What is in a name is one of the oldest struggles on earth. Do you say Uluru? others say Ayres Rock. Have you heard of Warrane (now Circular Quay)? What about Kamay? This place is now Botany Bay, named for the pursuit of scientific knowledge which at the time included measuring human skulls in order to ‘prove’ some kind of ‘natural’ superiority, and other gross dehumanisations.
When Google added Palestine to its search algorithm, Israel had a fit. Why? Who cares?
This post is not so much a critique of the show Struggle Street on SBS as of some of the debate surrounding its making and airing. I watched it because I had joined the buzz. I joined the debate on social media after some students raised their well-founded concerns about postcode discrimination the day the first episode was about to go to air.
As young people from Western Sydney, they are acutely aware of the barriers and prejudices that the privileged coastal fringe (or ‘Sydney’, as most people call it) puts on the largest and most diverse population in Australia, that is, Western Sydney. Postcode discrimination is not so much discrimination but structural oppression and snobbery.
It is not unusual for students to ask advice about resumes, or to inquire about the value of a degree from UWS. I tell them that our students are better potential employees. The vast majority have reached university via impoverished western Sydney high schools. UWS students are usually in paid work and thus have work experience, work ethic, work readiness and maturity. Many are bilingual, care for siblings, translate for parents or grandparents. Most have faced racial discrimination – which again is in fact structural oppression. It would take a deeply discriminatory employer to let racism or Islamophobia trump the achievements of such young Australians, but there it is.
My point is not to pile on to the buzz around Struggle Street (the caravan has moved on already anyway). But those concerns of students coincided with a lecture on ‘interrogating the metanarratives’ – which just means indentifying a trope and testing it for accuracy.
By tropes, I mean claims and unspoken assumptions that we accept and circulate, or that underpin our conversation, but which we often fail to question as to truth or meaning. This is common enough – accepting claims as true, or as containing some truth (usually because we trust the source, or due to repetition) is a familiar and often agreeable (literally) human trait.
Firstly, it has been reported that SBS is looking into whether SBS breached any SBS guidelines. And? I can tell you how that will end. The same way investigations by the police into the police end. SBS staff will be delighted at the publicity surrounding the show, which reportedly generated viewer numbers over 1 million, a record for the niche broadcaster. This is not cynicism. It is fact. Producers of television make television shows for the purpose of being watched. One way of getting more people to watch a show is to create buzz. Buzz has been created, more people watched than would have otherwise, and that is the purpose of the show. It’s not complex.
The discussion gets more complicated when commentators insist that some of this benefit accrues to the people in the show. No, it doesn’t. The SBS team are better off, because they have produced a show that lots of people watched, and that is the job for which they are paid. The participants in the show are not better off, or no-one has any evidence that they are better off. Yet the unfounded assumption – that the subjects of the show are better off – still does the rounds.
One of our most dearly held tropes is that Australia is an egalitarian society, that upwards social mobility is available to anyone who works hard. This is not true. Most wealthy people in Australia inherited the money and attached privilege. As elsewhere in the world, demography is destiny.
The key demographics that predict quality of life are sex and race and, by definition, class. Age, sexuality and gender are also key predictors. The strongest indicator of all is disability, which Australia doesn’t too well. As the late Stella Young reported here, ‘a report released by PricewaterhouseCoopers told us that people with disabilities living in Australia have the poorest quality of life among people with disabilities anywhere in the developed world. We rank 27th out of the 27 OECD countries’.
At some level, nearly everybody knows this. Ask any random group of people: who is more likely to be rich and powerful, a black person or a white person? A man or a woman? A young person or an old person? Few people get these answers wrong. It is the causes and explanations where disagreements emerge.
Do those who control the meta-narrative have a vested interest in reproducing the notion that we are all born equal and have equal opportunities to make of our lives what we will? The myth is not true, yet is aggressively inserted into every public debate of this nature.
Take race, because social justice matters, and “race” – racism – is a key determinant. Struggle Street was a white show. There was one Aboriginal man on screen and he was amazing: with an eye like a trained gun and a terrible but typical story of dispossession, displacement, poverty, survival, and love. The show did not feature any Aboriginal women, but it did feature white people (not discounting the likelihood of fair-skinned blackfellas among the ‘white’ community).
