: Blog

The Secret River and the Power of the Arts

I’ve seen the power of the arts to move, to educate, drive change and foster social cohesion many times. I experienced it intensely first hand, when I produced Crossings: Songs from the East in 2013.

The concert showcased a cross-cultural collaboration of traditional and improvised music spanning the Greek, Kurdish, Arabic and Persian traditions. It was an exciting coming-together for the first time of local Sydney-based musicians; four out of the five were first generation Australians from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds. They drew from both their musical heritage and their contemporary experience of multicultural Australia.

The audience, which we surveyed, said things like:

“Beautiful to see a coming together of cultures through the arts”…

“Brought back memories of home”…

“Wonderful! Especially watching the musicians improvising – working together… so much richness (and they say multiculturalism doesn’t work)! It is alive and brings so much richness to our lives and to Australia”…

The experience of that production impacted all involved, from the artists to the audience and everyone in between, in ways that only arts and cultural experiences can sometimes – on the level where words cease and only the senses and the human spirit exist. One comes away from an experience like that with a sense that something in them is a little different… a little changed.

As an audience member watching the Sydney Theatre Company’s latest production of The Secret River, I came away with exactly that feeling. I was shattered at the brutality of the story – the brutal truth in the story – but I was compelled to watch and listen.

I felt like I was bearing witness to a history not told often enough. In the author, Kate Grenville’s, words: “This book isn’t history, but it’s solidly based on history. Most of the events in the book “really happened” and much of the dialogue is what people really said or wrote.” Knowing this, I felt the weight of responsibility, like I was almost charged with the duty of carrying this history on, of re-telling it. So I made it my mission for days afterwards to tell everyone I met to go see the show.

It was hard to watch at times. The woman sitting to my left had her eyes closed for much of the massacre scene. It wasn’t explicit or visually disturbing – but it sat in that space – the space where words cease and only the senses exist. Clearly for the woman beside me, her senses were in overwhelm. I was grateful that the night I attended happened to be followed by the Q and A session with the actors and co-director afterwards – it was an opportunity for the audience to re-compose and debrief almost. More than that, it was a way to bring the savage racism of our history into the present.

The discussion that ensued was open and honest. The actors told of their own experiences of facing and witnessing racism today. Actor Ningali Lawford-Wolf told of how she was refused a ride by four taxi drivers on the street just outside the theatre. Richard Piper, who played the most savage of the white characters, talked of how the experience of being a part of this production changed him – made him reflect on times where he had been a bystander to racist incidences and had not acted. He spoke of the need for us all to speak up and take a stand in similar situations, and of his resolve to do differently next time. An audience member asked the questions: “What can we do? How can we do better when we leave this theatre?”. One of the younger cast members, Madeleine Madden, spoke about the power of the arts to move and affect change. Everyone on stage seemed to acknowledge a sort of shared social responsibility to tell the story with authenticity and sensitivity.

I came away with the feeling that the sentiment in that Q and A session was shared company-wide, and with 2 mins of online research I discovered the Sydney Theatre Company’s ‘Human Rights and Social Performance Statement’ As part of STC’s commitment to “operating as a responsible organisation” they state: “STC’s statement on Human Rights and Social Performance reflect our ability to uphold human rights within our organisation and our sphere of influence. We adhere to both international and local human rights legislation and reflect these in our human resources policies, practices and Code of Conduct.” Further down, in relation to audiences and the arts industry, it states: “We share our learning and promote human rights issues through giving voice to social issues by our choices in productions and our industry networks by contributing to conversations.”

This initiative – of writing the importance of social responsibility into the policies and strategic objectives of an organisation – is exactly what we need more of – especially in the arts and cultural industries, whose core ‘business’ is in the creation of meaning.

Go and see The Secret River if you can. Or read the book. Or watch the TV series. And share the story. Continue the conversation. It is our shared responsibility.

Review by Kiriaki Koubaroulis

 

Personal Responsibility and Racism

Taking Personal Responsibility for your own Racism

Everyone has the capacity to be racist, and unfortunately, sometimes we don’t realise that our behaviour is racist. Given the choice between reinforcing or disrupting racism, most of us would choose the latter. Read on to learn how to recognise and potentially change some common, covert, acts of bigotry.

Aversive Racism

Remember the news reports of those four Somalian high school boys who went to an Apple store, were stalked by the manager, searched and accused of ill intent and, finally, were escorted from the store?

If not click here.

What do think was going through the manager’s mind when he “reacted” to their presence in the store?

It was probably; I’m not racist but…

Have you ever crossed the street, intentionally ignored or avoided eye contact with someone because of his or her skin colour or clothing? Do you realise that you’re doing it for those reasons?

