Noisy bigots drown out silent bias


April 4, 2013 – 4:04PM

Our real problem is the subterranean racism that goes largely unremarked upon and that we seem unable even to detect.

As opening lines in letters go, “I find you deeply offensive”, is pretty direct. Fair enough. I suspect lots of people do. It’s a natural consequence of media work. But then my anonymous correspondent decided to explain why: “You are foreign, you shall always be so. Piss off back to whatever Middle Eastern sinkhole you blew in here from.”

There’s nothing surprising about this. There’s nothing even particularly rare about it. Some version of that letter arrives every few months. This one was particularly unvarnished – complete with references to my wife and “half-caste kids” and cheerful threats of the return of the White Australia Policy – but the message hardly varies: this isn’t my country and my public presence is unwelcome, either because I’m a Muslim, or because in some racially determinable way not a “real” Australian. I’ve been accused of everything from taking elocution lessons to changing the spelling of my name to appear deceptively Australian before I unleash some Trojan conspiracy. Apparently, Aly is roughly equivalent to Smith. They’re onto me.

I have almost no emotional reaction to this kind of goonish racism. It’s simply too ridiculous to engage me. In fact, I’d completely forgotten about this most recent letter until racist ranting hit the headlines this week following yet another racist diatribe on a Sydney bus that was captured and posted to YouTube. It’s at least the third such case in about four months. Hence the fresh round of debate on Australian racism that always seems to follow the same unedifying pattern.

Racist rant … a screengrab of the video posted on YouTube.

First comes the shock, as though such incidents reveal something we never knew existed. Then comes the argument over whether or not Australia is a racist country. Frankly, I don’t know what the argument means. Every country has racism. How much do you need before a country itself is racist? Is it a matter of essence or degree? Do we judge it by surveying legislation, newspapers or behaviour on public transport? And even if we can answer those questions, then what?

That argument is a dead end. It’s more about a condemnatory label than the substance and nature of Australian racism. The real question is not about which adjective describes us. It’s about how best to identify and respond to the racism we inevitably harbour.

Debating the meaning of the occasional racist tirade does not help answer that. It’s just not that helpful to take extreme individual behaviour as the starting point on an issue like this. Sure, it’s troubling. Sure, it’s more common than we like to admit. Sure, it’s a problem. But it’s not the problem. The racism that really matters in Australia isn’t the high-level, weapons-grade derangement that winds its way via YouTube into the news.

Waleed Aly Photo: James Brickwood


The truth is we can’t compete with Europe for hardcore white nationalism or the US for white supremacist movements. We can’t compete with Asia or the Middle East for the maintenance of an explicit, institutionalised and sometimes codified racial hierarchy. Our racial and religious minorities are not having their communities torched (though the occasional building has been firebombed), and our handful of far-right politicians aren’t leading political parties that attract 20 per cent of the vote.

No, our real problem is the subterranean racism that goes largely unremarked upon and that we seem unable even to detect. Like the racism revealed by an Australian National University study, which found you are significantly less likely to get a job interview if you have a non-European name. The researchers sent fake CVs in response to job advertisements, changing only the name of the applicant. It turns out that if your surname is Chinese, you have to apply for 68 per cent more jobs to get the same number of interviews as an Anglo-Australian. If you are Middle Eastern, it’s 64 per cent. If you are Indigenous, 35 per cent.

This is the polite racism of the educated middle class. It’s not as shocking as the viral racist tirades we’ve seen lately. No doubt the human resources managers behind these statistics would be genuinely appalled by such acts of brazen, overt racism. Indeed, they probably enforce racial discrimination rules in their workplace and are proud to do so. Nonetheless, theirs is surely a more devastating, enduring racism. There is no event to film, just the daily, invisible operation of a silent, pervasive prejudice. It does not get called out. It’s just the way things are; a structure of society.

That is what bothers me about all the fuss that surrounds these occasional racist diatribes. It puts the focus overwhelmingly on the most exceptional kinds of racist behaviour. But are we capable of recognising racism when it isn’t gobsmackingly obvious? Recall, for example, the widespread failure to understand why former Telstra boss Sol Trujillo felt racially offended at being caricatured relentlessly as a sleepy, sombrero-wearing Mexican on a donkey, or described as a “Mexican bandit”. Certainly, criticise his management of Telstra but can we really not see the gratuitous racial stereotyping? And Trujillo is not even Mexican.

