Scottish comedian Billy Connolly at one time waxed indignant about how political correctness was intruding into comedy.
“How dare they,” he fumed, on somebody’s talk-show. “Funny is funny.”
No Billy, not really. Not if you’re the butt of somebody’s bad taste joke, be it about religion, gays, people with disabilities, migrants from non-Christian countries or our indigenous people, who had the misfortune to be colonised in 1788 and not officially recognised in the Census until 1967.
What, you don’t think people make jokes about Aborigines? Try Kevin Bloody Wilson’s “Living next door to Alan”. I’m told this spoof song about a family of Aborigines moving in next door to Alan Bond, which in totality may be more about mocking big business than anything else, is a favourite amongst indigenous peoples in WA. But you can’t generalise like that, and herein lies the central problem with racism and xenophobia.
One cannot know the private thoughts of the racist who never verbalises or the indigenous person who feels persecuted but is too afraid/shy/humble to speak out.
In New Zealand, the Race Relations Commissioner, Dame Susan Devoy, launched the nation’s first anti-racism campaign. Her open letter asked Kiwis to tell their stories about ‘casual racism’ – to go beyond the 400 written complaints received last year.
‘That’s Us’ is the first campaign that asks people to start sharing their own stories about racism, intolerance and hatred.
In her letter Dame Devoy says the overwhelming majority of people never complain or go public when a car drives past and the people in it scream a racist obscenity.
She cites other casual or ‘quiet’ racist encounters “that never feel casual or quiet when you and your family are the ones being humiliated.”
Dame Devoy told The Guardian that overt racism is not as widespread as it is in, say, Australia, but she felt that New Zealanders need to reassert their position as a world leader in race relations.
“We just need to look around the world right now to see what happens when racial intolerance and racism is normalised. We think New Zealanders are better than that and we hope you do too.”
But returning to Billy Connolly’s assertion that ‘funny is funny’.
When I was growing up in New Zealand the most popular entertainment group was a Māori group, the Howard Morrison Quartet, closely rivalled by a Māori/Pakeha comedy duo, Lou and Simon.
The latter were known for parodying popular songs, e.g. West Side Story “I like to be in a Maori car” using gentle, self-deprecating humour.
The Howard Morrison Quartet had a hit in 1960 with ‘My old man’s an All-Black’ based on the Lonnie Donegan tune about a dustman. The song was a protest about the decision to exclude Maori rugby players from the 1960 tour of South Africa.
It contained comic asides such as:
“Fi fi fo fum, there’s no Horis in that scrum.”
Crikey, you wouldn’t get away with that today. The urban dictionary and others define ‘Hori’ as a racial slur, but it was in common use in the 1960s. I recall Dad cuffing my ear (as that generation of Dads were prone to do), saying: “Don’t call Māoris Horis – it’s disrespectful.”
I may have asked, risking another ear-cuff ‘Why do some Māoris call themselves Horis, then?’ and he replied that if a negro (before they were known as African American) called himself a Nigger, that was OK, but it was not OK for us to use the N word, its origins steeped in racial hatred, slavery and oppression.
Wikipedia defines ‘Hori’ as a derogatory, racist slur, but the term (like Nigger in the US) has to some extent been “reclaimed” within the community it was originally intended to insult. Like those epithets used by rappers and hip-hoppers – ‘Wazzup, Nigger?’ Hori is used today as a term of endearment amongst Māori or as a signifier of ‘keeping it real’.
Whatever age I was in 1960, that discussion led me to read To Kill a Mockingbird, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Black like Me, Go tell it on the Mountain and at least five of the 15,000 books written by or about Abraham Lincoln.
Meanwhile in the UK, present day, five 15-year-old boys and one 16-year-old boy have been arrested on suspicion of murdering a Polish man in Harlow, Essex. A subsequent assault on a Polish man in Harlow is being investigated as a hate crime, as is the murder a week earlier.
There was a noticeable rise in hate crimes after the June 23 Brexit referendum, with more than 3,000 allegations of harassment and threats filed with UK police.
Nothing on this scale to report in Australia, but the seeds have been sown and Pauline Hanson’s anti-Muslim rhetoric just shovelled a whole lot of fertiliser on that particular garden.
Adding potash, if you will, is a new Essentials Media poll showing 49% of Australians support a ban on Muslim immigration. Economist George Megalogenis dug out some historical evidence that 58% of Australians were opposed to taking part in a worldwide plan in 1947 to resettle Jewish refugees from Europe. Just because a survey saying half the people apparently don’t want something to happen doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t.
The 1946 Census revealed that 35,000 Jews lived in Australia. Historian and author W.D Rubinstein said at least 17,600 Jewish survivors reached Australia between 1945 and 1954 – the largest single increase in Jewish numbers in the country’s history. In 2011 there were 112,000 Jewish people in Australia, the vast majority residing in Melbourne or Sydney,
So then to the Australian Greens who this week urged me (via a ‘personal’ email from Richard De Natale), to support the party’s walk-out during Senator Hanson’s anti-Muslim speech.
I thought the Greens could have served us better if they had stayed. Despite the parliamentary tradition that it is forbidden to heckle or interject during a Senator’s maiden speech, the Greens could have done this (one by one), until all had been ejected.
What headlines would have ensued then? Nevertheless, they walked and this is what De Natale had to say:
“After we walked out on Senator Hanson’s racist speech, my office was flooded with hundreds of calls of thanks. Then in just a few short days over 11,000 of us signed a pledge to stand united against racism. This is an opportunity to bring our communities and voices together with a message of unity that cuts through the noise of parliament. It’s hugely ambitious but I think we could reach 50,000 by the end of this year.”
That seems a small target when the Race Relations Commissioner of a nearby neighbour has pointed out that overt racism is thriving in Australia, even if the NZ Commissioner admitted:
“We’ve always had a problem with racial intolerance in New Zealand – Māori New Zealanders know it is not new.”
Dame Devoy’s Australian counterpart, Tim Soutphommasane, waded into the debate this week.
The Race Discrimination Commissioner argued in a speech at the ANU that racism at its core is about an abuse of power. He appealed to Australians not to be complacent about racial intolerance being some kind of “initiation rite” for new arrivals.
“While we may never eradicate racism and bigotry, it isn’t good enough to say its targets must grin and bear it, or that there’s nothing we can do. Doing so amounts to normalising racism, to suggesting that it should be tolerated.”