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The Boston Phoenix On Being a Wog

I've stood on both sides of the racial divide.

By Yvonne Abraham

FEBRUARY 2, 1998:  My sister Carolyn is our family's racial Geiger counter.

Try telling an ethnic joke around her and Carolyn will grow pale, her face will tighten, and she will turn on her heel and walk away. She doesn't think they're funny at all.

Some folks call Carolyn paranoid, but she doesn't care. She's older than I am, was a kid in much less tolerant times, got lots of crap for being Lebanese. Well, we all got crap, actually, from Anglos who saw packaged pita bread as a sure sign that our kind were fixing to throw towels over their heads and run them into the desert on camels.

Australia isn't exactly Nirvana for non-Anglos, although it's not as bad as it used to be. Carolyn got much more torture than I did, so she's extra-sensitive. Way she sees it, somebody's got to stand sentry.

Since I left Australia four years ago to live in the land of the LA riots and The Bell Curve, Carolyn has been keeping me up to date on race relations back home. For the most part, I've been more preoccupied with what's going on in America. Writing regularly about education, public housing, or just about anything in Boston kind of keeps the local color line in your face. But lately, Carolyn's worried phone calls and panicky e-mails have gotten more frequent: a bigot has been elected to Parliament, and people actually take her seriously; there's talk of other countries boycotting the Sydney 2000 Olympics because of the way the government treats Aborigines; debates over native land rights threaten to force a dissolution of Parliament.

Carolyn is worried. As far as she's concerned, a backlash against one -- Aborigines, Asians, whomever -- is a backlash against us all.


1976

If you were a working-class Sydney kid in the seventies, being Lebanese was the second-worst thing in the world. "Wogs," the Anglos called us. They shouted it from passing cars, or whispered it under their breath in class. It was not a term of endearment.

Italians and Greeks were wogs, too, but they were just plain wogs. We were adjectivally enhanced: we were dirty wogs. Our language was full of hard, guttural sounds, which other kids imitated by hacking up spit. We used all that raw garlic and olive oil, which made us smelly and greasy. We were dark, and had premature facial hair. We were the woggiest wogs.

Funny, really, because all the Lebanese homes I knew were perversely clean. They smelled of disinfectant all the time; sofas and carpets were covered in plastic; whole rooms were cordoned off like murder scenes, reserved for special occasions. But how could Anglos know? The kind who yelled from cars wouldn't be caught dead in our houses.

As bad as it was back then, we always had this consolation: at least we weren't Aborigines. In the race hierarchy that defined our world, they were the lowest of the low. Newer immigrants would eventually arrive to take the heat off us. That's how it usually plays: last in, first trashed. But Aborigines, who'd beaten Anglos to Australia by at least 40,000 years, were the exception to that rule.

The only segment of the population that didn't come from somewhere else, Aborigines had taken more than any immigrants ever could. Whole tribes had been wiped out; their land had been ripped off by white settlers without so much as an exchange of beads; their children had been taken away by state governments -- as recently as the 1970s -- to live in white missions and foster homes. Civil rights were denied them until 1967. Easy prey to poverty and alcoholism and early death, they were stuck at the bottom of the heap.


1949

My mother left Lebanon in 1949, her parents lured by the promise of more space, better jobs, and a postwar boom on the other side of the planet. Aunts and cousins and grandparents had taken the plunge, too, swapping austere lives in a snowy Lebanese mountain village for austere lives in a dusty, flat Australian country town.

Everybody was welcome in Australia. Like America in earlier times, the country needed immigrants; it lured them with happy catalogues and sunny film trailers full of just-completed factories and sparkling suburbs. Leave your home and the only life you thought you'd ever have and come to the land of televisions and indelible red lipstick, Australia said to antsy folks everywhere. Well, not everywhere: the White Australia Policy restricted Asian immigration until 1973. And some people were more welcome than others: natives of the United Kingdom got almost-free passage to set up there. They were top-drawer immigrants.

Back then, immigrants were supposed to leave as much of the old country behind as they could, to be as un-foreign as possible. They were "New Australians," not Lebanese-Australians or Italian-Australians. My mother learned English quickly, which was lucky, because she was pulled out of school in the sixth grade to help out in the family's corner shop.

Assimilation did not come as easily to her parents as discipline did. She was not allowed the carefree teenage years, the dances or parties or 45s, that marked other postwar adolescences. When she was barely 17, she married a man from the old village, whom she'd seen exactly six times in her life. In her wedding photographs, my mother, not yet fully grown, looks tiny, uneasy. She was a couple of inches, six children, and dozens of beatings short of the woman she would become.

She tried harder to blend in after we were born. She wanted us to have the educations, the trips away, the friends, that her strict Lebanese upbringing had denied her. All of which set our traditional father against her.