Or note the strange Australian comfort with adopting blackface. Remember when Qantas gave two Wallabies fans free tickets because they promised to dress as Radike Samo by blacking up and donning Afro wigs? No offence meant. Qantas apologised. But that’s the thing about racism: it goes beyond intentions. The most insidious kind is just so ingrained it’s involuntary. It’s not about what Qantas intended. It’s that no one responsible for the decision even saw the existence of the problem. That sort of thing worries me much more than some crude, anonymous hate mail.

It’s easy to point at the barking racists on the bus precisely because they aren’t us. They allow us to exonerate ourselves; to declare that if we have a problem with racism, at least people like us are not responsible for it. It allows us to escape self-examination of the racism we all probably harbour to some extent or other. That self-examination is crucial. Without it we have nothing to fix, and only other people to blame.

Waleed Aly presents Drive on Radio National.


12 thoughts on “Noisy bigots drown out silent bias

  1. So agree, Waleed, though another form of subtle racism would be when the short form for the only name most Australians use for our cultural group (Indigenous) is not capitalised, even when it is clearly the short form for a proper noun (I assume you meant Indigenous Australians). It’s not like we deserve the same rights as every other ethnic group on the planet, though, is it?

    • Our inclination is to always capitalise the word Indigenous when it refers to the First Peoples of Australia.

      However we also are somewhat obliged to sometimes follow the sub-editing practices of the source when we get material from elsewhere. Fairfax is the one at fault here, not Waleed or ourselves.

  2. Unfortunately, every country, every peoples had an innate, ingrained and almost genetic racism against anyone who doesn’t look like them. I can live with this – it is something (unfortunately) native to homo sapiens sapiens. I see it in myself and recognize it for what it is – and I try to recognize it as early as possible so I can treat it as it deserves, which is to throw it out and try and treat everyone the same.

    Sure, overcoming this cultural racism isn’t easy, but it is something a rational society should aim to do as often as it possibly can.

    I don’t see how we, as Australians, can accept this subtle racism whilst decrying overt forms of the same bad behavior. The cognitive dissonance hurts. We should aim at becoming a more accepting, caring and moral society – and the more Secular we become as a nation, the more like this we will become.

  3. Absolutely, positively hit the nail on the head. I have always thought this but could never express it with such eloquence. Waleed is a legend.

  4. Thanks Waleed, that is beautifully expressed and I have long held similar views. One problem is that by highlighting and condemning the grosser forms of racism the inner irrational racist thoughts that I believe we all have are in danger of being suppressed – which makes them much more dangerous. (in other words because people fear being ostracised for racism they dont deal with what is there)
    I think it is a human characteristic to classify – to generalise from an individual to a collective. If we didnt do that then every time we ate a plate of beans we would have to individually check each one was a bean. Obviously this wouldnt help our survival. So we have an inbuilt inclination to make generalisations. The danger of course is when this tendency is applied to people that we somehow define as being part of the same group and therefore sharing the same characteristics. There is related point too here – which is that the concept of ‘race’ itself is bogus. There is no satisfactory scientific definition of what race is. It’s a meaningless concept. We are all the same species and interrelated. See my article here: – which also explores the origins of skin colour variance – something 99.9% of the population don’t seem to be aware of!
    Very sorry to hear you receive such unpleasant personal attacks. But please keep up your accurate intellegent writing.

  5. Wahlid is a rank hypocrite.
    While he opines about foreign minority groups overseas having their communities torched, exactly who is doing the torching?
    Usually it is Muslims waging jihad on other Muslims or Muslims attacking non Muslims.

  6. This is a really good article. When I got a place in dentistry at uni, several people suggested I’d be successful because I’m one of a small percentage of white people to get into an industry dominated by ‘asians’ and lots of practices would want to hire a white person (funny how my level of competence isn’t important regarding my level of success though!). The sad thing is by the look of those ANU study statistics, they could be right, especially since I have an anglo name. The people who made the comments were well-educated and would be(act?) outraged by the racist bus rants.

    • Precisely, DctrZaius. I think Waleed’s article cuts right to the core of our racism problem in this country. We even see it on this site where nutters like our mate Trent wave their arms about and shout “I’m a racist”. It’s obvious to all and sundry that he is and can’t be taken seriously. Then you get more subtle ones who will use perfect English and highly intelligent reasoning to tell you why they believe asylum seekers are given an unfair advantage over Aussies, etc. They are both racism but the latter is far more dangerous because it lends credibility to the bigotry. Personally, I would prefer a room full of Trents over one Tony Abbott.

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