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Australia's 'comfortable' racism

  • 22 April 2013

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 ...