How racism diminishes humanity
I remember the last time “African gang crime” was front-page news. It was a warm summer’s day in January – just after New Year – and I decided to take my daughter to a park close to our home. There was no one around, just the two of us, and we sat on a bench under the shade of a tall bush and had a snack. It was quiet and peaceful. Then my phone rang.
Soon I was sitting in the ABC’s Melbourne studios, readying myself for an interview on The Drum. That day everyone, from television commentators to federal politicians, had something to say about Victoria’s “African crime epidemic”. Liberal MP Greg Hunt said African gang crime was “out of control”. The prime minister said the government was “very concerned about the growing gang violence and lawlessness in Victoria”. Peter Dutton said Melburnians were afraid to go out for dinner.
The show’s host asked me – the only black person on the show that night – whether I agreed that these “young thugs” were the No. 1 issue in Victoria. I said I didn’t. But if there are a number of young people of South Sudanese descent “running amok together”, he said – and if we dismiss that commonality – could we be missing a factor in the problem that needs to be understood? I pointed out that the boys’ race was not their only commonality. There was also housing, unemployment, struggles with school. “A lot of these young people would’ve grown up here,” I replied. “So, we could say, actually, that some of the issues they are facing are Australian problems.”
With the interview done, I stepped out of the ABC studios and thought the whole thing would be over soon. As a Sudanese–Australian woman living in Melbourne for more than a decade, I had seen waves of “ethnic gangs” and “African gangs” reporting before. They can be set off by any small incident, any Channel Seven “exclusive”. At some point, they tend to die down, but they are always brutal, leaving you with this feeling of being under siege. It is as if the gaze of a whole nation is on you. When “African gang crime” is in the headlines, you become so aware of your blackness, aware that it announces your presence more than you are prepared or willing for it to.
When I got home from the ABC, it was dark. I attended to motherhood, bathing my daughter and reading her a story before I put her to bed. She was nine months old at the time. She was born here, at Dandenong Hospital. But that does not matter. Like the many children who are the subject of the “African gang” stories, she will always be asked, “Where are you from?” To some, she will always be the “other” – a person who has to justify her place in the country of her birth.
While my daughter slept, I went online to watch the ABC interview. The comments section was filled with racist abuse – “They fear that we might actually stand up for our rights and our country and cull them to nil existence … Australia Day is coming and so is the cull.” “These people are like any introduced pest. Stop importing ferrel [sic].” “They raised bad eggs. Face it. They are a lower species.” “They are not Australian and never will be.” One commenter’s responses were so concerning that I took a screen shot of his profile picture. For the next two nights I stayed up until 2am updating my security on Facebook and blocking trolls on Twitter. I changed my name online, took down photos of my child and some of my extended family. By speaking out I signed up for this, I reasoned, but my family had not. Later that week, I distinctly remember looking around after I spoke at a rally, just to make sure I was not being followed. This was the first time since leaving Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya for Australia that I felt the need – the fear – to do this.
The online racist abuse was not a surprise. If anything, it was expected. It’s just one consequence of racialised reporting on African crime and the subsequent racial anxiety it generates. The more serious consequences aren’t so easy to see: the impacts racism can have on the brain, which “look very similar to the patterns of brain activity caused by physical pain”; or the havoc it can wreak on the body, damaging the heart, immune system and even DNA.
When it’s not making us sick, racism can kill us in any number of ways. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in Between the World and Me, “racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth”.
I remember when, on the night of September 26, 2007, racism cracked the bones and ripped the life of Melbourne teen Liep Johnson Gony, who was bashed almost to death by two Caucasian men named Clinton Rintoull and Dylan Sabatino. Armed with metal poles, the pair set upon Liep on a street in Noble Park and left him to die alone. A passerby found him in a waste yard with multiple haemorrhages, a broken forearm, smashed nose, subdural haematoma, fractured skull, depressed occipital bone fracture, crushed left eye socket and lacerations across his head and arms.
