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No delight in prejudice

In order to progress as a peaceable and compassionate society, we should break away from the shackles of centuries of racism and bigotry, writes Frances Letters.

ONE NIGHT in Kathmandu way back, I met a younger man who, in a couple of stunning moments, upended my world eternally. He got here slipping into my life like two fingers that silently gripped my head and twisted my face in direction of a lightweight I had no want to see.

A lightweight I can by no means now unsee.

It was 1969. The hippie age was sweeping the Earth. A rollicking new cry rang out: Wake up, you boring previous farts! Life will be sensible – really joyful and open – if solely we let it!

For the brand new younger seekers after reality, India and Nepal had been the cool locations to be. I had my doubts. Universal love was a unbelievable concept, in fact – flowers did look groovy in lengthy flowing hair. But might they actually change the world?

In hippie-heaven Kathmandu, nonetheless, I’d determined to offer the brand new creed a strive: to blithely fling myself into these swirling, technicolour waters.

It virtually appeared to work. Day flowed into night time there, with the gradual passing of the cannabis pipe round darkish, smoky rooms. Camaraderie was every thing. In dreamy teams we swam by way of the hours, smiling gently collectively.

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That night I’d settled down at an extended wood desk in a loud Tibetan consuming home. Friendly faces beamed welcome: an previous Irish artist with cascading white hair; an unlimited Black GI deserter from the Vietnam conflict; a feisty Navajo woman and her Japanese boyfriend; two bearded college students from Oxford; a couple of earnest wealthy boys from New Delhi. Instant soul-mates all! What a blessed, loving human household.

A younger man squeezed in beside me. Longish hair, brown eyes, easygoing brown face. There was one thing very interesting about his light smile as our eyes met. In his denims, embroidered Indian shirt and string or two of wood prayer beads, he might have been anybody from wherever.

Around the circle got here the chillum, clouds of cannabis smoke a dwelling halo round it. I sucked lengthy and deep, then, exchanging beatific smiles, handed it on to my new companion.

Someone started to trill on a bamboo flute. A drum took up the beat, then no matter was handy: guitars, bells, gongs. Blissfully stoned, we floated amid the hubbub, tinkling spoons collectively, speaking and laughing, united in dreamy fellowship.

But regularly, as his voice drifted round me, I felt the stirring of an unwelcome suspicion. That voice, barely heard above the laughter and music…

Could there be one thing weirdly… acquainted… about that… accent?

I checked out him sharply. At the identical on the spot, in his out of the blue widened eyes, I noticed doubt daybreak. Then the wallop of understanding.

Our accents had been acquainted as a result of they had been the identical. We had been each Australians: I, privileged and fortunate, he, unprivileged and unfortunate.

I, White; he, Black.

In that on the spot, the brotherly pleasure of Kathmandu was snuffed out like a candle flame. We had been again in Australia, gaping at each other in startled dismay throughout the chilly abyss that was Nineteen Sixties Australian actuality.

How can I clarify that abyss to you now? Australian Aborigines, after generations of homicide, theft, contempt and frosty exclusion, are as of late glowing on the nationwide scene as by no means earlier than. They’re prouder, stronger by the day. Their historical past and tradition are more and more revered. And the traditional strains of their Voice are starting to be heard eventually.

But in 1969 – regardless of the referendum two years earlier than that had lastly allow them to be counted as Australians – to most White folks, they had been just about invisible. Silent. Crushed. Useless nobodies.

These days, assembly grounds do not less than exist. Then the one White/Black contact – if any – was as ruler and dominated, lord and underlings. Underdogs. Under-beings. Untermenschen.

Just down the street within the NSW city of Armidale, after I was rising up, there lived a neighborhood of Aboriginal folks. At the garbage dump. Their properties had been shacks cobbled from bits of rusty galvanised iron, nailed-up potato sacks and flattened tin.

It’s a shock now to grasp how grotesque – monstrous – their poverty was on the fringes of our straightforward loads. But as a toddler, it did not even register. Though they lived so close to me, I barely seen them.

Nor, as far as I knew, did anybody else within the White neighborhood. Aborigines merely had no place in our world. Somehow, we might ruthlessly blocked from our minds the scalding reality: that as up-side winners on the historical past see-saw, we had been snug and well-fed exactly as a result of they weren’t. Because they’d been masters of the dear land, just about eternally – and now we had been.

The unmentionable methods this atrocity had been achieved had been cunningly scrubbed from our consciousness, too.

By 1969, I’d thought such childhood blindness and ignorance had been lengthy gone. But in that Tibetan consuming home, one thing unsuspected had jerked in my guts: one thing foul, primeval. A dwelling fossil squirming deep inside me, reptilian head peering out.

Remnants of primitive, ignorant previous tribal race prejudice.

