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Myths and truths of Australian bigotry


'Australia Day' by Chris JohnstonThe man from the pay TV company was adamant: he wasn't selling anything. But too often I've opened my front door to strangers and found myself tempted by some sales pitch. So I'd answered the bell warily, spoke through the screen door and tried to keep the encounter brief.

'I'm sorry but we're not interested.'

But he knew better. 'It's because of the colour of my skin,' he said as he turned to leave.

It was to be a parting shot. But I called him back, stepping out onto the veranda. Surely he could not assume that everyone not interested in hearing what he had to say was a bigot.

I had no idea, he replied, how often he was called a 'brown bastard' by people he approached.

Later, I wondered if I was not all the more defensive because I grew up in segregated, apartheid-era South Africa. In Australia, where I've spent well over half my life, it seems at times that as long as you have a fairish complexion, you can be lulled into assuming tolerance and goodwill.

Last 26 January I sat with a small crowd near Belgrave, east of Melbourne. I had come there to hear filmmaker and musician, Richard Frankland, and his band, the Charcoal Club. We hadn't seen each other in a few years and I thought I'd stop by.

Elsewhere this was Australia Day, the national flag unfurled in celebration. But here in Belgrave's Borthwick Park it was Survival Day. A whispy-haired toddler in striped shirt waddled in front of the stage holding a small Aboriginal flag. A sign tied to tree trunks declared 'The country needs a treaty'.

Frankland, a big man in broad-brimmed hat, leaned over a tiny mandolin. He'd been to Canberra in February 2008 to film the impact of Kevin Rudd's apology to the Stolen Generations. Rudd's apology, Frankland once told me, was 'an incredibly wonderful step forwards'. 'I felt more Australian,' he said. 'I felt more a part of the nation; that I was seen as a contributor.'

I like to think we can rise to the challenge of increasing diversity. I didn't want to believe the assertions of that pay TV man at my front door. Then I read about objections to the presence of Australians of Indian background on the TV serial Neighbours.

I thought the man might be exaggerating. Then I read about increasing complaints to the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission by those alleging they had been excluded from pubs and clubs because of their race. The commission reported a 55 per cent increase in 'total race complaints across all sectors' in a year.

'I naïvely believed this kind of inexcusable discrimination did not happen in our multicultural society,' a woman wrote to The Age in late November after an incident at a Toorak nightclub. She'd been with fellow medical students of Sri Lankan and Indian background who were turned away, ostensibly because the venue was full, while others in the group were admitted.

The Monash University-Scanlon Foundation annual Mapping Social Cohesion survey recently found that the number of people reporting discrimination due to skin colour, ethnic origin or religion had increased from 9 per cent to 14 per cent in four years.

Are we becoming less tolerant, as we become more diverse? Pino Migliorino, chair of the Federal Ethnic Communities' Councils of Australia (FECCA), said at a conference in Adelaide a few months ago that racism was now often more subtle and had shifted to the targeting of religion rather than race.

It's almost 40 years since Whitlam Government Immigration Minister Al Grassby confirmed that the White Australia Policy was dead. 'Give me a shovel,' he declared in 1973, 'and I'll bury it.'

Attitudes were not so easily buried. 'We have amassed more than our share of xenophobia on these shores and seem willing to accord equality only to those who promise not to be different,' Lorna Lippmann, a Monash researcher on Aboriginal Affairs, wrote in a book released the year Grassby called for that shovel (Words or Blows: Racial Attitudes in Australia, Penguin Books 1973).

La Trobe University academic Gwenda Tavan, recalling Grassby's assurance in her book, The Long Slow Death of White Australia (Scribe Publications 2005), concluded that he may have been essentially correct, but underestimated White Australia's power to haunt future generations. 'In Australia's case,' she wrote, 'race remains the proverbial skeleton in the closet.'

