Chapter 1 Black Looks in Oz
“…the assumption that Australia not only has
a history worth bothering about, but that
all the history worth bothering about
happened in Australia”
— Clive James
“Be careful! Raj will give you a black look, if you don’t play well today.” When I first heard these words, I was mystified. There had been no reference to my colour for decades, certainly never in a stable social situation. Why now, in the mid 1990s? Anyway, it came to my notice that these strange words were being uttered somewhat frequently by Willy, a chatty old Aussie, in my presence. Yet, he never referred to any of the others — all white — as ever giving black looks. Willy, typically self-confident, in spite of being relatively unlettered, and I were members of a group of elderly men (known as the ‘vets’) who played tennis three times a week. Our ages ranged from a little under 60 to about 80. Most, like Willy, were ordinary folk, with no pretensions.
Chapter 2 The Power of Pigmentation
“It’s powerful,” he said.
“That one drop of Negro blood
— because just one drop of black blood makes a man coloured.”
– Langton Hughes
Like most Asians, I do not take notice of variations in skin colour. When everyone around me sported a different colour, how could I be sensitive to such variations? This claim will no doubt surprise those with a need to detect, and possibly denigrate, anyone with any hint of colour. The way the mixed blood urban Aborigine is talked about is sufficiently illustrative. Since most parts of the world are multi-hued, differences in skin colour are generally not persuasive in human relations where whites are not involved. The exceptions are the caste-ridden, especially the Indians (eg ill-educated Hindu mums looking for ‘fair’ daughters-in-law); or those Euro-Asians who sought, generally by necessity, to identify themselves exclusively with their usually distant white progenitors.
Chapter 3 To Have a dream
“It is a great shock … to find
that, in a world of Gary Coopers,
you are the Indian”.
– James Baldwin
I can claim to know only one Aboriginal person. Indeed, I have met very few Aboriginal people over half a century in Australia. How am I to meet them? Our paths are so far apart. When a meeting does take place, there might be little of that communication that one might expect from people sharing the same stage. Are they keeping themselves apart, because they have been rejected by white society?
Chapter 4 Which way to the Cosmos?
“Now, my own suspicion is that
the universe is not only queerer
than we suppose, but queerer than
we can suppose.”
I well remember being taught, at about the age of eight, that the universe is without beginning or end. It was part of my acculturation. My mother, well read in our tribal language, and with a strong belief in our religion, started me on this path. She thus planted the seeds of a significant search — for understanding the meaning of life. This search was to stimulate and sustain me for the rest of my life.
Chapter 5 Peering into the Void
“No matter how I probe and prod
I cannot quite believe in God.
But oh! I hope to God that he
Unswervingly believes in me”
– E.Y. Harburg
On this fragment of the Cosmos known as Earth, there are those who seem to know what creation and existence are all about. Then there are those who claim to know, surrounded by that multitude who just want to know. Amongst the Hindus, there is that belief (expressed in the Upanishads) that, through meditation, one can realise Reality. Although this Reality cannot be described, one can come to know it by identifying with it (ie by realising it). It follows that, as stated by J. Krishnamurti, those who know cannot tell. Those who claim to tell apparently do not — cannot — know. This unitary awareness, being experienced, is uniquely personal. It is non-transmissible, beyond words, beyond thought (so we are told).
Chapter 6 The end of Tribalism?
“How can you govern a country
which has 246 varieties of cheese?”
— Charles de Gaulle
PART ONE — Foreigners Everywhere
- The whitening of terra Australis
Australia went from monochromatic to multicoloured; from mono-cultural to multicultural, and from monolingual to multilingual, all within 2 hundred years. This is quite an achievement for any nation, if one could only ignore the poor Aborigines, with their original diversity of tribes and tongues. This tri-level transformation of the country was, however, only the secondary change which the indigenes of the nation have had to contend with progressively. The most tragic impact upon the original black inhabitants and their abode was caused by their white conqueror, camouflaged as a seeker of discovery.
PART TWO – The Merging
- Rejecting the new unwanted
Australia’s infamous dictation test allowed officials to throw out anyone they (or their political masters) did not want, for any or no reason. This was achieved simply by finding a language which the applicant for immigration entry could not possibly know. This approach was clearly reflective of the utter ignorance and insensitivity of leading Australian politicians then. It was all so fatuous, contrasting with the currently impossible task of ridding the nation of queue-jumping economic migrants seeking asylum, especially the ‘boat people’.
Quaint interpretations of international commitments; the assertion of unlimited rights for illegal entrants to avail themselves of unending publicly-funded legal services and appeals; an unbalanced emphasis on the use of lawyers to present the unlawful immigrant’s case for admission to Australia (when he has carefully destroyed the documentation which authorised him to enter his port of departure to Australia); a reliance on the adversarial court process, with the lawyers not required to assist the nation by objectively searching for the truth; a claimed right for asylum applicants to live freely in the community (presumably at the Australian taxpayers’ expense) whilst their refugee status is being assessed; or, alternatively, to have community standards of comfort whilst in detention, with education, welfare and social worker support thrown in; all these highlight the distance administrative and legal processes have traversed since the days of the dictation test and its policy parameters.
Those who landed on Australia’s shores by boat, in the 1990s, travelling in a highly calculated manner, can claim (through their Aussie advocates) more entitlements to legal aid, access to the courts and other services than are available to us taxpaying citizens.
Adapting an Ethiopian proverb: when the spider webs of a nationalism based on a shared humanity unite, they can tie up the lion of tribal diversity. What Australians of all origins should now work towards is the evolution of a new national identity. In this objective, is there scope for each cultural strand of Aussie humanity to articulate what it contributes to this evolving national image? Could this possibly be done on the basis of what the collective soul says? In so doing, all past contributions of value to the human spirit would be recognised.
The new identity would thereby rely less on highwaymen, failed excursions overseas, cross-dressing ‘wannabe’ humorists, caste, gender and religious wars, and the ‘deputy sheriff’ role (with its implications of a smug superiority on the surface, and a sub-surface insecurity).
The new identity would re-focus on communitarian aspects of society. Both individualism and tribalism would give way to community cohesion as the Aussie Family of Man.