would surely entail sacrificing one’s own comfort for a cause. The trickier and scarier consequences of enlightened policies should fall on those who champion them, yet they rarely do.
The habits of progressive social and political discourse almost seem calculated to alienate and aggravate lower class whites. I confess that if a well-dressed, university-educated middle-class person of any gender or ethnicity so much as hinted at my ‘white privilege’ while I was a lumpen child, or my ‘male privilege’ while I was an unskilled labourer who couldn’t afford basic necessities, or my ‘hetero-privilege’ while I was a homeless solitary, I’d have taken special pleasure in voting for their nightmare. And I would have been right to do so.
As an aspirational teenage lumpen, I learned to embrace a working-class ethos. It was a simple, experiential lesson: whenever I allowed myself to feel like a victim, I fell into paralysis and deep poverty; whenever I took pride in my capacity to work and endure, things got slightly better. One world view worked; the other didn’t.
Even if I was wronged or oppressed or marginalised, claiming victim status seemed absurd (since I often came across people who were more unfortunate than me), limiting (since there were other, enriching aspects of life to focus on), humiliating (because in the working-class world self-pity is reviled), and self-defeating (because if you allow yourself to think and behave like a victim, you quickly fall into lumpen despair).
At university, I discovered that this ethos didn’t apply. A season of despair would not send middle-class teens spiralling into a life of drug-addled indigence; they could simply brush themselves off and enrol again next year. Strong, class-enforced safety nets meant that self-pity could be accommodated, and victimhood could even form part of a functional identity.
Indeed, the willingness to expose your wounds is another sign of privilege. Those for whom injury has a use-value will display their injuries; those for whom woundedness is a survival risk, won’t. As a consequence, middle-class grievances now drown out lower class pain. This is why the wounded lower classes come to embrace conservative discourses that ridicule middle-class anguish. Those who cannot afford to see themselves as disadvantaged are instinctively repulsed by those who harp on about disadvantage.
Language is another site of class-conflict. I grew up in violent environments. For people like me, ‘symbolic violence’ or ‘offensive speech’ were, if anything, a benign alternative to real violence and real hate. It was often registered as a joke—or yes, banter—because we understood its relative harmlessness. When I first came across someone who reacted to something that was said to him as though something had been done to him, I thought he was insane. But he wasn’t. He was from a lower middle-class family and was unfamiliar with our habits of speech. He’d never been beaten, so the words felt ‘violent’ enough for him to react in a way that was, in our environment, laughable.
When I was six or seven, a slow-witted uncle held me down and repeatedly spat in my face, because I’d called my stepsister a nasty name. Another time, he savagely beat his disabled wife as we looked on, after she dared to question my stepmother’s maternal qualities. I’ll never forget the slap-thumping sounds as she cringed in her wheelchair, and the sight of blood streaming from her nose and lips, or her swollen black eyes and laboured breathing in the night. Nor will I forget the image of my father pinning my stepmother to the ground after she bit and scratched and tore at my stepsister, or my mother remorselessly punching and gouging a boyfriend who refused to lay hands on her, or my stepmother breaking wooden spoons over my knuckles (yes knuckles, not palms), or my father walloping me hard enough to leave perfect, purple, hand-shaped bruises imprinted on my back and chest after hearing me swear, or … That, to me, is what the word ‘violent’ describes.
By contrast, the act of, say, revealing the true identity of an Italian writer who hoped to remain anonymous cannot seriously be called ‘violently’ intrusive. Nor can an orange-faced buffoon’s practice of hulking impatiently behind a fellow candidate as she speaks during a political debate be considered ‘violently’ sexist or truly aggressive. From my perspective, these are examples of impoliteness or bad taste—no more and no less—yet they are commonly bundled together with truly despicable behaviour, as though there is no substantial difference. Indeed, the deplorable nature of real violence is exploited to condemn mere idiocy.
Experience has imprinted this sensibility onto me. I know that an extraordinarily low percentage of lower class writers and scholars are represented in literary awards shortlists and university readers, but to be outraged about it conflicts with an ethos that I haven’t entirely shed. To me, this form of harm belongs to another dimension of injustice—the relatively benign dimension—whereas physical harm or neglect requires serious attention. I’m not arguing that others should share my sensibility, or even that it is the best or right one. But progressives might benefit from considering lower class points of view, and the experiences that forge them, at least once in a while. They might also find that addressing those sensibilities, instead of ignoring or deriding them, opens up new pathways to mutual understanding and cooperation.
