Kicking it down the line

25 Nov

“The oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors… The oppressed find in the oppressors their model of ‘manhood’… The oppressed want at any cost to resemble the oppressors.”

– Paolo Freire, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed

It has happened in every revolution in history, one oppressive class is replaced with another. But this is a story of how I have seen it happen in the space of two generations, and of how we can stop the cycle.


My parents came to Australia from central Italy in the early 1950s. They arrived on ships. My father arrived in Fremantle, Western Australia, on New Year’s Day 1952, and my mother and three year old brother followed eighteen months later. None of them could speak a word of English when they arrived. I am often asked why they came to Australia, and it is a question I asked of them myself several times in my life. Like most big life questions, the answer is somewhat complicated. And in this case, there is an official and an unofficial story.

My parents were born in Italy, and grew up in small farming communities near the border of the Marche and Romagna regions, just inland of the Adriatic coast. They both started going to school, but neither were able to complete their schooling because they were needed on the farms on which their respective families worked. My mother made it into, but did not complete, the third grade. She was the top of her class. My father made it a few years further.

They were teenagers during the second world war, and lived near the Eastern end of the Gothic line, the final line of defence for the Axis forces in Italy once the Allies began their attack.


My father’s family, from Gradara, lived in a cave for six months during the worst of the fighting in 1944, a U-shaped tunnel dug into a nearby hillside, so that if one end of the tunnel collapsed, they could escape from the other. From here they could see Gradara pounded by missile fire from the sea, and heard the gun battles raging. When they returned to their house, there was a dead soldier in the front doorway, and bullet holes throughout the house, which had been the scene of a firefight. My mother lived some 8km (5 miles) further inland, and further from urban centres, and so was ‘only’ witness to tank and gun battles. Both of them told a number of horrific stories of what it was like to grow up during the decisive gothic line battles, and during the last decade of Mussolini’s rule in Italy.


Gradara (Image credit: 123RF StockPhoto)

My parents met a few years later, with my father often walking the 8km over the mountain to see her, and back again.

My point in telling this is to paint a picture of a part of Italy that was particularly devastated by war, following which economic and employment opportunities were limited. The unofficial part of the story is something I figured out when I was about nine. My brother was born six months after my parents were married. At the time, this would have been the source of some scandal. I did once approach my father about this, probably when I was in my twenties, and he told me I was wrong and that was the end of that conversation for ever. My mother was already in decline with (non-Alzheimer’s) dementia by this time. Last time I was in Italy, about ten years ago, one of my mother’s sisters did speak about it, and said it was a great source of shame and embarrassment to their family, and that my grandmother had berated and beaten my mother when she found out. In those towns, even half a century later, everyone knows what everyone else is up to. I can’t imagine it would have been a comfortable environment in which to raise a young family, having ‘gotten off on the wrong foot’.

Meanwhile, Australia had a labour shortage, needing to “Populate or Perish” (as Arthur Calwell put it), both to defend the nation and in industries such as farming and construction. The International Refugee Organisation sponsored immigrants from Europe to move to Australia from the late 1940s to the early 1950s. As my father explained it to me, the immigrants themselves would have to contribute a small amount, some ten pounds, to their shipping costs. This amount was certainly more than he could raise. However, there was a man in his town who was slated to emigrate to Australia under this scheme, until his wife became extremely ill and he could not leave her. My father went in his place.


The Neptunia, on which my father travelled from  Italy to Australia in 1951

By the standards of today’s discussions of immigration in Australia, he would be considered an ‘economic migrant‘ rather than a refugee. Certainly his life was not directly endangered by staying where he was. However I use the term ‘economic refugee’, which I believe captures more fully the aspects of the situation. I do not believe that the two categories can be cleanly separated.

My father’s first job in Australia, after six weeks on a ship and sixteen hours of dirt roads in the back of a ute, was working on a farm near Lake King, in the Eastern wheatbelt, on the edge of the salt lakes, of inland south-western Australia. His first English lesson was a harsh one, and came on his first day of labour, driving a roofless tractor in the Australian sun (he has had skin cancer for the last forty years, recently having lost an ear, inside and out, to it). On this day, someone called “Tea!” to him after about an hour of work, and he came in for a cup of tea. This happened every couple of hours, but my father not being a tea drinker, declined after the first cup. As the day wore on, he continued to decline the offered “tea”, but some time after nightfall, he began to get hungry, and wondered when people ate in this strange new land. He went to bed without eating that day, all because he did not know that “tea” was not only the word for the beverage, but also for a meal.

After about a year on this farm, he had learned enough English to realise that he was being drastically underpaid, compared to what he had been promised. His employer was apologetic, but explained that the farm was having a tough time and he could not afford to pay him at the agreed rate. He left that job and moved to the sawmills in Collie.

This is what the red earth of the dirt roads looks like

Six months later he had saved up enough to pay for my mother and brother’s passage to Australia to join him. I was born in Perth fifteen years later.