While you read this, think of those screens that threaten to fly up at the bank if you lean in too far. This is what aversion activates – the screen flies up! When we allow the screens to activate, we create an “Us” and a “Them”, a “Me” and an “Other”. We place a wall between one another.

This is an unconscious form of racism. It is not intentional but that doesn’t make it any less hurtful to the person on the receiving end.

How do we change this?

We use our ability to signal positive or neutral conscious awareness of each other. But how often do we think about this during such interactions?

Our acknowledgment of another person deepens when we engage in eye contact and display positive facial expressions. Aversive Racism, or putting up “screens”, means that this most basic interaction between humans is prevented and with it the possibility of recognition of our shared humanity is gone. Most of the time we don’t think about this, we just react to situations presented to us.

Have you ever driven through certain “ethnic” suburbs and checked if your doors are locked and wound your windows up?

When we encounter certain bodies in everyday circumstances, we always react to them, even at the level of no reaction; ignoring someone.

Certain groups and physical types experience these aversive reactions routinely. These experiences create a range of negative outcomes in the people who absorb our reactions because these experiences shape their existence. They change the way that people see both themselves and others. Then their emotions take over, which has implications for future interactions. These experiences mediate their validity as a human being and their self worth pays the price.

Now just pause for a minute and think about how the boys in the Apple store might have felt…

And that’s just one instance, out of how many? Probably hundreds. Daily!

Eventually oppressed minorities get into a habit of seeing themselves through other people’s eyes.

Now imagine adopting a view about yourself, which is based on other people’s negative opinions.

Oppressed minorities “experience nervousness or avoidance from others, even from those whose discursive consciousness aims to treat them with respect as equals” (Young: 1990:142). In other words, people who have acknowledged that, somewhere along the line, they have developed a racist element within their personality have to work pretty hard to change the behaviour and underlying assumptions on which their prejudice is based.

Do you know why Dick Cheney supports same-sex marriage?

Because his daughter is a lesbian!

Often, all it takes is to know someone. Aversion stops us from getting to know the “Other”. Aversion creates the “Other”.

What are some ways that we can overcome this?

  • Better education.
  • Intentionally seeking better experiences.
  • Don’t let the negative experiences undermine or erase the positive experiences.
  • Stop adopting someone else’s negative views and sentiments. Think for yourself.
  • Ask our selves how often have we heard language like “Coons”, “Wogs”, “Darkies”, “Gooks”, “Dago’s”, “Musies” being used around the house and in everyday society. Challenge it!
  • Stereotyping (this one is huge and I will devote another article on this one in the near future). Basically, “Stereotyping” shrinks people into a neatly despised package.

Repetitive representations of ethnicities and oppressed minorities shape how we see them in reality. Think of what an asylum seeker looks like. What image first comes to mind? Is it a person in a boat, a person drowning, a person starving?

Most people like to think that they’re above this or smart enough to be able to differentiate between propaganda and reality, but this type of thinking only weakens our defences against propaganda.

It’s not the victim’s responsibility to reform the oppressor.

When we shift the focus back onto ourselves, we make it our personal responsibility to change and by doing so, we can proudly declare; I am racist but… I’m working on it.

 

Work Cited

 

Young, M., I., (1990) Justice and the Politics of Difference, Princeton: Princeton University Press

The Tribe

posted by Kiriaki Koubaroulis

 

Last Sunday I went to the theatre. It was a show that had caught my attention earlier in the week in my Facebook feed. Urban Theatre Projects was posting about it. The Belvoir was posting about it. It had popped up in several status updates of friends, too.

 

The name didn’t give much away. But the promo shots spoke volumes. At least they did to me. Now, I’m a keen consumer of the arts and culture, from screens to stages and concert halls to the streets; and I’m a self-defined ‘cultural omnivore’, so my palette thrives on the alternative and diverse, but when a man clearly of ‘Middle-Eastern appearance’ (actor Hazem Shammas) hits my feed accompanied by words like theatreBelvoirSurry Hills and Muslim-Australian, it tweaks my interest in a special kind of way. Read on and you’ll understand why.

 

The Tribe, is a series of vignettes – snap shots in time told through the eyes of the main character, Bani, a young boy growing up in Lakemba,  and second generation Australian. The stories are centred around his experience of family and major life events, and sit at that beautiful confluence – that point where the culture of his ancestors and his experience of growing up in Australia merge.

 

The Tribe tells Bani’s stories – stories that are familiar to many, me included. I know the streets and places described because I’ve been there. Arabic music and language lace the edges of the script, punctuating the stories. This is music and language familiar to me. I know the quirks of family and culture that Bani tells of, intimately. They’re all part of my lived experience growing up Greek-Australian in places like Lakemba, Wiley Park, Carlton and Canley Heights. So to see them all in this context – that is, placed on a stage in a suburb far from their origin for an audience perhaps not so acquainted with them — was a powerful thing.

