"We Stay Lebanese Together:

A Study in 'Protest Masculinity'.


Scott Poynting, Greg Noble & Paul Tabar


With books on masculinity becoming a growth industry, boys' education established as a Problem, and yet another media panic about 'ethnic gangs' in Western Sydney, it is timely to listen to immigrant teenage boys themselves about their experiences of becoming men. In this article we explore the formation of what may be described, following Bob Connell, as a kind of 'protest masculinity' among groups of young men who are subordinated by class relations and by racism, usingg data from a case study which investigates the perceptions and interactions of two groups of Lebanese immigrant youths in Western Sydney.

There is a sort of 'common sense' currently widely held in Australia about male Lebanese-background students in the suburbs such as those in western Sydney with considerable Arabic-speaking communities, that they are somehow more sexist than the young men of the dominant ethnic groups. A generation ago, very similar perceptions were commonplace among the teachers in Sydney inner-city schools with large enrolments of immigrant boys of Greek background - products of an earlier wave of migration. This ideology renders Anglo-Saxon sexism less visible, and for that reason more acceptable than, that of other ethnic groups. The prevailing, though contested, hegemony existing in our schools tends not to identify with the interests of working-class, or of non-English speaking background (NESB) immigrants, whether girls or boys. The anglophone and middle-class predominance in the women's movement has meant that many women teachers, in particular, are predisposed for cultural conflict with working-class male students, and this is compounded if they come from non-English speaking backgrounds.

Yet, like all ideology, this 'mystical shell', as Karl Marx suggested, must contain a kernel of truth or it would not 'work' as ideology - no-one could hold it to be true. To put this another way, ideology reflects aspects of reality in a distorted way, focusing on or highlighting superficial levels or 'layers' of the real and thus obscuring or blurring those real structures which underlie surface appearances.

For example, a female final-year school student of Lebanese background, who was well aware and articulately critical of racism against her culture, told one interviewer during this study that people 'always talk about the Lebanese boys and how rowdy they are and how rude and nasty they are to other people at our school and the way they treat teachers and that. And I can see that and I can't argue with them. There's nothing to argue about: it's just there. It's in front of you. It's true.' Moments later, however, she complained about the 'stereotyping' of Lebanese students and criticised teachers for doing this. In her mind both statements were true.

Our research investigated these kinds of interactions and social relations analysing the way they were experienced and interpreted by the Lebanese boys themselves. Embodying a host of 'hidden injuries' of racism and the generational hardships and dislocations of migrant experience, the forms of masculinity which these young men are fashioning out of the cloth available to them, shape the ways that they express their 'hybrid' ethnicities, as much as the masculinities are in turn conditioned by relations of ethnicity. Both of these sets of social relations, masculinity and ethnicity, are nested, of course, within social relations of class, and are powerfully structured by these as well. Moreover, this is not merely a matter of expression and meaning: for there are interests centrally involved, and the resultant 'identities' are deployed quite strategically.

This case study is based on a series of semi-structured, open-ended interviews which were conducted at home with each of seven male Arabic-speaking background youths between 16 and 19 years old, living and attending school in a south-western Sydney suburb with a large Lebanese immigrant population and predominantly low average family incomes. Not all were working-class, although the majority who were found themselves facing a labour market strongly segmented along ethnic lines, for unemployment among Lebanese-background migrants has been four to five times the national average for the past decade. Moreover, those Lebanese from small-business families are often driven into small business because the only alternative is unemployment, frequently earning less than award wages with high degrees of family exploitation.

Four of the boys interviewed, here called Ghassan, Paul, George and Nabil, were members of a friendship group at a Catholic boys' high school; another three, here called Mohammed, Ahmad and Hussein, were members of another friendship group at a co-educational state secondary school with a high proportion of mainly Muslim Lebanese background students. This data was supplemented by ethnographic observation both at home and school, and by interviews with three members of an all-female friendship group from a neighbouring state co-educational secondary school. The seven cases focused upon here form part of a larger study of identity and ethnicity among male youth of Lebanese, Vietnamese and anglophone Australian background, concerning identity formation, home and school.

In contrast to recurring media depictions of aggressive 'ethnic gangs', these boys tended to define the common purpose of their groups as defensive. As George says, 'It's just that we always stick by each other. Be there when others like need you. Protect others. Just stick together as one group'. Virtually all had experienced some level of racist affront, and in the main they had confronted it, sometimes pre-emptively. 'At school if anyone called me a wog,' says Ghassan, 'they wouldn't be speaking to me alone'. This camaraderie Mohammed saw as a part of being Lebanese. In contrast 'the Aussies' he claims, 'don't stick up for each other'. Mohammed's parents were born in Syria and he was born in Australia. However, he identifies as Lebanese because 'around here it's more like you have to be Lebanese or something. Lebanese is sort of like slang for Arab.' He sees this as in his interest because 'it's sort of made my life sort of better. ... I find here because I'm Lebanese, they stick by you more.'

