Race relations and me

This article is in response to Robert Krzisnik’s article “Racism immunity?” on his blog. 

Since federation in 1901 and up until the 1960s, Australia had an immigration policy known as the “white Australia policy”.  The white Australia policy was intended to keep the Australian population mainly Anglo-Saxon in race and culture. There was a perception that Australia was such a large country and the population was so small that we would be over run by Asians, who were seen as an inferior race of dubious moral qualities. The “Yellow Peril”.

Although Australia has an indigenous population of dark skinned people collectively known as Aborigines, they were not treated as citizens, until the mid-1960s. The stated aim of the Department of Aboriginal affairs, back in the early 1900s, was that the Aborigines should be assimilated into the general population and their culture forgotten. Any aboriginal children of mixed race were collected by the government; often taken by force from their distraught mothers, and placed in government run institutions, that basically trained them to be servants (these people are now known as the “Stolen Generation”). The so-called “full bloods” were kept in reserves out in the country, where they were treated as little more than children. 

As a consequence of these two government policies, I grew up, not really being very familiar with people of other races. 

I was six years old before I met somebody who was of non-Anglo descent.  Back in the early 60s there was a large influx of migrants from Italy and Greece. To my childish eyes these new kids from the Mediterranean seemed to be a bunch of sooks who didn’t stand up for themselves and who would always run off to get help from their friends or older siblings whenever they got into strife with other kids.  As somebody from an Anglo background I’d grown up with the idea that one had to stand up for themselves and fight their own battles.  I guess that’s a hangover from my ancient Celtic cultural past where the self contained hero is held in high esteem, above all. The Mediterranean kids understood co-operation and strength in numbers which I suppose betrays their ancient cultural past. Time and time again, the organised Greeks and Romans thrashed the heroic but disorganised Celts.  The poor old Greeks and Italians had a hard time in Australia back in the early 1960s.  Here was a bunch of cultured people from the devestated post WWII old world, who had migrated to the savage cultural wasteland that Australia was at that time, and I bet a lot of them thought they’d made the biggest mistake of their lives.

All I’ve got to say is, “thank goodness they came here”, as the English cooking that most of us used to eat was woeful. The Italians and Greeks transformed cuisine here in Australia.

I was seven years old when I first met somebody who I thought was a Negro. In actual fact, he was from Malaya (now known as Malaysia) and had fairly dark skin as Malays do. I can’t remember his name, but I do remember how smart he was. On one occasion, we were sitting together drawing and as I looked across at my Malay classmate’s work I noticed that he wasn’t placing his house on the line that represented the horizon, but actually below the horizon. In that instant, I knew he was more advanced than me. I realised that he was drawing what he saw rather than just repeating the arrangement of symbols (the square house with the triangle roof etc) that we had until then thought of as landscape.

At about the same time, we were receiving our first religious instruction at school. I can still remember the weird dreams triggered in my naive brain as I slept, from all the religious iconography I had been exposed to, and meeting that amazing Malay boy.  I dreamt that I was the first black Pope being transported on large uncovered palanquin being carried by a multitude of priests through a huge crowd of the faithful that I blessed as we passed them.

I envied my Malay classmate so much that I wanted to be him and in my ignorance of geography and the world in general I thought he was a Negro and therefore I wanted to be a Negro.  Sure enough, there were derogatory anti-Negro epithets in Australian culture back then, but they just didn’t make any sense to me because I had never met a black person and I couldn’t figure out why, one would want to say something bad about or to them. 

Back when I was a kid, a lot of things didn’t make sense to me. For instance I thought that when people were referring to Jesus Christ as the King of the Jews, I just assumed the word “Jews” was some sort of Victorian era, anachronistic contraction of the word “jewels”, and it wasn’t until I was about 14 years old and in high school studying the Merchant of Venice in an English class, that I found out what a Jew actually was.  As we were reading Shylock’s speech, and when we came to the part, ” and what’s his reason? I am a Jew”, I turned to my friend sitting next to me at the desk and asked him, “what are these Jews?”  My classmate (John Ryder) who had been a firm friend for the previous two years turned to me and said, “I’m a Jew”.  In hushed tones so the teacher couldn’t hear us, John gave me a quick update and brought me up to speed.

When I got little older I travelled around in Asia for a couple of years and then ended up in North America, which was the first time I’d ever had regular contact with Negroes (which from this point on, in respect cultural of sensitivities, I will call describe as, “African Americans”).  Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s I found that in general, North American culture was very segregated.  Not segregated in an official way, but culturally segregated.  There just didn’t seem to be much of an overlap of cultures, whites liked the one thing, blacks liked another.

