Australia's 'comfortable' racism


In a week of racist and xenophobic reaction to the Boston Marathon bombings, 2GB broadcaster Alan Jones said he believed foreign students were responsible.

In the US, there was a series of racist smears on innocent dark skinned individuals sighted close to the finish line. There was no factual basis to any of the imputations, but certain media commentators and editors simply exploited the hysteria of the moment to make a facile link between dark skin and foreignness, and terrorism.

For Australians who abhor racism, this was another example of other people's prejudice. We're not racist. But this week, John Oliver, host designate of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in the US, begged to differ. He talked about the easy racism he observed during a recent visit to this country.

'Australia turns out to be a sensational place, albeit one of the most comfortably racist places I've ever been in. They've really settled into their intolerance like an old resentful slipper.'

The point he was making is that while signs of racism are a source of shame in the US, they're part of the culture in Australia. The difference between attitudes to racism in the two countries was highlighted in 2009 when the infamous 'Black Faces' skit on Australian television shocked visiting US crooner Harry Connick Jr. Australians simply did not understand what the fuss was about. 

Ethnic jokes and prejudice are a fact of life in every nation. But the reality that visiting Americans find it remarkable that Australians find it so easy to laugh about racial stereotypes can be explained as a product of our history as a nation. 

Racism was embodied in the Australian Constitution in 1901, and it was officially mandated by the White Australia Policy. The policy was finally dismantled in 1973 but it remains in our psyche. This analysis may be simplistic but it does provide one explanation for why 'stopping the boats' has become a political imperative. Politicians know their electorate like Alan Jones knows his audience.

We asked a US friend of Eureka Street who frequently visits Australia what he made of John Oliver's comment on Australia's 'comfortable' racism. He said that he does see racism in the political discourse here.

'The language that both parties use to talk about immigration is simply stunning to me. We certainly have those elements in the US, too, but to have both major parties speaking in such similarly hostile, dog whistle terms ... I'm just not sure that could happen in the US.'

If we consider ourselves a society rather than a country of individuals, we need to own this racism. Moreover most Australians are racist or xenophobic without realising it. If ethnic jokes amuse us, it's because we ourselves are agents of racism and xenophobia.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.


Topic tags: Michael Mullins, Boston Marathon, racism, John Oliver, Harry Connick Jnr, refugees, White Australia Policy



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Existing comments

Dear oh dear. another classic recipe. It goes something like this: when you haven't got anything to say then simply pull anything out of thin air, add a liberal dose of words like racism and xenophobia (that's sure to get 'em in), mention some distant incident by some precious overseas celebrity as evidence. Call Australians racist because in their innocence they know nothing of American blackface. Mix together and hey presto! You've got an article for Eureka St.
DavidSt | 19 April 2013

Ironically, xenophobic prejudices correlate towards the 'Islamic Chechen' suspects, in the Boston Marathon tragedy[one brother already dead,the other arrested.] Sadly such correlates could easily kick in to cement racial prejudice. The full process of justice is only beginning regarding the persons involved [motivations, background-individual or malevolent network etc];psychological appraisal-drugs,personality disorders etc? While many commendable traits have emerged in the American psyche in this horrific ordeal,please God racial prejudice will be consciously restrained.
Father John George | 20 April 2013

Of course many Australians are racist, or think nothing of remarks about others that are basically racist. This is nothing new. The recent ABC program on the White Australia Policy was revealing not so much for its identification of the Whitlam government as breaking down that social barrier to understanding, as for the ABC’s failure to name the policy that Whitlam and Co. put in place to overcome racism, i.e. multiculturalism. One has to ask what has happened to multiculturalism in Australia. While we enjoy its benefits every day, we seem to be totally selective in what constitutes good multiculturalism. There are certain nations and types that are okay to open a restaurant in the High Street, others that should remain in Detention Centres for five years.
CAPSICUM | 21 April 2013

We need to acknowledge John Oliver's expertise and experience. I understand he was in Australia for a few days, all of which was spent in Sydney.
Mike | 22 April 2013

A dubiously informed American pot calling an Australian kettle black!
john frawley | 22 April 2013

As usual, Michael, you have raised a question which needs to be raised. However, I think there are dangers that any discussion of racism can become sidetracked. One of the great dangers is political correctness. The USA is a vast and extremely diverse nation. Traditional White Liberals, like John Oliver, (who is originally English and a Cambridge graduate) who live in places like Boston or New York and who believe in and espouse egalitarian views on race etc. are not held in high esteem by some of the Religious Right; talk show hosts (who like ours are paid to stir); many in the South or the survivalists in the Montana militias. Violent racial confrontation (often between Blacks and Hispanics) occur much more frequently than they do in Australia. I believe the California prison system (in a traditionally liberal state) is rife with racial violence. So the mere espousal of certain "progressive" views amongst the liberal intelligentsia is no proof that, at street level, the situation is not far, far worse in the USA than it is here. That is not, of course, to say our situation here is ideal. The worst treated traditionally were the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Fortunately, mainly due to a combination of prosperity engendered in northern Australia by the mining boom and proactive political reform, their situation is getting far, far better than it was. To me, having actually worked with Aboriginal colleagues in WA in the 70s & 80s and knowing the horrific stories of how their families were mistreated; removed from home & institutionalised; marginalised & discriminated against quite vilely in this Lucky Country, I would always see them as the litmus test of where we are in regard to racial equality. Malcolm Fraser has recently commented on how political discourse on migrants and refugees has, for narrow political reasons, shifted far to the right. This is sad. However, I am convinced, with all its faults, the racial situation in Australia is far, far better and less polarised than it is in either the UK or USA. John Oliver speaks from a restricted experience on holiday. I disagree with him vehemently.
Edward F | 22 April 2013

