Opinion

Ruby Hamad
Protecting the white body politic

This weekend, Donald Trump will welcome Scott Morrison to the White House with a state dinner – the first Australian leader to be so honoured since George W. Bush thanked his “deputy sheriff” John Howard back in 2006. It is a meeting of two leaders whose election victories came as a surprise, perhaps even to themselves. But it is also the coming together of two men who intimately understand the power gained by those who can effectively weaponise the public’s fear of outsiders and refugees by invoking “protection”.

Morrison’s rise to power is marked by his punitive approach to border protection. As opposition immigration spokesperson in 2011, he urged the shadow cabinet to use voters’ fears of Muslim immigration and “Muslims’ inability to integrate”. This is the man who kept on his desk a boat trophy in memory of his time as immigration minister, which read: “I Stopped These”.

Last year, Donald Trump referred to the so-called migrant caravan – the dehumanising name given to the thousands of asylum seekers travelling on foot from Central America to the United States – as an “invasion”. His rhetoric echoed that of Peter Dutton, Morrison’s successor as the protector of Australia’s borders, who warned in a June 2018 interview that his government’s punitive, five-years-and-counting “Stop the Boats” policy was under threat.

“We are in a danger phase because only a month ago we stopped a steel-hulled vessel with 131 people coming out of Sri Lanka,” Dutton cautioned. “There are 14,000 people still in Indonesia and there is excited chatter among people-smuggling syndicates about the prospect of Australia being available again.”

These men, in their quests for power, have all positioned the Western body politic as innocent and forever susceptible to ill-intentioned outsiders seeking to take advantage. Migrants, refugees and asylum seekers are framed not as vulnerable people but as threats, illegals, interlopers and even contagions – they must be quarantined for the sake of the health of the nation.

The rhetoric of protection accuses racialised men and women of using their bodies to infiltrate the innocent white population. Single men – such as those held on Manus Island, many of whom have now been moved to Port Moresby – are regarded as particularly dangerous. To extend even the most basic humanity of the medevac laws to these men is too much, such is the risk they pose.

When Trump said he wanted to protect America’s borders, he left no doubts as to what such protection entailed. “Border security is very much a woman’s issue,” he said during the US midterm elections last year. “Women want security. They don’t want that caravan.” From Australia to Germany, colloquial epithets such as “rapefugees” find currency.

These words have a lineage. They betray more than just antipathy towards migrants: they are a callback to the practice of securing national borders by policing racial boundaries. Historically, “protecting” white women was a euphemism for sequestering their bodies to prevent men of colour from ingratiating themselves into white society – and threatening the dominance of the white male.

For her 1998 book White Man Falling, sociologist Abby Ferber analysed decades of white supremacist literature calling for the “elimination of non-Western influences from the culture and society of Western nations and the restoration of a healthy interest in and love of the achievements of White Western man”. Those newspapers also warned of an “unarmed invasion” threatening white society with the possibility of white women “cross-breeding with inferior specimens”, leading to the contamination of the white race. Twenty years later, Brenton Tarrant, the alleged perpetrator of the Christchurch massacre of 51 Muslims at prayer in their mosques, urged readers of his online manifesto to fight the “replacement” of white men in Western countries.

Nearly half a century before Trump announced his presidential candidacy by warning that Mexicans seeking asylum in the US “are in many cases criminals, drug dealers, rapists et cetera”, a white supremacist newsletter cited by Ferber raged: “America is being invaded by a deluge of legal and illegal non-White intruders: swarms of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Negro, Oriental and Jewish scum who are thronging across our wide-open borders.”

There are no accidents in the rhetoric of protection: it intends to seal off white Western society from the remainder of the world’s population both biologically and geographically. The white female body was, and often still is, regarded as in need of protection, not for the sake of the women but because they function as stand-ins for white society itself. Of course, this alleged protection does not apply to non-white women. On the contrary, the bodies of brown and black women were regarded as so promiscuous as to be “unrapeable”, with responsibility for their abuse projected firmly back onto them. The work of frontier-era white women such as Australian journalist Ernestine Hill indicates such sentiment was held both by white men and white women: “The black woman understands only sex, and that she understands fairly well,” she scoffed.

In 1851, 26-year-old Californian Josefa Segovia was lynched following a rushed one-day trial that saw her convicted of murdering a drunk white man who’d broken into her home with a group of his friends. Segovia was married, and had she been of Anglo rather than Mexican descent, the successful defence of her own honour would probably have been praised. Her fate was sealed not by her actions but by her debased racial status – a physician who testified that Segovia was pregnant and should not be hanged was run out of town, and a lawyer who argued against her execution was dragged from the stand.

Segovia never stood a chance in a community so anxious about the sudden economic competition from Mexicans due to the reconfiguration of national borders. Society had already decided race was the primary characteristic that determined sexual purity and criminal guilt.

This presentation of black and brown women as binary opposites to white women lingers in Peter Dutton’s dismissal of sexual assault claims made by female asylum seekers. Framing their requests for abortion as underhanded attempts to deceive their way into the country, he claimed that, once in Australia, they would decide to continue the pregnancy, with the intention of using their babies as a way to stay in the country. Earlier this month he referred to the young daughters of the Biloela couple whom the government is attempting to deport back to Sri Lanka as “anchor babies”, echoing yet another white supremacist talking point.

Stark contrasts abound. Notorious cases such as the Skaf gang rapes in Sydney and the paedophile ring in the English city of Rotherham are held as “proof” of inherent sexual deviancy in brown men. No such links are made when white men are the perpetrators. Former prime minister John Howard defended the character of George Pell when the cardinal was prosecuted for historical child sex offences. Columnists Andrew Bolt and Miranda Devine anguished over an “innocent” man forced to languish in prison.

When men of colour commit sexual crimes, immigration and asylum are put on public trial, but who would suggest that a reasonable response to Richard Huckle or Peter Scully, white men convicted of child sexual abuse and trafficking in South-East Asia, would be to bar other white men from taking up residence in those countries? And then there is the irony of a man with a litany of credible sexual assault and misconduct allegations against him attaining the office of the presidency, even as he disparages racialised men as “rapists”.

These dissonances reveal that the actual threat of crime is secondary to its political usefulness. Protecting white women and Western national borders has never been about the wellbeing of either but about sustaining a white-controlled society – the policing of racial boundaries is the very foundation all European settler-colonies were built on. As long as this zeal to dominate other races continues, then like the colonised Indigenous and enslaved black populations before them, migrants and refugees will be seen as eternal threats to the white body and to the white body politic.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 21, 2019 as "Protection racket". Subscribe here.

Ruby Hamad
is a writer and PhD candidate at UNSW.