Casual Racism, it’s back!
The following article is by Alex McKinnon and first appeared at SBS…
If you have trouble understanding why British Colonial Co is offensive, remember the response when a tragic moment of white history was commodified.
Much like a cold sore, Australia’s long-running tendency to treat other people’s cultures like bin liners is acting up again.
Yesterday the internet cottoned on to the existence of British Colonial Co., a Brisbane bar and restaurant taking the heyday of the British Empire as its thematic cue. Inspired by “the stylish days of the empirical (sic) push into the developing cultures of the world”, on its website British Colonial Co. promises “a refined and modern dining experience with the adventure of east meets west in a plantation style, club setting”.
For those not up on the finer points of Britain’s imperial history, looking back with fondness at the ‘glory’ days of Empire is about on par with having nostalgic pangs for the pre-Civil War South, or sighing wistfully for the bygone times when you could chase Aboriginal people over cliffs or give them food laced with strychnine for fun and get away with it.
Exactly what’s meant by a “plantation style setting” is unclear, but presumably getting a coffee at the bar doesn’t involve press-ganging countless thousands of Sri Lankan, Indian and Burmese people into slavery to grow the beans.
Eating establishments and parties with racially questionable themes have become a domestic genre lately. In February, Melbourne eatery FAT Fried and Tasty came under fire from comedian Aamer Rahman for its murals incorporating racist iconography of black people, including one depicting rap icon Biggie Smalls holding a drumstick of fried chicken.
In 2012, the University of Sydney’s St Paul’s College threw a shindig themed around the British Raj (the Empire’s regime in India that subjugated the local population for almost 100 years), complete with “largely sub-continental wait staff” serving the mostly white, overwhelmingly wealthy crowd of revellers.
Every time one of these controversies raises its head, a counter-argument immediately springs up that goes something like this: no one meant anything malicious or mean-spirited by it, people are too sensitive about what’s clearly just meant to be a bit of harmless fun, and it’s yet another sign that political correctness is devouring our rights to free speech and expression.
People take sides, furiously agree with each other, belittle anyone who says anything different, and quietly seethe until something similar inevitably happens again.
But instead of going round in circles like these debates usually do, it’s worth using this latest debate to try and see things from a different perspective.
Happily, we can do that pretty easily: by looking at times where a tragic piece of white Australian history was commodified, seeing how society at large reacted, and asking ourselves why.
Last year, Woolworths tried to piggyback off the 100th anniversary of the ANZAC landings at Gallipoli with the toweringly misguided ‘Fresh in our Memories’ campaign.
Understandably, people were rather upset at seeing the Woolies logo slapped over photos of dead soldiers, but the usual claims of hyper-sensitivity and political correctness gone mad were nowhere to be heard.
The same thing happened back in 2002, when a proposal to christen the Australian national athletics squad the ‘Diggers’ prompted a public outcry and the idea’s swift booting.
A governmental report released shortly after noted that “the use of the word Diggers in relation to a sports team was not accepted by the Australian community because the use of the word, in association with sport, served to dilute or trivialise the horrendous sacrifice and loss suffered by Australian and New Zealand Defence Force personnel in the first and second world wars”.
That consideration is largely why terms like ‘ANZAC’ are prohibited by law for commercial use — and yet that ban attracts no criticism as an example of political correctness run amok.
The reasons Australians get so het up about the ANZAC legacy being misused are largely the same reasons people are angry at British Colonial Co., and why things like wearing blackface to a party or climbing Uluru evoke extremely passionate responses — because trivialising suffering for frivolous reasons like making money or having a laugh is a fairly awful thing to do.
The only difference between the former example and the latter ones is that most white Australians don’t have to think about the horrific legacy of racism very much, because we are overwhelmingly beneficiaries of it.
That’s why a bar evoking British colonialism means very different things to different people. For white Australians, it means fancy clothes, funny accents and elegant cocktails.
It’s fairly unlikely that the millions of African, Asian, native American and Middle Eastern people that suffered under British occupation would have such rosy memories of the Empire’s “push into developing cultures” — or that the tens of thousands of Aboriginal and Pacific Islander people who were coerced into unpaid labour in Queensland’s immense sugar cane plantations throughout the 1800s would be overjoyed that a place making light of their enslavement is doing trade in downtown Brisbane.
For their part, British Colonial Co. have released a statement saying they are “upset and saddened by today’s media reports that our brand is causing offence and distress to some members of the community. This certainly was not our intention.”
Good to know. If they’re serious about that, though, they might want to consider a rebrand.
Alex McKinnon is a journalist based in Sydney. Most recently he served as political and opinion editor of pop-culture website Junkee and editor of the Star Observer, Australia’s longest-running LGBTI newspaper.