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The mingled yarn

We make things up. We're good at it. We could get better.

My granddad was a fourth generation white Australian who worked with sheep, lived in a flat wheat-belt town by the Murray River, and was embedded in the local chapter of the Freemasons. I used to tell the story that he was a small town racist who disliked Blacks, Catholics and Jews. The punch line was that his daughter married a Fijian, his son married a Jew and my dad married a Catholic. I didn't know him well so, to suit my story, I made him up from bits and bobs. It wasn't true. My grandfather wasn't racist. My white lie commits the identical error as racistsimagining knowing someone based on their demographics. I should watch where my imagination takes me. I might hurt someone.

The nation is an imagined community. It requires imagination to presuppose that one citizen has anything in common with another merely because they share passports. Imagination, however, is not untruth, because fictions are powerfully imbedded into our identity at a corporeal level. Simone Weil said, 'Imagination and fiction make up more than three quarters of our real life. Imagination is always the fabric of social life and the dynamic of history.' The imagining of belonging is linked to body, language and thought and informs our interactions.

Living overseas a random Australian accent sends a signal through my body — I hear home — speaking to me about memories, love, and familiarity. Meeting fellow Australians, from whatever background, is easy. Our manners relax, our shoulders slouch and we immediately use first names. We become unselfconscious in body and tongue: the powerful fictions of togetherness at play between us. These fictions are fragile because we're expats — we've a reputation for making up stories about home being better or worse than it is.

The fiction of Australia is inherently fragile because it is a nation of thrown togetherness: from the violent throwing together of the first fleet and the indigenous peoples, to those who were thrown out of their lands, or threw themselves here. For whatever reason, it's an accidental society and it hasn't been easy, so many horrific mistakes have been made, but Australia has managed to cobble together something others call a mutt, a fusion, but seems to work for the majority. Other times Australia is blindly muddling its way through an unpicked history, faking comfort, relying on thin nationalism and unable to face the genocidal facts done to indigenous peoples, the real differences between us, and the struggles of immigrants come to seek a new life only to find intolerance and isolation. These issues threaten the tenuous fiction of Australia's togetherness.

Arufura Sea 2007. We suck molluscs gathered from the shoreline and chew kangaroo tail straight from the fire. An old indigenous man sits opposite me, and we talk of economics and the all-ordinaries in low tones. Kids and adults swill around, occasionally walking out to the rocks to watch for turtles. We move onto land rights and immigration. The old man looks up and says, 'To me, you're a foreigner here.' He throws back his head and laughs hard. He's contagious — I laugh with him. Born in the south, I am foreign to his northern country — the rest can be contested till the turtles turn up.

Racism is also a form of imagination, stemming from the same source as nationhood, but rather than imagining connectivity, it imagines separation. The imaginative capacity of racism is notoriously short: its muse turns to clichés, slogans and retreats from expansive empathy into self-protection. It judges difference as inferior, race as determinative and slashes the chance to understand. Keating's Redfern Speech recognised the injustice wrought on indigenous peoples: the taking of lands and children, the destruction of law and traditions, the bringing of disease and alcohol. He threw non-indigenous Australians a simple but nation altering challenge: to complete an imaginative exercise, a simple act of trying to put yourself in the shoes of the other, because we had failed 'to imagine these things being done to us, failed to make the most basic human response and enter into their hearts and minds.' At the intersection of emotion, justice and politics sits imagination and it can lead to separation or connectivity: both risky. Separation can lead to division and hatred, connectivity can lead to loss of position and identity.

French café 2010: I stare at my laptop and wonder how the world sees Australia. The table next to me fills with coffee, Arabic, cigarettes and men from Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. We start talking, but like always, I'm required to declare my origins. 'Australie.' Smiles all around: words like dream and desert and sea. I cheat — flip them the question. 'Do you think Australia is racist?' Brows close, hands fly in the air, stories pour: cousins of friends in Sydney picnicking on the beach and getting hit by batons, white people there (except for you they smile) have brains like dried up apples and won't give good men work because they're Muslims. 'Is France racist?' The table rocks with stories of French elitism and North African second-class citizens. We go further until the whole world is racist: black presidents make no difference, money makes us fear each other. One man leans over. 'The West uses its freedom to injure us. Injury cannot be freedom.' I imagine catastrophe everywhere, but Arendt said that on the other side of every catastrophic coin lies a miracle. I ask them if any place is better than others. They smile: of course, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. One man nods to me, 'Australie.' We laugh at the absurdity. Hours later, I return home expanded and less alone in a foreign country.

