Once in a while in the media or in conversation, you’ll hear someone ask this question: Is Australia a racist country?
Dr Charlie Teo made news earlier this year in his Australia Day speech, declaring that racism was still very much alive, sometimes hidden and sometimes not. Actors Jay Laga’aia and Firass Dirani also stirred criticism recently that an unofficial White Australia Policy still exists on Australian television.
The answer varies widely according to who you ask.
If you ask someone who is somewhat right-wing, most of the time they will tell you that Australia is not really racist. Likewise, a left-winger will usually tell you that it is.
Why is that? Well, those on the left like to highlight the evils of “the system” and those they deem to have power and status, and champion the rights of the little guy (in this case, minority groups). So it suits their worldview to see racism around every corner. Conservatives, by contrast, like to imagine that life is one big level playing field where everyone can achieve whatever they want if they work hard enough, and thus they tend to see claims of racism as mere rabble-rousing. Likewise, a conservative point of view likes to defend the idealised traditional Australia of yesteryear, when things were simpler, a time before people with funny foreign names arrived and started trying to change everything.
Or alternatively, it can depend on someone’s social circles and class. It’s fair to say that Australians’ perceptions of multiculturalism and race can differ widely depending on where people live and their socioeconomic status. We should realise that there are two Australias, one multicultural and one not. When you hear people wishing for television content that is more representative of the reality of our multicultural Australia (and I am certainly one of them), they want the small screen to reflect the reality of their Australia. But stray outside the major cities, or even to certain suburbs within the major cities, and you are reminded that Australia is not the one big multi-culti-fest that some believe it to be. I personally live in a highly diverse suburb, and non-white people are an ever-present feature of my daily interactions. But I can’t kid myself that this is the norm; we live in a country where less than 10% of people could be considered non-white. There are still plenty of country towns where the only Asian faces are the family that own the local Chinese restaurant.
I mention this because we all have a fairly selective view of Australia, in our own ways. When I watch SBS, with its groundbreaking shows like East West 101, Food Safari, or its nightly news hour hosted by a cast of good-looking brown people, it feels completely normal, as it reflects the world I live in. But to some people, it may as well be another planet.
The internet and social media has had a huge role in giving us access to the thoughts of not just famous people, but regular folks too. And in a great many cases, it is more access than we ever needed. On Twitter, on blogs, and on Facebook (particularly on groups and other forums where strangers can interact), you can get a glimpse into the workings of the minds of people you probably would never meet or associate with. And sometimes what’s on their minds ain’t pretty. Many people feel more comfortable saying things on social media that they would never say to someone’s face.
So perhaps you could argue that the only time we really get a peek into Australia’s racist soul is when an ethnic-related issue blows up via social media. The recent furore over comments by Yumi Stynes, the Japanese-Australian co-host of The Circle, reveals just how much racism is just waiting to spill forth at the right opportunity. Stynes made controversial comments that had nothing to do with her race or anyone else’s, but the negativity directed towards her via Facebook and elsewhere included an extensive catalogue of anti-Asian garbage (gook, chink, Jap, she should go back to where she came from) as well as an even greater level of sexist comments.
But at the same time, social media also gives us more opportunities to overreact to things. As with traditional media, there can often be a lack of context in the way that we digest people’s utterances. It’s all too easy to interpret a racially insensitive comment as a racist comment, and then to label the person who said it as a racist, regardless of the reality of his or her life outside that one comment.
Having been around a great number of school-aged people in my line of work, I have also come across their attitudes towards racism. And those attitudes vary widely, and are frequently contradictory. Many young people of all backgrounds casually toss out the sort of racial epithets that would get a public figure sacked; yet they will frequently have friends of that same race they are talking about. Of course it’s no defence against racism to say “but some of my best friends are ____”. But perhaps we need to make some distinction between comments that are actually hateful, and those that are a result of someone being a bit ignorant as to the appropriateness of “colourful language”.
It’s easy to hear someone throw around a term like “curry muncher” or “abo” and assume that they are coming from a place of vile hatred. And maybe they are, but in truth, it is frequently more about a lack of – I shudder to say it – political correctness. A huge amount of people just don’t get the insider/outsider context about the acceptability of the word “nigger”, for example.
A few years ago when “curry-bashing” was making big news in Australia, I noticed on blogs and news sites two main types of comments that caught my eye from Indian people in Australia. Some would affirm the idea that Australia was quite a racist place, and they would detail some of the things they had experienced to back up this notion. Yet there would be others who would declare that Australia was friendly and racism free, based on having lived here for many years without experiencing discrimination. They were so convinced of Australia’s lack of racism that they figured that the bashed Indians were either exaggerating or must have done something to bring it on themselves.
While some might find it hard to believe that these two alternate Australias, one a hotbed of racism and the other a multicultural paradise, are the same place, it’s not too hard to find evidence for whichever of them you wish to believe in.
Personally, I have experienced a little bit of racism in my life, but not enough to entirely convince me that Australia is worse than anywhere else. But having said that, being half white I have a certain privilege in these matters; I don’t stand out as a target for racism. Having talked with friends who are more obviously “foreign” than I, it’s clear that there’s a really ugly side to living in Australia that you don’t see unless you walk in their shoes. Trying to get into a club if you are of African descent, or applying for a job when you have an unusual non-Anglo name, might give you an entirely different regard for the kind of country this is. I have several Indian and African friends who have independently experienced being called “black c**t” by complete strangers.
So it’s worth thinking about that when a white columnist in the paper tells you that racism is not a problem in Australia. In terms of the broader picture, in comparison to any other given country, they may be right… but I wonder if they’d think differently if their skin were a different shade.
For me, my opinions shift from week to week. Having had someone frequently leaving racist comments on my blog this week has put me in a more negative frame of mind about this.
That is the effect of personal experience, I guess.