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Australia racist? Well, der!


Bugger off, we're fullFear and loathing in the Antipodes

Having arrived with her family from Kabul 12 months ago, 15-year-old Zara is walking home from high school. She passes three younger girls in a playground. Two turn away when they see her in the hijab, carrying textbooks, but one calls out: 'You're a terrorist. You kill people. Go back to your own country.'

Running home seems to take Zara forever.

This happened last year in Dandenong, where every second person is from a non-English speaking background. In Victoria's most diverse multicultural community, mixing more than a hundred ethnicities together is easy: living in harmony takes work.

Racism is the thief that steals from haves and have-nots alike, from victim and perpetrator and onlooker. It degrades integrity and human rights, and then tries to blame the theft on its victim. 'What else can you expect from one of 'them'?' Insert the word Jew, Arab, Aborigine, Vietnamese, Chinese, Lebanese, Sudanese, Pole, Greek or Maori, to name a few maligned groups of recent decades. But are we a racist country today?

The one-word answer is an Australian expression that new settlers often strain to comprehend: a schoolyard idiom-intoned with prepubescent ennui — the word 'der' (as in 'Der, Fred'). Though seldom seen written, and originating in a less tolerant time, it means 'mega-obvious', a hyper-truism. The Americans have 'Duh' and 'D'oh' but these lack the crushing schoolyard putdown of a 'der'.

Few Australians will admit to racial intolerance. Well, der. We'd sooner admit to Satanism. 'I'm not a racist but ...' is the usual disclaimer. But.

Our tradition of fear and loathing on these shores began with the first European arrivals. Presently, in 1788, a British fleet ferried human refuse across several oceans to fulfil Jeremy Bentham's vision of a thieves' colony in the empire's back yard. Enlightenment visionaries got their continental panopticon with its seas and wilderness in place of walls, and an uber-gaol in place of decommissioned battleships on the Thames scooping the overflow of full prisons.

Our forebears called Port Jackson a penal settlement. If founded today, it would be a 'detention centre'.

Immediately upon arrival, settlers feared the shadowy Other. We've been afraid ever since, with each new plane or boatload. What agenda might the Other have?

Racial awareness is endogenous for Australians, whether guilt-ridden or conscience-free, but does this make us racist? Racism has no homeland, no borders and no scientific basis; despite the efforts of Eysenck, Jensen and Rushton to develop a racial league table.

Lack of logic doesn't stop Australians uttering abusive taunts, however innocuous our intent. Been to the footy lately and listened to some of the barracking? Heard the terrible things schoolkids say about gays?

And at some time, most Australians will speak a version of the following: X people work hard. Y people are natural musicians/athletes/dancers. Z people treat the world like they own it. Q people are violent. R people are drunkards. S people mistreat their women. T people are arrogant. V people are queue jumpers. Racial generalising becomes racist only if we accept its false premise.

Is this an unfair allegation? We need no Hanson to articulate such tendencies. Just sit behind the wheel of your car and fume while someone from XYZ background does something you dislike. Just suffer inconvenience when persons of ABC background do not wait their turn or misunderstand some unwritten rule. We need only hear about a miscarriage of justice at our child's school or our partner's workplace perpetrated by someone from DEF, GHI or JKL background. Suddenly 'they' are taking away our jobs, scholarships or neighbourhoods.

However, similar complaints can be heard about newcomers in many countries, so is this attitude especially Australian?

For years we looked down our liberal-humanist noses at apartheid. Then liberal-humanists of the world condemned us for not condemning Hanson. But demonising her is a mistake. Pauline didn't invent bigotry. Nor did she supervise a half-century's systematic theft of Aboriginal children from their parents. Did Australians suspect this was happening? Edmund Burke warned that all it took for evil to flourish was for good men to do nothing. The dubious honour was entirely ours.

Ah, but we've changed since. We've reformed. We now accept our fair share of refugees; more generous per capita than most industrialised nations. We're not like our predecessors; colour-coding and playing favourites, screening people by means less than honourable.

Or could we be in denial about our racist propensities? We might concede some colonial errors, even a massacre or two. Oh, let's not dwell in the past. Myall Creek? Several lifetimes ago. Lambing Flat? Ancient history. Tampa? All a misunderstanding. Mohammed Haneef? Case of mistaken identity. Rationalising is easy. John Howard famously refused to accept there was underlying racism in Australia. Well, he would say that, wouldn't he?

