Ready to Confront Your Own Racism?

If you’re not born of a racial minority, are comfortably middle-class and you catch taxis then you might identify with this scenario. On Monday I climbed into a Melbourne taxi. “Airport please.” The Sudanese driver was playing Middle Eastern music and spoke basic English. He grunted in reply.

Now, you might class me a small-L liberal (latte-sipping, bike-lane hogging, broadsheet-toting) multiculturalist. Which means I probably wouldn’t admit to having a particular “take” on this gentleman. Or his culture. Of course not.

Which is why at the lights when he unwinds his window and yells excitedly in Arabic with his African mate in the next taxi I’m only mildly put out. I ask him what they were discussing. “Football!” he says with a massive grin. “I’m Western Bulldogs, my little sons Western Bulldogs fans. He’s Hawthorn.” He punches the air and cackles happily.

Immediately my heart swelled. And I was flooded with all kinds of sappy jingoism – isn’t Australia incredible! He can barely speak English, but he’s adopted one of our passions. How wonderful! A reaction that served to blatantly expose the – ughhh! – prejudiced, threatened “take” I’d had when I first jumped in his taxi.

Now, the interesting thing is only 45 minutes earlier I’d been speaking to Raye an Adelaide woman who lives opposite Inverbrackie detention centre. She’s just taken part in SBS’s timely documentary Go Back To Where You Came From (which screens THIS Tuesday – Thursday) that follows six Australians who challenge their particular “takes” on asylum seekers by personally tracing refugees’ journeys. Before setting out, Raye said the boatpeople who crashed at Christmas Island in December deserved their fate and that Middle Eastern people don’t deserve our help. “They’re ungrateful. And arrogant.”

But then she set off to East Timor in a dodgy boat (that started to sink; they had to be rescued), spent time in a Malaysian refugee camp (where she witnessed Burmese asylum seekers being beaten with baseball bats) and lived in Kakuma camp in Kenya as a refugee with only refugee papers, a bowl and a mosquito net to her name. Raye says she could never imagine feeling such fear and hopelessness. Turns out it was the same camp where my taxi driver had spent seven years awaiting his freedom. I cried when he tells me this.

Raye says she’d always had a “thing” against the Sudanese. “I thought they were violent and shouldn’t come here. But I saw fighting is part of their culture, it’s all they know…to stay alive.” Having spent time “in their shoes” she says she felt what it was like to have no rights, no voice. “There was nothing I could do, every bit of our lives was at the mercy of authorities.” So she “got” their anger. Their shame. Their fear.

I spent the rest of the week considering the awkward shifts Raye and I had experienced. Studies say we’re all born racist. We’re programmed to fear “the other”. Which is ugly. But the good news is that neuroscience shows our brains fight this inherent prejudice when it arises (the amygdala, responsible for self-control, fires up following a prejudiced thought) and that we can actually rewire our brains to be inclusive and compassionate in the face of “the other”. Indeed it’s what our brains desire! The “intergroup-contact hypotheses”, a theory guiding much racism research, says contact with the other and a shared goal can rewire things. This happened with Raye. She lived with Sudanese families, uniting with them to stay alive. Ergo, a shift.

Which is interesting right? On the one hand we default to separatism and fear. On the other we crave opportunities to be inclusive, to reframe. Which could be why my brain melted in gratitude when I had an opportunity to reframe the Sudanese footy fan as one of “us”. Thank goodness, my brain was saying, we can be freed of such smallness and ughness.

And which, to my mind, is why

it’s imperative Governments work to provide such opportunities for our collective brains to rise above our ugly default position.

To reframe refugees as “us”.

I called Raye back to ask her about the Middle Eastern people. “Is it possible the arrogance you don’t like is also cultural?” I asked if it might be possible to reframe her feelings as she did with the Sudanese. “I hope so,” she said. “I want to.”


37 thoughts on “Ready to Confront Your Own Racism?

  1. Spot on. I agree that it’s a conscious decision we have to make to reconsider our “automatic thoughts” in a different light. Kudos to Raye and the others involved in the making of this documentary for being prepared to do this. It’s just a shame that, on SBS, they’ll be preaching to the converted. If only one of the commercial stations had the courage to put it on during primetime…..

    BTW, that ad at the top is stunningly effective. Where is it from?

  2. That’s so heartwarming that that lady could change her attitude. Also it is so inspirational and sweet when people from other cultures embrace our traditional Australian past times. Also I agree with Kabdoo, the commercial networks seem to peddle subtle racism on their news and current affairs programs so instead they should put something more unbiased on primetime.

    • Commercial = revenue-driven. They used to say that sex sells. Now racism/xenophobia sells, too. I wonder where it will end.

    • Grunty, in case you missed the eloquent post made by R, I will restate it in simple terms so even you and your fellow boneheads can understand.

      Your desired Australia is boring, bovine and backward.

      Multicultural Australia is not.

    • Now granty when the majority supports multiculturalism who is the failure? The successful society or the ones who rail against success?

    • I’m sure if you supplied the pointed questions TAB or someone else here would be more than happy to supply the answers.

  3. Grant: Multiculturalism is in essence leaving people be, especially if they are not hurting anyone. The only hurt they seem to be doing is that of being different, of not seeing or doing things in the way we’re used to. It doesn’t make it any less right, it just makes it different.

    Your next argument to me will be over how much difference a society should take.

    Then after that, it will be about how ‘our’ culture is to be ruined because of multiculturalism.

    Then you will speak of cultural annihilation because you’re so afraid of what anyone else different than yourself could possibly offer you.

    Difference is what makes the world tick. Without it, we’d be all genetic inbreds, boring, and wouldn’t grow as people. Change is what you’re really afraid of: the Asian-Australian, the Aborigine or the asylum seekers – they’re all the same to you. They all resemble something you don’t understand and so immediately reject rather than use your brain and try and find out what it is all about first before passing judgement.

    Try and embrace change occasionally – you might find your life a bit more interesting and enriched as a result.

  4. Try being a white male with an invisible disability: THEN you’d know about having “no rights and no voice.” The fact that righting is part of their “culture” is a reason NOT to let them in to this country. I couldn’t care less if they follow the footy (which would make them an instant pariah if they were white).

  5. This is from The Age right? I read this on the weekend, in the life section. Shouldn’t you make some note of who wrote it?

  6. I watched the show last night and found it very interesting and informative. I’m really looking forward to seeing the next two episodes and watching the journey, both physically and emotionally that these six people take. I hope that this series reaches a large audience and that the view that many Australians have about refugess can be changed. However while watching the Iraqi gentlemen my wife asked me if I was in the same situation could I leave her and my son behind while I escaped. I considered the situation knowing that the result of staying behind could mean inprisonment, torture and even death, yet to be honest there was no scenario that I could invisage that would enable me to leave my family behind. The fear worry and guilt that I would have for them would be too much for me to cope with. In saying that I did wonder if by getting here and receiving refugee status themselves did it open paths for them to bring their family here too?

    • I do like to think i have a heart so that particular insult doesn’t bother me. However calling me an idiot because i look at this issue with compassion and understanding makes me wonder if you have the capacity to think beyond the tripe that you obviously get fed by the mainstream media. It’s actually people like you Peter that make me want to fight harder to help these people.

  7. Also Peter if you actually watched the show and saw the attitude change of Raquel then it will give hope to people like you, that even the most dilluded people can be helped!

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