The next night, at 10.40pm, Liep’s family removed his life support. He died six minutes later. He was 19 years old. He was also someone I knew. I had played basketball with Liep. He was extremely talented. When he dunked the ball, that kid could fly. I still cry for Liep. I can only imagine his mother’s pain. South Sudanese mothers are superheroes. They are women who have escaped with their children from war zones, who then raised them, mostly single-handedly, in refugee camps. A friend once told me a story of her mother carrying one of her younger brothers for days until the strap of the baby carrier dug into her shoulders, causing them to bleed. She carried on.
During the trial of Rintoull and Sabatino, the judge ruled that Liep’s death was not racially motivated. I strongly disagree. Waving an article with the headline “Bronx fear” in his girlfriend’s face, Rintoull complained about the Sudanese problem in Noble Park. Before the killing, he sprayed the words “Fuck da niggas” on the wall of his rented apartment. “These blacks are turning this town into the Bronx,” he was heard yelling that night. “I am going to take my town back, I’m looking to kill the blacks.”
When he returned from the vicious beating – holding a bent and bloodied pole – Rintoull said, “I bashed a nigger and I think he’s dead.’’ Even in death, Liep was just a “nigger” to Rintoull, never someone’s son or someone’s loved one. And that is the core of racism, to diminish a person’s humanity and open them up for any evil.
But it’s the judge’s ruling in Liep’s case that points to issues that haven’t changed since his murder and may have got worse. This includes the perception of lawlessness in Victoria. The persistent myth is that police are unwilling to do anything, or unable to because of “political correctness” or the need to appease migrant communities. There is also the fear generated by media coverage, which continues to use the language of that “Bronx fear” article. The importance of the language we use was clear to Liep’s grieving mother. She said: “I was disturbed by the television because I was not happy for the media to call Liep a refugee or Sudanese because Liep is an Australian. Liep has been here for eight years. Liep is a citizen.”
When I went to The Drum interview, Liep’s mother’s words were in my head. It was the reason I emphasised that this was not an ethnic problem, that these were not “other youth”. They are Australian youth. In my view, de-emphasising ethnicity is not just accurate, it is necessary. It shifts attention to those things we can actually mitigate, improve or solve. We can improve people’s ability to be employed or get further education. We can’t, however, “improve” or “change” someone’s race. When we see things from the premise of race we leave open only one option – exclusion and marginalisation. This is why, to many, the idea of deporting young African offenders is attractive. The aim is to permanently exclude them from the Australian community.
I remember the last time “African gang crime” was front-page news. I received a text from a young South Sudanese woman I mentor. She wanted to talk. I knew what it was about. When we met for lunch, she told me the media coverage had affected her so much she’d started avoiding eye contact with anyone on the train. I have known this girl for years. She is strong, intelligent and confident. But that was not the girl sitting across from me that day. This is the other consequence of racial vilification – what it does to our children. It damages their self-esteem and their sense of self-worth. It denies them the chance to develop their own unique “somebodyness”. Their identity is reduced to racist stereotypes, largely shaped by the media. These are the stories of our lives and they are being written without any chance for us to control or influence them. We are pawns in a larger game.
That is the shameful carelessness of racism – some people are viewed simply as a means to an end. For politicians, we are not people with lives, with children whose dignity and worth we seek to preserve, with loved ones who will be denied employment, with mothers who will be called “black dogs” while going to a shopping centre, with brothers who are afraid they will be mistaken for gang members when they are out with their friends. To these politicians we are not people. We are not even fellow citizens. To them, this is an election year and there is going to be a winner and a loser. Senior Liberal figures have made it clear they see “African gangs” as a political opportunity that could help Matthew Guy’s Opposition win the Victorian state election.
But when all is said and done and November comes and goes, we will still be here, trying to rebuild a community left devastated by unrelenting attacks on its character. We will continue to pay the price in small ways and big ways. And as our pasts show, we will survive. But unlike the past, this time we will not keep quiet. We will speak, we will write and we will demonstrate – for ourselves, for our children and for an Australia that is fair and just.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 14, 2018 as "On being not people". Subscribe here.