On today's airwaves we hear obscenities that might've prompted our grandmothers to reach for mouthwash. The world's largest car maker uses the word 'bugger' for TV ads, while an international clothing store proclaims 'FCUK' across billboards. Yet what advertiser would dare exploit racist equivalents of such words? The only people who can appropriate name-calling with impunity are the insulted parties, reclaiming terms of abuse, as some minorities have done. Racist taunts remain taboo precisely because they're still live ammunition.

In societies where human life is cheap, ethnic groups are often institutionally disenfranchised. Aussies aren't like that. We're good guys: a fair-go egalitarian society in which everybody has rights. But some animals are more egalitarian than others. We enlightened Australians might like to think we left xenophobia behind with the days when we couldn't buy bok choy at the supermarket.

Hanson and her heirs know otherwise. They know our fear of the Other. We heard Pauline's bleating demands for quasi-parental explanation and her claims of Asian invasion by stealth. Could it be that Australian racist statements reflect fear and loathing in the soul: ghosts of our mongrel past and geographical illegitimacy? Lacking the midwifery of independence war myth-making, we were a foundling country, abandoned where we didn't belong, and fearing the Other all around us: in the outback, the Pacific and Asia.

So can we be called racist in 2010? We've enacted laws against our worst tendencies. It's now illegal to dabble in behaviour that offends colour, race, nationality or creed. We have the Racial Discrimination Act, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Act, the Racial Hatred Act, not to mention the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

Such legislative niceties offer cold comfort to Indian students attacked in unprovoked robberies and copycat beatings. The official explanation: Indians are soft targets for crimes against the person; often travelling alone, carrying expensive gadgets, and working in high-exposure environments like taxis and late night convenience stores. Really? Is it the victim's fault now? Do we blame a rape victim for wearing a mini-skirt?

Besides, we risk begging the question if we brand these attacks simply as 'racist'. They're symptom, not cause; spawned by ignorant fear of the Other. Der.

Raised in Sarajevo, Marijana had survived domestic upheaval and a ruined homeland after the breakup of Yugoslavia and subsequent war in Bosnia. In 2005 the former refugee was now a mother of two, working in a Moorabbin factory. She and her family took out a mortgage in the suburb of Endeavour Hills, where streets are named after Cook, Banks and Flinders. Locals ignored her attempts at greeting. Her next door neighbour's van displayed a bumper-sticker that read 'I Shoot and I Vote'. This man's wife refused to return Marijana's smiles.

Finally the women came face to face, when their daughters were in the same class. Marijana learned that the elderly mother living next door came from Holland, after escaping near-starvation under Nazi occupation. Two households, both alike in dignity, each fearing the Other: imaginary bomb-making Bosnians versus gun-crazy Aussies, and both hoping to live on Ramsay Street in mutual prosperity.

To those who deny Australia is a racist country, I say this: the elephant is in the classroom, in the workplace, in the neighbourhood. Racism thrives, and not only for people of Anglo-Celtic backgrounds. It's as easy for those from Middle-Eastern, European, Asiatic, Islander, or African backgrounds to evince racist behaviours, albeit by neglect. Is it racist to point out this elephant? We all fear some version of the Other, and how it might change us.

Multiculturalism does change us. Are we worse off for it? We might blame our parents' attitudes or our ancestors but that's a cop-out, like blaming government. Hanson-like, we can plead with lawmakers to solve our problems but that won't stop racism. We can vote for more police. Will they stop racism? Opposition Leader Ted Baillieu wants to put two armed guards on every Melbourne train after dark. This will relieve the concerns of travellers and increase rail patronage but will it reduce racist behaviour, or merely chase it underground?

The 2005 riots in Cronulla, lasting several days and nights, showed how little effort is needed to scratch racism's sore. Alan Jones and 2GB broadcaster Brian Wilshire helped to fan a fire already spread by text-messaging. Sections of the public hadn't forgotten the gang rapes of 2000, perpetrated by a group of Lebanese-Australian youths. Justification or excuse? We mustn't allow mob mentality to dictate social policy.

