Opinion

Ruby Hamad
Razing the white flag

During the 18th century, a European travel writer visiting the colonies in what is now South America was astounded to stumble upon a town where a biracial governor was casually going about his business. More astounding still was how completely unscandalised the white population seemed by this. Finally, the baffled visitor could take no more. “Excuse me,” he had to ask some locals, “isn’t your governor a mulatto?” The locals laughed at the foreigner’s ignorance and replied, with I assume at least some of that special condescension reserved for particularly dim-witted outsiders, “Oh, he was a mulatto, but he isn’t now. How can a governor be a mulatto?”

Speaking of ignorance, I trust by now you’ve heard the news: twice this week did our Senate vote down a motion decrying “deplorable anti-white racism” and affirming that “it’s okay to be white”. Can you believe it? Who are these un-Australians who have declared a race war on white people with barely 60 shopping days until Christmas?

I jest. But only with the full awareness that this is no laughing matter. That merely two months after a senator called for a “final solution” to the Muslim immigration problem, our elected representatives, including the ruling Coalition party, missed passing a white supremacist slogan through our parliament’s highest chamber by the slimmest of margins. I am not sure what would have been achieved had the motion passed, though, that hadn’t already been achieved by virtue of it being moved in the first place, and taken seriously in the second. That achievement is a justification of white entitlement, a validation of white anxiety, the rationalisation of white fear.

Look around and everywhere you will see it. White people are afraid. This means the rest of us should also be afraid because, as history has shown us time and time again, when white people get scared, people of colour get hurt. What are white people afraid of now? Well, they are afraid the date of “Australia Day” will change; Aboriginal youth are dying but it’s white people who are afraid. White people are afraid of boats; detained child refugees have stopped eating and drinking but it is white people who are afraid. They are afraid of terrorism; Arabs live under a veritable scorched-earth policy of bombs, famines, occupations, drone strikes, dictators, disappearing journalists and all the insecurity and terror that entails. But it is white people who are afraid.

Fear is a curious emotion to contemplate in this context. Fear implies helplessness, powerlessness – we are scared a stranger may follow us down an unlit street, we fear impending natural disasters, we are petrified of that giant huntsman that’s suddenly appeared on the ceiling in the bathroom. We fear these things because we cannot control them, but neither, for the most part, do they control us. That is the point – fear, like pain, is
a signal to run, to seek safety from temporary danger.

White fear is different. White fear is permanent. White fear is entitled. White fear punishes. It is a political tool and a formidable weapon that permits the powerful to claim victimhood, consolidating their power by feigning powerlessness.

We’ve seen it already. Our government, leaders of one of the world’s wealthiest countries and presiders over an asylum-seeker policy the United Nations describes as torture, have repeatedly whined they “won’t be bullied” by the prisoners they have locked away in a subverted Pacific island paradise. Not even Dante’s imagination was perverse enough to conjure up a 10th level of hell that, from a distance at least, could pass for seventh heaven. The asylum-seeker discourse is marinated in the rhetoric of faux victimhood. Sovereign Borders. People-smugglers. Illegals. Threats. The government presents itself as the powerless victim, afraid to let in the human beings slowly wasting away before them. When white people get scared, people of colour get hurt.

White fear and manufactured white victimhood leaves a trail of death and destruction on a phenomenal scale. The power imbalance between the West and the Middle East makes a mockery of the war on terror as drone strikes planned half a world away hit Arab and Afghan wedding parties, markets, schools. If fear is acute, if fear is transitory, if fear signals an immediate danger, how is it that these strikes are planned so calmly, so meticulously, and executed so coldly? 

It is because white fear is not really fear at all. It is an irrational anxious entitlement that has little to do with the presence of danger and everything to do with the perceived right to control, to subdue, to dominate. Take the racialised moral panics around African gangs, Asian crime and Arab folk devils, which explode, seemingly from nowhere, but are really rooted in a long history that spans the breadth of the British Empire. At the turn of the 20th century, Southern Rhodesia was gripped by a panic that would be dubbed the “Black Peril”. Against all evidence and reason, the small, white, mostly male population became convinced black men were assaulting white women in epic numbers. The crime of attempted rape became a capital offence and at least 20 black men were hanged. Many more were sentenced to years of hard labour; almost all of them were innocent. One such unfortunate man named Kuchi clipped the rear wheel of a white woman’s bicycle with his own. She was knocked to the ground and he fled, understandably terrified, taking her bike by mistake. Such was the white fear of black sexuality that this woman merely imagining Kuchi must have wanted to rape her, even though he made no attempt to do so, was enough to condemn him in the eyes of the white man’s law.

A century earlier, New South Wales governor Lachlan Macquarie, incensed by the refusal of the Aboriginal population to politely surrender, ordered his men to round them up and make an example of them. Or, as his admiring biographer put it, “when the natives showed signs of ungrateful hostility, he organised a military drive to chasten them”. We see the strange fruits of that “military drive” even now, when Indigenous youths such as Elijah Doughty, Trisjack Simpson and Chris Drage lose their young lives attempting to outrun white fury or take their chances in the river and drown rather than risk the “justice” of a fearful white nation.

In the United States, where fear and guns make for a distinctly gruesome combination, black people are not safe anywhere – they are killed on the street, at the park, in their cars, at the train station, in their own homes. “I thought he was an intruder,” claimed the white police officer who entered the apartment of her black neighbour, Botham Jean, and shot him. He looked “like a demon”, said the white cop who shot teenager Michael Brown. Funny how the white person with the gun is the one who is always so afraid.

What does fear mean when one has the power and the weapons? What are white Australians really afraid of – so afraid they feel the need to endorse white supremacist slogans in an almost all-white parliament in one of the whitest countries on earth? Perhaps they are scared their era of dominance is coming to an end. Perhaps they wake in fright from a recurring nightmare where brown and black people rise up and demand a reckoning.

Or perhaps they are afraid that one day it will finally dawn on us that to be “white” does not denote an inherited ethnicity but an acquired power.

That if we were to untangle being white from being English or Australian or Canadian or European, then we will see whiteness for what it is: not something you intrinsically are, but something to which you are granted access. That whiteness exists only because systemic institutionalised racism exists, and to dismantle racism by definition entails dismantling whiteness.

White people are bound not by a shared culture or skin colour but by power: How can a governor be a mulatto?

Since whiteness is something given, it is also something denied. And here we find the true rationale behind moral panics and Black Peril. It was under the pretext of protecting white women, wrote the late Australian historian Jock McCulloch in Black Peril, White Virtue, that the white male population set about securing their dominance by “seal[ing] off the women’s bodies as an entry point into whiteness”. This is the same rationale that today’s white supremacists adopt when they decry multiculturalism and race mixing as “white genocide”.

White people such as Pauline Hanson, the senator responsible for the farcical motion that almost passed the Senate this week, use the rhetoric of assimilation. Those of us who can’t visibly “pass” for white, though, are tolerated, at best, and even then only as long as we are silently content to be denied significant access to power. They demand our subordination and call it integration. They tell us “it’s okay to be white”. They really mean that they believe it’s okay for them to wield power over us because we are not.

Tell us something we didn’t already know.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 20, 2018 as "Razing the white flag". Subscribe here.

Ruby Hamad
is a writer and PhD candidate at UNSW.