Transactional interactions and everday racism

I recently initiated a transactional interaction with someone. As in I approached it as a transactional interaction. Pretty quickly — and I came away feeling much better for it — through their pleasant and engaging manner, they changed the nature of our interaction. And I am very thankful for it.

The interaction was at a convenience stall/service station. I was paying for an item for the trip home, after 5 days away. The trip started with a 2 day event in one city, a two day event in another city (in which I was an organiser) followed by a one day event. I was feeling a little spent. I approached the person at the counter without really thinking of them as an actual person.

In part, my transactional approach reflected feeling a little drained. What is also embodied was a societal-learned approach to such interactions as de-personalised. As in I did not view the interaction as being an engagement with an actual person. I was literally and figuratively being served.

The person who served me repsonded to me as a person. This was in stark contrast to my transactional approach. It was akin to a de-escalation through diversion. They reminded me how everyday interactions, however we may view them as insignificant, are inherently socially important (beyond the emotional benefit for myself — I came away feeling much less drained).

There is another layer to my tranactional approach, and one that I need to further (continually) reflect on. The person at the counter was South-Asian. The intersection of unmarked and oblivious (to me) racism certainly influenced (hopefully small, and decreasing) my appraoching the interaction as a transaction.

There was an element of everyday racism (and, interlinked, everyday social classism), enmeshed in such transactionalism. In many ways, I Othered them before I even had an inkling of who they were and are. I felt I had nothing to gain from interacting with them beyond a transaction — based on (non-conscious and oblivious) preconceived notions and judgments about them.

With the rise in right-wing political organisations, their influence on the everyday, and a shifting further towards the right of electoral politics and parties, this is a dangerous time. For me, embodying elements of their rhetoric/assumptions, however minor is quite a telling (and unsettling) sign… There is work to be done.

On struggling with how to approach a multiply-racist incident…

I recently witnessed a multi-confronting racist incident. Whereas in the past I have felt compelled to act, this time — in the moment — I was at a loss for words. The nature of the incident, what it conveyed, was quite specific. Quite stark.

I was out with two people. It was close to midnight. We were walking along the Main Street in the coastal village of Thirroul (a northern suburb of Wollongong, NSW, Australia). A car passed us and one of the young (white) men inside stuck their head out of the window and yelled ‘go back to Nowra.’

Nowra is a city to the south of Wollongong. There are some significant socio-economic issues and challenges there. The city also has a visible Aboriginal population. I use visible here, as there is an ongoing history of invisibilising Aboriginal populations: out of sight = out of mind. In simple terms, in Nowra the social implications of widespread structural problems faced by Aboriginal Peoples in Australia are within sight. They are not as easy t0 ignore.

Broadly (not limited ot Nowra), many people in the (white) community inflate structural issues with personal failings. Rather than confronting systemic issues, there is a relational construction (Othering) in which the broader (white) community act to position themselves as not like them (i.e. not like Aboriginal people). This is far from uncommon, rather being quite normative. In short, poverty faced by members of the Aboriginal community is labelled as a result of their own actions, behaviours and (framed-as-an) inability to be a contributing member of society. They are essentialised.

In yelling ‘go back to Nowra’, this young (white) man was identifying the two women as Aboriginal. Putting aside the gender implications of men yelling at women (multiple issues), in affording the label of Aboriginal to these two women is further illustrative of multiple layers of racism. These women are not Aboriginal. The young man conflated and reduced having black-brown skin to being Aboriginal. These women were positioned as multiply inferior. Their skin colour meant they were. Worse (in his mind) they were Aboriginal. Aboriginal and from Nowra — where apparently all Aboriginal people belong. Their place was not in a well-to-do suburb, a predominately white suburb.

I still do not have a simple, one line, retort to such a comment. I am still (as a white person, with years of unquestioned and unearned privilege continually being unpacked and digested) coming to terms with the broader and nuanced inferences and implications of such a string of words.

What I do know is that I am multiply responsible for challenging such actions. As a man, it is my role to confront other men on their sexist behaviour. As a white man, it is my responsibility to confront other white men on their racist actions.

To not do so is to be complicit…

the Secret River

I recently watched the ABC (Australia) produced two-part TV series The Secret River, based on Kate Genville’s 2005 ‘historical novel about an early 19th-century Englishman transported to Australia for theft. The story explores what may have happened when Europeans colonised land already inhabited by Aboriginal people’ [Wikipedia].

However I wanted the outcome to be different — be it white guilt, romanticising less atrocious and brutal settler-colonial attitudes  (even just hoping form a different portrayal, however inaccurate) — what it portrays is pretty accurate. In short, aside form the overtly racist settlers, a majority engaged in murderous acts against local Aboriginal peoples, with some clearly portrayed as doing so whilst they made have had some reservations (i.e. better intentions).

The main character, who embodies quite a bit of (white?) guilt, is portrayed at the end as quite broken, embodying guilt through his actions which ranged from moments of disgust with the overtly racist settlers, facial expressions of disagreement without actions challenging them, through to however regretted/partially resisted group attacks on local Aboriginal communities.

The ending specifically embodied the personal implications of colonialism, in particular how it damages even the perpetrators (not to downplay in any way to genocidal impacts on Aboriginal Peoples): set around 10 years post a pivotal event in which the local Aboriginal community was effectively wiped out in a night time attack.

Not only is the main protagonist — whilst living his life as a successful pardoned convict which a large homestead, who also has his own convict-slaves (the irony!?) — struggling with guilt and seeking forms of redemption, he is constantly reminded of the atrocities he participated it.

Attempts at redemption are illustrated in his apparent repeated attempts to give food to a an Aboriginal man camped nearby. He asks the an who he doesn’t live in the hut he built him. Implicit here are both the impacts of privilege and an apparent inability to see through the personal costs of such privilege. Why does the poor person (be it Aboriginal, or otherwise) not want-accept what i give them? He can’t see through his own obliviousness, which is staring him right in the face, and that his guilt is consistently reminding him of. Like most, he turns it back on the man who does not accept his ‘gift’. It is not his fault… (there is much more here, that I may come back to musing about — perhaps after I read the book).

His youngest son who had befriended an Aboriginal boy of similar age, and was largely welcomed by the community. He (the father) was there when the boy was indiscriminately killed in the attack. In this 10-year future that the mini-series end on, is son is seen as assisting the lone white man who came to develop a respectful relationship with the local Aboriginal community, and understand that the self-centred and selfish actions of the settler-colonials would lead to retaliation — and was seriously wounded in the ‘surprise attack’.

In many ways I connected with this character: who embodied-reflected a naive-liberal desire to be seen as the good white person, which is so common today (much of which I embody as a form of white guilt — even though I recognise how problematic and counter-productive it is). I am pretty certain this is why the character exists.

To round out these perpetually incomplete thoughts which continually evolve as I became more aware of my own complicity and strategic ignorance, I wonder how much it shows of the (little, yet positive) movement towards justice there is with the creating and airing of such a show.


As an aside, Tim Minchin plays the most explicitly racist character. I found it difficult to watch him in such a role…