The boundaries of the group of friends who 'stay Lebanese together' could be even broader with the members' estimates varying from ten or twenty to thirty. Interestingly, several agreed that two or three youths of Greek and Italian background were also members. Asked what they have in common, Ghassan simply said, 'Wogs'.

While the borders of these friendship groups were therefore somewhat flexible in terms of ethnicity, this was clearly not the case for gender. These were all-male groups. While a central activity of the groups was to watch, to meet, to chat to, and to attempt to impress girls, there was no way that girls could actually belong to the group. The defining significance of both ethnicity and masculinity is reflected in the Arabic name that one circle of boys gave their group: shi be faz`i, or SBF, meaning 'something that terrifies'.

Apart from this, SBF's purpose was 'to have a good time', according to Ghassan. 'Basically,' he insisted, 'we're good blokes'. But 'blokes' of a particular type who deprecate other styles of masculinity for 'People who can't belong to the group are... 'nerds', and they would just be inside, shy people, not talk to the girls', Ghassan said. The other group was also exclusionary. 'It's got nothing to do with religion, or what country you're from. It comes back to who has got the nicest girl. Are you a stud? You can get girls or you can't get girls,' Mohammed explained. He resented 'Aussie' boys because of 'the way they get girls sometimes.'

Both Ghassan and Mohammed can suddenly downplay the group's ethnicity. 'It's not a racial thing, most of the time it's not a racial thing. Like we've got two Greek people and Italian,' Ghassan insists. 'We all sort of hang together. It just happened because the majority was Lebanese'. Ghassan was, in fact, critical of the way some of the others chauvinistically policed the group's ethnicity but he rejected the idea that Aussies could join, saying, 'They're just not our type. They're Australian way and, you know, we're Lebanese, and we have a totally different thing. Like conditions and our language and stuff.'

This cliquiness probably unconsciously mimics the cliquiness of those who subordinate them in class and ethnic relations. 'Australians or Pommies... sort of rich people ... sticking their nose up, thinking they were better than us,' Ghassan explains. They resent this just as much as they condemn the way that those more recently settled and more marginalised immigrant groups, the 'Asians', are also seen to stick together in exclusive groups, speaking their own language - a seemingly quite different thing to the way that SBF 'stay Lebanese together'.

The inconsistencies and contradictions in these youths' stories, of course, reflect the various situations in which these boys find themselves - the contradictory social relations which pattern their existence.

Gramsci's theory of 'common sense' explains this contradictory consciousness. Common sense, Gramsci theorised, is 'uncritically absorbed' ideas which are 'not a single, unique conception, identical in time and space' but take 'countless different forms' and are 'fragmentary, incoherent and inconsequential in conformity with the social and cultural position of those masses whose philosophy it is'.

Thus Ghassan, who is small with academic inclinations, can say that Lebanese boys 'are strongly built' and that 'Lebanese don't excel much in the academic areas ... Lebanese are not capable at all'. His image is a stereotype which defines working-class migrants of peasant background. He, on the other hand, is the son of a small businessman. He can simultaneously believe in this stereotype and yet think of himself as Lebanese.

Paul also holds contradictory concepts about what it is to be 'Lebanese' In a Lebanese family, he says, 'you have a sister and she can't go out, but her brother can go out. But the sister is different. ... The Lebanese see like the daughter is like precious, you know. The boy they don't care. They don't give a shit'. Yet later in the same interview, he can complain about his personal conflict with his parents 'about going out and that. Like they want me home at a certain time and that'. His unmarried sister, he says, 'they give her freedom. She is a bit older ... She is 19.' The attributes he ascribes to Lebanese families contradict his descriptions of his own family. Yet he still regards himself as Lebanese.

Most of these boys outwardly rejected and resented 'stereotypes' about Lebanese but readily deployed similar stereotypes themselves in the interviews. The majority had also been personally offended by racist harassment or insult from police, who, like teachers, often label them as deviant. However, while discussing discrimination against the Lebanese and how it might affect his future, Paul nevertheless takes it for granted that many Lebanese are delinquents: 'Like, if I wanted to be a police for example, it would be hard, because I am Lebanese. And I would be dealing mostly with Lebanese people, since they do most crimes and that. I probably wouldn't be accepted in the police force,' he explains.