'We'd fundamentally debunk the White Australia Policy and white Australia mentality if we get this up,' Patrick Dodson said recently as co-chair of the Federal Government-appointed panel that has recommended changes to the constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and languages, prohibit racial discrimination and remove the last traces of racism.

The encounter at my front door ended amicably. Next time I'll be sure to open the screen door at least and take time to welcome a stranger even if only to say, no thanks.

Larry SchwartzLarry Schwartz is a Melbourne writer, PhD student at Swinburne University and author of an apartheid-era memoir, The Wild Almond Line

Topic tags: Larry Schwartz, Australia Day, Indigenous Australians, constitution, referendum



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Existing comments

Migrants to this country are often the most racist. Especially white migrants.

Marilyn Shepherd | 23 January 2012  

Instead of his token, no-strings-attached "apology" to aboriginals, Kevin Rudd, as Labor leader, should have sincerely apologised for Labor's and the Unions' role in forging the White Australia Policy. And for subsequent reaffirmations of same in, eg, the disgraceful responses of the Whitlam Labor Government and the unions to Vietnamese boatpeople, who were manifestly fleeing a murderous regime. This is an issue which the moralising Left commentariat has notoriously continued to ignore. Couple this with the fact that the proposed amendments to the Constitution are themselves racially discriminatory and one can only conclude that racism's future in Australia is very bright indeed.

HH | 23 January 2012  

I absolutely agree with HH that an apology for the White Australia policy should have been given...... but by both the major parties since both were complicit. Although not cast in the same words or context, the Coalition's policy and rhetoric (and attitude) to boatpeople is and has been every bit as shocking, if not more so, than Labor's. (No wonder Malcolm Fraser has renounced the Liberal party!) None of this diminishes the importance of the apology to aboriginals over the "stolen generations". And unless an apology is without strings, it is worth little. While we are at it, let the corporate chiefs of offshoring companies apologise for dumping people out of work here for the purpose of extracting greater profits out of the sweat of regional sweat-shops. Yes, let the apologies and redress of injustices roll on!

Stephen Kellett | 23 January 2012  

Yeah, yeah HH, it's all Gough's fault. too bad he was not PM when the Vietnamese were fleeing though isn't it.

Marilyn Shepherd | 23 January 2012  

My 10 year old nephew thought the White Australia Policy was the new National Skin Cancer Awareness Campaign.

AURELIUS | 24 January 2012  

Although Al Grassby confirmed the death of White Australia in 1973, it was the DLP of all parties which first adopted the abolition of the White Australia Policy as party policy, offering that policy to the public in several Federal elections prior to 1973

Bill Barry | 24 January 2012  

"too bad he was not PM when the Vietnamese were fleeing though isn't it." No Marilyn, it's actually great that Gough wasn't PM when the Vietnamese were fleeing. Because heaven knows what he would have done with them when they did arrive, considering when he was P.M. (e.g. April 21, 1975) he referred to them as "f.....g Vietnamese Balts", and heavies in his cabinet such as Clyde Cameron readily assented. Fraser and the Coalition were far too cool towards these refugees, for my money. Still, they were paragons of virtue compared with Labor on this issue ... at least, to those who were and are not of the left.

HH | 24 January 2012  

SK 1. The Liberal and National parties did not exist at the time the WAP was created. The Labor Party proudly and accurately proclaims its existence at that time when it was behind its inception. And of course the Unions and workers "movement" in general was crucial to its forging. Moreover, it was under Menzies and Holt - Liberals - that the winding back of the WAP commenced. 2. Notwithstanding the claims of the Ronald Wilson "Stolen Generations" ("Bringing Them Home") report, there is considerable controversy as to whether any aboriginal was relevantly "stolen". No case based on this theory has been succeeded in civil law. And no apology is owing if it can't be proved that the policies were not actually beneficial to those who were removed. Yet the evidence is that it saved lives. I actually think an apology is owed to those who removed half-caste children from their circumstances in an effort to save them from death or destitution, but who are now routinely pilloried for their laudatory efforts. 3. Your comment on businesses relying on regional sweatshops curiously recapitulates the White Australia Policy. It's an argument against cheaper and more efficient pools of labour from Asia supplanting our Australian workers, with their legally enforced higher pay and condition rates, regardless as to whether the workers in Asia are actually better or worse off as a result of their successfully outbidding their Australian counterparts. Crocodile tears for those Asians, I say.