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Me? Ignorant? Prejudiced? After the wealthy, open-hearted household life I grew up with? The clear, stern Catholic ethics? Broad schooling? All my pleased Asian hitchhiking and shoestring travels? Ridiculous!

Stoned although I used to be, to be dragged so crudely again to my origins was a thunderbolt shock. The reality was, again in our previous world, the possibilities had been just about nil that we would ever have met – nonetheless much less been sitting chatting collectively, so pleasant, so contented, so blithely unselfconscious.

The younger man glared at me, however obliquely, his easy-going face flustered and aggrieved. In his eyes, I noticed precisely what I knew was churning in mine. Why the hell did this heap of crap have to look, wanting like another laidback hippie, to fire up such bloody awkward reminiscences? Just after I was feeling so snug! So freed from the previous. So a lot myself eventually!

The air jangled and twanged between us. We mumbled a couple of compelled phrases. Uhuh… Yeah. Australian. Hmm… Same right here. Huh…

We might hardly meet each other’s eyes. All the prayer beads and embroidered hippie shirts on the earth could not conceal the shuddering intimacy of our shared information of each other.

What was an Aboriginal doing anyway, gallivanting world wide? They simply… did not!

A rush of pictures spooled out throughout my imaginative and prescient: dark-skinned, grubby little boy sitting within the mud, nostril clogged with a dribble of snot; ragged previous man on a park bench, the stump of a wine bottle poking from his pocket.

What pictures of me flashed earlier than him? Simpering little woman, frilly pink gown, skipping off to a celebration? Society matron, coiffed and perfumed, with chilly, cruel eyes?

We knew one another – with deathly intimacy. And knew… nothing in any respect.

There was just one factor to do. With elaborate casualness, by unstated however clear mutual consent, we turned away and burrowed for security into different teams and their conversations. By uneasy watchfulness, we managed to keep away from ever assembly once more.

I used to be by no means the identical after that night time. Most travellers removed from house really feel a snug little spurt of enjoyment at briefly working right into a fellow countryman, like pleasant ants glad to twiddle antennae on a path.

But that night time, I noticed one thing was deeply mistaken. I’d met a brother, somebody basically way more like myself than anybody else, in that crowded room. Our very our bodies had been constructed from similar components, daylight and rain. Remember, Man: thou artwork mud and unto mud thou shalt return. The identical red-brown mud we had been. But the flash of recognition had been insufferable. For each of us.

Looking at him was like catching sight of myself in a darkish, weirdly twisted mirror. A startled reflection stared again: two faces – so completely totally different, so shockingly alike – half blended into one. But distorted by one thing secret and creepy. A unclean, draggled path of previous truths and lies.

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So, the white-haired Irishman, the Black GI, the Navajo woman, her Japanese boyfriend, the Oxford college students and the boys from Delhi had been my expensive soulmates all. But not my fellow Australian. With him, I used to be tongue-tied and awkward, gauche and deeply uncomfortable. And extra ignorant than I might start to fathom.

There was a chasm between us and no bridge.

So… I used to be by no means the identical after that night time. Without realizing what he did, that younger man compelled open my eyes: to long-denied guilt and disgrace, however in the long run, to a brilliant new hope. That the “sunlit uplands” all humanity longs for may be inside attain in any case.

But, you may mutter sternly, White folks should not write about racism. It’s appropriation! What do they find out about being rejected due to their color?

There’s a determined reality right here. These days the once-outcast are spectacularly able to shouting out for themselves. They want no patronage. And the facility of their Voice is being heard eventually.

But alas, there’s one other sorry facet to the story. Most White Australians do find out about racism. Quite a bit. But from a completely totally different angle: not as goal, however as energetic marksman. Because since beginning, most older Australians had been silently steeped in prejudice and the proud, razor-sharp disdain it triggers.

Things are definitely altering for the nice. But to cease harmful new sproutings, may it not be helpful for White Australians to dig up a couple of putrid previous roots? To dissect, analyse and attempt to perceive? And so, hopefully, to assist sluice away the muck they spawned?

Triggered by that assembly in Kathmandu, a fierce want arose in me: to wade into historical past’s oldest, ugliest battle – in myself, initially. Prejudice of all types had snaked across the Australia of my childhood: race, faith, class, nationality, politics, tradition…

Before Kathmandu, years of journey had introduced numerous friendships and overwhelming kindnesses. The human heat of all of it had wrapped me in pleasure and contentment. How splendidly assorted however alike we people are!

So it was deeply sobering to stumble that night time on an historical spiked gate deep inside myself – slammed shut.

