In my previous article, I discussed the insidious and constraining existence of white privilege. White privilege is where we are granted societal advantages due solely to our skin colour. I discussed the expressions of privilege (dominating and reframing conversations) and the darkness that ensues when it goes unseen. On Thursday, we witnessed a perfect example of the dark side of white privilege. In my view, Pauline Hanson’s rant about Lidia Thorpe and the flag-razing protests[i] speaks volumes and highlights the unseen privilege and fear that still exists amongst white Australians.
White privilege has been present in Australia from the first day the ships arrived. It began as an attitude and marched into action. The belief that white people are more worthy has been used as the rationale to claim lands, separate families, and kill and maim an incredible culture. These days there is less overt brutality. Instead, it is used to prop up institutional disadvantages. We use the privilege of our education and wealth to believe that we know better than our First Nations peoples, imposing all manner of policies, programs and discriminations upon them.
In my view, the cutting, burning and blooding of the Australian flag is an extreme act of a people who are angry at centuries of dehumanisation. Our First Nations peoples are carrying centuries of oppression on their shoulders, of their ancestors, their grandmothers, fathers, brothers and sisters. They hold the pain of centuries of violence against them in their hearts, and each new story about another loss of a precious soul creates more hurt. The pressure has been building for generations, and with each generation that passes without understanding, without action, more anger is created, so we should not be surprised when the volcano erupts.
What does surprise me, though, is the reaction that Lidia Thorpe and her troop received from Pauline Hanson. Just when I thought she could not embarrass herself anymore, she put her privilege and fear on display for all to see. She would, of course, protest that she is not afraid, but her words and the emotions they convey tell a very different story.
Firstly, Pauline Hanson stated that she was “ absolutely disgusted with that woman”.
This choice of words is telling, as disgust is the emotion that arises when we feel an aversion to something and when we are seeking to protect ourselves from something poisonous. Physically, disgust is a reaction that can save us from toxic food or drink. Interpersonally, disgust is the emotion that keeps us distant from a challenge to our own beliefs and sense of self. In this case, Lidia Thorpe represents a story that Pauline Hanson does not want to hear because it offends her righteousness and her innate privilege. She will not let the alternative narrative be near because it may corrupt her solid identity. She would rather ignore the other side of the social justice line than consider the possibility that her politics contribute to continued suffering.
What is even more interesting is the link between disgust and dehumanisation. Disgust and dehumanisation, it appears, are bedfellows.
“The disrespect involved in disgust implies that human dignity is perceived as alienable. The person is responsible for the bad action [they have] done, but the very effect of the action is dehumanising: by performing it one has responsibly degraded oneself to sub-human.”[ii]
If Pauline Hanson finds someone who challenges her privileged status and narrow-minded narrative disgusting, it is not a long bow to draw to think that she considers them less than human. And isn’t this the problem of white privilege at its very worst? How can we make a meaningful change when we have politicians who still inherently feel that our First Nations peoples and their protests make them less human?
“once we dehumanise people, violence and cruelty toward them become easier to perpetrate, because the parts of us that are hardwired to not hurt other people turn off — on our minds, we’ve stripped them of their humanity.”[iii]
“I don’t believe she’s loyal to the Parliament.”
For Pauline Hanson, the Parliament is a refuge. It is a world she understands and has found a place in. For her, the Parliament is a place of relative safety. What she cannot see or is unwilling to admit is that for our First Nations peoples, the Parliament is another representation of privilege and power that has been used to create suffering.
The call for loyalty, then, is a cry of fear. It is rallying troops behind an institution that upholds her privilege. Loyalty is the shield by which she attempts to maintain her power and supremacy. Loyalty is the positive spin made by someone who is actually petrified of losing their power and who have entered a world they no longer understand. Clinging to the past creates a sense of safety. She finds refuge in romanticising the past when the privilege was allowed to hide and proliferate unseen. However, as Stephanie Coontz says:
“Memories, like witnesses, do not always tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”
The past to which Pauline Hanson calls for loyalty is one baked in half-truths, and her insecurity ensures that any different versions will be treated as heresy.
Pauline Hanson said of the protestors: “I think they’re ignorant, misled”.
The definition of ignorant is:
lacking knowledge or awareness in general; uneducated or unsophisticated.[iv]
Voila — here you have the Ivory Tower Effect[v] in action. With these words, she claims that she knows more than others because of her relatively privileged education. This claim of others being ignorant is another way she attempts to assert her superiority over the “disgusting” (and less than human) protestors. One might even suggest that the use of this word is an intentional insult, suggesting that they are less educated, sophisticated or ‘civilised’ than she is. Again, claiming someone else is ignorant is another sure sign of insecurity. It shuts down any chance of curiosity, empathy, or exploring other people’s views and experiences. Using the term ignorant is a process of belittling any beliefs but her own. If that is not an act of fear, what is?