There are two moments in this process. One is a moment of what Gramsci would call 'good sense', a counter-hegemonic impulse which criticises, or at least opposes, dominant, received folk wisdoms. Yet this potential to transform is blocked by the 'subaltern strata' of the inherited 'common sense' which appears to belong to all, but actually operates in the interests of the dominant.

Ghassan ostensibly rejected the idea held by some of his friends 'that Lebanese are the best and, you know, the strongest', chanting 'Lebs rule', and the way they dismissed others saying, 'Look at that dumb nip' However, as we have seen, this is only one aspect of his contradictory consciousness.

People tend to resort to such ideology precisely because they do not 'rule'. In another Sydney suburb, 'Greeks rule', is graffitied outside the local high school. The school is named after an English explorer; the target for the graffiti is the monument bearing his head in bas-relief, the very symbol of the dominant culture. This sign of resistance, of course, was provoked not because the immigrant graffitists believe that they 'rule' but because they resent being ruled. Their rejection of this, however, becomes subverted in an emigre chauvinism. In other instances it emerges as racism directed at other, usually more recently arrived, immigrants who are derided as 'dumb nips'; or at Aboriginal people who, Paul claims, 'go and get drunk and that. That's what they do; they live on beer'.

The 'Lebs Rule' mythology is acted out in masculine confrontations with other groups of young men from different ethnic backgrounds to gain coverted 'prizes'; usually the domination of particular public spaces, or to win the notice of particular girls. To do this the 'otherness' of their opponent's ethnicities has to be emphasised. Thus for Paul, their more settled immigrant Italian and Greek rivals are simply 'show offs'. They 'think they are a lot better, because they come from a big country. They think they are good or something'. This is the same Paul, interestingly, who acknowledges that he has Greek friends who are members of their mainly Lebanese group.

A typical confrontational scenario can be seen in Ahmad's story about a fight at an Italian sports club. 'One of my friend's cousin's girlfriend was there. And this bloke was talking with her and dancing with her... I think he was Greek or Italian. He was a wog. My friend went to hit him. He pushed him.' Ahmad explained that while the group supported his friend, they broke up the fight because they were not on home territory.

In contrast to Greeks and Italians, 'Asians', who are predominantly those of more recently arrived South-East Asian background, are derided as criminalised and dangerous. According to Paul, they 'do drugs and eat noodles'. At a fight between Lebanese and Vietnamese at the railway station, Paul claims the issue was 'to say I am stronger than you are. Like, this is our area. Nobody can be here except for us.'

This, of course, is an ideological response to powerlessness, which provides a sense of an apparent resolution, at the level of ideas, of real social contradictions which are not resolved. There is a sort of 'inversion' at work here, in which, as Marx and Engels theorised, 'men and their relations appear upside-down, as in a camera obscura'. In this case, the subordinated falsely appear as the 'rulers', at least in one moment of their 'common sense'. This 'inversion of consciousness' reflects the 'inversion of objectified social practice', in this case of class exploitation compounded and obscured by racism with such ideological processes serving to soothe the wounds of racism.

Here we can discern multidimensional 'intersections' of different types of social structure having effect at the same time as an alienation, overdetermined by class contradictions, appears as ethnicity and is enacted in relations of masculinity.

Racism, these boys experience and recycle as a useful weapon; one they know to be capable of inflicting a nasty injury on the opponent. Ghassan recounts the injury of being called 'you dumb wogs' by Australian boys. He complains that, at school, 'some Vietnamese would call us, "You dumb Lebs"'. Paul asserts thats 'Teachers hate the Lebanese', and feels that teachers treat them with harsher discipline than the 'Aussies'. During a school Work Experience placement he describes how he encountered people who 'think that Lebanese aren't intelligent. They were shocked to see a Lebanese in Engineering'. George observes that the teachers treat 'smart people' with kindness and respect, 'but us, they don't give you a face or anything.' The other boys, as well as the girls interviewed, reported similar experiences.

As Marx and Engels concluded, in any epoch the ideas of the ruling class become ruling ideas. This simple formulation can be usefully extended to domains of ethnic and gender domination, wherein the ideas of the dominant become the dominant ideas. This explains the mechanism not only of those complex cultural processes of external exploitation but also, as Stuart Hall puts it, 'the way that internally one comes to collude with an objectification of oneself which is a profound misrecognition of one's own identity'.

