Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Global Citizen: Addressing history and racism in a globalized world

As a non-white Australian living in the United States the term ‘global citizen’ is something I think about often. But what does it actually mean? We have access to information moving faster than our lived experience of it, putting identity in flux. Context and history are important to community and identity, so how as global citizens do we agree on an international standard in judging, say, what is racist and what is not?

This question is reflected in the current international discussion about a skit broadcast on an Australian variety show depicting five men in blackface calling themselves The Jackson Jive. The typical Australian response has been ‘what’s all the fuss about?’ and ‘it was not meant to offend’ and even ‘this is not America’. An Australian news site claims through their online polling that 69% percent of Australians think the skit “was not racist”.

This was the subject of discussion on today’s BBC’s international radio talk show ‘World Have Your Say’, the overarching question in relation to the skit being “should we have more of a sense of humour about race?” What is interesting to me in this sentence is the “we”. Who are “we” and how do “we” begin to address issues like racism and humour in a global context?

It was well understood on the radio program that this skit would not have aired in the United States or Britain in 2009, and the Australian guests constantly reminded listeners that it was “just a joke”, “not meant to offend”, and happening in a country that did not have the same history, and that “context is important”.

So, “we” do not share the same history, but “we” certainly know of the history. One of the Australian guests accused an American caller of “living in a bubble” like other Americans when it comes to Australian history and that Australians are very aware of the history of black people in the United States. So that begs the questions to me that with this awareness shouldn’t we then maintain compassion and thoughtfulness when we are broadcasting in a global world?

And here is some important Australian history. We did not have a federal government until 1901 (quite a few years after the end of the American Civil War), with one of the policies of the time being a ‘White Australia Policy’, that intentionally restricted non-white immigration into the country. This policy was not completely dismantled until the mid-1970’s, and it was only in the 1960’s that the indigenous Australian Aborigines were giving the right to vote.

This too has its context (yes I am conveniently overlooking the slaughter of the indigenous population by the way). The oppressed underclass in Australian history was white. The slaves were at one time white. Australia was a penal colony with the majority of its first (white) people brought over as prisoners. I think this is an important context in which to view Australian culture, and the ‘white-pride’ that has sometimes been depicted in snippets of news from down under (such as the 2006 ‘race riots’).

This by no means is to excuse a blackface skit, or the terrible race based riots, it is merely a lens to view another’s experience of oppression. Class was a big factor in the segregation of Australian society in which race played a role but not necessarily the most prominent. A lot Australian humour stems from a complete lack of understanding ‘the other’ because we view ourselves as ‘the other’ – the underclass of England and more recently different from the aggressive free-market capitalism of the United States which reinforces class separations. The main opponents of the White Australia policy were those who wanted to bring over slave labour from nearby Pacific Islands so the main proponents to the policy were to keep a fair (no pun intended) workplace for the people already working within it.

Because of this white working class identity, race issues unfortunately blur in Australia. This is important in addressing a global view of overcoming racism, as the response of bewildered Australians asking why are we being called racist is, admittedly, embarrassing to me. Come on Australia, we know we are being inappropriate, in fact I think our humour prides itself on it; a kind of middle finger salute to the niceties of British society. While I love Australian culture and humour, I shamefully admit it often degenerates into the completely offensive. And yes, racist, whether intentional or not. I think the first effort needed in being a global citizen is being globally aware and doing things with intention.

International finger-wagging at the stupid humour of Australians should not overshadow acts and beliefs still held in other countries that are not so blatantly racist. Perhaps a blackface skit could not be gotten away with in American society but that is a victory that had to be fought for and the United States is far from being a racism-free nation. As the international conversation continues and we all understand each and every person’s history of oppression perhaps soon the global citizen will be one whose “jokes” do not reinforce painful parts of other people’s history.

1 comment:

Madeleine said...

Very interesting, thoughtful, informative blog. I have a feeling that incidents like these will be causing lots of heated debate and discussion for years to come. Maybe overall it's a good thing, because it gets people across nations and races to discuss what the real issues are behind the outrage.