Bigotry! Unease. Suspicion. Nasty sidelong glances and upturned noses. Everything chilly, sharp and hateful that cripples our hearts and causes evil and distress in all places. Surely right here is the foul, ridiculous bloody set off for a lot of the world’s distress! For the poverty, the grotesque injustices, the cruelties. And for all these idiotic, sickening wars.

Into the brains of our primitive reptilian ancestors, as they crawled from the swamp, evolution rammed a deadly stamp: tribal suspicion of these “different from us”. We’d wanted it then to outlive in that fierce, hair-trigger world. But it has lengthy outlived its usefulness. Out of that pre-Stone Age, snarling reptilian mind nonetheless crawls… a reptile. Tribal bigotry of all types. Day after day down the ages, it has slithered inexorably from suspicion to disdain, from bullying to tyranny. And as usually as not, to outright conflict.

All the legal guidelines people have painfully constructed up over the ages by trial and error, inch by inch, have had one intention: a society not less than moderately peaceable and workable. First, due to this fact, the necessity to hobble that internal reptile. To muzzle its lethal jaws and clip its claws. To carry it below management of extra recently-evolved components of our brains: the prefrontal cortex, the place, hopefully, calm purpose can rule.

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The “White Australia” I grew up in was a narrow-eyed, closed place. It might be plain brutal to anybody “different”. Yet, we inform ourselves, the butterfly that broke out of that inflexible cocoon is vivid, optimistic, inclusive and really humane. Isn’t Australia the world’s nice instance of “a fair go for all”? Of proud mateship and equality?

But one thing sinister is once more stirring to life beneath the world’s floor. Something that, with any twist of circumstances, might erupt into actual hate – harmful sufficient to shatter our placid existence.

We Australians have been warned: ominous hints are displaying up. Sadistic jail guards caught on CCTV monstering Aboriginal boys. A storm of fists smashing into Muslims on that Sydney seashore. Venomous crowds booing the Aboriginal hero Adam Goodes on the footy. Trolls spitting venom at Stan Grant, probably the greatest of us.

Sniffy put-downs of each leftists and rightists, with contemptuous refusal to calmly hear their arguments. The silent acquiescence that lets refugees – locked up with their grief – go mad. Even a resurgence of bitter, profoundly unwise views concerning the “Yellow Peril”.

Triumphant leaders worldwide have been blazing their approach up the recognition charts on waves of nationalist bigotry. But certain as hell, to comply with such pied pipers would carry hell itself erupting out of the darkish – but once more. World War II, with its ugly horrors, brutally forewarned us. It ought to have forearmed us to the tooth in opposition to a replay.

Yet, in a single nation after one other, a mucky tide is rising in again inlets. No matter what your politics, in case you’re indignant, jobless, fearful or feeling alienated and left behind, that troll-thrilling trumpet name can sound deeply seductive.

So we’re deplorables, are we? Bogans. Rednecks. Aborigines grabbing at energy. Cunning Chinese spurting viruses and plotting world domination! Or sinister, latte-sipping Marxists. How about creepy Lebo towelheads? Cold-eyed fascists? Male bullies ruling the world whereas sour-faced ladies screech and snatch at their jobs?

It’s no shock that people and complete nations ought to bristle with fury when snooty, insulting labels are slapped on them. What might be extra pure than to shiver with the indignant thrill of all of it and mistake after any chief who guarantees top-dog standing?

But that approach lies a lethal abyss.

No one is ever wanting to resist ugly reminiscences buried within the reptilian dungeons of their nation’s psyche. They’re historical past. Why dig ’em as much as complain about ’em now?

For one important purpose. Because identical to you and me, complete nations will be doomed to repeat classes they did not grasp final time round. Bigotry is a dwelling razor-wire clawing tight round our hearts. If unchecked, feverishly, it sprouts new thorns, spikes – and wretched distress. Even the vow, “never again”, sworn with hand on coronary heart by way of an agony of tears after the Holocaust, appears to be slipping away out of public reminiscence.

Every considered one of us trails the swirling trickle of a life story behind us. Each small journey, with its uphills and downs, in a roundabout way mirrors the grander graph traced by our nationwide tales.

To make sense of my life’s wobbly trek – and yours – in direction of these fabled sunlit uplands or into the jaws of hell-on-Earth, I do know I’ve to dig down into my very own previous. To unearth any shameful bones sleeping there uneasily since childhood.

I must face my very own and my nation’s uglier truths calmly and truthfully. And with them, all humanity’s.

As we cock our ears uneasily for the distant tramp of jackboots, what’s extra more likely to calm issues down with the indignant, jittery neighbours? An assault with tooth bared, or a little bit of introspection and a quiet chat? A brandished baseball bat or a gentle, encouraging article?

In some small approach, our personal truth-and-reconciliation demons, confronted truthful and sq., simply may serve us all.

Frances Letters is a author, journalist, meditation trainer and activist.

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