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Racism is real. What are you doing about it?



'For a country that has no racism, racism seems to make the news a lot.' So says Jacqueline Maley in a recent opinion piece for the Sydney Morning Herald.

Queensland LNP senator Ian Macdonald (ABC News)Maley's article adeptly sketches the recurring tropes of racist rhetoric and elision of racism through recent political events: Queensland LNP senator Ian Macdonald's (pictured) view that racism doesn't really exist (or is only very isolated) in Australia; the Institute of Public Affairs' (IPA) call for the Race Discrimination Commissioner role to not be renewed (indeed, they called for the abolition of the entire Human Rights Commission); and NSW Opposition Leader Luke Foley's 'white flight' comments.

As Maley points out, 'It shouldn't have to be said, but the best witnesses to racism are probably not going to be Anglo-Saxon "lifer" senators who live in largely white communities.' A part of me went 'hurrah!' that this appeared in a mainstream media outlet. Then I thought on this further.

While agreeing with Maley that they should not be our barometers for racism in Australia, it is precisely these 'lifers', who exist in bubbles of highly privileged and filtered experience, who get air-time in the media, are afforded gravitas, and seen to be representative of Australian sentiment. They have little idea of the 'everyday multiculturalism' that most urban and regional Australians live with.

Amanda Wise, a sociologist at Macquarie University, describes 'everyday multiculturalism' as exploring 'how cultural diversity is experienced and negotiated on the ground in everyday situations such as neighbourhoods, schools, and workplaces'. 

The research being done in this area is valuable because it comes closest to what's really happening in our towns, suburbs and cities where communities of diverse cultural and racial backgrounds live side by side. While high-level political and policy shaping of national attitudes is important to track, it is as important to know what's happening and being experienced in our literal backyards.

In response to Macdonald's comments and the IPA's call for his role's abolition, Tim Soutphommasane has been sharing parts of the Scanlon Foundation's 2017 report on social cohesion via Twitter. The Mayor of Subiaco in Western Australia, Penny Taylor, responded to one of these with: 'If you haven't experienced or witnessed racism, catch public transport more often.'


"If I was afforded the same status of truth-telling as someone like Ian Macdonald, my take on whether there was racism and why it exists would be rather different."


Taylor's comment resonated with me strongly. I've lived in Melbourne for more than ten years, and exist for the most part in my own bubbles of university campuses and middle-class suburban communities. I am a regular commuter, currently on trains or buses for about three hours a day travelling to and from work. The most vicious, blatant racial abuse incidents I have experienced, or witnessed, have been on public transport — every abuser has been a white person. Almost always, they are men. So, if I was afforded the same status of truth-telling as someone like Macdonald, my take on whether there was racism and why it exists would be rather different.

In various forums (this one included) when I have written about racism, I have been told to get over it, belittled for citing instances of discrimination and bigotry, told I'm ungrateful and/or too political, admonished for not being 'really' racially abused, or had my argumnets deflected by the old 'Asians are racist, too!' manoeuvre.

If you don't think racism is an issue in Australia, you need to widen your experiences and the sources from which you read. I'm not being facetious here — if you really don't think racism happens, you need to read through something like the education resource Racism No Way. It's a good start, clarifies what racism is, and brings home the fact that it's not a 'personal opinion'; it can have violent consequences and does longer-term harm.

You don't actually need to be at the receiving end of abuse to understand that racism is damaging and tends to happen to vulnerable groups. The question is not whether there is racism in Australia, it's what are you going to do about it?



Tseen KhooTseen Khoo is a lecturer at La Trobe University and founding convenor (2006-2017) of the Asian Australian Studies Research Network, a network for academics, community researchers, and cultural workers who are interested in the area of Asian Australian Studies. She tweets as @tseenster

Topic tags: Tseen Khoo, racism, Institute of Public Affairs, discrimination



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Existing comments

It would be surprising in any non-utopian multi-cultural society if there were no racism; the issue is how and the extent to which it manifests itself, and, as Tseen Khoo indicates, our response to it.

John | 30 May 2018  

I acknowledge that there is racism in Australian society and was surprised to receive a dose of reverse racism recently. While watching an Australian movie with themes around muslims and a wedding I was surprised that as the dialogue flowed that there were at least three jibes about Australians which could be construed as racist. The most offensive of these jibes or comments likened Australian women to a faulty dishwasher. This was also misogynistic and the line was delivered by a female who played the part of a veiled muslim woman. I take it to mean that Australian women aren't so "pure" sexually as other races, and I felt it maligned all Australian women. I find the more I take to learn about other people from diverse backgrounds and listen to their stories then I am less likely to have racist attitudes. Thanks Tseen Khoo for your article and highlighting racism in society.

Ros | 30 May 2018  

While I have reservations about John's lukewarm comment and believe that Ros distorts Tseen Khoo's article, neither responses bode well for readers of a Jesuit magazine! As a light-skinned Asian Australia I am keenly aware of the prejudice demonstrated to South Asians that are darker skinned than I am, evidenced in presumptions as to the supposed inferiority of their accents and often resulting in patronising behaviour and mockery. At the heart of our Catholic ethos is surely a universality that celebrates difference as well as inclusiveness and rejects those who would behave as if the bounty and generosity of God were reserved for an elect few!