These types of ideological shift can be theorised by introducing the concept of 'self-othering' whereby the subordinated, while perhaps sometimes criticising and seeing through or beyond elements of the dominant ideology, will at other times take for granted those very same aspects of this 'common sense'. As Paul Willis pointed out, the ability to penetrate these ideological elements is only partial because it is limited by the intrusion of a layer of 'common sense', an ideological manoeuvre in which patriarchy and racism play key roles.

Thus, for these boys, their criticism of the racism which labels them as 'dumb Lebs' is only partial. In certain contexts, they can readily operate with this very concept themselves. 'Asians' become studious 'nerds', and it is unthinkable for Lebanese to be so. For Ghassan, who is himself studious, this involves some strategic construction of identity. He literally draped himself in the Lebanese flag, after a fight at school between one of his group and an 'Asian'. A flag-carrying member of SBF could not, by definition, be a 'nerd'. Paul, on the other hand, can take a relaxed approach to the 'no nerds' rule. 'Nerds,' he says, 'can be part of the group as long as 'they have to do what we have to do'.

According to our interviewee Mohammed, Asians are 'smart', and the Lebanese resent that. Asian gangs are the 'toughest', too, he notes, a perception shared by most of those interviewed. The anomaly of macho toughness and nerdish studiousness belonging to the one essentialised racial nature seems to pose no overt ideological problems to him.

In the very act of exchanging racist insults, Mohammed can see that the Asian and Lebanese boys 'have something in common... like offensive words for ourselves and for them... Australians,' he says, 'don't get offended, but they can always offend us, but we can't offend them. But with Chinese or something, they can offend us and we can offend them. So we have like an equal sort of thing'.

An equality, it would seem, in adversity, because the Australians are seen, and 'know' themselves to be 'on top'. Australians have the upper hand because 'they have heaps of words that offend us. Australian have not got a lot of words that you can offend them. So they are not really being offended at all'. They have one perceived weak point, however: violence. 'When it comes to violence, that's how they are offended - by violence, because,' Mohammed claims, 'they can't fight for themselves'.

Yet this is again inverted because while the young men of the dominant culture are seen to be 'on top' in the relations of power represented in language, this insight is only partial. In the Lebanese male youths' hierarchy of masculinities, the Australian boys appear to be 'below' both themselves and the Asians because they cannot stick together and they cannot fight. Violence compensates for the words that are not available; it ameliorates the humiliation of racism. The meaning that the youths attach to this violence, 'resolves', in ideology, really unresolved contradictions occurring at the 'intersection' of masculinity and ethnicity, as well as class relations.

A violent clash between male youths of two subordinated 'ethnicities' in which 'a Leb' was stabbed by 'an Asian', was reported by Ghassan as leading to a settlement; a detente, based on mutual respect of each group for the other's toughness and solidarity. By such processes, these groups carved out their own territory in the school grounds, and in the local shopping centre. Most of the time, there is mutual respect between the groups over this masculine possession of respective territories, and a workable reciprocity of border crossings. The defining boundaries, after all, are fairly fluid: the 'Leb' who was stabbed by the 'Asian' was in fact of Greek ethnic background.

A key term in the discourse of these young men was 'respect'. Respect governed language: it called for the use of their parents' mother tongue in conversation with family elders and friends. Respect called for adherence to such parental restrictions as curfews, although experienced as onerous by the adolescents. Respect for their religion, whether Catholic or Islamic, apparently disciplined sexual relations. Invariably when the word 'respect' was used, it was bound up with ethnicity. Filial respect is thus not just respect of son for father or mother, but embraces a respect for the culture and ethnic traditions to which they feel an allegiance; an ethnic solidarity, even when they are experienced as burdensome constraints. This solidarity can be seen as defensive in the midst of a racist society (as with the youths' peer groups), and tied to self-respect insofar as it is experienced by the young men as part of their identity.

As fellow 'wogs', Greek and Italian background immigrants are seen to accord, and are accorded, a substantial (though lesser) measure of respect, in the hierarchies reported by the young men. 'Asians', while not fellow 'wogs', are at least fellow immigrants, facing discriminations and difficulties which they hold in common, and are therefore granted a significant (though still lesser) degree of respect.

'Aussies' were said by the interviewees to be held in little respect at all, but this was repeatedly coupled with the observation that this dominant ethnic group did not treat them and those of their own ethnicity with respect. Both teachers who respect the 'smart' kids but 'don't give you a face', and police who say 'All you wogs are the same' are not respected, in an attempt to preserve dignity in the face of racist humiliation.