One time back in about 1979, when I was in Miami working at a car show, there was an after hours party and everyone was invited.  In a large convention room there are lots of white southerners, dressed in their jeans and leather vests with buck knives on their hips and Stetson’s on their heads, and I was being bored to death by their lack of conversational skill (how many times can one talk about sport and car? Sheesh!) and their horrible taste in music (fuck country and western; cry in your beer music!). 

The mood of the room changed when a bunch of African-Americans walked in, wearing flamboyant disco clothing, with a huge ghetto blaster on their shoulder, blaring out the latest disco music. I bet they thought that they were going to just turn the whole place onto something really great and everybody was going to have a good time.

That wasn’t to be.

There was just silence and stares.

The temperature dropped to below zero. 

The white southerners weren’t having any of that disco crap, and they basically stared the newcomers out.  It was the first time I had seen such a clash of cultures. 

It was literally black-and-white.

Another time I was in Philadelphia doing another car show with the laser show, and I had befriended an African American security guard, and we used to shoot the breeze during the slow parts of the day.  On the last day of the car show the security guard was directing the display cars out of the auditorium, when one of the white guys driving his pimped out ride, ignored his direction and sped past him.  As the car went by the security guard banged the roof of the car, to which the car screeched to a halt and a huge white guy got out and punched the security guard in the face, causing his nose to bleed. The white guy got back into his hot rod and sped off.  Meanwhile, somebody had called the police, and I was there when they turned up. The security guard ran over to them, holding his bleeding nose trying to explain what had happened and the two cops got out and threw him against the patrol car and handcuffed him. The security guard was crying out, ” but it was me that they hit!” ” I am the victim here!” The cops ignored him and pushed him into their car making sure that his head hit the roof on the way in, and then they drove off with him.

No I’m not kidding it actually did happen.

In Houston (I was working at the Laser Show in a car show in the Astrohall) I got thrown in jail and when I was in the holding cell I met an old (he looked about 70) impeccably dressed African-American guy. He wasn’t dressed in an overly flash way, but I could see he was a man of quality and style. I went up to him to find out why he was in. He told me that he’d gone into a bar and ordered a cocktail. He was half way through his drink when the manager told him to leave. To this, the old gentleman replied, “I’ll leave when I’ve finished this drink I’ve paid for”. Fair enough I thought. Who’d want to stay in such a place any way? The manager called the police, they arrived within minutes and this lovely, refined old man was arrested for trespassing!

I shit you not!

This guy looks like the old man I met in jail in Houston

Another day in Houston (unfortunately I was there in that shit-hole for about a week), on my way to work at the laser show, I was walking in the pouring rain to the Astrohall (which is part of the Astrodome complex), from my hotel. I was slogging through the mud (there were no pavements around the Astrodome complex at that time) , when a big, beautiful, gleaming white Lincoln Continental Mk III pulled up next to me and the passengers door was flung open by a smiling African-American man, who invited me to get in the car out of the rain. I protested to him that my boots were covered in mud and the I would dirty up his car. To which he just replied, “don’t worry about that, so where are you going?” it turned out that he was also heading towards the Astrohall. A true good Samaritan.

For a while the laser show, I was working for became involved with “Gooding’s million-dollar midway” (that’s the carnival company that was featured in the movie Carney) and as they used to say in the old days in England, ” they were rum lot!” There were quite a few guys working there, who had obviously been in prison and saw themselves as being hard and some of these guys were very hostile and openly racist. Whilst working at Gooding’s I met a well built Negro guy from Puerto Rico, who used to be a professional body builder, and at one stage was Mr Puerto Rico. I can’t remember his name, but I do remember what a nice laid-back guy he was. Mr Puerto Rico love to smoke dope and listen to reggae, which more or less described what I was into at that stage of my life. My co-worker at the time was a guy called Mike, who had been in the army for a few years and had confided in me, that it was in the army that he had learned to hate Negroes.

Strangely enough, for Mike, he found that in comparison to the other dirt bags that we were working with, Mr Puerto Rico, shone like a diamond in a pool of mud. Mr Puerto Rico was such a nice guy, Mike found it very easy to forget his prejudices and all three of this used to hang out together smoking dope and listening to reggae.

One evening we were coming home to our hotel in Mike’s van and we saw Mr Puerto Rico being beset by a group of about six other carnies. It looked like what I imagine an old Bear baiting scene would have. There are in the middle was this huge guy with a pack of other guys trying to take him down. I told Mike to slow down and pull up to the group as I went into the back of the van and opened up the side door. As we pulled alongside, I called out to Mr Puerto Rico, ” quick jump in!” and of course, he dived into the back of a van and we sped off, as his antagonists threw their beer cans at us.