My father’s story is not unique. Aside from working at the least desired jobs and being underpaid for doing them, my family also encountered their fair share of racism. He always said that Australians treated him well, but the English were intolerable with their racist taunts. He distinguished clearly between ‘Australians’, those Europeans of Anglo-Celtic descent whose families had lived in Australia for several generations, and ‘the English’, those who were born in England or were first generation English descendants. His claim that the English were more prejudiced than Australians is interesting, given what I am about to say, but my brother’s opinion was that there was little distinction to be made, and that all Australians of Anglo-Celtic descent generally were prejudiced towards new arrivals, telling them to go back where they came from, calling them ‘wogs, dagos, dings’ and such like.

By the time I became conscious of such matters, in the 1970s, this had died down a lot, but I was still often teased for being Italian, and pasta was still considered an exotic food. I remember my piano teacher in about 1982, a dear old Anglo-Australian woman, telling my mother that my acne (I had very severe cystic acne as a teenager) was caused by “too much spaghetti”. But by then, Australian racism was setting its sights on new targets.


Some might take issue with my saying that what my family experienced was racism. It may be prejudice, but since Italians are white, it isn’t racism. However, race is socially constructed, and definitions of race change over time. Italians have not always been considered white in Australia. The White Australia Policy, officially enacted in the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act, changed several times until its eventual final demise in 1973. The interpretation of race by Australian immigration policy was dealt with beautifully in the three-part SBS series Immigration Nation This program demonstrates how ‘white’ in terms of the policy was initially understood as ‘WASP’: White Anglo-Saxon (actually Anglo-Celtic) Protestant, but soon extended to Catholics and other northern Europeans, principally of Germanic (German or Scandinavian) backgrounds. The extension of ‘white’ to Southern Europeans, Italians, Greeks and Slavs, did not occur until after the second world war, when Australia’s need for more inhabitants became desperate.

Less than a decade before my parents came to Australia, people born in Italy (even if they were Australian citizens) were interred in camps such as that on Rottnest Island. This was not for anything they had done, but a precautionary measure, incarceration for being born in (despite having left) a country at war with Australia. After the war, official policy towards Italians changed, attitudes in the broader Australian community took a generation or so to catch on. And perhaps they still haven’t. For something truly inflammatory, take a look at this thread “We Italians are Not White!!!!”


Image credit: <a href=’’>nadiaa825 / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

OK, so you’d think that, as a result of this, my parents would be sympathetic to the plight of more recent arrivals to Australia, right?

So flash forward about thirty-five years from where we left my father’s story. It’s the late 1980s, I am a university student, heavily involved in progressive politics, a leftie like my parents, who are now in their late fifties. My father is railing against the Chinese and Vietnamese and other south-east Asian immigrants who are, in his words, ‘taking over’ Australia. He can’t stand the way they look, the way they talk, the way they smell, and their food. I gently remind him of his own experiences when he came to Australia, but he says “that’s different”. The Asians, he says, band together and don’t want to become part of Australia. He says he worked hard to learn the language, to integrate into Australian society. I point out that many of his Italian friends never did learn English, however, and that often Italian immigrants did form enclaves and had limited association with people outside them, just like he’s accusing the Asians of doing. “That’s different” he says again. Ultimately he says it’s because Italians and Anglo-Celtic Australians are ‘the same people’, culturally similar. In other words because they are all (now) white. He still singles out the English, however, as having always been especially cruel and prepotente (an Italian word with no exact English equivalent, it means ‘overbearing, aggressive, arrogant, impertinent’).


Flash forward another thirty-something years, to 2010. My father, now in his eighties (my mother died in 2000), is railing against the latest wave of new arrivals from Africa (mostly from Eastern Africa and the Sudan). He doesn’t like the way they look, the way they talk…. you’ve heard it before. I gently remind him that we had this conversation thirty years ago, about the Asians. “That’s different” he says. The Asians worked hard, made a life for themselves, and contributed to this country (see how he’s changed his tune). The Africans are lazy, they come here and they want everything given to them, and they steal.

Three years have passed, he is now in a home, where some of the staff are African and he thinks they are wonderful, kind and caring. I do not think my father is especially ‘racist’, or unusual in this regard. He’s not an arsehole. He’s a man who worked hard for his family’s comfort and education, against challenging odds; a person who did everything he could to create the opportunities for his sons that he wanted but never had. What you’d call a ‘decent person’, even progressive for his time. He never has forgiven the English, though. So how can a man who experienced what he did, kick that treatment down the line?


I’m going to repeat that quote from Freire which kicked off this post: “The oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors… The oppressed find in the oppressors their model of ‘manhood’… The oppressed want at any cost to resemble the oppressors.”

But Freire also offers some hope for escaping this cycle. As do others who, I hope like myself, have come from generational abuse and who decide “It stops with me.” James Gilligan, the expert on violence who I have cited in other posts (here and here), speaks in the introduction to one of his books about delving into his family history and seeing how violence perpetuated itself from one generation to the next. He decided it was going to stop with him. So what did he do about it? He studied violence. Not in the way of judging and condemning it, but in order to understand where it came from. He worked with those who had committed violent acts and sought out its roots (if that tickles your fancy, look here).

