Facing racism in Australia
Who's saying what
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