profile of SENTHORUNRAJ

Facing racism in Australia

So what do our punitive refugee policies, paternalistic treatment of Indigenous Peoples and vilifying interactions on public transport have in common? Over the past week they have revealed the disparate faces of racism and xenophobia in Australia.

Let’s begin with the video of a French woman being harassed on public transport by commuters that has circulated through social networks over the past few days. In the video we are confronted by a diatribe of racist comments like ‘speak English or die motherfucker’ and ‘cut the bitches tits off.’ Racism and misogyny become ominously entwined by a feral instigator while the onlookers in the clip jeer on the comments while others remain silent on the spectacle.

Many viewers of the video have condemned the brutality of such racist epithets with an equally strong emotional response of disgust and anger. But, what would you do if you were in the situation? Would you speak out or remain silent? Many of us have been guilty (myself included) of the latter. For some it involves sitting on a train buried in an iPhone, for others it's pretending not to hear uncomfortable conversations on a bus.

We may believe that the abuse on the bus was an isolated aberration. The statistics, however, tell a different story. The Australian Human Rights Commission’s ‘Racism. It Stops With Me.’ campaign notes that about 20 per cent of Australians have experienced racial vilification.

It would not take much to convince people that the acts on the bus constitute a conscious act of racialised abuse, however racism has a far more insidious reach. While it is easy to condemn conscious acts of discrimination, the more intrapersonal or institutional forms of racism are much more difficult to recognise. 

I am often struck by the way people preface comments with ‘I'm not racist but...’ What is particularly troubling about such preemptory defensive statements is they are often followed by rhetoric that marks out people based on a particular cultural, linguistic or ethnic aesthetic.

If we shift from buses to boats, we can see how deep-rooted such thinking can be. Much of the debate around asylum seekers has been marred by descriptors like ‘illegals’ or ‘queue jumpers.’ Our differential treatment of those who arrive by boat as opposed to plane is motivated by a confusing policy goal of ‘saving lives’ while ‘stopping the boats.’

Leaving aside the inefficacy of such a policy in achieving its purported objectives, we ought to ask ourselves why are we so concerned about granting asylum to refugees who arrive on boats?

Most asylum seekers arriving by boat come from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka and are mandatorily detained. Each boat arrival is reported, rarely with context, to imply that we are being ‘swamped’ by ‘yet another boat.’ Yet, we hear so little of the English or US visitors who deliberately overstay their visas and rarely end up in immigration detention despite being ‘unlawful non-citizens.’ In 2011-12, asylum seekers arriving by boat constituted less than five percent of our total migration intake and represented less than one percent of our global asylum flows.

We have to wonder if the boat arrivals were coming from Anglophone countries whether our media reporting and political response would be different.

Perhaps our anxiety over boats comes from our own colonial past which involved arriving on boats. Our colonial history has been particularly violent: from dispossessing Traditional Owners from their lands to removing children from families during the Stolen Generation.

While I’m sure we would like to think colonial beliefs were an archaic creature of the past, our politics reveals otherwise. Last week Opposition Leader Tony Abbott drew considerable criticism for his commentary on having ‘an authentic representative of the ancient cultures of central Australia.’ 

As political scientist Lindy Edwards observes,"Even more poignantly, in this framing, if a person gets educated and becomes professionally successful in white terms, they lose their Aboriginality."

Edwards is not trying to suggest that Tony Abbott was not genuine in his intent to see more Aboriginal Australians elected into parliament. Rather, she reminds us that assumptions about authenticity are based on historical legacy used to systemically dispossess Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders of their identities, communities and lands. When Darwinian notions of ‘racial authenticity’ were used to determine your ability to parent or your ability to survive, it is not difficult to grasp that a dismissive use of language could cause harm. The violence that persists against Indigenous Australians is not simply physical – it’s also epistemic (i.e. how we interpret or represent their lives and experiences). 

Exclusion does not require an overt act. It can manifest in the most intimate workings of our thoughts and emotions.

Facing racism is not easy. We are all affected by its visceral taint. If we are committed to ending bigotry, the challenge is moving beyond a narrative of multiculturalism that just focuses on cuisine or holiday festivals. Ending racism requires us to confront its institutional forms. Recognising our own privileges and prejudices is a great place to start.

Senthorun Raj is a Churchill Fellow.

