Are we a racist nation? No, but …
Graeme Innes August 09, 2011
When I think back over the past two years or more, the question I have most commonly been asked as Race Discrimination Commissioner is, ”Is Australia racist?”
How do you answer that question without buying into the headline, the divisive news grab, the political quip?
In matters of discrimination, nothing is as simple as it seems. Nothing is as simple as a sound bite or a seemingly benign phrase such as, ”I’m not racist, but . . .” Because nine times out of 10, it’s the prelude to a racist comment.
Multiculturalism is Australia’s norm. It has been for hundreds of years. It’s our present – 50 per cent of Australians are born overseas or have an overseas-born parent – and it is also our certain future.
Once we accept that multiculturalism is our norm, we will begin to appreciate the need for leadership that doesn’t problematise particular cultures, or make them wrong. We will realise that igniting and exploiting cultural or religious differences, for the purpose of political expediency, and building monocultures, is the most dangerous legacy that governments or politicians can bestow. Because it fractures our identity and constrains our development.
Our future is also online interconnectedness. My daughter at high school does her homework with the help of Dr Google, while she’s on Facebook and texting.
In most respects, these developments in technology are welcome. In fact, as a blind person I couldn’t do my job without them. They also have connected the world’s indigenous peoples, as well as ethnic minority groups, in a way they have never been connected before – to share stories, co-ordinate their work, and collectively organise.
However, they can also be used to cause serious harm. The proliferation of race-hate websites and materials breeds and incites real world hatred. And our cyber-racism complaints have more than doubled in the past couple of years.
Racism online means that racism in our classrooms, workplaces and communities moves into our pockets and handbags.
It is the same old racism in a new space, but with increased potential for anonymity, exponential capacity to go viral, and a complex interjurisdictional environment. So what do we do about it?
Many organisations, here and overseas, are running effective anti-bullying programs and campaigns. We are having some success with discrimination complaints, and material and sites being taken down. We do not yet have all the solutions. What we do know is that, just like the broader conversation on racism, it will require partnerships between government, social networking sites and ISPs, and the community. And it will require members of connected communities to stand up and say, ”It is not OK.”
Australia is a great country. And there is no single story about Australia. Australia should be a country of which we can all be proud, and in which we can all feel safe, and at home.
We are all responsible for naming, and saying no to, racism. We must call it when we see it, when the talkback show host, the internet friend, or the person sitting next to us starts their sentence with the seemingly innocent, but loaded phrase, ”I’m not racist, but . . .”
Race hate, racism, careless words can harm entire populations. They can change the way that we live together. Denial also changes the way that we live together. It keeps Australians stuck.
Denying racism says, ”We don’t believe you.” Or that, ”You have imagined or misunderstood your own circumstances.”
When 4000 students from Indian backgrounds stand on the streets of Melbourne claiming there have been racist attacks and stating, quite simply, ”We are afraid”, then sit up and pay attention, Australia. I note it was not governments but Wurundjeri elders who, with kindness and respect, acknowledged and counselled international students during this time.
There has been a tendency to name race as a problem in this country. And, in doing that, we have named some cultures as the problem. The real problem is not reaching full equality.
We need to act together, without delay, to eradicate racism and racial inequality in all of its forms – to find a solution. This is a real zero-tolerance approach, not a ”zero-acknowledgment” approach.
You can follow me on Twitter at @graemeinnes.
This is an edited extract from a speech the outgoing Race Discrimination Commissioner, Graeme Innes, will give to the National Press Club today. Follow the National Times on Twitter: @NationalTimesAU