In the history of racism, threats and challenges to White privilege have always been followed by attempts to protect or restore a perceived status quo. Whether it was the American civil war or the civil rights movement, or India’s or Nigeria’s freedom from colonial rule, or the rights won by immigrants and other non-Whites in the West, White reaction to recover lost ground and limit the powers of other groups has been a recurrent feature of recent history.
This reaction is far more widespread and concerted than the extremism of White supremacists, because the challenge to White privilege is a multi-faceted social phenomenon. Since White power has never been solely repressive or exclusionary the response to its hegemony has most often been a seemingly mundane social process of competition and adaptation.
In the history of Australia, the persistent efforts to maintain a White society against the encroachments of non-Whites, through immigration programs, systems of rights, and other exclusionary measures designed to maintain a racial hierarchy are examples of White privilege working against the challenges to its dominance. In contemporary Australia, the most visible and corrosive form of challenge to White dominance comes through immigration and cultural diversity.For this reason, any attempt to minimise the centrality of race and immigration in modern society can be seen as an attempt to relegate to the margins, if not wish away or demonise, the significance of the racial other in society.
Australia’s liberal, democratic society took shape in a colonial context with a well-defined racial hierarchy. The liberal democratic institutions of Australia emerged as White institutions of power and government. However, Australia was not meant to be a nation or society just for Whites. A White society could only take shape through racial exclusion and domination. From the earliest days of Australia, the White man was meant to live in a White society that had specific places and roles for the other races. Australian White Western culture and its institutions took shape in a social context that was working to rationalise and normalize White domination of other races — this is White society, a hierarchically ordered society of races.
White rule or domination has not been won just through force; on the contrary it has gained its hold on the imagination of the subject races through its ability to promote the belief that it is a just, democratic state of affairs able to ensure progress and freedom. Social reality in the contemporary West, however, has constantly been at odds with this mythof justice and progress. Even while the non-White racial groups settling in Western societies chant the mantras of parliamentary democracy and liberalism their social lives are an ongoing and determined effort to build their own institutions and ways of life, outside or on the margins of the official Western institutions of government and administration. The reasons for this may be complex but the challenge to White domination happens in this process of non-White immigrants creating their own spaces and places in the West.
Behind the image of a multicultural modern democracy is this process of constant competition and struggle for power and advantage between cultures, races, and ethnic groups. It is through this competition and struggle that a White society has emerged. Through the might and aura of its institutions and propaganda, and the prestige of victory, White Australia earned the respect of other races.
But no victory is a final state, and the struggle to maintain a White society against the rest continues within Australia, even as the sustained challenge from a variety of groups has corroded the power of traditional White Australia to such an extent that our king, today, is naked. Everyone knows this, yet no one can really say or do anything about it.
If one were to try to make sense of contemporary Australia through parliamentary politics, elections, public policy etc none of the non-White social activity appears important. They may seem like a sideshow to the important business of liberal democracy and Western society. And although multiculturalism is seen as having replaced assimilationism, in many realms of social life we still see programs and policies to assimilate non-white cultures into mainstream White Australian society. Many immigrants actively involved in the social life of their communities still lament the lack of a felt need within their and other ethnic communities to integrate into Australia. So while White Australia’s assimilationist agenda has had to retreat in the face of a growing cultural diversity, the new creed of multiculturalism is an attempt to unite all the diversity into the old White nation. This is understandable for many reasons, the most important being that there is no alternative at the moment.
It is not just that ethnic communities are actively engaged in their own social enterprises that don’t always complement White interests, often immigrant communities have clashing interests with White society. This contestatory side of multiculturalism often implies a challenge to White power and White ways of living. When one considers that White Australia’s ability and willingness to accommodate is stretched by all the varied and multiple demands made by competing ethnic groups, the recurring need to challenge and intimidate ethnic communities through the parliamentary system and its institutions (like the media) seems like an unavoidable necessity for White Australia.
The debate over the Racial Discrimination Act is one among a long and ongoing series of confrontations that White Australia has with the rest of society. Through all these battles that the master race chooses, it sends out the message to the rest of Australia that it is still the dominant social group. It is vital for White Australia to create a controversy or challenge that enables it to use the institutions, like the courts and the media, at its disposal to send out the message that it dictates the terms and outcome of any debate in Australia. It is not just that the ethnic groups are forced to join these debates; through these public rituals they are made to understand their place in Australia.
In the entire debate about 18C we’ve seen many immigrants shower praise on Australia’s democratic and multicultural social fabric and how the laws crafted by the master race have protected minority rights. It is hard not to wonder how such a feat has been accomplished in modern Australia, ie, the ardent faith of immigrant communities in Australia’s democratic system. This at a time when the racial hierarchy we spoke of at the beginning of this piece gains renewed vigour as the low wage sectors of Australia’s economy swells with immigrants from the third world.
As some commentators have said: 18C does very little, if it does anything at all, to protect the rights of vulnerable groups. Yet the fact that these toothless pieces of legislation are being paraded in the public sphere to promote the idea of Australia’s democratic ethos, in the process getting wide sections of the community to endorse it unwittingly, only to face the threat of a repeal of the law shows the public who the master is, in Australia. In the course of this debate we’ve had respectable and learned members of society like psychologists and social scientists tell us that racism hurts and is harmful to society. Imagine.
Many commentators have said that protection for minorities from bigotry is crucial to social cohesiveness. Yet what is the cost to the minority for this cohesiveness, and what does this cohesiveness imply: a society being built on new and vastly different waves of immigration has to adapt to an old and worn out racial hierarchy and its ideal of social cohesiveness?
Since Australia is far from waking up to the reality of a profoundly transformed society, it has become necessary to engage, from time to time, in social dramas that make us believe that the king is not naked.
Published in The Indian Sun (Indian Magazine in Australia)