If we are going to decide that racism, sexism, homophobia, or [insert pet social oppression here] stop with us, then we’re not going to do it by railing at those who demonstrate the behaviours with which we disagree, or by condemning those who exhibit them. If this does anything other than to allow the railer to vent their moral indignation and exercise feelings of superiority, it is to further entrench the beliefs of the person who is being railed at, and convince them that those who disagree are at best irrational, at worst insane.


Many people I know claim they are compassionate, but their compassion extends only to people with whom they agree. The same people who were on Facebook railing against people picking on Julia Gillard’s dress sense, voice, or life choices are now on Facebook making fat jokes about Gina Rinehart. YOU ARE NOT HELPING!

Here’s the thing: THAT’S NOT COMPASSION! It’s only compassion if you can extend it to those whose actions you vehemently condemn. Can you do that? Because until you can, there will always be war, violence, racism, sexism (etc), and discord. ‘Know thine enemy’ doesn’t mean know who your enemy is, it means understand your enemy.

So how do we do that? I don’t know, I’m just an actor. I tell stories. So that’s what I’m going to do, because that’s one of the most powerful ways I know in which to understand the world, to bring empathy to communities, and compassion, and connection. Stories like the one I’ve told here. Stories like this one. Tell the stories you have. Tell them to anyone who will listen. Drop by drop, the sweet nectar of understanding will connect us to one another. It’s a hard road, it’s much easier to rail and judge, but look where that’s led us. Let’s end it here.



9 Responses to “Kicking it down the line”

  1. Gareth November 25, 2013 at 9:04 pm #

    Excellent post, Bert. I can remember some of those conversations in the late 80s and think you have captured things very well, and your assessment of how to break the trap is spot on, even if we collectively may struggle to live up to it. All we can do is try.

    • robpensalfini November 25, 2013 at 9:15 pm #

      Spot on, Gareth. It’s a hard choice, but we’re not gonna get outta the shit we’re in with the same level of thinking and acting that got us into it. Some smart bloke said that once.

  2. Nicole November 26, 2013 at 2:05 am #

    This is so interesting to me. I always think of my grandma and the things she would say that were so clearly racist but her way of trying not to be racist. Like “I met the new Chinese man next door and he is actually very nice and I could understand him” (I should add that he was Vietnamese but anybody from an Asian background was described as Chinese). I worry constantly that I am racist or that I appear to be. I don’t think less of anybody but in my head I sometimes make generalisations because that is what my family has always done. I guess though that by acknowledging this I am already doing something to stop it.
    When you wrote about being the one to stop the (pattern of) violence, it surprised me. You are one of the gentlest souls I know. it is exceptionally brave to make a stand and change what has gone before.

    • robpensalfini November 26, 2013 at 2:12 am #

      Thanks Nicole for sharing your story. I am touched and humbled by your comments. I am wary of anyone who says “I’m not racist/sexist/homophobic etc” as I think some of this stuff goes deep and it’s important to remain vigilant. I fail constantly.
      I’m reminded of a Zen saying: if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.
      Love, Rob

  3. Simon Trevisan November 26, 2013 at 3:16 am #

    Possibly the most insightful writing I have read on this much considered topic. Brilliant thanks Rob. My heritage is quite similar as are some of the experiences and observations about attitudes. Proponents of simple solutions ignore the issues rather than alleviate them.

    • robpensalfini November 26, 2013 at 3:57 am #

      Thanks Simon, much appreciated. I agree with all you say. Simple solutions often exacerbate the problem by failing to recognise the dynamics within and between sub-groups and generations.

  4. Nola L November 26, 2013 at 7:29 pm #

    A much-needed discussion. I have had similar sharing in a class of adults who have returned to review subjects covered in the GED exam. As their teacher, I focus on hearing each of them as they hint at or openly reveal parts of their stories. (The class is made up of about 33% Hispanic, 33% black, 33% white students.) The black students quickly want to talk about President Obama’s race and see the hatred expressed toward him in the US as raciism; some of the white students “hear” what is said, some sit and look angry and don’t speak. The same is true of the Hispanic students. A few see the US dealing with immigration issues as racist. Some of them are second and third generation and are not as focused on inequalities their parents endured as their parents are.

    All our discussions speak to me of the unfair ideas we all have about the “others.” As a Christian who believes God hates raciism in all it forms, I am honored when my students reveal their stories and am moved to tell myself that I have not suffered in my life to any degree like any of them. “There, but for the grace of God, go I,” my Catholic friend reminds herself in situations where there is misunderstanding, bias and hate. She’s a nut, so she calls the people she knows who have been unfairly judged – “butfer’s.”

    Right on, Rob!

    • robpensalfini November 26, 2013 at 11:51 pm #

      “Butfers!” I love it. It’s one of the reasons I give for why I work in prisons. Butfer one different choice, or being in the wrong place and the wrong time, it could so easily be me behind those big steel doors.

  5. velvet Eldred November 26, 2013 at 8:57 pm #


    I dealt with generational violence and stories, behaviours by.creating ceremony and getting tattoos. We have just found ending to our burlesque and the question we quandered us was, how do we change the world without the violence, the projection of “they” aresomething other than me?

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