One reason this matters is that SBS has a ‘special’ brief to represent multi-cultural Australia. Sydney is the heart of multi-cultural Australia. Not those privileged coastal fringes so much, but certainly the geographical and population centre of Sydney. In a hugely diverse suburb like Mt Druitt – over 40% of Mt Druitt residents were born overseas (ABS 2012) – located in our hugely diverse region of Western Sydney, we got a crassly stereotypical Australia through English eyes. If white dregs of society and a lone blackfella in his humpy are not colonial clichés, I am not Australian.
But I am middle class white Australian so I asked a mate in Mt Druitt if she would volunteer her time to pen a few words from the frontline, which she did:
I live in Mt Druitt, or Mounty County as the locals call it, and have for ten years come September. I’m a “houso”,welfare dependent, single mother, caring full time for my adult son, who is 19, has non verbal, autism spectrum disorder and an accompanying developmental delay, and I, like the members of my community featured by SBS on Struggle Street, am not actually representative of Mt Druitt.
Mt Druitt is one of the most culturally diverse places in Australia, we rub shoulders with people from every quarter of the globe when we head down to Westfields, and we have many residents practicing an assortment of religions, as evidenced by the plethora of places of worship dotting my urban landscape.
Seriously, they’re everywhere, in industrial bays, offices next to Emerton Shopping Village, spilling out of otherwise unused community halls. We even have a mosque standing opposite Westfields, and an Islamic school, as well as several denominations of Christian school. We’ve got various orthodox churches, Anglican, catholic, Pentecostal, baptists, churches of both Samoa and Tonga. I don’t go to any of them, and I don’t think church going proves moral superiority in any way, but we must have a lot of church going folk to support all these places of worship. Is that what you think of when you hear of Mt Druitt?
We have sports ovals, and we seem to have gyms opening every other week, and they’re not closing again. There are at least eight gyms in walking distance of my home, and a walking /exercise track, and an historic walking track. And trees everywhere, eucalypts and jacarandas spreading in the same blue sky that sits over your postcode.
There’s always someone walking a dog, or jogging, or riding a bike past. Again, is all this green and healthy living being accessible what you think of when you think of Mt Druitt? There’s development happening everywhere, my local corner shops recently got a brand new supermarket, a hairdressers and a healthy cafe, to add to the butcher, the takeaway, the chemist and the general type store, there seems to blocks of flats going up everywhere, and road works being done and new, shiny fences and electronic signs added to all the schools.
The notoriously unattractive Emerton Shopping Village is getting a makeover and raising the rents, so the local Women’s Activities and Self Help (WASH) run op shop had to move out. Yep, parts of Mt Druitt are even attempting to gentrify. Is development and progress what you think of when you think of Mt Druitt?
What do you think of when you think of Mt Druitt? Do you think of people living in poverty, in dysfunctional relationships, smoking and drinking, neglecting their children, drug addiction and public housing tenants, or “housos” as they’re now known, again with thanks to SBS? Generations of bludgers living off taxpayersmoney™, skipping school and breeding more uneducated bogans who will also leech off the system due to the piss poor prototypes that unfortunately couldn’t keep their legs together or just use contraception? Eating junk food and being obese, and generally not being at all sophisticated or attractive?
Only 8% of Mt Druitt is public housing. Eight per cent. Now guess what percentage of Mt Druitt residents earn $1500-$1999 per week? It’s 12.6%, and statistically more representative of Mt Druitt than the welfare beneficiary, but it’s still not representative of the majority, which would fall somewhere in the middle, getting some government assistance, be it rent assistance, child care benefit, or the family tax benefit system, or Medicare, or the education system, first home buyers grants.
We’re just as economically diverse as we are religiously and culturally diverse out here, and our struggles and aspirations are also that diverse. And yet, SBS managed to find residents with dementia and drug use, living in public housing, on welfare, because the rest of Sydney insists that is what we are.
In the time I’ve lived and raised a family here, I’ve met three people who used drugs. Two were cannabis smokers and the third was the only ice user I can confirm I have met, and I never saw this person display any signs of that use, and they have generally been very helpful and community minded despite admitted drug use.
The majority of the people I’ve met in ten years have been of an anti drug stance in general, regardless of whether they lived in public housing, been buying their home or renting privately. I wouldn’t hazard a guess as to the percentage of the population that uses drugs, but it would be nowhere near the majority and the number with a serious problem would be minuscule, which is not to minimize the issues faced by those grappling with addiction at all, it’s just that addiction isn’t postcode exclusive, and the damage it does to individuals and families also isn’t postcode exclusive. Harriet Wran certainly didn’t live in Mt Druitt, she had a life of education and privilege, and addiction felled her as surely as it would no matter where she lived.