After we left him, we were less Lebanese than ever. My mother's five daughters were allowed to go out with friends and talk to boys. We were not to be forced into marriages. We did not learn Arabic. Those remnants of my family's Lebanese culture that survived assimilation were enjoyed in the privacy of our own home. If the doorbell rang while we were eating kibbe naye -- a kind of pâté made of raw lamb, our favorite -- my mother would panic, gathering up our full plates and rushing them into the kitchen, lest an Anglo discover our secret.

Still, we couldn't change the way we looked. My mother may have spoken faultless English with a broad Aussie accent, but she was still a wog, as customers and colleagues at the bars where she worked so often reminded her.


1981

In the ninth grade, we spent a whole semester on Aboriginal history. When white settlement began in 1788, Australia had about 500,000 Aborigines. In 1930, there were about 80,000. Mrs. Fulton, our history teacher, led us through those years, massacre by massacre.

Mrs. Fulton was a young, idealistic sugar heiress. She had huge brown eyes, pulled her hair into a wispy bun, and always wore stylish trousers and crepe shirts. She talked a lot about sharing and classroom consensus. She had us pull our desks into a circle, and was big on the Socratic method. Propped up against her never-used desk, her high heels digging into the lime-green nylon plush pile, she asked endless, open-ended questions. Her favorite was simply, "Why?"

Mrs. Fulton radiated white liberal guilt, which most of us 14-year-olds embraced. At the same time, I took comfort in the fact that it wasn't my people who'd done this to the Aborigines: it was the Anglos. We were just immigrants. They'd invaded.

It was all too much for Frances, the only Aboriginal kid in our dinky little Catholic girls' school. In history class, she'd slump so low in her seat that by the end of the lesson she was practically lying under her desk. Eventually, she got sick of our nervous, sympathetic glances in her direction and skipped history altogether. Mrs. Fulton gave her special assignments, on less embarrassing topics.

That same year, a racial melee broke out at school. It began as an organized debate on immigration -- Lebanese girls on one team, Anglos on the other. Not a good idea. The Anglos called the Lebanese girls wogs, the Lebanese girls called the Anglos convicts, and they all took it out to the playground. About 60 blue-tunicked schoolgirls went at it, throwing punches and pulling hair, as the rest of us looked on in giggly horror.

Mrs. Fulton tried to defuse the situation by organizing an immigration debate among the teachers. This also descended into violent confrontation -- staged, of course -- in which she slapped the principal really hard on the face. He seemed surprised. She was trying to shock girls into understanding their stupidity. A few of the Lebanese girls cried. The rest of us saw through it and laughed.

That was as bad as it ever got.

By the early eighties, our neighborhood was growing more and more Lebanese. A mosque opened a few blocks away, and Muslims moved in to be near it. "Mooooslims," our well-meaning but hopelessly xenophobic neighbors called them. The Anglos started moving out. The writing -- right to left, indecipherable -- was on the wall.

By contrast, we Christians started to look pretty good. The Muslims were so much more foreign than we. At least we believed in Jesus. When Southeast Asians began arriving in noticeable numbers (the White Australia Policy had been lifted in 1973), we ascended yet another rung in the racial hierarchy.


1988

When I reached university -- and had my first contact with the middle class -- it turned out my mother had hidden our Sunday dinners for nothing. By the mid-eighties, the whole melting-pot thing was out. Now it was all about salad, salad, salad: instead of blending in with the rest of the country, we were supposed to celebrate our differences and preserve our heritage. Several prime ministers had said so. A national foreign-language public television station had been launched to critical acclaim, and was widely watched. Ethnic dining was hot. The university salad bar served tabouleh.

Who knew? I spent a frantic couple of years trying to gather up the missing bits of my cultural identity. I took 26 Arabic lessons from an Egyptian teacher who taught me a dialect my mother couldn't understand. Very frustrating for both of us. And I learned belly-dancing from a self-taught Anglo woman called Barbara (her stage name was Ishtar). Belly-dancing, Barbara always told us, was an expression of female empowerment: my mother would have had a good laugh at that. Still, I tied a sash around my jiggling hips and clinked little finger-cymbals above my head, proudly exposing my heritage and my feminist underarm hair.

None of it was quite what I had grown up around, but it was as close as I was going to get.

Our university was near Sydney's only ghetto, Eveleigh Street, whose residents were all Aboriginal. We lefty students were outraged at the plight of the country's indigenous people. But even though Eveleigh Street was only 10 minutes from campus, we never went there. Instead, we wore red-black-and-yellow beads (the colors of the Aboriginal flag) and joined marches for land rights, demanding that surviving tribes' ancestral lands be returned to them.

In 1988, Australia celebrated its bicentenary. Tall ships sailed into Sydney Harbor, reenacting the arrival of the first white settlers, the darkest day in Aboriginal history. My mostly Anglo university friends and I took it all in from a makeshift Aboriginal "embassy" on the water's edge. We booed and swore as the ships passed by, saving our loudest disdain for the Queen, chief imperialist oppressor. "Fucking cow!" we jeered. "Go back where you came from!"

That night, duty done, consciences clear, we went to a friend's office, high in one of the city's tallest buildings, to watch the fireworks. I don't know where the Aborigines went.

