Cronulla racism five years on


'Cronulla' by Chris JohnstonFive years ago, a first-generation Australian-Lebanese girl introduced her conservative Lebanese parents to her first serious (Anglo-Saxon) boyfriend.

It didn't go down well, and a few days afterward, the girl received numerous phone calls from concerned friends about the likelihood of her relationship sustaining societal expectations and criticism. An Aussie bloke and a Lebanese girl could never work out, they'd told her, and the evidence was there before them: race riots against Lebanese by the Aussies down in Cronulla.

In the five years since, many are still unsure as to how the riots occurred, and what their perpetrators had wanted. No more Lebs in Australia, no more Lebs at the beach, or 'no Allah in Cronulla'? Whatever the motive, it seemed that in a world where appearances are everything, anything 'of Middle-Eastern appearance' was something to be feared, and needed to be stopped.

The riots themselves may have subsided, but their roots are still around us. For all our sayings about judging books by their covers and looks being deceiving, our biggest problem is our innate susceptibility to stereotype. Representation, or misrepresentation, in media, pop culture, social/political policies or even everyday conversation, has the power to shape our perception and attitudes towards the other.

And it is this 'us and them' grasp of otherness that still prevents us from moving forward after witnessing our young men fight, protest and retaliate over difference or, rather, their warped, alcohol or frustration-fuelled misconception of it.

And misconception is where our problem lies. A few weeks ago, I led a scripture class at a high school in Cronulla. Afterwards, I joined a few of the regular teachers for breakfast, and was told plenty of people in the shire still don't take kindly to 'Lebs'. The students couldn't fathom that I, their teacher, was a 'Leb'.

So what was a 'Leb' exactly?

At the time of the riots, to Labor's Federal Member for Bankstown Jason Clare, 'Leb' was the six Lebanese Muslim boys he took to Kokoda to bond with six Aussie boys from the shire. Not a mixture of mixed-faith Lebanese boys, which meant that all the Lebanese Christian boys who were socially rejected and attacked in the media had to stay at home, forgotten about where positive press was concerned.

'Leb' is the Muslim girl who wears the hijab and is verbally assaulted for outwardly sharing her faith, even though her fellow Muslim female, who harbours more anti-western sentiments and sympathises with Bin Laden, gets off scot-free from the public because she doesn't wear the hijab.

'Leb' is also the role of the drug dealer, criminal or terrorist in Aussie films and television, reserved for those who don't fit the physical mould where casting is concerned.

If we struggle to get an ethnic character on Neighbours, it makes for a good media and cultural studies university debate. But we need to apply our 'otherness' education elsewhere. Ethnic enclaves are the biggest downfall of multiculturalism, but they are a reality of our society.

Unfortunately in a society where image and representation are everything, our perceptions of the other become blurred across boundaries, suburbs and ways of life, and then, on the off chance that we clash somewhere in the middle, we can't take the interference, and we riot.

Granted, the Cronulla Riots subsided just as they'd erupted, but the solutions at the time seemed to  involve engaging people from opposite ends of the spectrum in as many peace-keeping press opportunities as possible. Not very productive considering that afterward, these people dusted themselves off and once again went their separate ways, to lead very separate lives in the same great country.

In the five years that have passed, I doubt that our grasp of our differences (and let's face it: it's the acknowledgement that we are, in fact, all different that will save us) has been perfected to the point where we have learned from the mistakes that led us to that social horror.

Rather, any debates about racial cohesion seem to have fallen by the wayside, which is devastating considering the new generation of youth who still see otherness in the same vein as those behind the riots. Unfortunately, we've become content with sweeping the issues that bought us to Cronulla under the rug — and we've never taken out the trash.

And in the share house that is Australia, that is not what we might call a 'fair go' for our countrymen. 

Sarah AyoubSarah Ayoub is a freelance journalist and media commentator who contributes to a number of print and online publications and blogs regularly at her website Wordsmith Lane. She is working on her first novel about the Cronulla Riots and is currently studying at the University of Sydney, where she is writing a postgraduate research thesis on the glamorisation by the Australian media of gang culture among Sydney's Middle-Eastern community. 

Topic tags: Sarah Ayoub, Cronulla riots, muslim, christian, lebanese



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Existing comments

Thank you Sarah for lighting a candle rather than cursing the darkness.
Ray O'Donoghue | 06 December 2010

My problem is that I feel excluded & rejected.
How can one get to know a person in a hijab,niquib,or burqa?
G.Long. | 06 December 2010

I want to see all the major Religions or Faiths, have their major feast celebrated in the shopping centres, the same as we have the Christmas Crib. In this way we would get to know and respect the different faiths and find they are not very different from ourselves. I have approached some 'Centre Management' in the shopping malls and have been accepted warmly but nothing has been done, perhaps because of lack of knowledge or information.
Helen-Mary Langlands | 06 December 2010


Your piece is too simplistic. To argue that today “many today do not know why the riots occurred” is not correct.

I have no problem with “Lebs’ as you all embracingly call them. Nor all semite persons including Jews.

As a long time resident of the Sutherland Shire, let me list some of the arguments that caused difficulties at that time;
• Attempts to wall off the sea baths at Cronulla to the public because there were Muslim women bathing there. Menfolk would stand guard, warning off and threatening the public.
• The takeover of Gunnamatta Park at Cronulla every Sundays by Moslem persons, to the exclusion of all others. [The park would be roped off from early Sunday by Moslem runners for Moslem picnickers later in the day].
• Private swimming times at Bankstown public swimming pool for Muslim dressing women the same reasons.

In other areas of Sydney we have the Mosques. Nothing wrong with that. However the calling to prayer that emanates from the loudspeakers [“wailing” to non believers], is as offensive as the woofers in hoon cars that penetrate your space in your own car. The difference is that the hoon car passes soon but the “calling to prayer” goes on morning and night.

The “Lebs” as you call them are welcome to swim at the baths at Cronulla. But if you wish to live a life behind hijabs and the like, do not expect the Australian public to change just because you do not wish to expose your body in public.

No Sarah, there is a fair bit of change still required from those who wish to be different, if acceptance is required within the Australian community. And if you wish to be different and intrude the change will not come from the Australian majority.

a kavanagh | 07 December 2010

You should shed some light on the criticism a white woman gets walking down Western Sydney.
Clarke | 09 December 2010

@ A.Kavanaagh, which mosque has the azan 'wailing' in public space at any time? No mosque broadcasts through loudspeakers in Australia.

@ clarke, I am a white woman and live in a 'Muslim' area in western Sydney. I have never been criticised, insulted or harassed by anybody despite walking through the streets on a daily basis. I have never seen any other woman harassed either.
J Hussain | 10 December 2010

Whatever started and stopped it, you be sure it was not the government muppets. Reminds me of the Arab Spring.
Matt | 03 July 2012


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