I’ve known two families, other than my own, who were totally welfare dependent. Two, and bear in mind that I’ve been involved in playgroups and preschool, and by now a second primary school in Mt Druitt, and so I have had met plenty of families. The rest, while maybe receiving some form of government assistance, have at least one person working full time.
Yes, we have unemployment, and unemployed people, but even if it was 40% local unemployment, which would be dire, the majority would still be working, paying taxes and going to those places of worship and gyms, and the clubs and pubs too, and paying their bills and saving for their holidays.
Single parents? I know four, locally. Everyone is married, engaged or in a de facto relationship. So, why must Mt Druitt be characterized by a minority who could be found anywhere in Australia? And, do you think Struggle Street maintained the propaganda that welfare recipients can’t be trusted to make good decisions with cash and therefore need income management in the form of healthy welfare? I don’t see how it can have been designed to do anything else. It certainly isn’t going to help the people you saw on your screens with their problems. It did give SBS it’s biggest ever ratings win. I guess everyone wins but the people featured on the show. Bravo.
And more truth talk straight from Jesse here.
So. A team of English people set out to replicate Benefits Street, an English show whose title didn’t even try to obscure its classism (we do. We pretend). They went into Mt Druitt, filmed a bunch of white people and one blackfella, added a gravelly doomsday Australian man voiceover, and called the thing a documentary. A documentary of what?
Yes, there were uplifting stories that featured love and family, of course there were. Maybe it is possible to do a fly-on-the-wall show somewhere on the planet that is irredeemably, relentlessly filled with violence and hopelessness and hate. But generally speaking, where there are humans living in social groups, there is love and there is family.
The commentary on the show is a mixed bag: of vitriol, compassion, thoughtfulness and thoughtlessness. It is dominated by white people who are not from the suburb, or even the region. This is nothing new. Some honourable exceptions include the AIMN article above, a piece by former Toongabbie MP Nathan Rees, and this SMH Domain piece from a resident property reporter.
The outside-looking-in comments on social media tended to be qualified with some claimed connection to Mt Druitt, like ‘I worked there’ or ‘my wife was a social worker there’ or, more credibly, ‘I grew up there’. I didn’t see any comments that said ‘I live in Mt Druitt’ or ‘I have been in prison for a crime I did not commit’ or ‘I used to be on ice’ or ‘the judge gave me a fine too’.
Does this signify anything? Perhaps Mount Druitt locals do not use social media? Just kidding, I’m not that stupid. But it was interesting to see how people wanted to lay claim to the County. The idea, from what I could see, is to project authenticity; and assert that one is not a suburb snob. All Sydney-siders are suburb snobs. All of us. When a man says ‘my wife is a social worker/teacher in Mt Druitt’, I question whether being married to someone who travels to Mt Druitt for employment provides any special insight into the suburb. In fact I am tempted to say, so, Mt Druitt is kicking in for your mortgage? How is that working out for the good people of Mt Druitt?
I do not say such things directly, because the aggression with which these odd connective assumptions are defended is very unpleasant. Either way, the mythology of egalitarianism is reinforced.
The weirdest bit was those who insisted that raising awareness of the hardships and impoverishment of Mt Druitt is ‘a good thing’. How? Will fewer people say ‘get a job’ after watching the show? Will governments stop routinely criminalising and demonising poor people? Will anyone do anything?
Then the penny dropped. The benefit was to the viewer, because he now feels more informed about the people of Mt Druitt, and this is a feeling he values highly. The ‘awareness raising’ was good for the “non-Mt Druitt” resident, at the expense of the people of Mt Druitt. Again, nothing new.
The awfulness of the stereotyping in the show was one thing; the way it opened up space on media platforms for the reproduction and perpetuation of liberal tropes – middle class awareness of poverty is ‘a good thing’ (like we didn’t know there are poor people? We needed the visuals to believe it?) – was worse. Perhaps being a saintlyAustraliantaxpayer™ buys the right to excuse and legitimise the packaging of poverty for the middle-class gaze.
