August 2009


Racism, Australian-style

By Waleed Aly
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

For all Kevin Rudd’s fantasies of international leadership, Australia rarely impinges on the consciousness of the wider world. We are neither sufficiently powerful nor sufficiently strife-torn to command global attention. Our prime minister can slip in and out of a foreign country – even a major trading partner such as Japan – without arousing more than a trickle of media coverage.

There are exceptions, but they are scarcely flattering. Consider the recent events that have thrust us forward for international contemplation. Sport aside, two moments stand out: the Cronulla riots and Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations. One was a moment of national disgrace, while the other elicited admiring editorials in the international press. But they shared a common theme: racism. A South-East Asian person selected at random would more likely recall Pauline Hanson than they would Paul Keating, John Howard or Kevin Rudd.

For much of the world media, Australia seems only to warrant attention to the extent that it can be presented through the prism of racism. BBC World television barely covered the Australian federal election in 2007, until it emerged that Liberal Party volunteers were distributing fake racist leaflets in the seat of Lindsay. Such editorial instincts attest to an underlying assumption: Australia has a fundamental problem. There was interest in Rudd’s apology chiefly because it seemed to offer a counterpoint to this.

There is something desperately unfair about this state of affairs. It is difficult to think of a region on the globe whose record of racism is not at least as troubling as ours. Do we really need to recount the levels of racial conflict in Africa, the entrenched systems of racial privilege that operate in Asia, or the past and continuing racial struggles of America? Europe brought us Fascism, Nazism and the Balkans conflict in the last century alone, and its voters turned once more towards anti-immigrant and ultra-nationalist parties in June’s European Union elections.

There is more than a whiff of hypocrisy in the international stereotyping of Australia, yet even so, it would be wilful blindness to dismiss the charge of racism as malicious fantasy. Though it might be satisfying to do so, it would also be another instance of the deflection or denial at which we have historically been so accomplished; we’ve been inclined to rationalise away or downplay our history of Indigenous persecution and our longstanding maintenance of a White Australia immigration policy. But our response to the latest clutch of racism-fuelled international headlines has been instructive.

The nation’s newspapers started reporting a spate of violent attacks on Indians in Melbourne and Sydney about a year ago, though politicians may well have known about them before this. By December last year, more than one hundred young men were marching on a Melbourne police station, accusing officers there of inaction. “The police should patrol the area more, because the overseas students have a lot of trouble,” one protester told the Age. The Herald Sun carried a warning from the community that racially motivated attacks would continue unless police acted.

The first instinct of our authorities was to ask Indians to be less Indian: in February, a Melbourne police inspector advised aggrieved Indians to stop displaying their iPods and phones and avoid “talking loudly in their native language”. Senior police insisted that these were not racist attacks but merely “opportunistic” robberies perpetrated on “soft targets”. Kevin Rudd dismissed the violence as “just a regrettable fact of urban life”, his commentary reminiscent of John Howard’s response to the Cronulla riots, in which the former prime minister went to great rhetorical lengths to reassure us there was no underlying racism in Australia. Howard knew what Rudd sensed: there is a powerful political imperative to deny or avoid all charges of Australian racism.

The problem for Rudd was that he soon had an audience beyond our shores. The story took off in the Indian media, and India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, said that he was “appalled” at the violence. India’s tourism minister cancelled a visit to Australia scheduled for July. Bollywood commenced a boycott of Australia. Indian students started returning home, and the trade minister, Simon Crean, began to worry that billions of dollars might be withdrawn from the tertiary education sector. So after months of silence and then deflection, Kevin Rudd would “deplore and condemn” these attacks on behalf of all Australians. Suddenly, the attacks were, in Malcolm Turnbull’s phrase, “an absolute disgrace” and “un-Australian”.

It was a highly unusual sight: both sides of politics singing in unison to protect a minority. The previous government had relentlessly demonised asylum seekers, and then in late 2007 decided to do the same to Sudanese migrants, while the Labor opposition was either silent or complicit. Even when we witnessed a bipartisan apology to the Stolen Generations, the Coalition’s tone was notably different from Labor’s. The recent extraordinary bipartisan agreement was only possible once the attacks became a matter of economics and international relations – that is, once it was no longer a matter of social politics, the realm where racism most naturally belongs.

In private, we are not so reticent. A recent study from the University of New South Wales found that 85% of Australians believe we have a problem with racism. It seems we are capable of admitting to researchers what our politicians will not concede to us. One possible explanation is that our politicians underestimate the electorate’s capacity for self-criticism. But I suspect it has more to do with the fact that a key difference exists between our private and public selves. We understand the existence of racism in our society and everyday life, but we seem to lack the political technology to deal with it frankly in our public life without feeling as though we are undermining our worth as a nation. Rudd’s apology was a rare moment, but even it concerned the conduct of past generations, rather than present-day actions and beliefs.

Maybe this incapacity exists because we have never clearly articulated our civic ideals. We have no definitive national document: our constitution is a tremendous legal work, but it is hardly an evocative statement of purpose. Perhaps this makes our imperfections more difficult to admit. We eventually shrugged off the White Australia policy. The result of the 1967 referendum, which recognised Aborigines as full citizens, was one of the most emphatic in our history. But all this occurred in the most radical period of our political history. Today, we maintain an impressive suite of anti-discrimination laws, but racial discrimination persists in a more informal manner. An Australian National University study published in June found that Australian job applicants with a non-Anglo name were significantly less likely to be selected for interview than their Anglo counterparts. Indeed, the further one’s heritage strays from Europe, the worse it seems to get. Chinese names fared worst, then Middle Eastern ones. This is the kind of stubborn, subterranean racism with which we still struggle. And if it remains something that cannot be acknowledged in our public life, the struggle is one we can expect to persist.

Waleed Aly

Waleed Aly is a writer, broadcaster and academic.

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