Pumpkin seeds, angry minorities and race

The moral contortions of multiculturalism

DURING MY DOCTORAL fieldwork researching Islamophobia from the point of view of the ‘Islamophobes’, I spent many weekends in the town of Bayside on the Central Coast of New South Wales, where my parents had bought a holiday house. I had detected that Bayside’s unmistakable Anglo-Australian majority population was ‘disrupted’ in the holiday season and long weekends when many ethnic and religious minorities from Western Sydney descended on the town. Among the crowds was a highly visible and growing Lebanese Muslim tourist population. One evening I was walking with my father when a car slowed down beside us. One of its occupants, a young Anglo guy, leant out of the window, yelled, ‘Go back home you bunch of pumpkin seeds!’ and promptly sped off.

To this day, the incident is a source of amusement to my father and me. I think it is the originality of the reference to ‘pumpkin seeds’ that tickles us. (‘Go back home’ is not so new.) Racism is often frustrating for its banality, so the effort to at least be innovative was somewhat charming.

Despite the novelty of the ‘pumpkin seeds’ slur, we both instinctively knew that it served to mark us as Arab. Academic Salman Sayyid argues that reading and interpreting racism is based on an ‘intuitive, holistic mastery of context’. You learn to read behaviour, to interpret it. My father and I both possessed an historically situated understanding of the enduring resonance of the epithet ‘of Middle Eastern appearance’. Despite the fact that I do not wear a hijab, my association with my father was sufficient to mark me too. My father was born in Palestine and while he could just as easily pass as, say, Italian or Greek, we understood, having seen the ethnic composition of the crowds visiting Bayside at the time, and making our own ‘networks of associations’ between language games and cultural codes (as Sayyid nicely puts it), that the ‘home’ we were being ordered to return to was not Sydney but the Middle East, the ‘Muslim/Arab world’: just not here.

But how did we glean all this from pumpkin seeds? We also knew that traditionally among many Arabs, pumpkin seeds are a popular picnic snack. Having seen families of Arab background eating pumpkin seeds on their picnics (indeed, my family does too), the subtext was, to us, clearly Arab. It was the assemblage of all these readings that allowed us to detect with acuity that we had been targeted as ‘other’ via our perceived otherness: an otherness that mixed Arabness with Muslimness because, quite frankly, in most people’s minds the two are interchangeable.

This is how race operates in this country. Like a chameleon, race changes, morphs and adapts to its environment. Race is always redefining itself, adapting how it classifies, judges and interprets human difference depending on the context. As anthropologist Ghassan Hage argues in Is Racism an Environmental Threat? (Polity, 2017), race is remarkably fluid and therefore malleable. Racists, he says, ‘happily move from one form of racism to another, caring little about logical contradictions, inconsistencies or discrepancies in their arguments’. This is why the pumpkin seed comment impressed me so much. So little said, and yet a history of race relations compressed neatly within a few words. Now that’s power: appropriating the language of race to the extent that I am denied a vocabulary to explain my negation. No doubt if I had accused Mr Pumpkin Seeds drive-by man of racism he would have said, ‘Pumpkin seeds aren’t a race!’

Having spent months conducting research at this coastal town, interviewing locals and observing the dynamics of interactions, I understood why these pumpkin seeds were a problem for some of the white population. These seeds coalesce around histories of practice and discourse (‘they’re taking over’). Strewn around grass and sand, they evoke feelings of invasion and incursion, stamping the landscape with the problem ‘other’. In ‘the most successful multicultural nation in the world’, even pumpkin seeds must be reminded of who properly belongs and who does not.


THE IDEOLOGY AND political vision of ‘multicultural’ Australia we see projected in politics, in our media, our popular culture, our arts and our institutions is, at its core, white. The reality of multiculture on our streets, in our everyday lives, is fact. The cultural theorist Stuart Hall called this ‘multicultural drift’: the visible presence of immigrants and ethnic minorities in all aspects of social life as an ordinary and inevitable part of the social landscape. As the novelist Zadie Smith observes, minorities don’t walk around their neighbourhood thinking ‘how’s this experiment going? This is not how people live. It’s just a fact, a fact of life.’

