“Is Australia a racist country?”
It’s a contentious question, and one that has no easy answer. (Well, it does have an easy answer – yes, but it takes some unpacking to understand the question and the answer).
First of all, what do we mean by ‘Australia’?
Do we mean 50% +1 of the total population? (or 50% + 1 of the white population?)
Are we talking about personal perspectives and experiences? One person in Australia might not see racism in their workplaces or their social groups. Or they might not define what they see as racism where someone else might. They might have all sorts of inbuilt response mechanisms they use to justify to themselves and to others how they couldn’t possibly be racist – ‘It was just a joke!’ ‘You’re being too sensitive’. ‘I didn’t mean it that way – you’re taking it out of context!’. ‘They can’t be racist, they are a lovely person!’. ‘I can’t be racist – I have an Aboriginal friend!’. ‘I can’t be racist, I’ve never even met an Aboriginal person!’. The list is endless.
If a person experiences racism everyday of their lives is it fair for them to think ‘Australia is a racist country’? Especially if their experiences are compounded by the lack of other people standing up for them, or even believing them when they try to raise it.
Or is it not about individual or collective group experiences and is about ‘official Australia’, eg to what extent does racism exist in our public spaces and in our institutions? And importantly, how is racism responded to when it occurs.
How does Australia respond to racist people, or people who do racist things? Do we hold them accountable? Do we condemn them, fire them from their jobs, or do we elect them, promote them, or give them their own tv show?
There are examples of all of these that can be found. Which one you think happens more than others probably depends on who you listen to more. An average IndigenousX reader probably has a very different view on this than an average Andrew Bolt reader. But even that dichotomy isn’t clear cut. There are likely people who are reading this right now who do or say racist stuff, and there are probably Andrew bolt readers who don’t – not many, I admit, but I wouldn’t rule out the possibility.
Australia, as a collective group of people, has competing forces and competing views. No one person best exemplifies an ‘average Aussie’, so answering the question ‘is Australia racist?’ is an almost impossible question to answer if we don’t qualify it and contextualise it.
That’s why it is such a great quote to use in media spaces, or in politics. It’s click bait. It’s a dog whistle. It means nothing but is guaranteed to cause a controversy and polarise people.
One person saying ‘Australia is not a racist country’ can mean something very different from someone else who says it. A person could be saying this to appeal to the common humanity and empathy that exists in most of us, or someone could be saying it to appeal to the fervour for racism denialism that is so strong in Australia. It can be said to dismiss lived experience, or to optimistically appeal to our greater humanity. It’s so loaded now though (and maybe it always was) that anyone who says it, regardless of intent, will rightly be met with much eye rolling and dismissive responses. It is now the national equivalent of ‘I’m not racist but’ except it doesn’t even get a ‘but’.
And what about the ‘alarming rise in anti-white racism’ that Pauline Hanson and Mark Latham complain about? Well, that’s nonsense and we probably don’t need to spend much time on that one. It is definitely worth considering the rise in white nationalism that their racist nonsense represents though. The new trend on framing white people as the victims of racism to justify actual racism, and how seemingly innocuous slogans like ‘It’s ok to be white’ are actually deeply embedded within white supremacist movements.
A better question might be to look at to what extent does it exist, and how is it responded to in Australia?
Racism in Australia exists. It exists in our institutions and in our public spaces. There are those who oppose it, but there is also a lot of racism among our self-proclaimed ‘white allies’. But how do we judge whether racism is growing or shrinking in Australia?
We have more black people commenting in the mainstream media on issues that affect black people, but we also have more people dying in custody. How do you balance that on the scales? We have governments spending more than ever on Indigenous businesses, but conversations about self-determination or reparations have entirely disappeared from federal politics.
How do we balance the steps forward against the steps backwards to arrive at our answer that Australia is or isn’t a racist country? How we compare the arts against the justice system, or politics against social media? How much weight do we give to the stated intentions of white people to the stated interpretations of non-white people? But these are not homogenous groups either. There are plenty of white people who understand racism exists, and then we have some people of colour who will say that they do not believe Australia is a racist country.
Racism exists within our institutions and because so many white people deny it, and so many people of colour are uncomfortable discussing it for fear of the inevitable backlash it brings, and thanks to the myth of the meritocracy, this in turn perpetuates racism within our society.
We look at Aboriginal prison rates and label Aboriginal people as criminals rather than looking at racism in policing or in sentencing. We see Aboriginal suspension rates, or low attendance rates, in school and blame Aboriginal children and parents instead of looking at our curriculum, pedagogy, and how and when school policies are enforced.
We ignore Indigenous expertise and lived experiences and instead look at Aboriginal people as a problem to be solved through ‘carrot and stick’ approaches, usually with a big stick and tiny carrot. Instead of supporting Indigenous led solutions, we get Tony Abbott as our special envoy.
Speaking of Tony, we heard him when he was PM say that Australia was ‘nothing but bush’ before white people got here, or our current PM say that Australia was ‘born’ when white people got here, but we must remember that there are entire generations of white Australians who were taught the exact same thing when they were at schools. Some of those people are now teachers themselves. Or police, or judges, or doctors or nurses.
Aboriginal people were taught the same thing in school too, at least in the past generation or two where we’ve actually been allowed to attend. What lessons did we learn in school? That we were not respected, not good enough, not smart enough, not welcome. The same lesson we learn when we here our PMs talk so disrespectfully about us.
Racism is a vicious cycle.
We know its impacts affect intergenerational trauma, but its perpetuation is intergeneration too.
Racism is insidious. It impacts on people’s health, their education, housing and employment opportunities, and their sense of self and safety living in Australia. It isn’t just words and hurt feelings.
Anti-racism isn’t just saying that you oppose racism, it’s understanding what racism is and being aware of different strategies for responding it. Anti-racism isn’t just a value, it’s a skill set.
A skill set that I would expect a Race Discrimination Commissioner for the Human Rights Commission to have.
So, when our newest appointment to this role says that he doesn’t think Australia is a racist country, it does not fill me with confidence that he has the skills, or the desire, to help make Australia an anti-racist country.
Luke Pearson is a Gamilaroi man, and is the founder and CEO of IndigenousX.