Discussing the violence against Indian students in Melbourne, Waleed Aly proposed that, unlike many other countries, Australia has low-level racism at high frequency, one of the reasons racism is harder to name and eliminate. Although there are incidents like the Palm Island affair and the Cronulla riots, the majority of racism occurs quietly, from behind squinting eyes and swallowed by the persistent Australian silence. John Howard said that he 'did not accept that there is underlying racism in this country.' Kevin Rudd stated. 'I do not believe that racism is at work in this country.' According to our leaders, unlike any other country in the world, Australia is a post-racist society. Australia has always had heavy utopic tags hanging around its neck and our leaders must still subscribe to the myth of the 'great southern paradise', because to deny racism exists presumes Australia is perfect — there's no more work to do and no-one is accountable for racially motivated riots or the bashing of innocent students. Racial violence does not appear from nowhere. It spurts from this 'high-frequency low-level racism', which coalesces beneath the radar, then explodes onto the public stage.

In a groovy shop, surrounded by groovy people, we decide to buy a book. In a Chinese accent my friend asks for a bag. The woman ignores her. I ask for a bag for my friend, then hand coins to the woman without thinking. They're Euros. The groovy woman's eyes alight: she looks only at me, asking about over there. My friend obviously comes from somewhere more unknown, her small village life in China is unlike we imagine, but the woman salivates about Europe, how marvellously exotic it must be to live so close to those different cultures. She dumps the bag before my friend, communicating with sharp arms and avoiding eyes — so subtle — so invisible — like a bell jar has landed on my friend's head. Time stops. Home stops. Invisibility becomes visible.

In the mingled yarn of Australian identity many narratives compete for precedence. There is the narrative that Australia is a peaceful country and the majority of its people welcoming, egalitarian and relaxed. But a second narrative, that Australia has racism in its culture, contradicts the first. These narratives clash when images of razor wire detention centres full of asylum seekers hit the screens, when indigenous mortality rates are raised, and when slurs are made on a cricket field overseas. In the face of competing narratives, racism can be dismissed as an aberration, provoked, or necessary to maintain our fragile nationhood, because to admit that Australia is a racist country undoes the story of 'the relaxed, friendly people'. This is where denial sets it — a quieter form of racism: denial that we live on Aboriginal land, denial that most of us come from immigrant stock, denial that our racist history still lurks amongst us, and the denial that low level racism matters.

When I was sixteen my penpal Emily came to stay. Adopted to a loving middle class family her life seemed comfortable. One stinky afternoon we were off to the pool. Emily covered herself in sunscreen, hat, sunglasses, jumper and tracksuit pants. Baffled, I asked why she was torturing herself in 40 degree heat. She told me she didn't want to get blacker and look aboriginal. I remember chills: something tragic was unfolding. 'But Emily you are Aboriginal.' I knew the average teenage unease, but not self-hatred from the inside out. Later that year the indigenous footballer Nicky Winmar responded to a racist comment by raising his shirt and pointing to his black chest. He changed the story. I regret not sending the photo to my beautiful, smart, and well-loved friend.

The majority of Post-Apology, Post-White Australia policy racism is insipid: hard to name and too small to yell about. When low-level racism forms part of the social lubricant, and the messages seem harmless, is it disproportionate to make a fuss? It's easy to forget that these small utterances drip into the subterranean basin that feeds violence and institutional racism. Challenging a racist comment separates oneself from the speaker, threatening fragile connections, but if low-level racism is not interrogated because we might ruin the mood we sacrifice expansive imagining for a narrow one in order to hold tight fisted to the belief that we're easy people. As Cornel West says, 'Who wants to be well adjusted to injustice? What kind of human being do you want to be?' Even in relaxed company, racism can breed in low tones, quietly eating at souls and connections, spilling into blood at unforseen moments.

