By Jessica Rowe                                                                                                                        January 20, 2012

Racism is one of Australia’s worst-kept secrets.

ThongsIf you scratch a little deeper beneath our white sand and easy-going attitude you can find ugly, hateful feelings of resentment from otherwise seemingly ordinary people.

How many times do you hear, “I’m not racist BUT…” Or how about, “Some of my friends are Middle Eastern, Vietnamese, Chinese, Italian BUT…” What follow can be the most absurd statements arising simply because of someone’s nationality or religion.

Australia has a reputation for being laid-back and generous. However all is not what it seems in this land of plenty. For a country that prides itself on having a ‘no bullshit’ attitude – we are hopeless at having an honest, and sometimes painful, discussion about the level of racism in our community.

And it doesn’t take much to get the debate going.

Legendary neurosurgeon, Dr Charlie Teo, has got the conversation started in the lead up to Australia Day. Dr Teo, who is the son of Chinese immigrants, is giving the New South Wales Australia Day speech.

I heard him explaining on radio that he ran his original speech by his family. His initial premise was that racism is no longer such an issue compared to when he was growing up in Australia. However his daughter disagreed. She told him she no longer goes down to Bondi Beach on Australia Day.

This sunny young woman had been in the mood to celebrate our national holiday, so she went to the beach proudly wearing those Aussie flag stickers on her cheeks. However, she had been abused by a group of people, who told her to “go back to where she came from”. She wonders where that might be – given she is a born-and-bred Aussie.

The good doctor discussed this with his colleagues. One of his registrars, who happened to be of Indian descent, had told him that he had been spat on at the bus stop because of his colour.

Such bigotry is shocking. And it makes me feel like I need to apologise and say we’re not all like this.

All well and good to apologise but it’s impossible to deny that racism is a real problem in our country. I’ve heard usually sensible people say, “well other countries are more racist than we are!”. Does that make what we do right? No. Such an explanation doesn’t make any type of racism okay. And besides why can’t we be better than the rest of the world in how we treat one another?

Recently I was enjoying my comfortable middle-class existence in one of my local cafes. I got chatting with Mario, the gourmet food supplier. He had a delivery of sensational olive oils, pasta and cheeses. Here was a trivial, but tasty benefit of living in a multicultural society.

Now despite living in Australia for over 40 years, Mario still has the thick accent of his mother country. He tells me that life is good in Australia; he had his children here and now his grandchildren are getting ready to start university. But he’s getting out of the food industry because “the Indians are now taking over the kitchens”. Huh? That is simply not true.

I’ve also heard from a number of politicians who represent electorates with large ethnic communities that earlier migrants have racist attitudes to newer arrivals.

Often we fear what we don’t know, or we fear something new…

Human rights campaigner Samah Hadid is passionate about breaking down the fear we have of the unknown. This young woman, whose parents are Lebanese Muslim migrants, lives in Bankstown in Sydney’s Western suburbs. She has also experienced racism as a young girl growing up in the suburbs, where judgements were made about her Muslim faith.

She has experienced racism in the workplace. Such unfortunate experiences mean she’s highly qualified to bring the discussion about racism out into our bright, harsh sunlight. She says the issue is like “the elephant in the room”.

She points the finger at our politicians, claiming they don’t want to acknowledge the racism in our community.

Why? Well, Samah believes its part of the collective guilt we hold about our past, that shameful part of our history of how we treated the original inhabitants of this land.

But before I sound holier than now, I also have had to recognise that I too have been racist. I have made unfair judgements about people based on their appearance. My champagne socialism and activism was challenged when I travelled through the United States as a naïve but pretending-to-be-world-weary student.

During that time I’d been active in student politics at uni, and spent my days and nights having impassioned discussions about how to change the world. I wasn’t ‘one of those people’ who judged others… Oh, noooo, not me. But, oh yes, I was…

My privileged and sheltered world was shaken when I found myself avoiding young black men on the subways.

I thought I would be mugged and worse. I was sure they were gangs waiting to draw a gun on me. Looking back, rather than boyz in the hood, these men were probably students, musicians or maybe adventurers just like me. And it makes me feel ashamed that I had felt such prejudice. Such irrational judgement took me by surprise.

Samah Hadid says it is human nature to fear the unknown.

She says we are all “a bit racist” because of the perception we have of “others”. And that racism exists in every society. The trouble really begins when those fears are exploited by one group to exclude another group and it becomes politicised. A perfect example of this is the image of asylum seekers and refugees.

Samah says at the heart of asylum seeker policy is racism, and that no-one on the left or right of politics wants to acknowledge it. Interestingly she says many Australian find it confronting to see images of ‘foreigners arrive by boat’ because we’re an island and we have this idea of being taken over and swamped.

Our geographic isolation means we are sheltered from the rest of the world and perhaps it’s not a stretch to say this also feeds into the ‘us and them’ mentality.

So what is the way to deal with our guilty big secret?

Change is in the air if women like Samah have anything to do with it. Samah says we need to listen seriously to minority groups’ experiences of racism and not dismiss their stories as trivial and un-Australian. We are a demographically diverse country so how about we see that on our television screens and in the corridors of power. Let us applaud our politicians if they take the high moral ground.

It takes bravery and courage to get our heads out of the white sand but I’m game if you are…

Jessica Rowe*Jessica Rowe is a broadcaster and writer who, in a career spanning 20 years, has worked at all the major Australian commercial television networks. She is has written the best selling book, Love. Wisdom. Motherhood as well as co-authoring The Best of Times, the Worst of Times with her mother Penelope Rowe. Follow Jessica on Twitter @msjrowe or visit her website at www.jessicarowe.com.au

**Jessica is an ambassador for welcometoaustralia.org.au


*Image of Australian flag on home page via wazoologist.blogspot.com