But it hasn’t always been a fact of Australian life. As so many have written, whiteness patrols the borders of the everyday spaces of interethnic mixing and encounter that make up the reality of mundane multiculture. Whiteness is never imagined as part of the ‘multi’ in multiculturalism precisely because it floats above such particularity, its claim to universality sealed by the original and ongoing violence by which this country was founded. How could it be otherwise when multiculturalism emerged as a policy precisely because of a need to manage communal coexistence between a dominant majority and a minority population – a population dynamic that materialised through specific historical relations: theft and dispossession of the Indigenous population on the one hand, and racially exclusionary legislation on the other.

White Australia spends a lot of time debating who we are as a nation. Are we larrikins? A sporting nation? Beach people or bush people? Republicans or monarchists? Part of Asia or ‘the West’? Of all the debates, it is race that whips white Australia into a frenzy. What is so eminently fascinating about whiteness is its capacity to take itself so seriously. Television and radio programs convene all-white panels made up of ‘experts’ and ‘commentators’ who very seriously discuss Australia and the question of race. Our politicians, celebrities and media pontificate over what is and is not racism. Definitions are offered, indeed insisted upon, which efface Australia’s racial histories and continuing logics. Prejudice is confused with race. Race is described in individualistic terms, as behaviours or attitudes. The hegemonic understanding of racism is ‘go back to where you came from’, usually shouted by a stranger in public. White Australia loves to indulge in righteous indignation at a video showing racism on public transport, then congratulates itself on being a successful multicultural society because it condemns such acts – even right-wing shock jocks and commentators solemnly declare such behaviour to be un-Australian.


I KNOW WHO I am. Most racialised people do. History matters to us. We know that the answers to who we are as a nation lie in a story that did not start with the last election or 9/11 or Tampa or deaths in custody or the stolen generations. We know that if we were to approach the question of who we are as a nation the way we would a jigsaw puzzle then the most logical and coherent approach is to first assemble the pieces that make up the frame of the puzzle to understand what is contained within, to see the shape of the puzzle, and how the border determines the shape and fit of all the pieces inside. We know that the frame of Australia is race. As a white-settler colonial outpost of the British Empire, it could only ever be race. The dispossession, genocide and exploitation on which this country was founded; the legacy of its status as a British settler colony; Australia’s past efforts to build a racially exclusionary nation via the White Australia policy; its evolution from ‘racial’ to ‘cultural’ dominance through the vehicle of a highly politicised policy of multiculturalism; and, above all, the denial of Indigenous sovereignty – racialised people know that this is where any discussion of this nation’s identity must start.

And so, who am I? I am writing this essay on the land of the Darug people. I was born in Sydney in the year that the National Aboriginal Conference called for a treaty between Aboriginal people and the Australian government. A treaty that has, thirty-nine years later, still not been achieved. I am here only because my father had the good fortune to migrate on a scholarship to Sydney University in 1972, a time when the last vestiges of the White Australia policy were being dismantled. My father was a stateless Palestinian because the same imperial government that colonised Australia set the course for the theft of my father’s homeland, Palestine. I am writing this essay on the land of the Darug people and not in, say, Cairo, my mother’s birthplace, because my mother migrated to Australia in 1974. Her family saw no future in Egypt following Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalisation of Egypt’s economy in the ’70s. My mother’s family left a country in the throes of resisting years of British colonialism and imperialism only to migrate to a former British colony because its government decided their brown skin was now palatable. I am the child of the dispossessed. And I am complicit in dispossession. I know that this country’s wealth is bloodstained and that the ships that invaded these shores more than two hundred years ago were built and financed by Britain’s profitable slave trade. We are endlessly reminded of our proud British heritage, of our inherited values and institutions. The bloodstains are almost always covered up. But I know that I walk on bloodstained land.


