'Classwashing' Australia's racism problem won't make it disappear

"Disaffection and economic disempowerment does not cause racism; it only emboldens it," writes Ruby Hamad.

"Disaffection and economic disempowerment does not cause racism; it only emboldens it," writes Ruby Hamad. Photo: Graham Tidy

 It's been a fortnight of extraordinary elections. But even more extraordinary than the results we've seen is the phenomenon of 'classwashing' the plainly racist voting habits of so-called "ordinary" white voters.

Following the shock Brexit referendum result, analysis after analysis insisted that those 'Leave' voters who were swayed by an overtly xenophobic Leave campaign were not really to blame for their votes. Rather, the disempowered poor, beaten down by austerity and wage cuts, were manipulated into hating foreigners and immigrants because they needed someone, anyone, to scapegoat.

It's a tempting argument. After all, no one wants to believe their society is racist. Far more palatable is it to blame class factors, and designate xenophobia as a side effect of economic inequality rather than an actual reason for voting a particular way.

Similar classwashing can be seen in the wake of our own debacle of an election that has propelled the political resurgence of Pauline Hanson and her One Nation party.


Writing in The Guardian, Katharine Murphy penned an otherwise worthwhile column on Hanson's "return" (as if she ever really left), without mentioning racism, xenophobia, or Islam once. This is despite Hanson's campaign being almost entirely focussed on attacking Muslims.

Apparently, Islamophobia is immaterial because the real culprit is "disaffection". A vote for One Nation is not a nod for white domination but merely, "raising a middle digit in the direction of the parliamentary triangle."

If only it were actually the "parliamentary triangle" in Hanson's firing line. And if only focussing on economic inequality would make racism magically disappear.

Class analysis can't explain everything. Yes, the working class and rural poor in both Australia and the UK have been screwed by capitalism and the political classes. Yes, the exploited and marginalised deserve sympathy for their struggles and the patronising attitudes with which their concerns have been met.

But let's get a couple of things straight. First, not all of the disenchanted working class is white. And yet, the current valorisation of "the workers" has a disturbingly white tint, as if nothing has changed since the mid-1970s. Not only does the classwashing argument ignore the contributions of non-whites to the labour force (and their exploitation), but it lets them down again by suggesting attacks on them by alienated white voters are somehow, if not justified, then at least "understandable".

Which brings me to the second point: Xenophobia and hating on Muslims is not a consolation prize for political and economic disempowerment.

Nonetheless, Margo Kingston, prominent "voice of the left" and author of Not Happy John, insists that Hanson and her supporters not be lampooned but "listened to". That we should "go to where her voters are and have a chat with them."

Yes, this is the same Hanson who warned of "being swamped by Asians," who declared "Islam has no place in Australia," complains that Aboriginal people have it too easy, and demands an immediate end to all Muslim immigration.

Who exactly is Kingston talking to here? Does she imagine a Muslim or Asian or Aboriginal person is going to mosey on down to the Hanson heartland for a cup of tea and a yarn with people who believe our presence is the source of all their problems?

But of course, Kingston's column wasn't written for us. Like Hanson herself, Kingston is appealing to a lily-white audience, even if it's one that rallies for equality and sneers at Hansonism. Her unconscionably sympathetic take - even calling One Nation's fear of Islam "natural and understandable"- is surely the classwashing nadir.

It is pure fantasy to assume xenophobia is only the result of economic alienation, as if racism is unheard of in the middle class. The increasingly segregated public school system in Melbourne's socially liberal inner city certainly indicates otherwise. Here, white families are ditching local schools with high Muslim and African enrolments, in favour of more racially-acceptable schools a few suburbs over.

Given this is The Greens heartland, I'm sure these parents agree that everyone should be equal in principle. Just don't expect them to compromise their own precious kids' education by mixing with that brown and black rabble.

Disaffection and economic disempowerment does not cause racism; it only emboldens it, brings it bubbling and spitting to the surface. But it is always there, simmering. How can it not, when it is literally the foundation this country was built on?

Racism is not a regrettable albeit intrinsic feature of human nature, but a deliberate invention of white colonialists to justify their domination and supremacy. Sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva explains:

"Historically the classification of a people in racial terms has been a highly political act associated with practices such as conquest and colonization, enslavement…and, more recently…neocolonial labor immigration. Categories such as "Indians" and "Negroes" were invented in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to justify the conquest and exploitation of various peoples."

This land we live on was invaded and seized by people who believed they and only they had a right to it and to its riches. And we are still living with that legacy. As time passes, the main target changes, as evidenced by Hanson's switch from Asians to Muslims as her primary focus of ire, but xenophobia itself remains constant because the inheritors of this legacy believe everything this country has to offer rightly belongs to them. The rest of us can live here, but only if we know our place.

Even Asians so much as owning houses in Sydney's south is viewed as an unforgivable transgression. How dare immigrants be doing so well when "real" Australians are suffering? The Hansons of the world (clearly far more numerous than we've cared to admit) see anything other than their own domination as oppression.

Those of us in One Nation's firing line don't have the luxury of focussing on economic disaffection, on humouring Hanson's followers, and looking for common ground. What common ground can there be with someone who wants to expel you from "their" country?

Pauline Hanson says she represents the views of ordinary (read: white) Australians and I believe her. Racism is not hated in this country. Far from it. Prominent Australians have built their entire careers on it. A white person can hurl all manner of invective at Muslims or Aboriginal people and still get invited to dance on prime time television, paid to spout their uniformed opinions, and elected to the federal parliament.

Classwashing racism won't make it disappear. But it will further alienate non-white, and especially Muslim, people who are starting to wonder: Who will stand with us when even the progressive left is denying the racism and xenophobia we live with everyday?