Pauline also fails to present that many of our First Nations peoples also fought under the flag, but unlike their white counterparts, they were not granted soldier settlements when they returned and were still barred from hotels to drink with their comrades. Our First Nations soldiers then were not only harmed on the battlefield in the name of Queen and Country but harmed further by continued discrimination and dehumanisation on their return.
There is ignorance here, but pouring out of the mouth of Pauline, not the protestors. The protestors are absolutely aware of the pain and suffering that have occurred under the auspices of the Australian flag. They truly feel the burden of generations of harmful policies. And they are completely conscious of the trauma that they experience each day. White Australians can never understand this anguish, but in our desire to protect our identities, we uphold our ignorance and cannot even allow ourselves to empathise. And it is empathy we need if we wish to take a positive step forwards, make ethical decisions, strengthen relationships and undertake the compassionate behaviour required to allow all Australians to thrive.
“We need to dispel the myth that empathy is ‘walking in someone else’s shoes.’. Rather than walking in your shoes I need to learn how to listen to the story you tell about what it’s like in your shoes and believe you even when it doesn’t match my experiences.”[vi]
Pauline is right in one thing, though. The monarchy does not control us. Australians are controlled by something much more pervasive and sinister than that — we are controlled by unseen white privilege. And for all of us who are unwilling to wrestle with this thought, we are also controlled by fear.
In my previous article, I covered one of the key expressions of privilege, reframing. Pauline seems to be the poster girl for reframing, especially when she says:
“they need to go back to studying this in school.”
With these words, the trauma of our First Nations peoples is no longer our problem. It is there’s because of their lack of attention at school. We are kind enough to provide them with an education, yet they have not repaid this kindness by taking on board the lies and half-truths portrayed in Australian history. Reframing is arrogant and nasty because it seeks to uphold the institutions that are causing suffering in the first place. It paints a picture of the perpetrator as a “good guy” and then ceases the conversation about what more could be done or what might need to be done differently. Pauline’s direct reference to the education system and previously to the Parliament shows desperation to reinforce their importance rather than to acknowledge that they, too, could be tools for the ingraining privilege that prevents change.
Fuelled by Fear
The rant of Pauline Hanson against Lidia Thorpe is a flare of fear. Within white privilege is woven an intimate identity. It tells us who we are, what we are capable of, and what we can expect from life. The thought of this being removed can then spark an incredible amount of uncertainty and anxiety.
“while it is really hard to see privilege, it is even harder to ponder giving it up.”[vii]
Fear, though, only leads to negative actions and shuts us down from finding solutions to social problems. Care, creativity and contribution are stifled. It is the antithesis of the love we need to bring to reduce suffering and help all reach their full potential. Gandhi recognised this when he said:
“Fear kills the soul.”
But why do we allow fear to reign? Why do protests receive responses of vehemence and verbal violence instead of curiosity and empathy? Yes, there is a fear of loss, of giving up the privilege we have held for so long. However, Marianne Williamson would suggest that there is another fear holding us back, and this is the fear of what we could be. I believe that inherently each one of us knows what we are capable of. It is grand, beautiful and brave. And yet, it is risky to shine. What would happen if I release what is within and live a life that is big and bold? What would happen if I loved myself enough to let myself live freely and fully in this world? What if I was confident enough to embrace the truth and use my privilege to dismantle the institutions and systems holding other people back? What if we created a society where we all could live up to our unique potential? This deep fear of succeeding, of our power, is captured succinctly by Marianne Williamson:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us”.
So how do we dispel the dark side of privilege and embrace the light of what we could be? That is a very good question. Stay tuned for more thoughts on this.
[ii] Miceli and Castelfranchi, as quoted in: Brown, B. (2021, November 30). Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience (First Edition). Random House.
[iii] Brown, B. (2021, November 30). Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience (First Edition). Random House.
[v] Shabsin, Why It Is Important to Teach About Privilege. Vol 1 No 1 (2010): Understanding & Dismantling Privilege | (wpcjournal.com)
[vi] Brown, B. (2021, November 30). Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience (First Edition). Random House.
[vii] Shabsin, Why It Is Important to Teach About Privilege. Vol 1 No 1 (2010): Understanding & Dismantling Privilege | (wpcjournal.com)