My parents grew into adults during World War II and lived under brutal Japanese military occupation in South-East Asia, where I was born and lived until my family migrated to Australia. As a child, I was told of unspeakable war-time atrocities witnessed by my father, but I was also told of moments of kindness, sometimes even from some of the occupying soldiers.
But war also reveals the ruthless interests of the powerful that can systematically bring out the worst in people, which makes some into perpetrators of massacres, jailers and torturers.
Many of my Kurdish, Palestinian and First Nations friends have noticed as soon as the latest war in Ukraine exploded how selectively the mass media, the politicians and other opinion-shapers respond to war and suffering of people. Why is there so much less outrage and international action about the many years of oppression and occupation suffered by First Nations peoples and people from the global South?
Clearly, racism is in play. The mass media and the leaders of the most powerful countries in the world demonstrate time and time again that they consider the lives of some people to be vastly more valuable than the lives of others, and the lives of white people are generally priced highest.
But are we really shocked at this? We should be angry and outraged but not shocked because, after all, this is what we have experienced so many times.
The racism, hypocrisy and selective human solidarity can even start to twist the views and actions of many people who are outraged at all war and oppression simply as a result of the mass media de-sensitizing us to the pain and suffering of “other” peoples.
It is outrageous, but we need to do more than express our outrage. We need to explain the history and the contours of wealth, power and privilege than underpin and systematically reinforce this racist hypocrisy.
Some five decades ago, when I was a 17-year-old in my first months living in a wealthy and privileged country, I was given a demonstration of the historical roots of racism.
I was on a bus on the way to a college where I was trying to get qualifications to enter an Australian university when a tall and older European man with an English accent sat down next to me.
He said he was also a student at the same college and then bluntly explained why he believed it was “obvious” that white people were superior to all other peoples.
“No personal offence,” he said, “but if you look at history it shows that Europeans are superior because that is why we have won all the wars and colonized the world.”
No offence indeed! This man had been subsidized by the Australian government to migrate to this country. In contrast, my family and countless other non-white immigrants and refugees had paid their own way, making huge sacrifices to escape conflict, discrimination or poverty.
I was angered and outraged, which made me choose a life as an activist against all oppression. The more I got involved in the movements for justice and liberation, the more examples I came across of the links between power and privilege and racism. And the most effective education on this question came from participating in the struggle for justice of the First Nations peoples of Australia.
The Indigenous peoples of this continent were brutally dispossessed by European colonizers who carried out massacres and other systematically genocidal policies in a dragged out frontier war that began in the late 18th century but, we could say, extend even until today because the prisons in this rich country are disproportionately filled with First Nations people.
First Nations people now comprise just over 3% of the population of Australia but 29.5% of the prison population. And this disproportion is getting worse.
In 2000 First Nations people were 13.5 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Indigenous Australians; by 2020, this ratio had increased 15.6 times.
First Nations children make up a shocking 48% of the youth detention population and are 17 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-First Nations children. This is a warning of an even greater over-incarceration in the future.
There have been more than 500 deaths in custody of First Nations people since a long-campaigned-for national inquiry brought this problem into public attention in 1991.
This is nothing less than the criminalization of the poorest and most oppressed section of the population of this wealthy country. The rate of deaths of First Nations children aged 0-4 is twice that of other Australians; First Nations life expectancy is 7-9 years lower than others, and 19.3% of First Nations people live in poverty compared to 12.4% of the rest of the population.
The persistence of this inequality – perversely – feeds the racist idea of the “inferiority” of First Nations people. It was not many years ago when a major daily newspaper in this country ran screaming headlines that declared that First Nations people were a “more criminal race”!
So when we see the gross racist hypocrisy on the world stage today and the selective calling out of warmongers (Putin gets called but not Turkish dictator Erdogan), it is not because the Kurds, the Palestinians, the Yemenis, the Somalis and all the other non-European oppressed and war-blighted people have not suffered as much as the Ukrainian people but perversely because they have suffered more and for longer that has been used by the institutions of the rich and powerful to systematically de-value their suffering.
And why? Because it suits their interests, which is fundamentally to preserve their economic and political domination of the world, which in turn allows them to accumulate more wealth and power. War may, as they say, bring out the best and worst in people but let’s be clear about the systems of oppression that shape that process.