Culture

At What Point Will We Stop Asking If Australia Is Racist?

We may not all be racist, but we are a racist nation. It’s time we started asking more constructive questions.

Whenever Australia unequivocally demonstrates that we, as a nation, are racist (like this timethis time and this time), we refuse to acknowledge that reality in order to find a solution. Instead, we spend a baffling amount of time scratching our heads and asking if it’s true; if Australia is, indeed, racist? Like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, we wake up to the same shit, over and over again.

Most recently, the debate has centred around AFL player Adam Goodes, and whether or not the booing directed towards him during Sunday’s match — booing which, as New Matilda’s Chris Graham has pointed out, has been happening for close to a year now – is or isn’t racist.

Those on the ‘not racist’ side argue that the crowd were booing not because Goodes is Indigenous, but because he is a pillock and a jerk. It’s a hard pill to swallow: there are so many pillocks and jerks on a football field at any given time, including pillocks and jerks who are alleged and convicted sex pests and aggressors. So why is Goodes the one who gets booed so persistently that he has to take extended leave from the Club, and miss out on Saturday’s match?

The recent Reclaim Australia rallies were likewise indicative of a bunch of fear-mongers trying to inspire a culturally induced moral panic. Extreme Islamophobes, oblivious to the irony of both their existence — extremists marching against extremists? — and their name, took to the streets in major Australian cities.

Though football yobs and extremist groups are easy to dismiss and even ridicule, their behaviour and ideologies have a deeper, more dangerous foundation. Why did it take so long for the AFL to come to Goodes’ defence, when a senior AFL authority pretty much got away with calling Goodes an ape? What kind of cultural and political environment normalises racist attitudes, and cultivates organisations like Reclaim Australia, The Australian Defence League, One Nation and the Australia First Party?

Australia’s racism problem is more than just crowds of bogans and xenophobic bigots. It’s ubiquitous, and we need to acknowledge it.

Anglo-Australia Wants To Be Boss

Our nation is pervaded by Anglo-Australian hegemony. Our historical and continuing practice of assimilation — first imposed on Aboriginal Australia, and then on waves of immigration thereafter — has ensured it. We reinforce white Australia as the norm, and validate it by way of prejudices perpetuated in our society every single day. It’s in our national holiday. It’s in our treatment of asylum seekers. It’s in our patriotism, and in phrases like ‘Go back to where you came from’. It’s in our fear of Islam. It’s in our inability to definitively answer the question, ‘Are we a racist nation?’

Yes, we are.

According to the 2011 Census, 24.6 per cent of Australians were born overseas. Of those born internationally, 20.8 per cent were born in the United Kingdom, 9.1 per cent in New Zealand and 6.0 per cent and 5.6 per cent in China and India respectively. The population of Indian- and Chinese-born Australians is on the increase. The population of Greek- and Italian-born Australians is on the decline. 43.1 per cent of people have at least one parent born overseas. I have two myself. We are, more than ever, a multicultural nation.

Australia’s Anglo-centrism is a relic of our past, but it still asserts its superiority and dominance. It is stubborn in its unwillingness to shake off settler mentality, or to incorporate Australia’s growing cultural diversity. As a proud Aboriginal man, a celebrated athlete and an advocate for anti-racism, Goodes challenges this status quo: he won’t be kept in his place as prescribed to him by white Australia. And he’s being booed for it.

So yeah. We may not all be racist, but we are a racist nation. It’s time we started asking more constructive questions.

Let’s Start Calling It What It Is

It makes sense that we’re finding it hard to accept the reality of Australia’s racism. Although many hold race-based prejudices, and although we’ve demonstrated over and over again that we are a comparatively racist nation, few identify that way. Some have good reason to claim they’re not racist. Others don’t.

Eddie McGuire’s not racist, for instance; he was just having a laugh. Shermon Burgess, The Great Aussie Patriot and one of the Reclaim Australia founders, can’t be racist: Islam’s not a race. Jacquie Lambie isn’t racist either; she just thinks Sharia law is incompatible with loyalty to the Australian Constitution. The people who boo Goodes aren’t racist; he brought it on himself.

Not only do we hide our racism behind humour and semantics, but our language of assimilation has become jingoistic too. A key proponent of that language are phrases like ‘upholding Australian values’, which veil prejudices at the same time as they bleed the boundaries between racism, patriotism and nationalism. This murky fusion is the incubator for many Great Aussie Patriots.

