Is Australia A Racist Country? Wrong Question.


Australia is a racist country. Or not. It depends on who you ask.

Earlier this month, a racist incident happened on a Sydney train, to much shock and awe. It attracted a flurry of comments as soon as it was posted on YouTube and various social media, and was immediately picked up by news outlets soon after.

The reactions that ensued were strong on their condemnation, an outraged citizenry appalled and righteous in their disgust.

This is the umpteenth incident after countless ones before, and which seem to always provoke a cycle: a new sense of shock following an apparently unprecedented occurrence, which then reinvigorates a series of debates about the status of racism in Australia.

So, is Australia a racist country or not?

What actions does a country as a whole need to commit before it can be considered sufficiently racist?

How many incidents of racial abuse on public transport need to occur before Australia is given the Racist Decree?

Do we look at legislation, history, social psychology? Is a country known for the cultural genocide of its First Peoples racist?

Is Australia racist or not?

The questions are moot. The debate is superfluous. The wide-sweeping accusation of racism (or not) is counter-intuitive and discourages introspection.

It’s not enough to simply know that racism exists, and that we live in a racist society.

Rather, how are we reflecting on and transforming our own personal and collective racism? How many faces does the term ‘racist’ hold?

The racist tirades on public transport so often documented bring about a problem that not many acknowledge.

During the time it takes to spectate on the spectacular, the so-called ‘shocking’ racism that is taking place, a bubble is created for the racism that exists “over there”.

It becomes an abstract evil that someone else overtly commits. The astonishment that is displayed within white progressive circles inevitably transforms into a callous rejection of the racism that people are complicit in.

“Not me, I would never do something as horrible as that.” Do you deserve a gold star now, then?

Recently, The Sydney Morning Herald journalist Mark Sawyer wrote a piece titled How Racist Are You?

In it, he derided the existence of racism, saying it didn’t exist, and that certainly no one was as racist as they were stupid.

Unsurprisingly, he recounted previous incidents of supposed racism against himself (a white man) and that he simply “walked past it.” 

He also asserts that it “pays to look at the bigger picture”, and that it “appears counter-intuitive, and frankly crazy to label people racist on the basis of one or two remarks.”

The problem, then, becomes the racism which doesn’t think it exists. If racism is largely defined by explosive incidents in public spaces which incur wrath and indignation amongst a left-leaning populace, convinced that they are racism’s defenders and not perpetrators, then what about the racism that is glossed over and harder to detect?

When racism is “not racism”, is it non-existent?

In a response to Mark Sawyer, Melbournian stand-up comic and cultural critic Aamer Rahman wrote an excellent take-down on Crikey.

“Racism isn’t about segregated lunch counters and people refusing to shake hands any more. Racism is about this country’s obsession with defining boundaries of inclusion and exclusion, and the pervasive and violent ways in which those boundaries are maintained. 

“Racism is about two major parties collaborating for years to convince a white majority, through various codes, that they are perpetually at risk of losing out to lazy Aborigines, ghettoised migrants, dishonest asylum seekers and suspicious Muslims. 

“Racism is a government using free speech rhetoric to facilitate racial vilification. 

“Racism is, in a climate of perpetual fear and hostility, The Age choosing to publish some childish nonsense about how there’s no such thing as racism.”

Indeed, the racism that is to be feared is the racism that insidiously creeps into the resulting building blocks of society.

In a study conducted by researchers at the Australian National University in 2009, it found that one is significantly less likely to be called in for a job interview if they had a non-European name.

A job applicant with a Chinese name had to send 68 per cent more applications than an Anglo-named applicant to get the same number of call-backs.

A Middle Eastern-named applicant had to put in 64 per cent more, and an indigenous-named applicant 35 per cent more.

This is on top of the fact that we have yet to see our multicultural society transpose itself on screen and in theatre, and that Aboriginal Australians living in remote communities in rural Australia without access to the basic amenities that many of us take for granted in our first-world society is our country’s “secret shame.”

There is also, of course, the horrifying new lows to which Australia has sunk in the ways we treat refugees and asylum seekers forced to flee persecution in their home countries.

The racism that isn’t called out is the racism that we’re all complicit in.

By vilifying racial abuse on public transport, we’re absolving ourselves of the day-to-day racism that is enacted against people of colour in our laws and communities.

Instead, let’s raise the bar: by listening, by respecting, and by learning to admit it when we slip up.

The fact is, you’re probably more racist than you think.

While not all racism is easily noticeable, the worst kind of racism is the one that is so ingrained it becomes involuntary.

After all, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.