WHAT I TALK ABOUT WHEN I TALK ABOUT RACISM: CAMERON SMITH—HARDCORE MUSICIAN & ACADEMIC IN POLITICAL ECONOMY
Cam sings and plays guitar for the Sydney/Wollongong-based hardcore band Mowgli, and strums folky guitars in his brother’s band Stockley. When he’s not doing the music thing, he’s a burgeoning academic, studying social theory and political economy from the perspective of progressive politics and anti-capitalism.
I first met Cam after Mowgli and Sleepmakeswaves played a show together at Yours & Owls in the ‘Gong. I remember he introduced a particularly angry track of theirs: “…this song is called White People”. Seems a fitting way to introduce his thoughts on race, Waleed Aly, labouring and punk rock.
Growing up, my mother was a nurse in a small town. She wasn’t involved in city left-wing politics. But despite being a suburban mum, she was a strong political woman. She always engaged people on the topics of race and gender, without fear. I remember the moments when her tunnel would narrow and the red mist would descend when she was set off by some redneck from Nowra.
My dad was a Kiwi, and I remember the ceremony for when he got his citizenship. I was about 13 or 14, and it was the height of the Tampa crisis and declarations of "We will decide who comes into this country and the circumstances in which they come!" Our local MP was there, making some pretty pointed comments about jumping the queue, migrants and all that. I remember mum walking up to this MP and absolutely lambasting her after she finished speaking. I was so embarrassed, but ultimately I was inspired by my mum’s determination in the face of that prejudice. Mum grew up poor in Dubbo and her skin colour was black, and was profiled as indigenous. She was kicked out of her local swimming pool.
I didn’t do well at school, so afterwards I went into labouring and shit. I was terrible at labouring. I made so many mistakes, and I probably cost them more money in the end than I made for them (laughs). I ran the boss’ car into a massive PVC pipe, tore the mudguard off, wasted the tyre. It was a realisation that I wasn’t cut out for that kind of work, and I ended up at uni because I decided that I needed to do something with my brain.
HOW TO ARGUE WITH RACISTS
People are oddly confident when they talk about race and gender, particularly if they’re white men. For example, about a month ago I presented a paper at a conference. The paper was on Islamophobia—the policing, surveillance and profiling of Muslim and Arab people, extrajudicial detention of terrorism suspects—things like that. A very seasoned academic was there, who I admire a lot. His first question—well, it wasn’t really a question—it was more an accusation that I lacked clarity. He was saying that we can’t talk about Islamophobia like we talk about racism generally, because Islam is a religion. This is an academic who hasn’t written about Islam or Islamophobia specifically, but has written about indigenous communities. I found it jarring that he was so wrong about race.
My argument, and this is not a new argument, is that race is more than biology and genetics. It references those things, but also inevitably plays out in the realm of culture. What I talk about when I talk about racism is something different to the idea of individual pathology or aberrant bigotry. When I talk about racism, I’m not saying that this person spouting prejudiced thoughts is a dick. I’m saying that they embody a broader pattern that needs to be unlearned. It’s more than just ‘oh, they’re a shithead’. A relative recently said to me that Muslim men are just prone to violence, sexual unfaithfulness and, therefore, pose a threat to our society. My response to that was to point out that saying things like that creates the material conditions of racism that a Muslim might experience through the suspicious eyes—or gun—of a cop. So I try not to leave things simply in the realm of personal responsibility, or rudeness.
I think this is a bigger problem for the left generally when it comes to issues of identity, and not just race. The politics of ‘calling out’ is, of course, important. But when we stay in that realm and don’t translate this personal speech into a broader social context, people don’t make that connection as often as they should.
WHERE CLASS AND RACE MEET
You have to be sophisticated in analysing relations of power and inequality. Take the dynamics of identity politics in the white left: with someone like Waleed Aly, the subtext of "this brown dude said something about racism so it must be right" was palpable in a lot of posts my white friends made about the video. Same with Hillary Clinton: despite her political platform being terrible for women in a lot of ways, many progressives simply laud the fact that she is a woman.