HH | 24 January 2012  

I am Australian born and bred. I grew up in the 50's in Carlton amongst Australians, Italians, Greeks, with a smatering of other cultures. I had an Australian born Chinese friend at primary school. I have had a varied group of friends. I can trace the history and imigration policies that were in place at that time by their nationality. There is not enough space here to describe them all, The one thing most of those people had in common was that they came from supperior stock than the mongrals who called themselves Australian. I do not discriminate against Newbies. I find them fascinating and I am also a bit in awe of them. They have taken a huge step to start a new life in a strange land with a strange/weird culture. Some have overcome horrific adversity to get here. Why then would I reject them? Even as a small child I detested the treatment of the Aborigines. Looking back now I was at high school with one of the stolen generation.

Kath Garraway | 27 January 2012  

I grew up in South Africa, half my life during apartheid and half afterwards. I then moved to the UK where it was wonderful to see all skin colours widely accepted and befriended. That's not to say racism doesn't exist in the UK, it does, its just far less prevalent than South African and Australia. My partner and I recently moved to Australia and he has been particularly surprised at the lack of multiculturalism. White are friends with white, asians with asians, aborigines with aborigines. And everyones lives and communities are completely separate. I hope that in the future there will be wider acceptance of other cultures, for my children's sake. The inherent racism of each ethnic or religious group towards another must not be allowed to continue. I'm tired of white people being portrayed as the baddies, it takes every group to participate to become one community. Why cant we just work together on this?

Sam | 27 January 2012  

I'm disappointed at the 'blame game' nature of the comments to this article so far. We all must share our history and we all must repudiate it. Our nation was based on identity politics - British racial identity, BUT has in the last 60 years been built on immigration. Race politics is still used by some politicians and is nervously recognised by others. Racism is much less than in my childhood 50 years ago BUT still exists. Familiarity though, leads to gradual acceptance. Racism is reducing, but will never disappear. Much 'racism' is in fact more cultural [including religious] than actual racism. I too was schooled with refugees, during the 1950s and 60s. I saw 'ghettos' come and go, despite the fear of their permanency. I have shared the benefit of the contribution of immigrants of all races and religions. When we stop marginalising and distancing immigrants and instead seek to learn from them, help them, gain from them and welcome them, then our historical fear and vulnerability towards different peoples will be conquered.

bob james | 29 January 2012  

Larry - and those responding

Thanks for reminding us that things are not quite as our national rhetoric might suggest - that some human beings still like to feel superior to others - want to put others down on the basis of accent, of ethnicity, of class, educational or other background. All of us I am sure agree that no one is better than we are - and while maintaining this sensibility are yet able to believe, some of us, that we are better than others. I find it hard to go beyond my own family connections at times or of my friends - to illustrate my sense of joy at my fellow humans of such incredible diversity and achievement in the face of whom I feel a true sense of humility - to my First Fleet convict ancestors or my Scottish teacher grand-mother or my English jack-of-all-trades grand-father - my Indigenous Worimi kinsman, my ethnic Chinese-Indonesian aunt, my German born-and-raised uncle, my French sister-in-law - my Japanese pen-friend and her high school chum who co-incidentally married one of my distant Australian cousins - my mother who completed first year of junior high school - my good mate an Indian scientist from Bengal - my many good friends in Japan - and elsewhere! Yes, Larry - and friends (and kinfolk) out of South Africa too - of varied ethnic backgrounds!

Jim KABLE | 20 February 2012  

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