I think you've correctly hit a sore spot, Mr Mullins. Racism runs deep in both Australia and the US. In the latter from my experience, there has been a greater degree of sensitisation so that overt displays of racism are frowned upon, but racism bubbles under the surface - especially in the South. In my work in the education and health sectors in Australia, I have witnessed many shameful acts of racism against minority groups. Racist attitudes are insidious, and I for one find myself having to challenge simply wrong ideas stemming from my childhood that appear unbidden - to my own shame - every so often. Indeed we do need to own our own racism, and act to mitigate it.
Patricia R | 22 April 2013

Do the Americans find some sort of absolution in pointing the finger at us? We're not as bad as you??? In reality all humans are racist - it's part of finding a tribal and personal identification. For those who try to follow Jesus it becomes a nonsense, coming to see that all are made in the image of God, hence all humans are equal. (i speak in terms of my own tradition, others will have different rationales). Finding a scapegoat is an age-old ploy and a perceived threat is a great way to pull the tribe together and dominate it. (See Homeland Security in the USA) Following close on the heels of this is the hubris of seeing oneself as more worthy, more classy more whatever than anyone who is not like me. And yes i think it is a travesty of our supposed values that Aboriginal people have not been included in our Constitution. However, this comes out of the lack of enlightenment of our forebears who in their day had their own hubris.
hilary | 22 April 2013

To Mike - thanks for commenting. However John Oliver went beyond Sydney to regional NSW and Victoria - Wagga and Wodonga to be specific. Nobody claims that he has done an academic study on racism in this country but his observations matter because of the weight he carries as an influential opinion leader because he's a presenter on a program that many Americans watch in place of traditional news bulletins.
Michael Mullins | 22 April 2013

Thanks for this, Michael, and thanks for reproducing that atrocious front page from Mr Murdoch's New York Post. In fact I got so disgusted with Mr Murdoch that I've just posted a piece on the Fair Media Alliance website outlining the behaviour of the Post and Mr Murdoch during the last week. Most horrible to me was that front page - those two young men had absolutely nothing to do with the bombing, but either of them could have been killed, as one of the eventual suspects was, and the other seriously wounded.
Kate Ahearne | 22 April 2013

I wholeheartedly agree with this article and anybody who disagrees is living in noddy land. The inhumane treatment of aboriginal people, refugees from Asia, Asia minor and Africa is a disgrace. Most of the media coverage is pathetic, especially by the politically correct and supercilious ABC radio 774. Australian society has developed a culture of apathy and complacency with incredibly low standards for education and media services.
Mark Doyle | 22 April 2013

President Obama took the lead in regard to restraining racism after the Boston Bombing. He cautioned against jumping to conclusions; he did not call it an act of terrorism until he was certain. What was done was despicable. It seems to be the result of a twisted mind bent on hate. However, there has been compassion shown for the 19 year old. People feel he was influenced by his older brother. I am 1/2 Australian and 1/2 American. The heritage and legacy I have from both my parents (both countries)is to love every one no matter what their nationality, race or creed. I suppose growing up post WW11 in the states with a mother who was a war bride and a father who as a soldier saw what hatred and war can do influenced me. Racism stems from ignorance and fear. We need to recognise that and overcome these tendencies and remember (to get spiritual) we are all made in God's image and likeness. We all part of the body of Christ. Sincerely, Sharyn Seymour
Sharyn Seymour | 26 April 2013

He's right and it's true, just try being dark skinned in Australia and then get back to me...
LuLu | 27 April 2013

No racism here? Try being asian. My wife can't get a job which will pay more than 15 bucks an hour. Can't get a job which will pay her super. One with less than 12 hours a day and a lunch break would be nice. She doesn't feel comfortable shopping on her own thanks to the rudeness of too many staff. Refuses to catch public transport thanks to being spat on, having drinks poured on her, having been abused more times than we can count, and had eggs thrown at her on no less than five occasions. Currently at a university which doesn't seem to have much in the way of international students (which is odd), she's now enjoying having tutors ignore all emails, refuse to answer questions, get angry at her "english", and demand she repeat everything she says until they "give up", thus humiliating her in front of everyone. the university's response is, "umm, it's not the lecturer's fault your wife's english isn't awesome." So, thanks for telling us how nice and friendly Australians are. Could one of you kindly point the way to where that friendly Australia might be? We've tried Perth, Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney.
lucast | 27 April 2013

Oh how right you are. I moved to Western Australia last year from little Tasmania, and I am horrified almost daily at the level of racism there is here I am not racist, I a, not anti "boat people". I am quick to end a friendship if they are racist. There are just as many people who aren't racist, it's just that the racist and ignorant bogans of Australia scream far louder.
Missy | 27 April 2013

A lot of what people are referring to as racism in 2013 is society's general lack of tolerance, manners, and civility. It's because we are too spoilt and accustomed to a comfy, cushy lifetyle that whenever we are confronted with crowded trains, buses, difficult work conditions etc, we lash out at the closest and easiest target - the "other". I feel victim of this many times and can understand how someone could feel it as a race based prejuedice
AURELIUS | 13 May 2013


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