By Dr Helen Szoke April 4, 2012
What should Australians do to prevent and reduce racism?
I have released a consultation document as part of the process of developing a National Anti-Racism Strategy, and it’s been interesting to see the reaction.
One of the things I’ve found most surprising is that many people don’t actually know what racism is, many deny that it exists, and many also say that naming something as racist is just being politically correct or being over-sensitive.
I disagree. My question to those people, indeed to all of us is, “why don’t we take a moment to walk in the shoes of people who experience racism?”.
I have sat in many consultations and heard people’s stories first hand, felt their grief, frustration, hurt and sense of injustice, alienation and consternation.
Racism is not restricted to any particular age group, gender or demographic profile.
Take the story of a young student of Sudanese background whose teacher once told him that if someone came into the school yard they would kill him first because his “skin stands out”. The teacher also made fun of the student’s name, and told him to “go rob a store or whatever you black people do”. This happened in Australia.
How would you feel if your son or daughter was treated like that? More to the point, what do you think their reaction would be?
I recall the story of a woman from Afghanistan who complained to housing providers about a refrigerator not working. She also requested a house with extra rooms to accommodate three children. The housing providers told her to display a grateful attitude and asked whether she had a refrigerator or extra rooms in Afghanistan.
This sort of attitude is typical of the “go back to where you came from” response.
Is it really the reputation we want for Australia?
Another story is one most of us have heard – the employer who admits to an applicant of Middle Eastern background in a job interview that, if they offered him the job, the business would lose clients because of the sentiment felt towards people of his heritage as a result of 9/11.
There is the Aboriginal woman who, when shopping at a particular store, had her bags searched while the bags of non-Aboriginal customers were not.
She said she reported this different treatment to the store manager, but they refused to act on her complaint. The store claimed that the complainant’s bags were searched because, on the day in question, two other customers had reported seeing her “place items into her bags”.
The woman took her complaint to the Australian Human Rights Commission where the matter was resolved through conciliation with the store agreeing to provide her with a statement of regret. It also arranged for the store manager to undertake cultural awareness training.
I’d like you to ponder on whether something like this has happened to someone you know, or that you have heard about. I am sure you will find it has. Such experiences are not merely anecdotal.
Independent research suggests that racism remains a critical issue in Australia.
And in situations like these, it is those on the margins of society – in small and recently arrived communities – who are most vulnerable.
In recounting these stories, I hope they provide some insight into why we need an anti-racism strategy (though, we won’t end up calling it that).
For years our politicians and media have been saying “Australia is not a racist country”.
That may be true. But is Australia a nation in denial of the existence of racism and the real threat it poses to social cohesion and the cherished tradition of ’a fair go’?
To address racism, it is important for us all to acknowledge the plain truth that it IS alive in Australia. And that it is negatively impacting upon people and communities.
This is the first step towards a truly cohesive and inclusive Australia – the Australia we and our politicians and media see ourselves as part of.
But we need to ensure that others see that as well.
On this basis, the federal Government’s new The People of Australia’ policy which, among other things, aims to develop a National Anti-Racism Partnership and Strategy, is more than welcome news. It is the Government’s acknowledgement of the fact that racism is a critical issue that must be addressed.
I absolutely believe that the design and implementation of this strategy will start a conversation on the subject of racism and the lasting solutions to the challenges we face in this area. That is why I believe it important for everyone to participate and have a say.
The so-called small ‘persistent pockets of racism’ we are constantly told exist in Australia must not be tolerated.
Together, we need to bring people along to work for a better Australia. We must realise that we need to name racism so that we are able to identify what we are fixing.
Racism anywhere should be considered as racism everywhere.