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.


Shattering the facade of kindness

THE play Something to Declare tells the story of a pregnant asylum seeker who is about to give birth in an Adelaide hospital. The scenario raises a problem: the baby is about to be born in Australia, and that gives it a better chance of becoming an Australian citizen.

So, summoning every ounce of legal creativity it can, the government decides to excise the maternity ward from the Australian migration zone. Problem solved. The child wasn’t born in Australia. It was born on a parcel of land specifically marked un-Australia.

I don’t know if the story is true. The play purports to be factual but I haven’t found the government notice that would prove it. It scarcely matters, though. The point is that it’s so eminently believable. This is exactly the kind of thing we do. We’ve done it ever since the Howard government figured out that we could deny people who land on our shores the right to seek asylum through make-believe. We just pretend they never arrived. And the beautiful thing is that if we turn that make-believe into law, it becomes true. If the maternity ward story is fiction, that only makes it very good satire.

Now the Gillard government has left the satirists with nothing to say. It’s excising the whole damn country. For boat people, Australia will effectively no longer exist. Howard’s logic has been taken to its most absurd extreme – an extreme that was too much even for Howard’s own cabinet. It allows us to maintain all sorts of hollow fictions. Like the fiction that we’re good international citizens upholding the Refugee Convention. How can you breach a convention that instructs you on how to deal with people who arrive in your country if no one ever makes it in the first place?

But there’s a more pernicious fiction here that simply must be called out: the fiction that we’re doing this because we’re so benevolent. ”The government is committed to … giving people better options than risking their lives at sea,” said Immigration Minister Chris Bowen, as though we’re providing a service. It’s the kind of thing your phone company tells you when it’s about to ratchet up prices. Better options? Which ones exactly? The option to be ignored for years in a camp, stuck in a mirage of a queue that doesn’t move because we barely process it? They have that option already, thanks. The fact that lots of people actually prefer to take a risk that might kill them tells you just how abysmal that option is.

Let’s be honest. The aim here is to make staying in no man’s land the only option. We’re not providing any alternatives. We’re not hurriedly clearing the backlog of asylum seekers that haven’t been resettled since forever. We’re not, say, processing applications in the region within a year. The only message we’re sending is: don’t come. We’re not offering somewhere else to go. We’re offering nothing except delay and rejection. If that’s a better option, it’s mainly better for us. And that’s what really counts.

All this is obscured by the high moral rhetoric. ”We’re trying to save people’s lives here,” says Bowen. You see the effect. High stakes justify extreme measures, and how could the stakes be any higher than death? Now the moral script is flipped. To oppose this measure is to vote for the deaths of these tragic souls. It’s almost akin to murder. You’re a bleeding heart with blood on your hands.

But it’s a sleight of hand. If this is really all about saving people’s lives, if this is really about preventing people from drowning at sea, then send a fleet of cruise liners to Indonesia to pick up the people who have been stuck there for up to a decade. It’s much safer. Or if arrivals by plane are so superior, charter a bunch of Qantas flights to pick them up and bring them here for processing. That’s much safer, too. People smuggling will disappear instantly. Surely we could provide a superior people smuggling service than some poor Indonesian kids with dodgy boats. Let’s beat them at their own game. We’re trying to save people’s lives here, right?

I’ll admit this suggestion is ridiculous if we all admit the inescapable truth that flows from it: that this must be about something other than saving lives. We’re only interested in saving lives if it involves punitive forms of deterrence. We’re not interested in doing it through increased generosity, for example, by seriously increasing our humanitarian intake and significantly speeding up our processing times. What we really want is for asylum seekers to stop being our problem.

That’s why we’re so selective about the lives we want to save. That’s why there’s no crying in Parliament, no hand-wringing, and no cross-party soul-searching when an asylum seeker is killed because we sent them back to the country they were fleeing. Those deaths don’t matter. We don’t count them. We don’t ask tough questions about the quality of the information we’re using to decide their home country is safe. And we certainly don’t go through absurd policy contortions to prevent it happening again. Why not? Are those asylum seekers any less dead?

The point is that they’re out of our system. They aren’t ours any more. No care. No responsibility. Our desperate concern for the wellbeing of asylum seekers begins only when they board boats and ends when we intercept them. It’s like we’re excising the rest of their lives from our humanitarian concern. And here the artifice of our whole political discourse becomes clear: the studied, confected compassion is as much a convenient fiction as the one that pretends Australia doesn’t exist.