Even Nathan Rees’ otherwise sharp piece reproduced the trope that Bailee’s hugely courageous efforts to complete her education were about ‘getting back on track’. This was narrated in the show as ‘trying to get her life back in order’. Her life was never ‘in order’. It was never going to be in order. If she managed to get her life ‘in order’ it would be a miracle of strength, persistence, and conformity. If she had got her life in order against all odds, she might be featured on some other show, but not this one.
The implied assumption here is that the system works to produce an orderly society. Some individuals fail the system, but overall it functions well. This is not true.
The system is charity-based rather than rights-based. Charity does not work. If it did, the poor would no longer be with us. Charity is also demeaning and humiliating and divisive (the un/deserving poor myth) and strips people of their human dignity. Human dignity, by the way, is encoded into the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The first article, and we can’t even get that right.
At the same time, we are taught that it is a matter of individual strength and hard work and will-power to overcome ‘the odds’. This one is slightly more honest. At least it recognises that the demographics we are dealt in life is chance-based. But overcoming these ‘odds’ (being born into a wealthy or poverty-stricken family, with a disability or with black skin) is the American dream transposed across the Pacific. As long as we can point to those people who ‘worked their way up’, we can condemn those ‘left behind’ for not working sufficiently hard.
This is comforting to the middle classes, whether they joined the middle class through luck (birth) or commitment (or fraud, theft, exploitation). But we know who is most likely to have a rags-to-riches story. It is less likely to be a woman. It will almost certainly not be a person with a disability. A neuro-typical white man will find that doors open more quickly and more often to him than to the next person – not that he is likely to notice. We do not ask white men to show gratitude for the ‘social inclusion’ he enjoys. We rarely identify who is the cause of all this social exclusion we hear about. It is either discussed in bizarrely passive terms, or reverts to victim-blaming.
This could be seen in the claim that the people shown in Struggle Street – and they were interesting, nuanced, impressive people – had ‘fallen through the cracks’. This is not true either. The cracks of what? Society? This trope is so pervasive as to be near-invisible, and attempts to make visible are strongly resisted by the dominant culture.
The basic point is this: the social fabric is already fractured and frayed and downright dysfunctional for the people who are seeking essential social services. Where this deep hardship and pain is painted as ‘cracks’ in the social fabric, we avoid bigger admissions – that Australia is not egalitarian, that the system that pays its employees’ mortgages is not achieving its stated goals for the client group. The implication is that there is a functioning whole something, which is not broken but has a few cracks in it, through which some random people randomly fall. Again, check the demographics. Are people with ten children more likely to ‘fall’ through these cracks, or people with two? Are people with higher education likely to have fewer children? Are people with lower education likely to inherit more money? The usual answer is that it works well for most, or for some better than others.
But again, we know who it works for, and this is not the ‘most’ – it a privileged minority. The system does not work for poor people, and within this strata, it works even less for young people and Aboriginal people and people with disabilities and LGBTIAQ people.
If the system is designed to assist those in most need, but in fact does more to provide middle class incomes than resolve pressing hardship and pain, how is it ‘working’ at all? If there are many more stories of trauma and impoverishment than the mythologised success story, the system is not working: those rare, mythologised success story characters would have made it anyway, through innovation and hard work.
This is not to deny the work done by the employed people shown in Struggle Street. It is a critique of structural oppression, not of individual social workers or teachers.
Finally, if the people on Struggle Street have ‘fallen through the cracks’, where have they landed? Are they now outside of society, having fallen through these cracks? Or are they still falling?
Clearly, they have landed in Mt Druitt, which is very much a part of our society. Bailee was a child, with no agency over housing or income, when she was viciously assaulted, thrown on the street, viciously sexually assaulted, and driven mad by violence, homelessness and the desperate fight to survive. She did not ‘fall through the cracks’ of some otherwise benign, generous, warm-hearted society. She was born into a violent, misogynist society and as a young woman she was then violently assaulted by one man after another. She is not trying to get her life back on track. She is trying to get off the track on which she was born, a track leading directly to violent assault by men.
The show went on, of course it did. The second and third episodes – the ones that SBS assured the participants would show them in a redemptive light but refused to provide a screening – were conflated into one programming block. It is being reported that the participants are preparing to sue SBS, and further that the production company, Keo films Australia, is considering suing the Blacktown mayor for defamation. I guess there is one trope I can confirm (as containing truth) to the future lawyers in my class: in the end, the lawyers win.