Sam* belonged to Landcare and he wanted to know where he’d go now when he needed help on his farm.
I repeated the little I knew – that the federal government had switched Landcare funds to the Green Army – and suggested he ask his local MP, Environment Minister Greg Hunt, for an explanation. “The trouble is they never give you a straight answer,” Sam said.
I agreed and we chatted about a few different things. He said he’d just read that the government was going to abandons plans to repeal race hate laws.
“So the Muslims have won,” he said bitterly. “They can do what they like and we can’t say a thing about it.”
My jaw dropped and my heart sank! How did we get here? It always perplexes me the way Australians feel free to express their racism to perfect strangers, as casually as if they’re talking about the weather.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m as prejudiced as the next person. We all hate people who aren’t like us. But growing up in New Zealand I at least learned that racism was shameful and stupid. It was hard to be uppity about being a white Anglo-Saxon when my Maori classmates were taller, better-looking, smarter, faster and funnier than I was.
Part of growing up was learning to deal with one’s fear of “the other”. At the very least, you learned to keep your racist thoughts to yourself. My mother made one exception. She insisted New Zealand was a much better place before the Dutch immigrants arrived and insisted on working seven days a week, which is no doubt pretty much what the Maoris said about the Brtitish.
When I came to Australia in the 1980s I was shocked by the racist pride: the casual contempt for Aborigines (even though hardly anyone in Melbourne had actually met an Aborigine), and the hostility towards immigrants, especially refugees.
Back then, the target was Vietnamese boat people. I knew people who proudly recounted how they rolled down the car window when they passed Vietnamese and mimed mowing them down with a machine gun. My partner frequently had to drag me out of dog fights that started with such stories. “Don’t take it so seriously!” she said.
Radio talkback was full of callers complaining about the Australian Government giving the Vietnamese settlers a brand new Holden each. (The “Holden” was an essential detail of the story because it was so quintessentially Australian. Meanwhile, the poor Aussie battlers had to drive beat-up old Toyotas.) It’s hard now to believe how silly the lies were. Almost as silly as the idea of people bringing their children half way round the world only to dump them in the ocean.
I tuned back in to Sam. “There’s thousands of Muslims in the western suburbs,” he was saying. “They run the shops. You hardly see a white face. Next thing there’ll be more of them than there are of us and then they’ll run the country.”
Where to start and what’s the point? Usually I scream “You ***&##@!! #*$**!!*#”, slam the phone down or stalk away, then spent the next half hour yelling at the cat (she’s deaf).
Lately, however, I’ve been wondering if my way of persuading others of the wrongness of their ideas is quite as effective as I once thought it was. On Thursday, my biorhythms were low and I didn’t think I could raise the energy for a self-righteous burst. For once I decided to listen and try to work out what Sam was on about.
I started cautiously. “I think Muslims make up about 2 per cent of the population. It’s hard to see them outnumbering us.” It hurt me to use the word “us” of Sam and me. We had nothing in common except that we were white Australians.
“But in their own areas,” Sam said. “They’ll vote in their own MPs and we’ll end up with a Muslim government.”
I said I thought most of them had come to Australia to get away from despotic governments and war. They would hardly want to bring despotism to Australia.
“Muslims don’t want to work, you know,” Sam said. “They live on government benefits.”
I asked him what made him think that.
“I have dinner every week with a senior Liberal figure. I can’t tell you who, but he has all the information.”
“Well, you ask him where he’s getting his information because it doesn’t sound right to me.”
“They only work for cash,” Sam said. “It’s an awful situation.”
I asked him if he knew that asylum seekers on bridging visas weren’t allowed to work. That the government wouldn’t let them.
Sam was astonished. “That’s crazy,” he said. “So we have to support them? What’s the point?”
“I think it’s to punish them,” I said. “But maybe that’s another question you could ask Greg Hunt when you call him.”
We talked for about 15 minutes. I thought most of Sam’s information was wrong and no doubt he thought most of my information was wrong, but we disagreed for 15 minutes without raising our voices.
“Thanks for taking my call,” Sam said, winding up. “I’ll call Greg Hunt. Not that you can ever get through to them.”
“If you do, don’t forget to ask him why the asylum seekers aren’t allowed to work,” I said. “And thanks for calling.”
The funny thing is I meant it. I don’t know about Sam but I felt I made progress in overcoming some of my prejudices.
For all our differences, Sam and I share some things. If he belongs to Landcare, I guess he’s fond of trees. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he’s a wonderful neighbour and loves his children. Really, for all his weird ideas, Sam and his kind are people, just like us.
* Names have been changed in case I meet Sam one day.
June 2, 2014
Thanks for the good sense and kindness in your story. Outrage has its place but I'm not sure it's always the most useful response. Further to this theme, everyone is welcome to attend a Reconciliation Week lunchtime gathering at the Wonthaggi Community Garden this Wednesday 4/6, from 12.30pm. There will be a chance to meet a diverse group of local people, share some tucker and enjoy the garden. Cheers Bass Coast Post!
I love your article on 'reconciliation day'. Thank you for sharing some of yourself. It's funny how we don't feel so alone when others share stories and we get energy.
Brilliant piece. That is the vital issue. These people are ignorant of the facts, thus easily brainwashed. I am sure that Sam will be a slightly different person after your informative conversation. Keep it up.
Felicia De Stafano