Dr Michael Furtado | 31 May 2018  

Racism No Way should be compulsory reading before anyone comments on this article. As I read through Khoo's article I kept thinking when is he going to define Racism. I had presumed he would have a different view on Racism from Senator Macdonald, who in a rare moment intellectual open- mindedness, might accept Hitler's embrace of Aryan superiority as an example par excellence of Racism. Anyway after reading the article & three comments I then read Racism No Way. I saw that I myself had been a victim of Racism ever since I arrived in Australia in 1950. Once I opened my mouth & spoke my brogue gave me away as "bog Irish" - a description l had to suffer until elocution lessons modified my accent to "mid-Atlantic". A subtle change but it seemed to help me escape from my bogside background.

Uncle Pat | 31 May 2018  

Anti-Irishism seems to have died down, except for in retreating parts of establishment White Anglo-Saxon Protestant social, cultural and political territory, Uncle Pat. While Racism No Way is a useful resource, readers of ES, including those Irish who are unaware of their White Privilege, would do well to get acquainted with Whiteness Studies: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whiteness_studies

Dr Michael Furtado | 01 June 2018  

". . . those Irish who are not aware of their White Privilege. . " Do they include, Dr Furtado, those who came here as convicts, and later, those who, having survived the Great Famine, displaced, and with Gaelic only as they sounded their names to customs officers, were settled in remote areas without access to schooling and without other than menial labour?

John | 01 June 2018  

A good question, John. And my answer is "yes", insofar as the self-same oppressed people of Ireland, now transformed into landowners in the New Utopia, quickly disinherited the Black-skinned people they were told never existed. The oppressed easily become oppressors when people of colour are introduced to the mix. Sadly, history shows us that Whiteness is worn as a badge of pride rather than a curse that White people visit upon Black people without ever realising or admitting the superiority and imbalance of power vested in appearance, which, thankfully, people of colour are inherently denied.

Michael Furtado | 02 June 2018  

I was saddened to hear your comments on Melbourne's public transport system. I have always received a great deal of positive help whether on the train to Ferntree Gully/Belgrave or trams going to the north of the city. However my real point is that I have a daughter to whom I gave the name Rahab at her baptism. (Rahab was the woman who assisted Joshua, who won the battle of Jericho, escape from the enemy. She also had a red cord outside her house.)When she applied for a job the person interviewing her said to put a photo on her CV/application so that it could be clearly seen that despite her name being middle eastern, she was not. She put her name down on a list which wanted/needed extra players to play netball when she was a uni student . She got no replies. When she put her name down as 'Harvey' she received phone calls from 6 teams wanting her to play. Recently a friend mentioned the name in a group of HR people. Not one was interested in interviewing the owner of that name, without her photo. Surely this a very subtle form of racism that occurs every day.

Gabrielle Jarvis | 03 June 2018  

Is it race, or is it colour? Are 'white' people more racist, or just more powerful than 'black' people? What's the link between class and ethnicity and racism or lack of it? Am I definitely not racist, or definitely patronising to people 'not like us'? The only place I don't have to wonder about all this is at Mass. Maybe racism is present there, but it isn't visible to me at least. (Then again, I belong to an ethnic minority in my multicultural parish, so may be unaware of the subtleties. What to do about racism? Personally, I'll try to be self-aware, and aware of how racism may penetrate our legal structures. Can't do much about people, but we can stop racism being enshrined in our system.

Joan Seymour | 04 June 2018  

The portrayal of Irish settlers in Australia as unconscionable landed gentry typifies the historical revisionism that underpins "Whiteness Studies" mentality and also stigmatises the work of early missionaries in Australia. It's questionable that anti-Irishism is restricted only to WASP exponents - Marxist class conflict and religious antipathy also have a stake in the issue.

John | 04 June 2018  

With respect, John, historical revisionism has nothing to do with it unless you mean that the circumstances of those of Irish convict stock haven't changed over time. Irish Australians are no longer considered a put-upon class. Indeed, there's lots of evidence from the study of voting patterns (Hans Mol) that many have abandoned the missionary zeal, school systems and values that the Church teaches and now endorse secular class-based values. As to class analysis, akin to Marxism, you should know that class analysis in no longer considered a respectable knee-jerk reactionary form of abuse in Catholic circles by which to redress practices that are plainly discriminatory. Besides, we are not talking about class but race, which suggests that, no matter what the class status of a person of colour, whiteness confers a superiority or power, whether acknowledged or not, that no person of colour can exercise, so my explanation does not rely on determinism to be understood. Of course, there are surely many white people who are not racist, but that has nothing to do with my explanation. I'm afraid that your calculated slight that religious antipathy plays a part in my explanation is as unjust as it is meretricious.

Dr Michael Furtado | 05 June 2018  

On this matter it seems we'll have to agree to differ, Dr Furtado. I am sorry that you take offence at my mention of "religious antipathy": neither the posting or this terminology was directed personally at you.

John | 05 June 2018  

Not to demonstrate a lack of grace on race, John; but it was the empirical and scholarly impulse, and not the personal, that pressed me to take you on. I'm sure you'd agree that religiosity, and its close association with virtue ethics, has no necessary correlative overlay in politics.

Dr Michael Furtado | 07 June 2018  

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