Waleed Aly is an Age columnist. He hosts Drive on ABC Radio National and is a lecturer in politics at Monash University.


Defeated in a cruel game

Waleed Aly

In Kafka’s Australia, chilling bureaucratic violence against asylum seekers breaks them down slowly.

SO THIS is what ”no advantage” looks like. We have barely started sending asylum seekers to Nauru and already there has been an attempted suicide. By hanging, according to the psychiatrist who reported it. The end result was that three more asylum seekers opted to return home rather than face our immigration system.

That brings the tally of voluntary returns to about 40 – 40 people who decided the situation was so grim, so hopeless that they were better off returning to the place they were fleeing.

There’s something chilling about the government citing these as ”steps forward”, but that’s the logic of deterrence. It means we have to take the misery that produces asylum seekers, then raise it. And since we can’t simply inflict direct violence on detainees, we have to do it in more subtle ways, namely by destroying their sense of hope. That’s why people are attempting suicide so quickly, because we’re telling them they are going to Nauru to languish, not to be processed.

But it turns out that’s not all we are telling them. We are also telling them they should just give up. This week, ABC radio’s PM revealed that Immigration Department officials are rejecting some asylum seekers on the basis of an informal verbal interview. No application. No lawyer. No hearing. No process really. Just the uninformed, premature judgment of a bureaucrat trying to dispense with an irritant.

It’s the very definition of insidious. So insidious the department has even given it a euphemistic, bureaucratic name, ”screening out”, as though it’s a routine classification process. ”Any person who is screened out progresses towards removal from Australia,” a media release from the department says. Progresses. Like they’re getting somewhere. Sounds better than ”shunted back home without a hearing” or ”dumped in detention limbo”, which is what it actually means.

The idea is so brazen: to trade on the ignorance and powerlessness of asylum seekers. It’s not that asylum seekers lose their rights. They don’t. At least in theory they retain the right to apply for refugee status. They have the right to a lawyer. But if you are ”screened out”, you are not told this. If you happen to know it, and have the inordinate confidence to call an immigration official’s bluff, good for you. If not, your rights are pretty much rhetorical. ”If anyone in immigration detention requests access to a lawyer, we facilitate that request,” the department says. You just have to assert rights you don’t know you have.

Welcome to Kafka’s Australia, where rights are guaranteed, but preferably forgotten. So we maintain that we respect due process and human rights, even if it’s clear we don’t always like them very much. We have been doing this for ages. ”Screening out” has been around for the best part of a decade; long enough for the department to call it a ”long-standing policy over successive governments”.

And if you believe the lawyers who work in this area, it’s part of a number of bureaucratic practices designed to prevent asylum seekers accessing the few rights they have.

You can’t ban asylum seekers from having access to lawyers, but you can insist they fill out a specific form if they want one, and then refuse to give them the form. You can limit the time lawyers have with their clients to make their work impossible. And if they manage to apply, you can delay the process by using translators who speak the wrong language, or who belong to rival ethnic groups. It’s like the dictation test of the White Australia period, which could be in Swahili if the immigration official wanted you to fail.

What explains this bureaucratic violence? Telling asylum seekers their claim is rejected without a hearing doesn’t ”send a message to people smugglers” or ”break the people smugglers’ business model”. Obstructing access to a lawyer doesn’t deter people from getting on boats. It just breaks them slowly. These are not policies that have been debated in Parliament and have clearly articulated purposes. They don’t need to be. They arise by osmosis.

Reflecting on the infamous Abu Ghraib prison scandal, Stanford University psychologist Philip Zimbardo observed that such things become possible when the perpetrators feel anonymous, when they don’t have a sense of personal responsibility for their actions, and have tacit approval from authority figures. And the obvious differences between Nauru and Abu Ghraib aside, isn’t that what’s happening here?

This is a culture of belligerence, trickling down from the political leadership. Again, just like White Australia. It’s a culture that sees the sneaky denial of rights as a virtue. A culture that sheds tears for those who die at sea trying to get here, but barely blinks when people are killed after being sent home. A culture that watches a detainee attempt suicide, and dozens of people give up on the idea of asylum, and then chalks it up as a win.

Waleed Aly writes fortnightly. He hosts Drive on ABC Radio National and is a lecturer in politics at Monash University.