 

Placing honest, personal stories not often heard on a new and bigger stage like this, adds a legitimacy and confers a new value both to the stories themselves, and to the writers, actors and producers behind them. It offers a doorway into a deeper sense of belonging and acceptance for the people represented by these stories – an embrace into this country’s bigger story.

 

In the words of the writer, Michael Mohammed Ahmad: ‘The Tribe is my attempt to counteract the limited and simplistic representation that the Arab-Australian Muslim community of Western Sydney has received to date, and to offer a broader, more intimate understanding. It is also an act of self-determination – a declaration of the right to reclaim and tell our own stories in our own way.’

 

So in this light, The Tribe, and other works like it, are also powerful anti-racism vehicles. Yes, they are theatre, pure and simple. Yes, they are art and culture.I’m not advocating for an instrumental approach to the arts – to theatre-making in this case. But works like The Tribe are instruments of social cohesion by their very nature. They are stories, faces, music and languages not seen often enough on our screens and stages, where what dominates does not reflect the whole lived reality of the diversity, plurality and inter-sectionality around us.

 

We need more theatre like this! The Tribe runs through til Feb 7thGo see it – no matter where you grew up or if you identify with Bani or not. You’ll be entertained and moved, and you might even come out with a new understanding.

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Australia, still in denial?

Australia’s acknowledgement of racism has grown considerably, since Adam Goodes was Australian of the Year (2014). This could be largely due to the fact that his cause was anti-racism. The Racism. It Stops With Me. campaign was launched soon after. Over 250 organisations joined the anti-racism campaign, which promoted racial equality (including All Together Now). It seemed that Australia was finally ready to kick racism out of the country once and for all.  However, it seemed in 2015, Australia once again took a step back as it questioned incidents of racism as actually being racist or not. The questioning of an incident being racist or not was seen most prominently during the booing bullying of AFL player Adam Goodes. People in the media questioned the validity of the incessant and constant targeted bullying, of this particular player, as being racist or not. It was undoubtedly fueled by racism, as the ‘issue’ that had people begin the booing of Goodes occurred after he displayed (during the Indigenous Round of AFL) an Indigenous symbol to the crowd as a victory showcase after scoring a goal. Idiotic though it may seem, racism is often just so.

We’d like to take the time to add to the discussion on Goodes, that being ‘politically correct’ is giving respect. It is the correct way to act. Denying respect includes denying racism. Or, as Marlon James put it, “most of us are non-racists” and are content to be so: “I won’t, I don’t, I’ve never” are not statements that change those individuals, groups or institutions that are prejudice, bigoted and racist. This ‘non-racism’ occurs when you know something is racist but by doing nothing it does not stop it from occurring. The question the comes to: How do we make active people trying to end racism?

We make active people trying to end racism by giving them knowledge of how it acts, interacts and attacks society and individuals ability to succeed, be unified and progress.

Non-racism along with racism denial are two important factors in the continuing of racism in Australia and internationally. So, here is a reminder of what racism denial looks like:

 

Racism Denial 2016 (Conflict Copy) (1)

We can learn from Desabafo Social Brazil

I am 21, and what have I achieved?

That was the burning question I found myself asking when I met Monique Evelle, founder and leader of Desabafo Social. The headquarters reflects the organisation’s commitment to youth, from the quasi-graffiti on the walls, to the group of young Afro-Brazilian women and girls that give us our briefing. The organisation, founded in 2011 when Monique was in high school, works across thirteen states to socially empower young Brazilians, particularly those of African descent, through creating safe spaces to gather, collaborate on and develop projects in their own communities to counter racism and inequality. Even in Australia, fighting both the overt and the subtle influence of race seems a mammoth task, one that many in the community are not ready or willing to confront. Nonetheless, open and shameless racism regularly stimulates public discourse against the perpetrators, as with Adam Goodes and more insidiously, with racial abuse on public transport. There is a sense of shame attached, in the mind of the majority, to blatant racism.


In Brazil, the social divides are infinite, complex, dynamic and extreme: the slightest changes in skin tone dictate which workplaces will hire you or not hire you for the position you are qualified for. If you happen to be ‘black’ or ‘coloured’ and highly qualified, while a less qualified applicant is ‘white’ then guess who will get the call back? LGBTIQ Brazilians, the poor, those who live in favelas (unplanned communities), women and people of colour will invariably face significant social challenges that simply don’t exist for others. In police organisations, there exist significant prejudices even between those of different shades of colour. We see this as racial profiling, but to authorities, it is simply preventative. In August, a bus ferrying fifteen teenagers from the city’s outer communities (read: of low socio-economic status) was stopped in the streets of Rio by the notorious military police, with those on board summarily detained and searched. None were carrying weapons or drugs. Fourteen of the fifteen were black.