The rabble that attacked the Bastille kick-started a revolution but only with weapons and hate, not constructive plans for change. There will always be knee-jerk jerks like Jim Saleam and Jack van Tongeren but it isn't neo-Nazis who incite racist acts in significant numbers: it's irresponsible demagogues like Jones et al. who retard Australia's civic maturity, because they know better.

Our constitution contains a remarkable section (51, xxvi) known as the 'race power'. In its original form it was drafted to enable the government to restrict the conditions of migrant workers, especially the Chinese. Our new-minted parliament in 1901 passed the infamous Immigration Restriction Act. Its legislative architect, Alfred Deakin, reasoned thus:

'It is not the bad qualities, but the good qualities of these alien races that make them so dangerous to us. It is their inexhaustible energy, their power of applying themselves to new tasks, their endurance and low standard of living that make them such competitors.'

Legally enshrined, the White Australia Policy was institutional racism. Supposedly we've moved on. Or have we?

Susan Jones (her real name is equally commonplace), born in South Africa, had married an Australian. Prospective employers here were impressed with her credentials, and invariably granted her an interview. They didn't expect to greet a woman of Zulu origin.

Susan's accent presented no problem. Her qualifications were excellent. She had experience. Attractive and in perfect health, she had glowing references and she interviewed well. So what thwarted her attempts to gain a job in her chosen field? No explanation given. Susan at least managed to attend interviews. Her fellow black South Africans didn't make those shortlists. Could it have been their exotic names? A coincidence, surely.

Research into the recruitment industry in Australia has repeatedly shown that employers tend to hire people like themselves. Are they racist or merely conservative to shy from the Other? Employers are ordinary folk, glacier-slow to change. But they'll adapt, usually following someone else's lead.

So who will defeat racism? We've all watched it happen. When someone from XYZ becomes a colleague or friend, the prejudice fences often subside. When someone from ZYX marries or brings a child into our family, the fences usually fall. The Other remains but no longer frightens.

Racism lacks a natural predator. We'll never stamp it out with force. Nor will we develop a social discord vaccine. Experiences from our workplaces, schools and neighbourhoods continue to show racist behaviours shrivelling in environments of understanding and collaboration. Despite all the education and advocacy and preaching racial tolerance, Australia's multicultural experiment remains a work in progress, relationship by relationship.

Bill CollopyBill Collopy is a Melbourne novelist who teaches writing programs at Swinburne University. This essay was Highly Commended by the judges of the 2010 Eureka Street/Reader's Feast Award.

Topic tags: Fear and Loathing in the Antipodes, Pauline Hanson, Cronulla Riots, Haneef, Reader's Feast



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Existing comments

Try substituting 'Bogan' for X, 'North Shore' for Z etc. We'll make our own stereotypes if race is ruled out. When will we just see our common humanity and treat fellow humans as our brothers and sisters?

Mary-Anne | 25 August 2010  

I think you are generalising when you imply that Australians are racist. I deny the false premise. Some might be, others are certainly not. To tar a whole country or race by the shortcomings of a few is wrong. I also challenge your assumption that 'Our tradition of fear and loathing on these shores began with the first European arrivals'. We have no such tradition. Governor Arthur Phillip, in addition to declaring there would be no slavery (contrary to what was accepted in other parts of the world in that era), also decreed that any killing of native people would incur capital punishment.Please write the truth - the whole truth - and not just a perspective which can be factually demonstrated as skewed. Your credibility will soar. People crave truth. Australia is one of the most successful pluralist societies in the world. Presumably some of your observations are made on a comparative, realistic basis? WE may not be ideal but we can be proud of our history and our journey to what would be ideal. One anecdote from Dandenong ought not be extrapolated to being that everyone in Asutralia feels that way, despite the suffering extremist terrorism has caused in the world, and the fact that children might associate the appearances of extremists with the common appearance of others who are innocent and law-abiding. This is about educating children that individuals are different people, who make different decisions. Just like you educate them that whilst some individual Australians might be racist, our history, democratically enacted laws and flourishing multi-cultural community all support that they do NOT have to generalise that their whole nation is racist, anymore than they should presume that the girl with the Islamic garb is a terrorist. Your last paragraph in particular was very good. Thankyou for writing a thought-provoking article.

Sophie | 25 August 2010  

Well said. If you look back far enough the experiences of recent immigrants are shared by many Australians whose families have been here for generations.

Our family still remembers those who helped and those who did not in the mid 19th century.

