Racism in Australia

Hidden harms
How outrage at overt racism helps to hide the more pervasive kind

A drunk woman on a train screams abuse at a man of African descent. “It’s my fucking country,” she slurs, gripping onto the hand strap to stop herself from falling over. “This is what us original Aussies fought for,” she yells, “to keep you black cunts out.”

Last year, someone recorded this scene and put it online. The condemnation was swift and universal. We’re getting good at this: every few months another video surfaces, of an aggressive, out-of-control individual, yelling incoherently about Asians or blacks or Muslims; the video is followed by public statements from authority figures – politicians and police spokespeople – stating in no uncertain terms that racism has no place in modern Australia.

These displays of public hand-wringing serve to affirm middle-class Australia’s favourite fantasy: that we live in a post-racial society in which racism, where it still persists, is the sole domain of the working class, the uneducated, the lone Collingwood fan.

But even when the racist is a member of the establishment, as in the recent revelations about Sydney University professor Barry Spurr’s emails (in which he refers to Indigenous people as “human rubbish tips” and bemoans the rise of “Mussies” and “Chinky-Poos”), it is easy enough to pigeonhole them as a right-wing crank. The moral outrage directed at Spurr has the same tone as that directed at the racist on public transport – the tone of condemnation directed at an outsider. When Spurr tried to defend his emails as “whimsical language games”, his defence was (rightly) mocked.

And yet I’ve heard the same defence – in different forms and in different contexts – countless times. And not from ultraconservatives or from the man who pulls up in a ute to shout abuse, but from peers and colleagues. From friends. It is the defence of someone who considers themselves to be above racism, or beyond it. By being neither cartoonishly offensive like Spurr, nor outwardly aggressive as the drunk woman on the train, these middle-class Australians (the logic goes) can’t possibly be racist.

In a powerful essay recently published by Right Now, Maxine Beneba Clarke, a writer of Afro-Carribean descent, recounts her personal experiences of racism, which range from violent aggression on the street, to the casual racism of a job interview in which her proficiency at English comes as a shock. While there is always the fear that the former will spiral into physical violence, it is the latter form of racism which is much more pervasive.

One of the things that struck me most about Beneba Clarke’s essay was the way she describes her initial reaction to a moment of casual racism: “all instinct – and extensive previous experience – tells me not to rock the boat.” The reason it’s so easy to condemn Spurr or the drunk woman on the train is that they are so avowedly racist: their words and their actions so clearly undermine the claim that we live in a non-racist society. Conversely, the reason it’s so hard to talk about middle-class racism is that it never presents itself as such. It is always presented as something else – a joke, an objective presentation of neutral statistics – or else outright denied, as a university lecturer does to Beneba Clarke when she confronts her about a case of mistaken identity.

I still remember a small moment from my first year at university. We were sitting on a sunny lawn flanked by sandstone buildings when my friend said, “There are so many bloody Asians here.” He quickly turned to me. “I don’t mean you, of course.”

It was an invitation to acquiesce to, and to be complicit in, his casual racism. I don’t mean you. You’re the right kind of Asian, he meant. The kind that doesn’t rock the boat, the kind that can take a joke. And this is the insidiousness of middle-class racism. It invites its targets to collude in their own discrimination; to affirm, once again, that this isn’t a racist country after all.

André Dao

André Dao is the co-founder of Behind the Wire, an oral history organisation documenting people’s lived experience of human rights abuses.


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