IN COWES, outside the Bendigo Bank, there is a mural. This mural is bright and colourful. It is pleasing to the eyes and charming to look at. Shades of blue and green cover most of the piece, although strokes of silver and understated brown peek out and make the mural eye-catching.
There is a poem on this mural written by Barney Noonan and Curl. It speaks of a well-beloved man called Pop Luke, who has passed on. The poem speaks of a friendship between the author and Pop Luke, and talks about how this man was a brilliant man who did some great things, and how he will be missed.
The mural is lovely. The poem is sweet. Until you get to the second last line.
“For a whiter man never trod the bush.”
Think about those words. There are other words the poet could have used … nobler, perhaps, finer or fairer. But no, the author chose the word “whiter”.
I have formally notified the council that a public artwork in Victoria’s premier tourist destination is racist and divisive. Their response is that it’s not a problem.
Many local residents don’t even see the problem. When racism rears its head, it isn’t challenged, and it isn’t seen as problematic when a racist public artwork is prominently displayed.
My own experience suggests there is a deep undercurrent of racism in Bass Coast.
Late last year in a Cowes supermarket I intervened to defend a woman and her daughters as they were verbally abused by a group of adult men, some of whom I recognised as locals. These local men, my parents’ generation, had no moral qualms about attacking, insulting and terrorising a woman and children, apparently because of “terrorism”.
Nothing more coherent or nuanced. They emphasised their argument with as many obscene misogynistic insults as they could collectively hurl and concluded with a triumphant “Fuck off back to where you came from!” (Which, from the sound of the terrified young woman, was Camberwell or possibly Hawthorn.)
To make matters worse, there were police there. I can’t say they were local and I don’t recall seeing them before or since, but they were uniformed and they just stood there, silently watching while getting their doughnuts or whatever. They did nothing and said nothing.
When asked why they didn’t intervene, their response was “People have the right to be upset”. Two other local teenagers intervened and the men finally stopped their attack and wandered off leaving three uncounted Australian victims of terror in aisle 3, two brave cops free to resume protecting and serving us, a dozen or more shoppers free to resume their shopping, and three Phillip Islanders teenagers, alone in our support for the victims, wondering what exactly we’re meant to celebrate on Australia Day.
I previously worked at a café on the Island, where frequent racist jokes and insulting comments about tourists passed as good-natured banter in the kitchen. There was palpable outrage over a neighbouring kebab shop’s decision to offer Halal food. I really needed that $10 an hour cash job so I felt that complaining about the boss to the boss probably wasn’t a good idea and said nothing about the casual, daily racism.
On one sunny Saturday afternoon, as families fed seagulls outside the fish and chip shop and kids on expensive mountain bikes monopolised the footpath, an elderly man in a turban paused to ask passers-by if they could direct him to the toilet. Two local men answered, yelling at him about … you guessed it … terrorism. They shouted obscenities and insults based on their deep and comprehensive knowledge of the practices of Islam. I tried to tell them he was a Sikh, not a Muslim. They explained, in misogynistic terms, how ignorant I was and that “Mussies, Sikhies” (Really? Is that even a thing?) and all the other “foreign” religions were bad, and I was a traitor for supporting “terrorists”.
I’m not intimidated by racists so their abuse didn’t bother me and the victim was able to leave safely, but it was an unpleasant experience being abused by two grown men while my employer and co-workers said nothing.
Now these are nothing more than a couple of experiences and anecdotal evidence alone is hardly persuasive. There is, however, a much larger picture here.
Somewhere around 2008 Bass Coast experienced the unannounced arrival of several scores of refugees from the Horn of Africa. The men got jobs out at the Tabro abattoirs and brought their families to Wonthaggi for the start of the school year. A number of these refugees became citizens and as I was in the habit of attending every citizenship ceremony held in Bass Coast I met many of them and got to know several families. Within a few years, most of these new residents were gone. There were many reasons they left but not least was the daily racism they experienced just trying to live their lives. The men copped it if they dropped in to the pub for a drink, the women copped it in the supermarket and picking up the kids, and the kids copped it at school.
This is not news nor is it a secret. The police, government agencies and NGOs and Bass Coast Council itself know this to be true and collectively workshopped the issue several councils ago. What has been done to address the problem? Oh sure, there are some signs up on council buildings welcoming refugees but where do you see a policy on combatting racism or supporting multiculturalism or diversity?
Let’s go back a bit further in history. This area, the little bit of south west Gippsland we call Home, our Bass Coast Shire, is in truth stolen. This place was already somebody’s home. The Bunurong and the Boonwurrung owned it and lived on it. Europeans drove out the original owners. Or killed them. Let’s not forget there was a fair bit of that going on.
After the Second World War an endless supply of “New Australians”, chief among them the Italians, were so keen to get ahead in their new country that they ignored and accepted the insults and abuse and the economic and social exploitation which enabled Victoria to grow. Remember those insults? Wogs. Dagos. Remember “It can’t be hard: Wogs can do it.” (I heard that recently.) Ask around, I’m sure those days are well remembered by the Italian Aussies throughout the shire.
When people think about racism, they usually think about loud offensive language and hate crimes or perhaps segregation. They rarely consider the smaller acts of racism – soft racism – that happen in our shire.
For example, when people on a crowded bus prefer to stand instead of sit next to a man of colour, even when he offers a seat. I saw that myself recently. Or when employees in local shops follow people of colour to safeguard against theft but leave the white people free to shop without suspicion. Or when a woman of colour falls over in the aisle and her groceries go flying but nobody stops to help her retrieve her shopping.
Or when the phrase “a whiter man” is used in a poem, painted on a wall in a public place and nobody says a thing.
If you see racism in words or action, speak up for the victims of it. Don’t keep quiet and wait for it to pass.
From “a whiter man” to White Australia to Nazism is a straight path. One leads to the other. You can’t be a little bit racist. You are or you aren’t. And if you are, then you are the enemy of humanity, the enemy of a better, more equitable and more peaceful world.