Follow him on Twitter: @senthorun

7 comments so far..

  • MissSarah's avatar
    Commenter
    MissSarah
    Date and time
    Friday 23 Nov 2012 - 9:46 AM
    I too have been guilty of staying silent when people are hurling racial abuse around me. In some situations, hovever, it is safer to do so. In the case of the video on the bus, one person was offering another his fishing knife, there were threats being issued and then a window was broken. These are the type of people who, when they have their views challenged, react with violence. How should one react to this? By speaking out you risk putting yourself in harms way without any guarantee that you will have the physical support of other people around you. It's a terifying situation to be in. Not all racism is violent; as this article accurately points out, it is embedded deep within our subconscious so that often people aren't even aware they are being racist. I have caught myself doing this and it's always horrifying to me to realise this about myself. However, a lot of racism can be violent and sitting quietly on the bus and waiting for it to end is sometimes the only option people feel they have to keep the situation from escalating.
    This comment has been flagged.
    This comment has been marked for removal.
    This comment has been marked as spam and will be purged.
  • Jorgo's avatar
    Commenter
    Jorgo
    Date and time
    Friday 23 Nov 2012 - 10:02 AM
    "Colonial Beliefs"
    Rather than looking for the causes of such behaviour, or how entrenched it may be, isn't it better to look for the solutions?
    The abuse of the woman on the bus could be said to come from ignorance.
    Whether the perpetrators are white or purple is irrelevant. By mentioning their colour or the racial origins of the perpetrators ("anglophone") the writer of this article is making racist comments.
    The source of future harmony is not in pointing out what is different, it is in finding what is similar and getting fair dinkum about social justice, education, opportunities for positive growth, and, as the writer says, empowering people to "speak up."
    When I was growing up there were church youth groups (of every denomination, open to all) every night of the week - there appear to be none now. what has taken their place?
    Pubs used to shut at 10, now there is alcohol available 24 hrs a day.
    we have gone from responsibility and character, to indulgence and personality.
    Solutions?
    We are all here together. Let's make it a great place to be by supporting and encouraging the growth of people's characters.
    This comment has been flagged.
    This comment has been marked for removal.
    This comment has been marked as spam and will be purged.
  • Jorgo's avatar
    Commenter
    Jorgo
    Date and time
    Friday 23 Nov 2012 - 10:17 AM
    I hear you Miss Sarah - nobody lives forever.
    Silence costs us more than we can know :-(
    This comment has been flagged.
    This comment has been marked for removal.
    This comment has been marked as spam and will be purged.
  • Rin's avatar
    Commenter
    Rin
    Date and time
    Friday 23 Nov 2012 - 11:04 AM
    Do I think racism is caused by Australian attitudes to Asylum Seekers, no. I think the attitude to Asylum seekers is caused by racism and amplified by media.

    Racism is not an exclusively Australian issue, it is a global one. In France there is prejudice against the Islamic community, in Italy there is hatred of the Romani people, India has prejudice against the Pakistani people and have in the past have hurled abuse towards an Indigenous member of the Australian cricket team. Sri Lanka and the Tamils have had violent behaviour exchanged for years as has the conflict between the Israel and Pakistan.

    Do these prejudices encapsulate the entire communities, no. These people that harassed the poor woman do not represent the entire population, the represent only themselves. Thy are nothing more then sad, insular people that lack education and decorum, they should not be given any attention except to remedy the situation.
    This comment has been flagged.
    This comment has been marked for removal.
    This comment has been marked as spam and will be purged.
  • vinemaster's avatar
    Commenter
    vinemaster
    Date and time
    Friday 23 Nov 2012 - 12:36 PM
    this should not be happening
    This comment has been flagged.
    This comment has been marked for removal.
    This comment has been marked as spam and will be purged.
  • vinemaster's avatar
    Commenter
    vinemaster
    Date and time
    Friday 23 Nov 2012 - 12:40 PM
    whys it happening
    This comment has been flagged.
    This comment has been marked for removal.
    This comment has been marked as spam and will be purged.
  • vinemaster's avatar
    Commenter
    vinemaster
    Date and time
    Friday 23 Nov 2012 - 12:40 PM
    hi
    This comment has been flagged.
    This comment has been marked for removal.
    This comment has been marked as spam and will be purged.

Next article

Bestselling author Bryce Courtenay dies

By on