TONI HASSAN: The Water We Swim In
I was nervous at the prospect of interviewing Hassan. A well traveled Walkley Award-winning journalist and former advisor in politics, Hassan has also has worked extensively in media as a local reporter, foreign correspondent, and producer. Given Hassan’s background it was not surprising then that the first question asked was by Hassan and not me. ‘Why now?’. My answer was long, broad and at times personal, sparking a conversation between Hassan and I that could easily be continued.
THE PIN. Can you describe a bit of your own childhood and what led you to Australia?
TONI HASSAN. In the late 70s my parents were shocked by the Soweto riots that had broken out [in South Africa]. Protest rapidly spread from Johannesburg to Durban where my family lived and things were heating up in the struggle to end apartheid. With a young family, my parents wanted to move somewhere that was less volatile and where they could prosper. Canada and Australia were top of their list and they settled in Sydney when I was six.
Once you moved to Australia, the culture that you shared with your family, was that reflective of the culture you experienced outside of the home?
T. It was a little bit of a disconnect, at times we’d gather with other families that had emigrated from South Africa and find solace and camaraderie in small rituals and stories that weren’t readily shared or visible in the community outside of the home. By and large we just got on with it, I think the pressure to secure the quarter acre block in the suburbs and forget the past was very real.
I know that my mother suffered a kind of post traumatic stress to do with apartheid. As a so- called coloured person who was not able to catch buses with whites and forced to go to particular schools and into certain professions, she was then suddenly thrust into the Australian scene and able to do the things she couldn't in South Africa. She had to get on with it as if colour didn’t matter, which was extremely stressful. For myself, I don’t recall any incidents of racism or overt discrimination, I think Australia was very welcoming.
In an article featured in e-journal OnLine Opinion you speak of Barack Obama’s win and note that the colour of a person's skin is nothing compared to their ability to lead and inspire people of all backgrounds. How important is it to have visible diversity in our government and media?
T. At the heart of a healthy democracy is a parliament that represents the diversity of its constituency and it does concern me that certainly conservative politicians don’t appreciate the absolute barriers people without connections or status of wealth have in entering politics. I think it’s a good thing that we don’t have parties of a particular ethnicity or overtly religious parties or otherwise as it’s better to aim for an inclusive party focused on particular issues that concern them.
In that article I was absolutely thrilled that he was a man who wasn’t defined by his colour and a man with a particularly interesting name. Names matter. What it is we call things matter. I recall the Iraq war, I was at university at the time, people were a bit put off by the name Hassan. These situations are an opportunity for a conversation, that ‘where are you from question’, we’re all from somewhere else, even if it was generations ago. I find people aren’t comfortable with ambiguity and struggle with the grey. We need to invite them into the grey rather than giving into this classification of identity.
Terms such as ‘boat people’ and ‘illegal’ are still used by politicians with some finding ways to express these terms without actually using them, do you think the public is becoming more aware of language and pulling politicians and our media up on the incorrect use of it?
T. It’s hard to know because I think in our hyper digital age, it’s easier to use language that is inflammatory and get away with it. At the same time, we are probably more reactive. I don’t know if that changes or helps to change the framework as it just backs people into a corner and potentially makes them more defensive. We’ve made great gains, absolutely, but I’m not sure if it’s offset or countered by the online culture we have created. We’re less able to listen and we’re less able to change our language because we’re not meeting around the table as it were, we’re in our private spaces and we say things that we might not say in the public square.
In reference to the current Recognise campaign to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in our Constitution, Journey to Recognition, does changing language make a difference or is it a symbolic gesture?
T. In the Indigenous development and human rights space often we think in terms of the next big thing or the big solution and not how to change the picture. History works as pendulum in terms of progress on major issues, so we move one step forward two steps back and there are always multiple things at play. If changing the Constitution is one thing, it's a significant symbolic gesture.
The Indigenous community is not in one mind on this. There is a movement called the Australian Aboriginal Sovereignty movement that believes recognition only confirms the invasion and the more engaged first nations people are in mainstream political process imposed on them, the less they are able to get sovereignty rights. It’s quite complex but not all Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander people are in favour of [recognition in the Constitution].
I am acutely aware that there is a lot of scar tissue because of the invasion and I was quite politicised during the 1988 bicentenary on this issue. Racism and racial injustice is strongly linked to ethnic and social injustice and high incarceration rates and levels of neglect in the Indigenous population are clearly linked to racist politics. A change in the Constitution is a headline for all Australians present and future to say, ‘right this is what’s happened and we are prepared to acknowledge that past in our Constitution’. It’s one of many things.
There are a whole lot of conversations about how to forward Indigenous Australia’s development and rights. I think we have a lot to learn from the international development scene. The best NGO’s work in communities for a minimum of ten years believing the relationship has to be developed first. We are not building relationships in communities first, it’s bureaucrats delivering services. It’s very puzzling for Indigenous communities who are having to deal with many levels of bureaucracy. I think reconciliation is more of a challenge for multicultural Australia, [there is the idea that] I didn’t dispossess the native population so I’m not under any obligation. We find that those people who engage are of white Anglo past, so that I think is a challenge, [to have] multicultural Australia acknowledging how they have benefited from that past and make efforts to build bridges.
You have worked in Australia and overseas, does your identity change with travel abroad?
T. I love the fact that I put on a sari or wear the local dress and can fit in. We’re hybrids aren’t we?! And that’s fantastic. There are possibilities for conversations and if you scratch the surface there is a lot more that connects us than disconnects us.
I think people really need to appreciate that most of the world is a kind of coloured. That’s the now and that’s the future. We just need to be more sophisticated about our approach to culture. Culture is a very complex thing, it’s very hard to critique it as well because it’s the water we swim in. When you travel, there is a whole lot of culture that is visible and invisible and people make assumptions very quickly because we’re looking for signs. It’s fascinating.
Do you think Australia is far off from being the inclusive and accepting country we like to believe we are?
T. Our behaviour doesn’t seem to reflect the national narrative of a country that celebrates multiculturalism. We’ve come a long way but the prism through which we see things still has to adjust. Our spectacles have to be adjusted!
THE PIN. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about being in the skin you’re in, what would it be?
TONI HASSAN. Let go more. Worry less about impressing others. Just be brave in pursuing your own passions and know that nothing goes to waste. My career has taken many turns and has had many iterations, everything informs what you do but doesn’t define it and love is the only thing that sustains our messy lives.
- This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photo credit: Toni Hassan