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Thursday, 11 August 2016

The Calculus of Hatred

I don't know what it's like to be a Muslim in Australia. In fact, I don't know what it's like to be a Muslim full stop. What I do know, though, is what it's like to be an Asian growing up in an Australia dominated by racial politics.

I came to this country when I was two years old, landing in what used to be the rough and tumble neighbourhood of Surrey Hills. Some of my earliest memories are of drunks stopping me and my mum in the street, bowing and saying, "kon nichi wa", or shouting "Ching Chong Wah" into my face as they walked past.

The leftist narrative of the nineties says that John Howard attempted to garner popularity and unite the country by appealing to deep-seated and long-held cultural anxieties, calling for an end to multiculturalism and insisting that newcomers to Australia conform to Australian values and ideals. I don't know how accurate this is and I don't care - the whole thing strikes me as meaningless anyway. On the face of it, demanding that Australians be accepted and regarded as Australians and that they act accordingly sounds like a politically expedient truism that shouldn't do any real harm. I'm pretty certain that's what Howard and his people thought it was. As a concept, it's so vague as to feel completely unreal. What does feel real, though, is the subsequent ascent of the far right and Pauline Hanson.

The real world consequences, for me, were mild enough. Having to put up with 'Asians Out' plastered on walls in pretty well every neighbourhood, every conversation eventually turning to race, and reasonably regular, but not usually serious, violence. Looking back, I can sort of see it as a parabola, peaking some time around the millennium before taking a slow and steady nose-dive into the realm of bad dreams half-remembered.

Of course, it's all come back to the surface now, and I remember, with startling clarity, exactly what it's like to be the focus of the kind of negative attention Muslims are receiving today. Every day, just like for everyone else, is a collection of small - laughably small - negative incidents. An insult yelled out of a car window, filthy looks in pubs, the news constantly reminding people that you exist and aren't welcome, fist fights at bus stops and your friends and relatives being insulted, snubbed, called upon to justify their existence to complete strangers and, sometimes, spat on and abused.

In terms of the negative contacts that most people face on a daily basis, all of this is pretty small. The difference is, though, that it's constant. And more than that, it's very easy to get the idea that it's institutionally acceptable - that the majority of your adoptive country might shake their heads and tut but, at some level, they're okay with it. It's just how things go. It used to be the Italians, now it's you, now it's the Muslims, and next year it'll be some other group. This makes it okay - it's just the hazing ritual every newcomer has to go through and this is right and just and why don't you just develop a sense of humour for God's sake and get over it?

And you do - if you're not to go completely insane, you learn to laugh at it all. To play on it, to revel, in fact, in being the one who pre-empts the racist joke. But there's a part of you that knows you're being a shameful clown, that you are pissing on your heritage every time you join in on racist banter because you're tired of fighting, that you are a disgrace to yourself, the place from which you've come and the place in which you are.

And then there's the fact that every single insult and indignity you swallow pours another tiny dram of hatred into your heart, and inches you just that little bit further away from the community you so desperately love, admire and want to be a part of. And eventually, your cup runneth over, and you look up one day and discover that you are so far beyond the pale that you can't even watch television or read a newspaper without feeling like an alien in your own home.

Which is why I don't care about red or blue, left or right, who's to blame, or long, pointless conversations where people exchange half-baked, poorly understood factlets about Islam, Arab history, colonialism, or whatever else has been dragged into the half-arsed narrative we pre-chew and spew out to poorly explain complex ideas to the public.

The essential thing for me is that we're on the upturn of that parabolic procession again. Heedless of the past, we are creating yet another generation of newcomers to this country who will remember, always, that their existence rests on a precarious knife-edge of potential bigotry. Who are aware that the person smiling at them today was very likely the same one who threw food at them out of a car window yesterday, and may do so again tomorrow.

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