Is Australia too immature to examine its racism?
Ed’s note: Stephen is the BBC reporter who asked former Telstra CEO Sol Trujillo whether Australians are racist. Here he explains why he asked the question.
G’day, mate! Strewth. Did you hear what Kevin said about that Mexican and his amigos. Gave it to him straight, cobber, like a true blue Aussie. Senor Sol won’t be going walkabout near our billabong any time soon.
Offensive, isn’t it? And it’s offensive because it’s patronising. It’s a tired cliché that portrays Australians falsely as hicks and provincials and so distorts and devalues a modern country.
Which is presumably exactly what all those sombreros and cheap Mexican tunes and words like “adios” were meant to do. Rather than take Sol Trujillo on his merits, it was his background that was the salient point about him.
He might have been one of the most accomplished businessmen on the planet, with a good track record in North America and Europe, but in Australia he was first and foremost a Mexican (even though he’s actually an American citizen, the son of Mexican migrants who moved to make good).
It would be a bit like a perpetual and relentless coverage of Rupert Murdoch as a larrikin in an Akubra hat with corks on the end of strings. Mainstream British and American newspapers just wouldn’t do it (and not just because he owns a chunk of them). Cliches like that don’t illuminate. They would just be a bit tedious and, well, second rate.
Which doesn’t mean that stereo-typing is always unfunny. When Crocodile Dundee did it, it was self-parody. The joke was against the people who thought that that’s what Australia was really like. I’m allowed to refer to myself in self-parody as “just a simple Taffy” (I’m from Old South Wales), but if an Englishman does so, it’s patronising and offensive (not quite enough to send me to the International Court of Human Rights, but enough for me to lower my glass and direct an epithet in what I imagine would be an Australian sort of way).
So all that’s what struck me about the word “adios” when Kevin Rudd was reported to have uttered it. It prompted me to file it in my mind to put to Mr Trujillo when I had interviewed him for the BBC at a techie conference in San Diego.
As I understood his answer, he agreed that the way he was portrayed was a little irritating, particularly since the sombreros started even before he arrived. But he didn’t convey any great anger as though serious hate crime had been committed. It was somewhat offensive, but he seemed disappointed by it all rather than angry.
And it would obviously be very silly for anyone to accuse Australia of being a particularly racist country just after a white supremacist had gone to the Holocaust Museum in Washington and shot people in an anti-Semitic outburst, or shortly after British voters elected two members of the whites-only British National Party to the European Parliament, or just after Romanian migrants in Northern Ireland had been driven from their homes by stonings.
But there is a question to be asked about the language of discourse and whether that reveals anything. An Australian friend of mine who lives in Sydney but who happens to have a brown skin because her ancestors came from India via South Africa notices on mainstream television when Asian Australians are referred to as if they weren’t quite true Australians (it’s a matter of “we” for white Australians and “they” for Asian Australians).
In mongrel countries (gloriously mongrel countries, to my mind) these subtleties of language matter as we try to rub along together. I have a black British friend and one who is British of Chinese and European parentage. Both were educated in pukka English schools, and so both really do seem to me to be more English than I am. And that’s because they are. Their accents and up-bringing exude a well-heeled Englishness that I, as a Welshman, don’t have. Class trumps colour. Nationality is about the mind and not the skin.
It’s hard to imagine the Prime Minister of Britain or the President of the United States saying “adios” to an American businessman whose parents happened to have come from Mexico. Silvio Berlusconi of Italy is the only prominent leader who might have done so. His “sun tan” remark about Obama had the same ring of racial disparagement (let’s not ponder the case of the great holocaust denier in Tehran).
It should be added, though, that, closer to home, the family of the Queen of Australia (as Australians voted to keep her) does also have form on this. The Duke of Edinburgh was reported in 1986 as referring to Chinese people as “slitty-eyed”. The Palace, implying that the remarks were accurately reported, said: “What were intended as light-hearted comments were inappropriate”.
His son, Prince Charles, was revealed more recently to refer to an Asian polo player as “sooty”. Again, the reaction was: “It was just a joke”.
Those around him couldn’t quite see the problem. One Lady Sara Apsley (whose polo club it apparently was) said, according to the Gloucester Echo: “Sooty is a fantastic friend of ours and he couldn’t care less about his nickname. I imagine there are millions of people across the world called names with racial intonations (sic) but they’re not meant maliciously”.
But the point is that they couldn’t quite see what the problem was, even as the rest of the country rolled its eyes. It made them seem remote, from another world and time.
So there’s lots to analyse in the way Australia reacted to Sol when he arrived and the way that Australia reacted to his criticism once he’d gone.
Much of the reaction was scornful, along the lines of: “How dare anyone question Australian attitudes? Much, too, failed to get the point: “Mexican stand-off on Sol’s race slur”, as The Age put it without any hint of irony.
Hell clearly hath no fury like Australia scorned. Or to quote Shakespeare: “Methinks the lady doth protest too much”. The indignation was a little excessive. A confident people might have shrugged and smiled - and quietly engaged in a little self-questioning.
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