Now imagine you ran an anti-racism organisation, like All Together Now. Imagine each day, you ran the risk of being detained arbitrarily outside your office, and routinely passed by young, black men being searched in the street solely for the colour of their skin. Imagine that you yourself are regularly stopped on your doorstep, or violently assailed in the street with little reason, outside your workplace that exists solely to counter this behaviour. The need for such an organisation is self-evident in Salvador, within metres of its headquarters: en route, two young men with backpacks, dressed much like myself and seemingly hanging out together in the city centre of the old city, are stopped in the street. Their hands behind their heads, legs spread, three heavily armed policemen that are at pains to emphasize their weapons assail them. Nothing is found on their person. Guess their skin colour.

That is Desabafo Social’s reality. For a society so entrenched in its own problems – economic, political and social – it appears to be a demoralising battle for survival in Brazil, but unless people who want to change this system can band together, it is bound by the lessons of history to repeat. Ignorance will breed ignorance, poverty breeds poverty. Human rights form the overarching narrative of what Desabafo aims to do: to promote an alternative vision of human rights to young people, and enshrine equality and fairness in a society so long bereft of them. Monique wants to interrupt this cycle, and in small ways, Desabafo Social is winning, and collecting accolades along the way.

Much of this success is owed to the organisation’s use of technology. Monique has been recognised in Brazil as one of 25 most influential Afro-Brazilians on the internet. The internet empowers all users to collaborate, communicate and develop new ideas in a relatively safe space. Aprendizagem colaborativa, in English “collaborative knowledge,” is built collectively between peers and teachers and facilitated by the internet. Via this platform, the organisation frequently organises workshops, seminars and lectures on social entrepreneurship, effecting change, self-development and community organisation. Youth participation is paramount, and it is through investing time and energy into education that Desabafo aims to change endemic disadvantage.

Everything is about developing change in the long term, and investing in what we have now to reap change later. Social changes require patience; take Indigenous rights or same-sex marriage in this country. Children teach their children their values, after all. It’s a lesson many in Australia could learn.

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Why I didn’t attend the Reclaim Australia counter-rally

Reclaim Australia has been around for less than a year, and already they have generated a reputation that many Australians don’t want to be associated with. Their Islamaphobic slogans and swastika-tattooed supporters clearly demonstrate what they really stand for.

Earlier in the year, Jimmy Barnes, John Farnham and John Schumann asked that their music not be played as anthems at Reclaim Australia rallies. This past weekend, Mark Seymour from Hunters & Collectors joined them. Mainstream Australia is turning its back on Reclaim Australia and its divisive slogans.

As the Managing Director of an anti-racism organisation, one might assume that I would want to be on the front lines of the counter rallies to oppose Reclaim Australia, dishing out abuse to racists who would like to see an end to Islamic faith in Australia.

However that’s not how most anti-racists behave. Most of us believe in peaceful protest and nonviolent action. We are compassionate towards the targets and the perpetrators of racism. Yes that’s right – we are compassionate towards the perpetrators!

I have met former far-right nationalists and have seen first hand that it is possible for them to turn their lives around. Having witnessed this, I know that a compassionate approach can enable a violent extremist to transform his or her life and become an integrated member of society.

Conversely, when anti-racism protestors hurl abuse at perpetrators, they ensure people with racist views continue to hold their problematic beliefs. Far-right extremist groups like Reclaim Australia exist because members are looking for something to belong to – and for most of them this means a group where fear-fuelled beliefs about Islamic practices are shared and perpetuated. Abusing members of Reclaim Australia makes them feel more connected and legitimate.

Some anti-racists might attend Reclaim Australia rallies because they do not want people with strong racist views to present their oppressive ideas in a public space. I completely agree with this sentiment; however I disagree with their method of trying to prevent it. I believe that abuse simply breeds more abuse. Given the history and effects of racism in Australia we need more effective methods of preventing racism.

So, you may ask, if I’m not protesting then what am I doing to prevent racism? Instead of attending the protest in Sydney last weekend, I spent my weekend studying. I’ve been awarded a full scholarship to study an MBA. Studying business is giving me the privilege and opportunity to address interpersonal and systemic racism from another perspective. That is, I believe that social change comes through strategic thinking, effective leadership, and academic evidence, not through violent protest. My MBA studies are enabling me to work in this way.

If, like me, you believe that there is power and dignity in non-violent action and that it can effectively advance racial equality I urge to you seek creative ways of doing this. There are plenty of options.

Priscilla Brice is the Managing Director of All Together Now, the national anti-racism organisation. All Together Now’s project Community Action for Preventing Extremism (CAPE) works to undermine recruitment by white supremacists.