Conflating the Issue – Muslims Behaving Badly

WHERE do I start? Perhaps with the viral image that will come to define this episode: a child who’d be three or four hoisting a sign triumphantly above his head blaring ”Behead all those who insult the Prophet” while a woman, presumably his mother, thinks this is cute enough to capture on her smartphone. Alternatively, I could begin with the observation that the trailer for the anti-Islamic film that ostensibly started this all, Innocence of Muslims, is now a blockbuster, with YouTube hits in the millions thanks largely to the protesters around the world who think nobody should see it.

No. Let’s start with the fact that so few of the protesters who descended on Sydney’s CBD this weekend seem actually to have seen the film that so gravely offends them. When asked by journalists, they bluntly admit this, one even adding that she refuses to watch something so offensive. It’s almost impressive how cyclical this stupidity is. But it’s also instructive. In fact, this is the key to making sense of something so gobsmackingly senseless. The protesters – at least the ones quoted in news reports – know nothing except how offended they are.

That, you see, is all that matters. This isn’t about a film. It’s about an excuse. We know because we’ve seen it all before, like when Pakistani protesters vandalised American fast food outlets and burnt effigies of President George W. Bush in response to the Danish cartoons.

We know because so much of the weekend’s ranting was nakedly gratuitous: ”Our dead are in paradise, your dead are in hell”. Pardon? Which dead? Weren’t we talking about a movie?

This is the behaviour of a drunkenly humiliated people: swinging wildly with the hope of landing a blow, any blow, somewhere, anywhere. There’s nothing strategic or calculated about this. It doesn’t matter that they are the film’s most effective publicists. It doesn’t matter that they protest using offensive slogans and signs, while protesting against people’s right to offend. It doesn’t matter that they object to insulting people on the basis of their religion, while declaring that Christians have no morals. This is baffling only until you realise these protesters are not truly protesting to make a point. The protest is the point.

It feels good. It feels powerful. This is why people yell pointlessly or punch walls when frustrated. It’s not instrumental. It doesn’t achieve anything directly. But it is catharsis. Outrage and aggression is an intoxicating prospect for the powerless.

Accordingly, it is not an option to leave an insult unanswered because that is a sign of weakness, rather than transcendence.

The irony is that it grants an extraordinary level of power to those doing the offending. It puts them constantly at the centre of your world. That’s why, when Gallup polled 35 Muslim majority countries, it found that of all the gripes the Muslim world has against the West, among the most pervasive is the West’s ”disrespect for Islam”.

And it is this disrespect that is the overarching grievance that subsumes others. Everything, global and local, can be thrown into this vortex: Swiss minaret bans, French niqab bans, military invasions, drone strikes, racist stereotyping, anti-immigrant politics, and yes, even films so ridiculously bad that, left to their own devices, they would simply lampoon themselves.

This is what gives Innocence of Muslims meaning: not its content, but its context. It’s a symbol of contempt, which is why protests against it so quickly turn into an orgy of anti-Americanism. So, ”Obama, Obama, we love Osama” they scream, mainly because it’s the most offensive rhyme they can muster. Osama, too, is a symbol; the most repugnant one in their arsenal. How better to prove you exist than to say something outrageous?

That the Obama administration immediately condemned the film in the strongest terms doesn’t register. Nor that the White House took the extraordinary (and ultimately unsuccessful) step of asking Google to pull the video. This is invisible to an audience of humiliated souls waiting desperately to be offended and conflate every grievance. Indeed, they need the offence. It gives them the chance to assert themselves so they can feel whole, righteous even. It’s a shortcut to self-worth.

The trouble is that in our digital world, there is always something to oblige. Anyone can Google their prejudices, and there is always enraging news to share with others. Entire online communities gather around the sharing of offensive material and subsequent communal venting. Soon you have a subculture: a sub-community whose very cohesion is based almost exclusively on shared grievance. Then you have an identity that has nothing to say about itself; an identity that holds an entirely impoverished position: that to be defiantly angry is to be.

Frankly, Muslims should find that prospect nothing short of catastrophic. It renders Islamic identity entirely hollow. All pride, all opposition, no substance. ”Like the Incredible Hulk,” observes Abdal Hakim Murad, a prominent British Islamic scholar, ”ineffectual until provoked.”

Sometimes you need a scandal to demonstrate an underlying disease. And that’s the good news here. The vast bulk of Saturday’s protesters were peaceful, and Muslim community organisations are lining up to condemn the outbreak of violence. But now a more serious conversation is necessary. One that’s not about how we should be speaking out to defend our prophet and ourselves. One that’s more about whether we can speak about anything else.

Waleed Aly hosts the Drive program on ABC Radio National and is a lecturer in politics at Monash University.


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