WHEN I THINK about Australia and white fragility, with all its moral pretensions, I marvel at the great hoax of it all. The sheer energy and wealth invested in concealing and denying racist policies, ideas, outcomes and realities. Who are ‘we’? Look around: race is everywhere. It is so pervasive, so embedded in the fabric of who we are, that its terrible fact is rendered almost banal. It is there in the flyer hanging on the pin board beside my local GP’s computer, reminding me to notify the doctor if I am Aboriginal because of the additional health risks. It is there in Aboriginal deaths in custody and families waiting for justice. It is there in the silencing, persecuting and hounding of Indigenous women and men who dare to demand justice. It is there in the manufacture of crises and panics when brown and black people refuse to engage in rituals of loyalty to the West. Dissent against colonisation, against empire, against race is never heard as dissent but only as extremism, as un-Australian. Who are ‘we’? There is no collective ‘we’.

Every attempt to articulate or impose a vision of national identity exposes white Australia’s determination to negotiate belonging and rights around how closely one associates with white Australia’s vision of history, society and nation. Minorities can be part of white Australia’s ‘we’ and ‘us’, but disassociation from so-called normative ‘Australian values’ and ‘identity’ immediately reveals how quickly the black or brown dissenter can be relegated to the status of alien, to ‘you’ and ‘them’. It is race that allows white moderators to create ideal non-white ‘moderates’. The ‘moderate’ Muslim, the ‘moderate Aboriginal’, the ‘moderate minority’ are people emptied of their politics, their dissent, their resistance. They are only allowed to be a cosmetic addition to a multicultural display with no overt political inclinations and certainly no agenda to unsettle or destabilise the centrality of whiteness on which Australia exists as a nation. Race is there, in the celebration and protection of the speech of men like Milo Yiannopoulos, Mark Latham, Andrew Bolt, the late Bill Leak and on and on it goes. It is there in the rejection of the Uluru Statement of the Heart, in Tony Abbott’s ‘Team Australia’.

Race is everywhere. All nations lie to themselves about who they are. We are constantly reminded about our unique mix of ‘Australian values’. Even our ‘values’ are racialised, deployed as a discourse of power, used as a disciplinary tool to school and tame unruly minorities. As a Muslim, I see this all the time. The government’s dialogue with Muslims is almost always framed within the language of counter-terrorism, the needing-to-be-reminded-about Australian values. Consider something as routine as the Prime Minister’s message to communities celebrating religious and cultural festivals. Messages issued to the Jewish, Chinese or Hindu communities, for example, on their special celebrations contain a celebratory line or two along the lines of being ‘the most successful multicultural society’ and so on. The messages are generic and bland. Perhaps the only particularly enthusiastic message is reserved for the Jewish community, which is given special mention for being a ‘well-established and integral part of Australian society’ and for their ‘valuable contribution…to our nation’s cultural, economic and social life’.[i]

Prime Minister Turnbull’s 2016 and 2017 Ramadan messages are rather different. A subtle disciplinary tone seems to be reserved for messages to Muslims. A reminder that, ‘We are a nation that respects each other’s right to freedom of speech, thought and religion. That right, supported by our principles of democracy and law, bind us together into what I believe to be the most successful multicultural society in the world.’[ii] And, ‘Australia is the most successful multicultural society in the world. And the key to our success is mutual respect; for each other and for our democratic way of life under the rule of law.’[iii] In 2016, Turnbull also suggested that Muslims also ‘enjoy iftar with neighbours who may be unfamiliar with Ramadan and Islamic traditions’. If any generalisation can safely be made about Muslims, it is regarding their hospitality – and yet even this we need to be advised on, arguably as a lesson on integration. Only if you’re Muslim do your religious festivals become a pedagogical opportunity to be schooled on ‘Aussie values’.

Ramadan iftar dinners hosted by state governments, ASIO or police departments are another example of how race operates quietly in the shadows of the government’s engagement with Muslim communities. No amount of halal food or reciting from the Koran from an imam at the event’s opening can detract from how such functions arguably involve a measure of taming and moulding Muslim governmental and police/security allies in the war against terror/radicalisation. Such work happens at a friendly ‘breaking of bread’ among the same politicians, police and security personnel who contribute to a discourse, practice and policy that frames Muslims via securitisation and as risky could-be terrorists.


