When racists attack: dealing with public bigotry

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Racism continues to animate the Australian public conversation, with a number of high profile verbal sprays on the football pitch, radio and public transport. Nevertheless, very few Australians actually believe in ‘racial hierarchies’.Tim Soutphommasane explores the ugly side of multiculturalism, and what it says about our national character.

Is Australia a racist country? It’s the question that gets asked every time there’s an incidence of public bigotry—on our buses and trains, in our sporting arenas, and on the radio.

And in recent times there have been many: Adam Goodes, Jeremy Fernandez, and a number of other attacks recorded by the public on mobile phones.

What should you be doing when you witness or see a racist incident? Do we, as citizens, owe a responsibility to condemn it or repudiate it when we witness it?

Senator Penny Wong, who spoke with me for Mongrel Nation, RN’s series on multiculturalism, believes that there is an ethical consequence to not doing anything.

‘[I]f we stand by and watch somebody be abused, and don’t respond in some way, we are actually participating in it,’ she says.

‘[For] any of us who have been the victim of racial abuse, it’s a deeply disrespectful experience and, particularly when you’re young, it’s a very confronting experience.’

But while these shocking attacks make for compelling headlines, using these flare-ups to assess the state of the nation can miss the point. Professor Kevin Dunn, an expert in race relations at the University of Western Sydney, says there are a couple of ways to look at the issue of racism in Australia. On the one hand, racial prejudice and discrimination does exist in Australian society, and most of us would recognise that—according to Dunn, something like 27 per cent of Australians have experienced race hate speech.

At the same time, the large majority of Australians value cultural diversity. When put into an international context, Australia is a highly tolerant society, as you’d expect of a multicultural powerhouse.

But there’s something about race that always gets us going. Many of us believe that Australia still hasn’t got over its White Australia history, that deep down there lurks a national mood which isn’t particularly comfortable about non-Europeans.

On the other hand, perhaps just as many rush to conclude that complaints about racism really reflect a creeping political correctness—that maybe we’re all too quick to take offence and to condemn our fellow Australians for their moral failings.

Some of this may be a product of the 2005 Cronulla riot. After the fracas, then–prime minister John Howard responded by saying, ‘I do not accept that there is underlying racism in this country’. One consequence of this peculiar intervention has been to transform any response to racism into a wholesale judgment about the Australian national character.

Howard’s implication was that criticising racism meant criticising each and every Australian for being racist.

Surely, however, you can condemn racism when it occurs, without needing to make any absolute conclusions about the moral character of the nation. And, surely, you can criticise intolerance and bigotry without having to answer the charge that you were somehow being unpatriotic or un-Australian.

In practice, of course, combating racism in Australia isn’t so simple. A national penchant for self-deprecation, expressed across the culture in phenomena like the tall poppy syndrome and the cultural cringe, means there will always be those who believe taking exception to racist banter reflects an inability to take a joke or have a bit of a laugh. What some of us regard as racism, others regard as harmless talk or just simply bad behaviour (and nothing more).

A lot depends on how you define racism. Some take an old-fashioned, Oxford dictionary view and believe that it strictly means a belief in the superiority of one’s race over others. Yet it seems odd to confine racism only to those who wear a Ku Klux Klan robe. At least as we use the word in everyday speech, racism also denotes intolerance of ethnic and cultural groups.

Today’s expression of racism tends to be based on the belief that a particular culture is incompatible with a way of life or national identity, built on generalisations based on physical features such as skin colour.

To complicate things further, racist behaviour can occur even if someone doesn’t have racially malicious intent. ‘Accidental’ or ‘casual’ racism is still racism—what ultimately matters is the harm it inflicts on those who are on the receiving end. As Senator Wong says, people shouldn’t try to ‘diminish what prejudice feels like’.

More often than not, the harm lies in how racism belittles targets, making them feel like second-class citizens. Racism doesn’t involve a judgment about someone’s actions or character—it involves a judgment of someone, based on the colour of their skin, the shape of their eyes, or the part of the world that they’re from.

But what about standing up to racism—when we experience it ourselves or see others being made the victim? Doesn’t that mean putting yourself in physical danger?

Experts such as Professor Dunn point out that there are many ways you can confront racism, and not all of them involve being a physical hero. Sometimes, it can be enough to report an incident, bear witness or just offer support to a victim of abuse.

But, while all this may sound fine in theory, it’s worth asking—what would you actually do if you were witness to an ugly racist incident?

Tim Soutphommasane is presenter of Mongrel Nation.

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