Soon after that, indigenous Australians at last began winning concessions. In 1992, the Supreme Court recognized a native claim to land by an Aboriginal man named Eddie Mabo. The decision overturned the principle of terra nullius, the notion that the land had belonged to no one when the first white settlers arrived in 1788. Mabo died before the decision was handed down, but for other Aborigines, it looked as if, finally, 200 years of misery might be mitigated.

But it wasn't that easy. Aborigines are traditionally nomadic, for one thing, and tribal lore had always dictated that nobody could own the land. Besides, that land couldn't just be handed back. White farmers and mining companies had been working much of it for years. Aboriginal lands could no more easily be returned than Manhattan given back to Native Americans.


1996

Aborigines are four times more likely to die at birth --and have life expectancies 15 to 20 years lower than -- white Australians. Some Aborigines live on reservations, like Native Americans, and they're prey to some of the same chronic problems -- alcoholism, for example, not to mention the strain of maintaining a traditional life surrounded by everything modern.

But Aborigines have much less political pull than Native Americans do. You won't find casinos on Australian reservations, for example, nor the financial heft that comes with them. In 1996 alone, Native Americans gave $1.5 million to the Democrats. Aborigines, who make up less than 3 percent of Australia's 18 million people, can't wield anything like that kind of clout.

And so, after Mabo, Aborigines found themselves relying on the kindness of white strangers, on the good intentions of a conciliatory Labor government, and on a court victory that quickly proved to be very shaky indeed, carrying within it the seeds of a backlash.

Which came swiftly.

"Did you hear about Cathy Freeman?" Carolyn asked me. I'd been in America only a couple of months. Aboriginal runner Cathy Freeman had won a gold medal for the 400 meters in the 1994 Commonwealth Games (held every four years among former British colonies). Carolyn was both proud and freaked out. Freeman had brought glory to Australia, then done a victory lap carrying the red-black-and-yellow flag of her people. For that she was pilloried at home.

Two years later, Freeman had learned her lesson. When she won silver in the '96 Olympics, she unfurled both the Aboriginal and the Australian flags. Now she was a national hero. Good girl.

By then, Carolyn had moved on to other news. Labor was replaced by a Liberal -- actually conservative -- government. And along with a new prime minister (who relied heavily on the farmers threatened by the Mabo decision), racist conservative Pauline Hanson found her way into the nation's capital as a newly minted member of Parliament.

Hanson vehemently opposes native title claims for Aborigines, and wants the government to reverse the effects of the Supreme Court's Mabo decision. She has claimed that Aborigines once ate their own infants and elders. Hanson is also against Asian immigration: she talks of Australia being overrun by Asians in 50 years (they make up less than 5 percent of Australians now).

"Are you a xenophobe?" an Australian 60 Minutes reporter asked Hanson.

"Please explain," she replied.

"How can you support her?" the reporter asked her chief aide, who is Italian.

"I've been de-wogged," he said.


1998

With Australian unemployment hovering at about 8 percent, Hanson commands more support than your average crackpot, which augurs ill for all of us non-Anglos. She also speaks for the farmers and cattlemen who have much to lose from Aborigines' native title claims.

And although Prime Minister John Howard, a conservative, has tried to keep his distance from Hanson, those landowners influence him, too. So, after a few months of indecision, he now wants to enact legislation extinguishing native title claims, effectively reversing Aborigines' gains of the past decade. That has Parliament deadlocked and the entire country in an uproar.

Meanwhile, Aborigines have threatened to urge a boycott of the Sydney 2000 Olympics over all of this. If the native title impasse doesn't get resolved, some countries won't need much convincing to stay away.

"In the aftermath of Nazism, colonialism, and apartheid, racism is a very big no-no internationally," says Janet Hunt, Australia's chief spokeswoman on international aid.

Howard has threatened to dissolve the government and hold a special election rather than give up his native-title legislation. If that election were held, it would in effect be a referendum on race. And local pundits predict that Howard would be returned easily.


The rest of our family, lulled by loosening prejudices and easier times, relaxed some over the past decade or so. Carolyn never did. She has always maintained that every gain in tolerance was easily reversible. For that, we -- and a legion of her friends -- teased her. But it doesn't seem so funny lately. With every publicly stated wish to offset native title claims, with every sign of the backlash, however small, Carolyn's perspective looks more and more reasonable.

When I came to America four years ago, I crossed a racial line: I went from being Lebanese to being white. My mother, however, is still in Australia, still firmly working-class, and still as unmistakably Lebanese as ever. Not so great for her, since she lives and works among the kinds of people who sent Pauline Hanson to Parliament -- folks empowered by the backlash.

She's on stress leave from her job right now: seems some of her colleagues at the war veterans club where she works have been giving her a bit of a hard time. They make fun of her lunch like preschoolers, taunting her because it's so, um, Lebanese. And once again, after her almost 50 years in Australia, they're calling her a wog.


Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yabraham@phx.com.


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