Those who hail from the lower classes rarely have relatives or mentors who encourage them to modify or scrutinise received ways of thinking about social issues. Many go to schools that are under-resourced, where behaviour management replaces education, and where punitive controls make learning feel like abuse. The only people they know who embrace progressive values are the vegetarians down the street, whom nobody talks to, and those who are materially better off than they are. Because of this, those values take on a particular aura: they represent the world view of those who stand above them.
Given this inherent structural problem, progressives must surely seek to persuade lower class people to entertain their ideas—patiently, inventively and persistently—instead of imposing them.
Consider who determines the standards of so-called politically correct speech. Are they primarily negotiated across classes and social groups, or are they determined from above? If the latter is the case, then it would be senseless to deny that political correctness, as it stands, is a form and expression of elitism. When rules of expression are forced on people who have their own peculiar relationship to speech, and who can reasonably be expected to struggle with the constraints, it is not a fair imposition. Political correctness is hardly the evil that conservative commentators make it out to be, but as a moral burden it is clearly weighted against the lower classes, who are smart enough to recognise when they are being set up to fail.
The rules of speech are habitually negotiated in the working-class world, in ways that many of my middle-class friends would find shocking. The factories I worked in typically employed at least a couple of rough speakers who used ‘cunt’ in the way the rest of us used ‘mate’. It was not suitable for me to call my colleagues or foreman or manager ‘cunt’, since it wasn’t consistent with my way of speaking, but it was acceptable for those men to do so. They were upbraided whenever they swore within the hearing of customers or clients, but that was the extent of the surveillance. It was also understood that if they performed their job well and behaved decently, their rough manners would not count against them. How is it that middle-class progressives are unwilling or unable to make similar adjustments?
In the working-class context, in particular, it’s what you physically do, what you make—the observable physical impression—that counts. That is the native language, the one they are fluent in and the one they trust. And that language often conflicts with working-class speech or attitudes.
I worked in a recycling centre for some years. One of my workmates was a kid (we were all kids) called Ricky. I regarded him as a lowlife brute, and he regarded me as rule-following sissy. We were both right.
Every week an elderly Chinese man brought his bottles and cans to us. He couldn’t speak English, which tends to frustrate racists, and Ricky was duly irritated. One morning the man—who had difficulty walking—accidentally put his car into gear while he was half out the door and still tangled in his seatbelt. His legs went sideways and dragged on the ground as the car took off, and he struggled hopelessly to pull them in, or to reach the brakes, or to loosen his seatbelt to escape. The car was only a few feet away from me, but all I managed was an incoherent shout and an uncertain jog as it picked up speed and headed for the main road.
Ricky dashed past me, jumped into the man’s lap, grabbed the steering wheel, and quickly found the brakes. Then he helped the man out of the car, checked that he was uninjured, and knelt with his arm around him as he cried and shook on the ground. When the man was calm enough to stand, Ricky pulled him to his feet, told him to take care, then walked away, muttering, ‘Fucken Asian drivers’. It wasn’t a perfect performance, but it got the job done.
My parents were racists in private speech but not in action. Did that make them secret racists who hid their racism from the wider world? Or were they non-racists who played with racist speech? Or a bit of both? Who can possibly say? My worry is that by conflating racist or offensive speech or attitudes with racist or offensive actions or activism we push people like my parents and Ricky (who represent large chunks of every dominant ethnicity or tribe in every country on earth) over to the wrong side of the political fence. By setting unnegotiated limits on attitudes and speech as well as actions, we claim too much territory and thereby risk losing it all.
The desire to create a world devoid of cruelty and unfairness is unquestionably noble, and the idea of a racism-free society is rhetorically useful—especially when you are dealing with impressionable children—but it is only a happy fantasy. Tribalism is a global phenomenon. Its roots may be evolutionary or cultural or both, but it appears everywhere, and it flares up whenever people fear that their way of life is under threat. When we believe our rhetoric and use coddled, middle-class experience as our reference point, we lose sight of practical objectives, and ignore obvious risks as well as genuine social accomplishments.
Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of a middle-class life is the extent to which it shields its beneficiaries from fundamental, brutal realities. Most lower class people of all ethnicities quickly learn that universal justice doesn’t exist, and probably never will, yet unbridled fantasies of fairness are continually thrust upon them from above. Don Quixote rides his workhorse, Rocinante, with the same blind abandon. But the lower classes are not as tolerant as old nags, and they express themselves with actions rather than arguments and complaints. If you direct them to gallop at windmills, they stand still. When you try to whip them forwards, they buck you off. If you then rebuke them, they kick you where it hurts. And they are right to do so.