This Monday, the United States observes Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I thought it would be a good opportunity to explore a subject I think about from time to time: race relations in contemporary Australia.
I should preface this by also acknowledging that I speak from a place of privilege. I’m Hispanic, an immigrant, and a woman – identities that experience systematic social inequality. But I’m also white-ish, American, able-bodied, cisgendered, and educated – identities that enjoy certain advantages and also contribute to systematic social inequality.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968) was an American Baptist minister who became a civil rights activist early in his career. Advocating the use of non-violent civil disobedience, he became a leader in the African-American Civil Rights Movement. He was assassinated in 1968, but he managed to secure progress on civil rights in the U.S. Just days later, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which prohibited discrimination in housing and housing-related transactions on the basis of race, religion, or national origin (later expanded to include sex, familial status, and disability). Dr. King is remembered as a great orator, civil rights leader, and remains an inspiration in social justice. The federal holiday is also a day of citizen action volunteer service in honor of Dr. King.
Racism and ethnic discrimination have been a major issue in the U.S. since the colonial era and slave era. Legally sanctioned racism imposed heavy burdens on basically everyone who wasn’t white and Protestant including Native Americans, African Americans, Asian, Latins, Jews, the Irish, and the Italians. Although formal racial discrimination has been long banned, the legacy of historical racism continues to be reflected in social and economic inequality and contemporary expressions of racism tend to be more subtle in the face of public abhorrence of overt racism. Conditions have improved over the years, but we still have a lot of work to do.
Perhaps most crippling to U.S. race relations is the legacy of colonialism and slavery. Australia never had African slavery, but the dispossession of Aboriginal Australians must be acknowledged. Like in the Americas, European occupation meant epidemic diseases, appropriation of land and resources, the introduction of alcohol, forced Christian conversion and loss of indigenous culture, many atrocities, and much death. Like Native Americans, Indigenous Australians have been decimated. Today many of them live in remote communities and face substantial health and economic difficulties.
My limited observation as an American living here is that Aussies are sympathetic about Aboriginal issues in a broad sense. Like Americans regarding the plight of Native Americans, they shake their heads at the atrocities and current conditions and agree that something needs to be done. But it doesn’t go much further than that. The government appears to enact measures towards improving the health and education and lowering unemployment, poverty and crime among Australian Aboriginals, but some of it also appears to be paternalistic, dictatorial, and more for the benefit of the government rather than the people it serves. There’s also the challenge of disempowerment and the culture of victimization that Aboriginal Australians are steeped in.
In the U.S., when we describe someone as “black”, we’re generally referring to a person of Sub-Saharan African descent regardless of skin pigmentation, and “white” refers to people of European descent. It’s an inadequate and problematic definition because racial identity is much more complex. You could describe me as black or white based on this limited definition as my ancestors come from Africa as well as Europe, but I was born in Cuba and I don’t look black. Therefore I’m Latina (even though I prefer the term Hispanic), which is not a race anyway, and I still fall into the “people of color” category. It’s a very silly social construct and it has more to do with class, culture, and behavior than actual skin color. But I digress.
In the U.S., when we describe someone as “black”, we’re generally referring to a person of Sub-Saharan African descent regardless of skin pigmentation. Australians, on the other hand, appear to describe all dark-skinned people as “black” whether they are Aboriginal, Indian, African, or anything else. If you’ve got really dark skin, you’re black. I’ve already touched upon the status of Australian Aboriginals (though I failed to talk about colorism within it). Without the legacy of slavery, what does racism look like for black people in the American sense of the word, people of Sub-Saharan African descent residing in Australia?
I’ve seen some things in Australia that have shocked me as being blatantly racist. The best example of this is the Jackson Jive sketch on a 2009 episode of the Australian television show Hey Hey It’s Saturday.