There’s also this idea going around that we should give racists like Pauline Hanson and her supporters a fair hearing and try to understand where they’re coming from. That’s idiotic, because racism is not about who is nice and who is not nice. Racism is about the material, institutional and discursive structures that make it possible for some to live in privilege and some to not.
A similar, more intellectual version of the argument has been rehearsed by Glenn Greenwald, Tariq Ali, and Jeff Sparrow in an Australian context. It that tells an incomplete story in that it valorises the working class at the expense of the racial aspects.
The way I look at it is this, the centre-left have a semblance of social democracy but don’t really challenge the existing structures of capitalism. And the centre-right offer a more technocratic “safe pair of hands”—in scare quotes—and a friendly face for global capital. Both these approaches don’t really challenge the existing order. This order will present certain things as simple common sense. Take austerity and the notion that we need to slash services and balance the Australian budget in much the same way that a household does. Yet we have ageing infrastructure, an ageing population and the ability to borrow money at record-low rates. There’s a strong argument to be made that we need to spur a transition away from a resources-based economy to one that is more in line with modern services.
But instead of doing the hard work of re-skilling the working class population, governments have instead found it more expedient to create a kind of racial fortress mentality. This class issue has also been put to work along racial lines. It’s not like elites are suddenly going “Oh, there’s this new thing called racism and we’re gonna mobilise it in order to make the working class feel better about how shit they’re having it!”. It’s the fact that race, since the very foundation of this country, has played a pivotal role in making the conditions for a collective identity and a collective state possible.
So when we look at what people call xenophobia and anti-migrant sentiment, and we say that it’s a product of class relations interacting with austerity, we miss a key part of this story. We’re glossing over the history. It’s not enough to just address the fact that the working class is down and out. It’s crucial to remember that those who are not white have been losing out for a really, really long time. In this narrative, for them to be no more than convenient scapegoats enacts the violence of forgetting.
ON PUNK ROCK
There’s something primal about the human scream. Being a burgeoning academic, I need to talk a lot. Every time my voice cracks, my authority is punctured a bit (laughs). So I got into singing, as well as screaming, at least partly to give myself a bit of a rest. Maybe I just need to learn to deliver lectures screaming.
There’s a much greater tolerance for radical ideas and critical thinking in hardcore than I’ve found in other genres. It’s a home for genuine trailblazers. People that contend with a lot of shit and keep fighting. I can’t separate punk rock from what I do. It’s just another medium. The first CDs I bought were the Pauline Pantsdown single—apparently Pauline Pantsdown is making a comeback—Family by Lighthouse, and something by 5ive. When I got to Year 9, my friend Joel introduced me to a band called Thrice. I remember listening to them in the record store on those headphones built into the wall that spun CDs. The first track I heard was called Cold Cash And Colder Hearts and that was the moment for me. As soon as it came on, I was hooked. That was a turning point. Soon after that I discovered Thursday’s Full Collapse and everything like that. Since then I’ve never looked back.
Unlearning racism and continuing the process of ‘unlearning’ involves listening to the people who have experienced it. Not only in the cases when they are victimised, like in the Cronulla riots, but also from history. There’s a lot to learn from the Black Panther Movement, from Frantz Fanon, from Stuart Hall and from bell hooks. Don’t hold on to what you already know. Be humble in identifying your position.
I’m a political economist, and what I carry with me from my work to my personal life is a conviction that the present conditions are always a product of historical struggle. There is no inevitable outcome, or inexorable tendency towards a certain society. I guess I have to believe that. To not believe it would eviscerate the purpose of what I do. Any system is not all-encompassing. It can always be resisted somehow.
A couple of years ago, I put on a CD on in the car and my dad got a bit sad, saying “I thought you’d eventually get over all your hardcore music". Sorry Dad. Almost 27 and still going.