Attitude, Altitude and Racism in Sydney, Australia

After doing a degree in psychology, it’s hard to read Christian quasi-psychology leadership books. It’s not that these books are unimportant, but some bob around in an empty vacuum of space refusing to be caught or to interact with the rest of our knowledge on the human individual.

“Your attitude determines your altitude”

For me, this phrase above evokes a feeling from my time as a worship pastor. Every year, we would host a special party the Sunday night before Christmas. We would try and make it special, and blow up balloons for the foyer. Every year I was on staff, one single helium balloon would get away from the bunch and float up to the highest (therefore most visible) point of the church sanctuary. I would mutter a soft word under my breath at parents who let kids in with a balloon, because I knew it was now the focus of the entire auditorium. I also knew that it cost $300 to hire a cherry-picker to reach the ceiling to pull it down, and that my worship budget was always maxed until January. However, also quickly learned that helium is not permanent, and while visitors spent the Christmas weekend staring into the ceiling, I would will the thing to deflate. Of course, its small colored remains would be found on the morning of the 26th of December, the day after all special services were complete. And, it would become yet another thing to laugh about, along with the memory of a church member dressed as a candy cane who forgot their lines, and a wise man who almost tripped over the baby Jesus (luckily he wasn’t a real child that year).

Engineering attitudes. Talking about it tends to give me one. I’ve wondered whether it’s a matter of attitude for the girl caught in a cycle of domestic violence – or what we communicate when we tell her “your attitude determines your altitude”? I wonder whether a rural Australian farmer fighting to grow his crops in a bad year can really pull through by adjusting his attitude? Recently, a nearby church pastor in Los Angeles preached “have a great attitude on your worst day”. He mentioned his wife’s miscarriage – and following that service, four women and two men vowed to me they would never, ever return to their church. Even if it’s true, telling people to get a better attitude can have polarizing results.

Here’s some interesting facts I found in Forrest & Dunn (2007) about attitudes in Sydney, Australia’s highest “immigrant receiving metropolis”… Firstly, three quarters of the people who have lived in Australia for a generation or more identify themselves as Australian, rather than by race. Pro-assimilation and pro-multicultural narratives (“please come and live here in freedom of diversity but please also leave your culture behind”) seem to co-exist. Confusing. Asians and Southern Europeans are least supportive of interracial marriage. Weirdly enough, Australian-born people are less intolerant in attitude than most other cultures (Middle Eastern, Southern European etc) on Australia’s immigration policy. The most accepting of multiculturalism and cultural pluralism is Sydney’s Inner West (no real surprise). These authors consider proximity to the inner city a factor in determining the likelihood of racist attitudes. And, they found the most outrightly self-declared racists in the Hawkesbury – they clearly aren’t changing any time soon (I’m not sure why the Shire isn’t included, perhaps that’s an unfounded stereotype). The highest amount of racism in Sydney was found in the Strathfield/Concord area, where people are likely to believe in a hierarchy of races. Unfortunately, the authors also point to the increase of a ‘new racism’ in which privileged AngloCeltic (white) participants did not believe that they had privilege over other races, and denied that racism was economically linked. This view was most prevalent in the Mosman area, where a house will set you back a couple of Aussie million $. At least.

I’m not sure that we can tell people “your attitude affects your altitude” unless we’re floating in a bubble of privilege. Sure, it seems that naïvety may allow you to float all the way to the top, and not feel guilty about it. But I think it is a mandate of Christian life to prophetically decry this type of living, and begin to tell the story like it actually is, with our narrative and worth in God’s amazing sacrifice held in relationship with Him and not wealth or status. But it’s also better not to be the object of cursing that’s happily swept up the day after. However high you fly, remember you have responsibilities towards the bunch you’re brought in with.

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