GO AHEAD, WHITE Australia, eat your kebabs or butter chicken and tell us more about democracy and mutual respect. Throw around words like ‘free speech’, ‘freedom’, ‘citizen’, ‘equality’, ‘fair go’. But if white Australia is going to do that – and do it with such laughable self-idealisation – then take seriously the intellectual genealogies and historical trajectory in Australia of such words. What does your ‘national identity’ mean when we start not from your ‘British heritage’, but from the violent dispossession and near-genocide of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population? What does ‘social justice’ mean to white Australia when it was only in 1992 that the law acknowledged the fiction of terra nullius? What does your ‘equality’ mean given Indigenous incarceration rates, deaths in custody and lower life expectancy? What does your ‘citizen’ mean when it was only some forty-three years ago that the White Australia policy was finally dismantled? What does your ‘free speech’ mean when it is denied to angry, racialised people? Who pays the price for your ‘national security’ policies? Where do you get your assumptions of sovereignty that justify Australia’s illegal offshore mandatory detention? What does ‘equality of opportunity’ mean when studies show discrimination against job applicants with Chinese, Middle Eastern or Indigenous names? What does ‘freedom of religion’ mean when certain practices are the subject of robust public debates and contestation?

To come even close to self-awareness as a nation, white Australia must be prepared to ask and answer these questions. It must also be prepared to accept that Australia is a very different place for a racialised person. In a country in which whiteness patrols how we define racism, how do people like me talk about the fact that one of the most insidious effects of race is the way it instrumentalises us? The way our value as a non-white multicultural ‘other’ is measured by how useful we are? When, in August 2017, Senator Pauline Hanson entered the Senate wearing a burqa, what offended many Muslims more than Hanson’s unhinged stunt was the standing ovation and widespread praise heaped on the then Attorney-General George Brandis. Brandis reprimanded Hanson and asked her to ‘reflect’ on what she had done given how ‘vital’ it was for ‘intelligence and law enforcement work’ to be able to ‘work co-operatively with the Muslim community’. Rather than object to the ridicule, marginalisation and mocking of a community on moral and ethical grounds, Hanson’s actions were attacked because of the possibility they might undermine the Muslim community’s willingness to ‘co-operate’ in the war on terror. Time and time again, the Muslim ‘other’ in Australia is an object of management or extraction.

As for white Australia’s other ‘multicultural others’, there is also, always, food. I can never forget a 2015 episode of the ABC’s program Kitchen Cabinet. Host Annabel Crabb visited former Immigration Minister Scott Morrison in his home, where he cooked Crabb a meal of Sri Lankan curry and homemade chapatis. Morrison told Crabb that he had fallen in love with Sri Lankan food while visiting Sri Lanka and meeting with its government in relation to his government’s ‘stop the boat’ policies – in this case, Sri Lankan boats. Morrison happily cooked chapatis and spoke about how ‘fantastic’ the food was in Sri Lanka without the slightest hint of irony. Morrison encapsulated everything about the bitter and racist ironies of this nation: content to exclude Sri Lankan refugees, but not Sri Lankan food. We will eat your food, but we will not protect your lives.

Truly, whiteness is fascinating in the lies it tells itself and the moral contortions it insists upon. Given the continuing abuses against black and brown bodies – in the name of ‘interventions’, ‘security’, ‘democracy’, ‘stop the boats’ – white Australia’s self-idealisation is remarkable. White Australia must own the violence that is enacted in its name, the histories it denies, the injustices it allows. The truth will not set it free. It will hold white Australia to account. It will demand it lives up to the lofty ideals and values it professes to stand for. In facing race, white Australia may just start to humble itself enough to redress its continuing wrongs and give way to new identities, new imaginings of nation, new ways of living with each other.






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