Harry Connick Jr. wasn’t the only one who thought the sketch was inappropriate. Criticism poured in from U.S. and UK media including The Guardian, the AV Club, The Awl, Gawker, New York magazine, and Movieline. But Aussies didn’t really get it. They didn’t view the the sketch as racist or even tasteless and just tossed the brouhaha up to cultural differences and misunderstanding the Australian sense of humor. Even Prime Minister Jullia Gillard defended the sketch saying it should be taken in the humorous spirit in which it was intended.
Blackface creates a stereotyped caricature of a black person. While displaying blackness is not historically unique to the U.S., blackface rose to prominence on the American stage and helped shape racist stereotypes of black men as lazy, cowardly, lascivious, stupid liars and thieves. The look became iconic and a popular motif in cartoons and comic strips. In 1895, American illustrator Florence Kate Upton gave Great Britain and, by extension, Australia, the rag doll character Golliwogg, which can still be found in many stores down under.
Changing attitudes about race have pretty much ended the use of blackface in American entertainment save for social commentary and satire. The African-American appropriation of blackface has been groundbreaking, but you don’t see much of that anymore either. But what we saw on Hey Hey It’s Saturday was not social commentary, satire, or reclaiming; it was just mockery of a famous black family for the entertainment of a white audience. For all the media attention paid to the Jackson Jive story, there were some important questions that nobody asked. Why would Australians want to use blackface in the first place? What does it mean to them? What do black (African) Australians think of its use in modern entertainment and what did they think of the sketch? Why does the iconography persist in popular Gollywogg dolls and even blackface masks found in the costume sections of $2 shops? How much has American media influenced Australian depictions of black people?
There’s another group to consider when talking about race relations: immigrants. Australia fancies itself a multicultural society. It certainly is one of the most ethnically diverse nations in the world. On a daily basis, I see people here from all over Asia, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Africa, and to a lesser degree, the U.S., Canada, South and Central America, and Europe. But I’m not sure how integrated people really are. In Miami, I count many Hispanics and Caribbean people as friends, but also a few white and black Americans, Indians, Asians, and Jews. In Australia, my sense is that most people stick to their own ethnic group. When I look around at the few people I know, all white Australians, I notice their extended circles of friends are more white Australians. When I shop in the market or go to the mall, I spot groups of teenage girls together all wearing hijabs or all Asian or all white. I don’t see a lot of mixing. I’ve also noticed that ethnic groups create their own churches. For example, the Brunswick Indonesian Uniting Church, the Chinese Christian Church of Victoria, and the Arabic Baptist Church. In Miami, churches offer services in various languages, namely English, Spanish, and Creole, but I don’t recall ever seeing different churches for different ethnic groups. It’s a common sight in Melbourne.
For a long time, Cubans were the largest minority group in Miami. With a national literacy rate of 96%, Cubans are among some of the most educated people in the Caribbean and Central and South American. Many Cubans who escaped the island before or just at the start of the Cuban Revolution did so armed with wealth and a good education. Later Cuban immigrants, like my father, might have been poor, but were still educated and resourceful. Consequently, Cubans in Miami have enjoyed wealth and tremendous political power. Growing up Cuban in Miami meant growing up with privilege. I was young, ignorant, and just naturally assumed that all Hispanics all over the U.S. lived as I did. It was only until I went to college just five hours outside of Miami that I first felt my otherness and I would discover just how tense the social and political situation was with immigrants, particularly Mexicans.
The immigration debate that rages on in the U.S. is very similar to the one happening here in Australia. Here, we’re dealing with people from Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Many of them are refugees seeking asylum, but the negative rhetoric is the same: illegals, jumping the queue, taking our jobs, exploiting the welfare system. The hostility is the same too. Australia has relatively little racial violence, but it does erupt from time to time in unexpected and inexplicable ways such as in the 2005 Cronulla riots and attacks against Indian students.
There are many cultural differences between America and Australia. But racial tensions, unfortunately, are a human problem and one that we share. So, although Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a United States federal holiday, I think we can all take away something positive from his life and work.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.
Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.
An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.
History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.
Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.
Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’