The controversial University of Melbourne dance performance, Where We Stand, is an insight into kind of divided society we will become if identity politics is allowed to split the nation up into competing racial tribes.
The performance, created by a third-year Victorian College of the Arts student, segregates white audience members from ‘people of colour’ who enter the theatre first. White patrons — who miss out on an entire dance routine while they are lectured about white privilege by four dancers outside — are only allowed to enter if they sign a declaration on the foyer wall that states: “I acknowledge where I stand.”
For good measure, once the white audience members outnumber those ‘of colour’ the performance pauses to allow for some quiet thinking time about race, privilege, and identity.
By seeking to remind us that non-whites have been excluded from society and history, the political message being sent is that Australia remains a racist country in which racial privilege and prejudice determine outcomes in life.
What this really shows is how the kind of identity politics our politically-correct schools and universities incessantly preach to young Australians, creates fabrications that belie the diverse and tolerant society Australia is today.
There has never been less racism, despite the grievance-mongering claims made by Where We Stand — which epitomises the way identity politics misrepresents our history of successfully eradicating the racism that once blighted Australian society.
How nonsensical the claims about white privilege are is demonstrated by contrasting the role that race used to play in dictating the social norms and character of Australian society compared to the present situation.
A century ago, Australia was certainly a country in which race determined destiny. Racial prejudices were so ingrained that the makers of the White Australia Policy felt that excluding non-whites was the only way to create an egalitarian nation.
Because whites would refuse to live, work, be schooled and inter-marry, alongside non-whites, the fear was that ‘coloured’ immigration would create a divided and unequal society in which racial minorities would become a discriminated and downtrodden underclass.
But we have come a long way from the days of White Australia and, thankfully, race has lost its taint.
This is most clearly demonstrated by changed attitudes to marriage and family. Back in the early 20th century, marrying a member of another race wasn’t just a matter of marrying beneath one’s station. This was an outrage to social decency, since the stigma was that no respectable person would contemplate such a union.
Today, mixed marriages attract no social opprobrium and are normalised — to the point that most indigenous people having a non-indigenous partner is both the most remarkable and the most uncommented-upon measure of the new tolerance that prevails in modern Australia.
Treating people as individuals — not as members of racial groups — is one of the key factors that has allowed us to transcend the racist legacies of the past.
The success of our non-discriminatory immigration program, and the transformation of Australia into one of the most harmonious multi-racial nations in the world, has also been possible because the old prejudices have been overcome and replaced by the willingness of the vast majority of Australians to extend the ‘fair go’ to all comers; regardless of racial background.
Due to our egalitarian values and modern tolerant attitudes towards race, we do not have anything that resembles a racial underclass denied equality of opportunity in this country — with one glaring exception that actually proves the rule.
The most disadvantaged Indigenous Australians live in rural and remote homeland communities and suffer appalling social ‘gaps’. This is due to the separatist policies that have excluded them from accessing the full opportunities and benefits of the ‘Australian dream.’ Contrast their situation with the majority of indigenous Australians who do not live separately in the homelands, and have been able to succeed in all walks of life in a similar fashion to the waves of migrant groups that have settled here since the end of World War II.
The problem with identity politics therefore isn’t so much that it distorts our past. The problem is that it distorts our present by telling only one side of the story in relation to race.
Focusing only on the racist aspects of history allows self-identified victims to appropriate the history of past prejudices, while ignoring the reality of how far we have come — by any objective measure — in creating a nation that offers equality of equality irrespective of race.
Absurd as it is, we should not downplay the threat identity politics poses to social harmony. The claim that the persistence of white privilege justifies special rights and status for certain racial groups, is a recipe for generating a backlash from those accused of holding privileges and prejudices they do not.
The best way to ensure that new age racism does not divide us is to simply tell the truth about our history and about the great changes that have occurred in Australian attitudes to race.
This is the kind of nation-building history that our schools and universities should teach to promote the practical, fair go values of tolerance and acceptance. Values that will continue to allow Australians from many backgrounds to live together freely, fairly, and harmoniously.
Dr Jeremy Sammut is Director of the Culture, Prosperity and Civil Society Program at The Centre for Independent Studies and author of The History Wars Matter.