While many of these ‘patriots’ are only guilty of crimes against good taste — tattooing themselves with the Southern Cross; donning the flag in public places — their white ‘Aussie pride’ feeds a feeling of race-based superiority which engenders much worse crimes: that special breed of malicious dickhead, or a backlash when minorities take a stand.

Even acts of kindness can inadvertently feed feelings of Anglo-Australian superiority. The #I’llRideWithYouCampaign was a genuine attempt to help and express solidarity with Australian Muslims, particularly those who felt victimised on public transport. But as the campaign founder Tessa Kum wrote on Junkee, nuance is hard to maintain on social media. “There is much language being used – ‘help them’, ‘protect them’, ‘their safety’ – which is slippery, and this idea was already sitting close to the White Saviour Complex … Don’t centre this on yourself.”

The campaign, although well-meaning, had demonstrated a position of power, and therefore a position of weakness. Substitute ‘Muslim’ for ‘woman’, and replace ‘non-Muslim’ for ‘some dude’. Now imagine how patronised that woman would feel. It’s no wonder many in the Muslim community found the campaign disempowering.

The vitriol that surrounds Islam in Australia is as long-lasting as it is demented. The 2005 Cronulla riots saw around 5000 ‘Aussies’ engage in an organised ‘wog and lebbo’ bashing. Called to action by 270,000 text messages, they chanted racist slogans and attacked people — including women— of Middle Eastern appearance. The beachside violence overflowed into the neighbouring suburbs of Miranda, Brighton-le-Sands, Rockdale, Maroubra, Woolooware and Tempe, where rioters took to people, properties and vehicles with rocks, bottles, iron bars and bats. Police confiscated over 30 molotov cocktails and crates of rocks. Sixty-six people were arrested on 159 charges. At least ten people were injured.

Then-Prime Minister John Howard condemned the violence, but refused to “accept that there was [an] underlying racism in [the] country.” Rather, he laid blame on “an explosive combination of a large number of people at the weekend and a large amount of alcohol.” But in doing so, he ignored a simple truth: a large number of people and a large amount of alcohol usually results in a party.

Going unchecked, the racism on show in 2005 has festered in the ten years since the Cronulla riots. In fact it’s been extended, by way of some great logical leaps, to encompass the imminent arrival of Sharia law, and halal meat-funded terrorist activities.

If an organised ‘wog bashing’ isn’t indicative of underlying racism, what is? How can we address a problem when we refuse to accept that it is there?

Howard resisted suggestions that his government’s anti-terrorism fear-mongering had fuelled the riots. In fact, he believed the warnings about homegrown terrorists were totally justified. The Abbott government hasn’t publicly rebuked the Reclaim Australia rallies, either. And in that silence lies a clear, succinct message.

Like Howard, Abbott’s rhetoric sets out to encourage fear, rather than placate it. Through divisive phrases like ‘Death Cult’ and ‘Team Australia’, he also regularly and deliberately uses words that alienate Muslims and Islam.

If we ask ourselves if we’re a racist nation or not every time xenophobia and hate rises up, we’ll get nowhere. That question doesn’t address the social attitudes or systemic lethargy that green-lights racist behaviour. It doesn’t equip us to negotiate future waves of difference-based moral panics, or placate current ones. It doesn’t help us untangle national security from religion. It doesn’t address the question of why and how hate groups gain momentum, nor does it enable us to defuse them.

Until we stop excusing racism, we will continue to marginalise minorities, and entrenched prejudices will go ignored. We need to acknowledge the increasingly divisive attitudes that pervade Australia, and work out how to counter them. We need to create a more inclusive society, that’s more reflective of our diversity. We need to reassure those who fear that in accepting cultural diversity their own cultural heritage will be lost.

If we can’t call a spade a spade, we’re going to find ourselves back here, scratching our heads, wondering how this has happened again. Not everyone who booed Goodes is racist, but the booing of Goodes is racial. Not everyone in Australia is racist, but we are a racist nation. And until we acknowledge that, we’ll stay stuck in an arrested development.

Zita Whalley is a writer and performance maker who often gets paid to put things on her head. She is based in Melbourne but often thinks about relocating. She blogs at thereareotherplacesiwouldratherbe.wordpress.com