Sol Was Right: We Are Racist

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Former Telstra CEO Sol Trujillo was correct to describe living in Australia as "stepping back in time", citing his experience of racial vilification at the hands of the Australian media. And that vilification had nothing really to do with anything Trujillo did or didn’t do in his Telstra role.

The name-calling started as soon as his appointment was announced in 2005. The reason Trujillo has been vilified recently by the media for making his comments about racism in Australia (the same media which had no qualms in portraying Howard’s policies as racist just months ago) is because Trujillo’s main target was not the Australian people but the Australian media. Trujillo said that many of our media commentators display racist attitudes. He was right, and because the media won’t accept this legitimate and substantiated criticism, they have turned on Trujillo with venom instead of looking critically at themselves.

Racial stereotypes in the media abound not just in the domain of tabloid journalism but also in those parts of our media with pretensions to quality. Australian financial commentators, supposedly well educated people, had no qualms about using a wide range of Spanish words to refer to Trujillo and his executives disparagingly. Trujillo’s complaints over the way he was portrayed by the media in Australia were not new. He had said the same thing about his Australian experience to the Financial Times in the middle of his tenure.

It all fell on deaf ears. The media carried on, because, I believe, many media commentators genuinely thought it was all very funny. They do not see themselves as racist at all. They see themselves as tolerant, and culturally open. But their constant jibes at Trujillo’s Mexican ethnicity (not his American birth and citizenship) were not funny even if they, disturbingly, found it so. In their world — which appears to be an exclusively English-speaking one — jokes about another person’s culture and language (or their accents whan speaking English) are often considered acceptable and hilarious.

Journalists and their editors did not seem to give a hoot if some of their audience were offended by their treatment of Trujillo. To me, it was a display of their own prejudices to label a highly educated overachiever (regardless of what anyone thinks of him) as a simple "amigo". Any situation which involved Telstra under Trujillo was a "Mexican standoff" (a term which has sinister connotations) and cartoons on the topic would feature a big sombrero hat.

Our media never referred to BHP or Westpac this way when they were involved in similar situations, and now that Trujillo is gone, they have (revealingly) stopped portraying Telstra in that fashion. For them, Trujillo’s moustache, his name, and his ethnicity were all a licence to vilify with impunity.

Interestingly, this disgrace was perpetrated not by Hanson supporters but by our supposedly best and brightest — our highly educated financial journalists.

Thanks to Bill Leak

Imagine doing this in the US, Trujillo’s home country. It would cause an outrage; no self-respecting editor would allow it. Advertisers (aware of the economic power of the Hispanic and other so-called ethnic markets) would threaten to pull their sponsorship. Heads would have rolled at corporate office for this sort of bigotry. But here in anachronistic young Australia, nothing at all happened. It was just good sport, and the attitude to Trujillo’s complaints was: "You don’t get it, mate — we are just having a bit of harmless fun."

What happened to Trujillo is not an isolated case. In Australia the chattering classes still revere an outdated and racist 1970s TV series like Fawlty Towers with its standing joke around the Spanish waiter, basically playing the role of a retarded moron, not understanding English, asking "Que?" (What?) repeatedly to the delight of the Anglo audience. This was always condescending, rude and truly shocking to me. I disliked it because to an audience that knows next to nothing about it, it perpetuated a baseless myth of Spanish people being lazy and dumb, and ignored the fact that Spanish culture is one of the richest the world has today. What happened to Trujillo in "modern" Australia was an extension of this 1970s-style attitude to people from outside its privileged enclosure.

Another example is the recent case of the infamous Clare "chk-chk Boom" Werbeloff. She is the 19-year-old from Sydney who lied to the TV cameras using the most openly racist and inappropriate language available to her limited intellect, accusing two non-Anglo looking citizens, falsely, of committing murder.

Let’s run her own words: "There were these two wogs fighting … The fatter wog said to the skinnier wog: ‘Oi bro, you slept with my cousin.’ And the other one said: ‘Nah man, I didn’t for s—, eh’ and the other one goes: ‘I will call on my fully sick boys, eh’. And then pulled out a gun and went: Chk-chk boom!" Her performance was not only a fabrication (as she later confessed) but presented repulsive and offensive words which should have never been played (and replayed) on television. Yet, one of our TV networks thought she would be so appealing to an Australian audience that they had the indecency to run a prime-time interview with her. I am sorry to say it, but this could only happen in a society where racist profiling and vilification has been legitimised in its subconscious.

Trujillo is right then: we are still "backward" and anachronistic. This could have never happened in America or in a society where people are conscious that words do cause harm, and foster disharmony in a multicultural society.

In the US, there would have been a picket organised by ethnic and minority groups, identifying Werbeloff as a racist and demanding an apology from the network for putting someone like her on air. There would have been calls for the sacking of the journalists behind it. But not in Australia.

In Australia, we had the extraordinary situation where Trujillo could actually be criticised for expressing his views by the same people who are supposed to be tasked with the job of fighting bigotry. Indeed, Australians heard a pathetic comment from the head of the so-called Ethnic Communities’ Council of NSW, dismissing as insignificant the abuse suffered by Trujillo. Its chairman Jack Passaris said racism existed everywhere "but here in Australia, it’s exactly the opposite … The majority of people have learned over the years to respect each other … We don’t have any problem at all and I can say that with authority."

So no problem at all then. I won’t press Passaris on his "authority" as I do not wish to embarrass him, but it got worse.

Stepan Kerkyasharian, president of the Anti-Discrimination Board of NSW said Mr Trujillo was wrong "because Australia has got some of the most progressive anti-discrimination laws in the world". "Racism exists somewhat in every society," he said. "One measure is by the laws and regulations a country has. In Australia we have strong anti-racist and anti-discrimination laws."

Mr Kerkyasharian said he did not know what Trujillo’s motivations were in claiming Australia was racist. "There is a general feeling in the Australian community that he probably had some sense of superiority. I cannot find any other reason he would make the kind of allegations he has made about Australia being racist."

So being systematically depicted as a stereotyped Mexican was Trujillo’s own fault, then. And this is coming from the Head of the Anti-Discrimination Board. Oh dear.

To our own eminences on ethnic issues, there’s no problem. The years of vilification suffered by Trujillo were all in his head — or if real, then he had it coming. Think how you would have felt getting up every morning and hearing yourself discussed this way in the media simply because your parents are of Mexican heritage. With anti-discrimination advocacy of this calibre, it’s no wonder racial stereotyping in our media has had such a free run.

What irked me most, finally, was Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s crack to Trujillo. Rudd, who speaks no Spanish at all, said publicly, "Adios." This was not a farewell but a parting gesture of a most abusive kind. It was like giving him the finger. If John Howard had done such a thing, the media would have condemned him as a racist. Dozens of articles would have been published by self-righteous editors making that point. But not this time.

Rudd got away with it because, in a single word as Prime Minister of Australia, he disgracefully authorised all the years of abuse and vilifications Trujillo suffered in the hands of the media over his Mexican descent.

Australia may well be a good example of a society on its way to becoming properly multicultural, but we still have a long, long way to go.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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