We drove for a few blocks, then slowed down to find out what had happened.  We were told that Mr Puerto Rico had just been walking home when some of his other fellow carnies had seen him and decided that they were going to beat him up. Apparently, it was thought by the trailer trash who were bothering him, that he was a little bit too good-looking for his own good and they thought that some of the white girls in the carnival were interested in having sex with him.

Mr Puerto Rico just wept as he told us this.

I knew some of the guys who had been hassling Mr Puerto Rico, so I went and saw their ringleader the next day. He was a very stocky, well built and very aggro little mother fucker who used to walk around with the thick end of a pool cue, with a large brass ball on the end of it, permanently tied to his wrist.  I was under the mistaken impression that this nasty little prick and I got along, and when I tried to explain to him that Mr Puerto Rico was a great guy and that they should all leave him alone; I got the shock of my life when he said to me that he had, “no time for any nigger lovers” and that if I wasn’t careful, I was going to get my face smashed in, as he waved the end of the pool cue in my face.

Gee, I thought that went well!

When I was in Syracuse, New York after two weeks with a US rail pass on Amtrak I had an experience that showed me very clearly that some people who actually do indulge in “random kindness and senseless acts of beauty”. I had basically run out of money but had saved enough change for two phone calls so I could call my workmates who were staying at the Holiday Inn in Syracuse to come and pick me up. Unfortunately at the time there were three Holiday Inns in Syracuse and of course the two Holiday Inns that I called first, weren’t the ones where my co-workers were staying so I was stuck without any money to call the last Holiday Inn. So I went up to you the ticket counter, and as a flamboyantly dressed African American stood to the side counting his change, I asked the teller, if I could use their phone because I had run out of money to call my friends. The white teller just stared at me at in blank non-comprehension, and shook his head in the negetive. Just as I thought I was in a hopeless situation, the guy counting his change next to me, just turned to me with an outstretched hand full of money and said with a kind smile, “here, take what you need”.

Another African-American good Samaritan!

Another time during winter, I was back in Philadelphia again.  It had been snowing heavily all day, and as we were returning to our hotel after being out for the evening, an African American guy came up to us and asked us if we had any jumper cables.

My two co-workers automatically said no. 

This surprised me because I always thought that they were pretty decent guys, and I remonstrated with them, that we should at least have a look in our truck to see if we had some. As it would happen, we didn’t have any jumper cables and we weren’t able to help him start his car. I asked the African American guy why he just didn’t just catch the subway home or call a friend to come and help him and he explained, that he just didn’t have any money on him.  When he said that; my co-workers just rolled their eyes, but since I had been in the same situation myself before (many times) I just put my hand in my pocket and pulled out a handful of change, like the guy in Syracuse who helped me. I said to him, ” here, take what you need”. He just looked at me, dumbfounded with an embarrassed expression on his face and just stood there. I could see he didn’t know what to do, so I just grabbed his hand and put all the money that I had in my hand (which wouldn’t have been more than a few dollars) into his hand.

He burst into tears as he told me that he’d been trying since late afternoon, and well into the night trying to get some help, and nobody would help.  He then said that I’d just given him enough money to phone his family who he knew would be worried about him and to catch the subway home. He thanked me and then he went on his way. 

My co-workers looked at me in astonishment and said, “what the hell did you do that for; you know he just ripped you off!”

I guess some people just don’t get it; “what goes around, comes around”.

I felt it was the least I could do, considering how decently I had been treated by African Americans who didn’t know me. Who helped me despite the fact that many of them were so badly treated in their own society.  In a way, the racist policies of the past Australian governments has served me well, as I’ve grown up without any of the baggage that burden so many people in the US.  In my two years of working in America, I was amazed at how few African-Americans I actually got to meet in social circumstances. Sure, you’ll meet African-Americans in the various service industries one deals with, but it’s almost like there two separate countries in the US.

One white and one black.

It’s quite interesting to me when I watch American television and English television to see the differing ways that those two countries portray Negroes. English television seems to be making a concerted effort to show people of African descent as equals.  Only last night I was watching the TV show, “Hustle” and the main character who leads a group of white people, is black, and talks with an English accent. American TV shows seem to portray African Americans in stereotypical terms. Just like in the movie “Crash”, where the African American director is forced to portray people of his race, speaking in Ebonics, there seems to be some underlying effort in the States to show the differences between the races, rather than the similarities.

Having said all this about the American mass media, there are obviously many conscious and socially aware people in the US who would like to change the staus quo, producing movies like, Three Kings(one of my favourite movies).

Below is the the amazing interrogation scene from “Three Kings” mixed with a history of Wacko Jacko’s face.

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