It is important to stress that this is a gendered, a masculine, reassertion of dignity against racist affront. It is as if, in experiencing diminution as humans, through racism, these young men are experiencing diminution as men: offence to their humanity is an affront to their manhood. We conjecture that it is the young men's opposition to this that is experienced by many women teachers as ethno-specific sexism.

This withdrawal of respect, or actively and deliberately behaving disrespectfully towards such authority figures, restores a feeling of power to a less powerful social group. It can be seen as an ideological inversion where the ability to grant or reserve respect is felt to be important by a group who, unlike teachers or police, are not in a position to demand the outward demonstration of respect.

An even less powerful group, of course, are these groups' Lebanese female counterparts. The Year 12 girl quoted earlier said, 'I find that the Lebanese boys despise the Lebanese girls at our school' but seem to be 'always talking' to non-Lebanese girls 'because they know the Lebanese girls are not like that'.

Mohammed, however, saw things differently. 'Say if it was a Lebanese girl I respect her more than an Australian' because 'Lebanese girls... have had a rough time with their parents and everything. And you never know she might get married to someone, who is worser than her parents. She would have a shit life you know. All her life she will have a shit life. With her parents and her husband... So if I show them respect and, you know, you can understand it.'

This is, of course, deeply contradictory. The adolescent sympathiser about Lebanese paternal discipline is likely to become a Lebanese-Australian husband, 'worser' or not. Ghassan contemplates that, 'If I marry someone and she's not Lebanese' she might be 'unable to prepare any meals'. Moreover, with a Lebanese girl, 'there's always the advantage of culture'.

The future beneficiary of the 'advantage of culture' is already receiving a benefit, given the gendered division of labour, from the 'shit life' of his mother and sisters. Exploitation is experienced as 'respect'.

Respect appears in religious form, reported in much the same way by both Christian and Muslim informants, 'Sort of like most of the commandments I respect. Like I don't sin. In our religion,' Mohammed says, 'it's a big sin if you lose your virginity, and I respect that'.

Ghassan concurs. 'I respect Lebanese culture more than I respect the Australian culture because there's more morals in the Lebanese culture. You get married once, you don't sleep around, there's more of that strictness. It's not like the western where you can do whatever you want, and stuff like that'.

For these reasons respect is denied the dominant 'western' culture and in particular to 'Australian' girls because, Mohammed explains, 'I found them very easy, you know what I mean?... Like you can do anything with them. I like to have something inside that I hold back like. You know what I mean? I can't do it, because religion into it. Some people don't have their morals. They just do it. With me I can't. I have morals.'

There is a strong indication of compensation for racism, here. If sexual relations are pursued up to a point, Mohammed claims he can 'flirt around, but when it comes to doing the sin, that's when I stop'. If these actions are seen as shameful, it is better that the shame is borne by girls of the dominant ethnicity, rather than one's own. There is also a pragmatism in perpetrating this shame outside the ethnic community, and thus preserving ethnic solidarity. Moreover, if they flirt with a Lebanese girl she 'will get into trouble' and rumours will spread. People will 'say I got to know her. And people will find out. My reputation and the girl's reputation would be put down. And parents will be really annoyed.'

It is probable that this pragmatism is actually a more potent force than the adherence to religious principle and traditional cultural values reported in the interviews. It is not unlikely that the informants exaggerated their 'respectability' for the adult, Lebanese interviewer.

The Lebanese boys underlined an interesting point in this regard about the cultural trajectories of earlier settled groups of peasant background, when they observed that Italian and Greek background girls were easier to go out with than Lebanese girls, but that they had something in common, in that their parents were more 'strict' than those of 'Australian' girls.

This ethnic culture of masculinity is historically located and subject to change. We conjecture that a clue to the 'hypermasculinity' exhibited by these second-generation immigrant boys is to be found in their fathers' experiences of racism. So it is the fathers of migrant teenage schoolboys that we want to interview next. For these men's senses of themselves as men, as providers and as heads of families, must undergo critical changes in the processes of immigration and settlement, as the effects of the labour market and the commodity society drastically impinge on traditional familial relations, disrupting the family balance of forces and rearranging identities. Lack of honour and respect in the world of work is compounded with loss of honour and respect in the family. It is a fair bet that these crises of working-class, ethnic masculinity are visited in consequential ways on the manhood of the next generation.

Scott Poynting, Faculty of Education, University of Western Sydney, Macarthur.

Greg Noble, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Western Sydney, Nepean.

Paul Tabar, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Western Sydney, Macarthur.


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