A few months ago Emily took her own life; the final act of separation. I don't know why. All I know is that, at sixteen, Emily was undone by the multitude of small racist swords in our culture. In the mess of politics and identity we all too often forget that racism — first and foremost — hurts. We forget we have the capacity to undo each other. We like to think we're immune to other's opinions, that we're individuals, but like similar body language is comforting in a strange land, the rejection of your body in your own land is lethal. It says — you mean nothing to me. Emily never meant nothing. I remember the photo of Nicky Winmar that booms across the intention to separate him from the human family: it says 'I proudly exist and will remain right here, where I belong.' I wish that was Emily's story.

Racism swears allegiance to a singular story that suits only our own needs, leaving us to suffocate on the anaesthetising gases of our own personal prison. Nations choose their narratives and by extension, their contradictions, but if we constantly view racism as the sole reserve of policy, institutional and structural mechanisms, or a series of isolated acts in an otherwise peaceful nation, we're dangerously cultivating our naivety and risk hurting each other and those outside our borders. People living within nations can choose between different imaginative paths: expansive or contractive. Together we make things up. Together we are good at it. Together we could get better.

The Australia of my grandparent's day is a different country; they did things differently then. The story of my grandfather relies on the voices of his family, which speak to the miracle of thrown togetherness. We now include Fijians, Chinese, Americans, Italians, Canadians, Dutch, French, Jews and soon to be Russians and Greeks. Some have lost their citizenship, some live far away, but we all come from those old white people who rarely left their small town. Like multicultural Australia we share space, place, bloodlines, and the memory of a different silence lying outside our grandparent's town, and although it's endless out there, part of our imagination belongs to that country and, by extension, that inherently fragile fiction — Australia.

Bronwyn LayBronwyn Lay is an Australian writer living in France who has a background in law and political theory. Her essay 'The Mingled Yarn' won the 2010 Eureka Street/Reader's Feast Award.

Topic tags: Bronwyn, Australia, racist, Mingled Yarn, Eureka Street/Reader's Feast Award, crime and justice festival



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Existing comments

A beautiful essay, a definite credit to its author. But it's winning the Eureka Street/Reader's Feast literary award does raise some interesting ethical questions for Eureka Street, questions now being asked increasingly whenever or wherever any "competition" is conducted, artistic and sporting competitions in particular

In the original announcement for the award Eureka Street clearly declared "Essays should feature a strong humane perspective, provide criticism of current situations and suggest positive outcomes or alternative ways forward." Ms Lay's essay covered exquisitely the first two of these requirements(?), it really touched not at all on the third. Should it have won the prize?
Likewise the declared "guidelines" (which we were admonished to "read carefully") for the competition stated, inter alia, "3. The essay should be no longer than 2000 words." Should Ms Lay's 2,092 words have disqualified her?

These may seem trifling concerns, but they are characteristic of similar concerns being raised in other competitions, especially where the rewards for winning, particularly the financial rewards, are considerably higher. What is 'art' and what is 'religious', and what is not, for entry into the Blake Prize for Religious Art? When is a 'female' athlete not female? When does a prosthesis cross the line and become a 'prohibited device' for a disabled athlete who wishes to compete in open competition? Listen to each year's arguments about the eligibility of 'novels' entered for the Booker Prize.
An interesting field here for some good old ethical debate.

And yes, I did enter this year's Eureka Street/Reader's Feast competition. Whilst my entry did indeed adhere to the guidelines, at least as I could interpret them, it came nowhere near matching the winner's for what I would consider straight literary merit.

Congratulation again, Ms Lay.

John R. Sabine | 05 August 2010  

Agreed this is a remarkable essay, I am in fact referring to in my own essay for the upcoming HSC English exam. A minor dig in response to John Sabine, I couldn't help notice that his own submitted comment exceeds the requested 200 word limit by 87 words. Admittedly this is not as serious as Ms Lay's breach of 92. Perhaps still worth consideration.

R FitzSimons | 12 October 2011  

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