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Inside Outsider

'Romper Stomper' Made Me Realise I Was Racist

Because as a Muslim growing up in Australia, racism is a part of life.

"And I don't want to go the same way as the fucking Abo."

To me, this was the most haunting line of Hando's hate speech in Geoffrey Wright's cult classic Romper Stomper. It was the only time I'd heard a right-wing Nazi accept the tragic fate that met the indigenous people of Australia. Hando, (Russell Crowe) is the leader of a Melbourne skinhead gang who's hell-bent on attacking the local Vietnamese community. He realises his struggle isn't about who belongs anymore, it's about who survives. The first time I saw the film, it made me think about hate in a whole new way. It mirrored my own experience with hate—growing up in Australia as a Muslim immigrant, and reacting to scorn with violence.


I went to high school the year after 9/11 in a very Anglo suburb, deep in southeast Melbourne. All the non-whites hung around a caged outdoor basketball court we turned into a futsal field. There were three of us in the year level: me, my cousin, and T, a Maori from New Zealand.

We began to worship the gangster rappers our older cousins listened to in their worked VL turbos, and watching the wannabe-G classics like Scarface, The Godfather, and Blood In Blood Out. I liked to venture outside the norm of our insular clique and would often ask the pimply Greek guy who ran Blockbuster in Noble Park for his wildest recommendations. "You're going to love this re," he told me grabbing something off the shelf. "It's like American History X on steroids," and he shoved Romper Stomper onto the table as if revealing a winning hand at poker.

We don't really know much about Hando's past. We only know he's hung up on white supremacy by his appearance, a reference to Mein Kampf and the way he describes Asians, and how they're buying up all the pubs and real estate. His complaints have a quasi-concrete basis in economics, but to me fear of Islam has always seemed more abstract.

We're deemed an ideological threat, and a threat to the Australian way of life. Because after a series of geopolitical stunts, and acts of terrorism conducted by fringe radicals, Australians seem to think the best way of dealing with foreign otherness is via exclusion. An act that isolates both parties, incubates misconceptions, and inevitably erupts in the most vile ways.


Or it did for us.

The Neo-Nazis of the 80s were uniformed, organised, and united by hate, but the racists from our school looked like bleach blonde surfers. These new guys weren't concerned with race, they were obsessed with nationality and "freedom." Nazi symbols had been swapped for Southern Cross tattoos. It wasn't white power, it was Aussie Aussie Aussie. Muslims were forced to choose between religion or citizenship, and taunted with rhetorical questions framing religion as an archaic superstition followed by barbarians. For them, national pride somehow represented modernity, while religion was about antiquity.

We spent the first semester laughing off jokes about sheep shaggers and terrorists. Until one day a girl in a hijab had an orange thrown at her face. I watched it splatter across her white scarf to the sound of cheers from the year 11 locker bay. And after too many taunts and one too many red bulls, we suddenly reacted with violence. The afternoon ended with suspensions but we didn't learn our lesson.

The thrill of shut eyes, nervous bellies, and swinging fists were to a naive mind the only means for overcoming the power struggle. We were young and we embraced the terror of the label that had been ascribed to us. We understood Hando's survival ideology. We began behaving like the "dirty Arabs" they called us, and eventually we earned a fearsome reputation that warped our egos.


We never discussed the battle lines, but understood them instinctively. None of us associated with Aussies, but we stood up for every minority at recess and we didn't wait for the first punch. In a strange way I began to realise we had more in common with the skinheads than the boys in footy shorts and puka shell necklaces. We were instigating hate and breaking away from society's expectations, rebelling against them, spitting the dummy, because neither party was prepared for rational thought.

The skinheads of Romper Stomper wore Nazi insignia emblazoned on bomber jackets with acid washed Levis. Ethnic minorities from the suburbs came together in the clothes the older generation wore: Everlast t-shirts, Kappa hats, Nike TNs, and snap-button tracksuits. Our sharp crew cuts and long rat tails sent a message that was reinforced by our aggressive personalities.

We were so immersed in our own social image that we neglected the community around us. We were so busy judging others that we automatically rejected any act of decency from people who just wanted to understand our culture. I distinctly remember a Spanish kid from the year below who asked us about Islam and had a Big M poured over his head. Slowly, without noticing, we became the guys who threw an orange at the Muslim girl.

For me it all came crashing down when we decided to attack people based on rumors and uploaded the videos to the internet. We were filming our own decline. Then one day a knife was pulled on a group of boys and the video was shown to the school coordinators.


A science teacher once gave me a copy of Malcolm X's autobiography and it summed up our behavior in a very poignant way. Malcolm X violently rebelled against white America with the Nation of Islam, but once he left America for Saudi Arabia during his Hajj Pilgrimage, he found himself surrounded by Muslims who also happened to be white. He realised that the correlation he'd built in his head between whiteness and racism was incomplete. Because it was more complicated than just skin colour.

Malcolm X essentially stepped out of his environment to critically engage with himself and the world around him, and for me that happened when the school coordinator played back the knife footage on a computer screen. The surfers' genuine fear of being slashed, the mocking laughter, and our racist taunts generated a sight that was dizzying to watch. The people on the screen were so foreign yet I had spent the better part of five years hanging out with them.

The offending boys were expelled and the police involved. The ride had gone too far. We had assumed the position of the world as they watched the Twin Towers fall in America. We were watching an atrocity perpetrated by deluded hate mongers and it was disgusting. We had become everything we said we hated. We weren't developing our image, we were pouring fuel on it.

And this couldn't be summed up better than in the final scene of Romper Stomper, which sees a crowd of Asian tourists on the beach, taking photos of Hando being killed by his best friend.

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