RFI Smith | 25 August 2010  

I'd love to know by what criteria this essay was Highly Commended.
Did the judges identify with the "we" repeated ad nauseam throughtout the composition? "We" or "our" appears in almost every sentence?

The first couple of paragraphs engaged my interest and attention and then I came to "We'd sooner admit to Satanism".
After such an absurd statement Bill Collopy lost me. I ploughed on to the end of his polemic - more out of a sense of duty than in the hope of enlightenment.

Racism in Australian society is a serious concern. And each of us can make a searching and fearless moral inventory of our attitude to others to see if racism feeds our prejudices or behaviour. But a tirade of "we've done this, we haven't done that", will achieve nothing.
That's not quite true. Bill Collopy's essay has spurred me into making a heart-felt plea to the Eureka Street editor..
Suggest to your contributors that they desist from using the collective "we" in their articles. It alienates independent-minded readers.

Uncle Pat | 25 August 2010  

As a migrant in the '60s, I experienced some nasty moments, despite the fact that I was blond and blue-eyed. But I think it was more a case of being different than of racism as such and I think this fear of the "other" permeates most societies. We see it in Australia in homophobia, in religious intolerance and even in comments about which sports people follow (not to mention which teams!)

When I lived in Vanuatu, it was evident in the way in which people from different islands viewed each other. The same is true here in Indonesia where I now live.

Mary-Anne is right - it's the stereotyping that is at the heart of this and it's understanding about our common humanity that can is needed to counter that. (Or perhaps an extraterrestrial threat?)

Erik H | 25 August 2010  

I find this article quite inflammatory. In the present era since WWII Australians have been struggling to adjust to wave after wave of immigrants. In recent times settlement policies that gave unfair advantage to some over incumbent population have caused ugly tensions. A consequence of these incentives and in fact all incentives is to alienate or marginalise others.

In general 'Australians' as a whole are no more racist than people of any nation including attitudes of recent migrants.

mary | 25 August 2010  

An excellent article. Although I live in NZ I found many points of resonance. The hardest fact to accept for many is the institutional nature of our racism - in NZ and I suspect in Australia too the racism has permeated the structures of society - education and most especially health and justice. Before we can move on as a welcoming society we need to accept that fear of the other is in our bones and then seek out the common ground.

Cecily McNeill | 25 August 2010  

There is a mounting body of scientific evidence that human beings in particular groups are neurologically wired to prefer their own, whether due to human nature, evolution or experience. In accordance with this finding, immigrants typically tend to congregate into ghettos rather than making a more concerted effort to engage the host society. This is not surprising. In fact, it is natural. No amount of bureaucratically-enforced political correctness, "sensitivity" education or government funding of multi-culturalism can change this. To prefer the company of one's own group does not imply hatred or rejection of people from other groups.

I have travelled the world quite a lot over the years and I am convinced that Australia is one of the most pluralist and accepting places on earth. There are problems, certainly, but Australians as a people have good reason to decline to wear the label "racist" that Mr Collopy and others wish to pin on them.

A footnote: I do not wish to be pedantic, but the terms "racist" and "racism" as used by Mr Collopy are widely misunderstood and misused. "Racism" is the view that the various races of the human family are different and that some human abilities are determined by race. "Racialism" is the view that some races are superior to other (COD, p 917). "Racism" is a scientific and cultural given; "racialism" is a prejudice to be condemned. Mr Collopy and others - almost universally - use the term "racist" when what they really mean is "racialist", thereby generating great confusion in public discourse.

Sylvester | 25 August 2010  

Anti-immigrant feeling is probably more due to selfishness than racism. Here in Singapore, a majority of the Aussies I have run into love living and working in Singapore, but dont want to give the same privilege to Singaporeans and other Asians..to live and work in Australia. Singaporeans are no different. In the end everyone (especially the Aussies and the Brits) wants to keep out competition and for many the more the one way street migration is, the better.

George | 26 August 2010  

Invited Guests & gatecrashers are two different classes of folk: why are you unable to perceive that?

Aptitude Design | 30 August 2010  

Sorry, Australia has a way to go. When this debate becomes something that only complete idiots discuss, you'll know you're on your way. I'm not seeing any signs of illiteracy in the comments, therefore Australia is racist, sorry, It's almost kind of cute in a way.

Captain America | 13 September 2010  

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