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Earlier this week I began reading Between the World and Me, a book by the American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. It’s a book that takes the form of a letter to his teenage son, offering the son advice about how we should understand questions of race as a young black African-American. The book is written against the background of recent disquiet in the United States, prompted by incidents of police brutality against African-Americans.
We could be forgiven for thinking that the race relations of the United States is somewhat distant from our own. In one sense, if we take a look at the big picture and survey race relations in Australia, we see a story of success. Few countries could boast, as we can, that the experience of mass immigration has been accompanied by social cohesion and multicultural harmony.
And yet in another sense, there are also some parallels between the American and Australian experiences of racism. You think of the experience that Aboriginal Australians have had with racism, of the systemic discrimination that they still experience. Think of how Aboriginal people remain dramatically over-represented in jails and the criminal justice system. As Amnesty International found earlier this year, the incarceration rate for Indigenous children in Australian jails is 24 times higher than non-Indigenous children. It is even higher in Western Australia; there, the rate is higher than the incarceration rates for black children in the United States.
This evening, I’d like to reflect on the state of racism in Australian society – in particular some of the emerging challenges we face in combating prejudice, bigotry and discrimination. For example, as made clear by the ongoing controversy involving Adam Goodes, racial vilification and the AFL, there remains an immense challenge in getting a section of the community even to recognise racism when it so clearly occurs.
Among other things, I’d also like to say a little about the way in which the language and symbols of patriotism are being used by some groups to exclude others. It is important that we do not surrender patriotism to fringe or extremist sections intent on spreading fear and hatred. Patriotism should not be a weapon of division; it should be an instrument of unity. Patriotism should in fact stand as a bulwark against racism.
The dimensions of racism
When we think of racism in Australian society today, many of us will think of episodes of racial abuse on our buses and trains. Increasingly captured on camera, these episodes are frequently the subject of reports in our media.
Of course, such episodes shouldn’t be regarded as exhaustive of contemporary racism. Abuse and harassment on public transport aren’t the only forms that racism takes. Just as racism can be overt, it can also be covert. It can be crude, but it can also be subtle. And as much as racial prejudice reveals itself in dramatic explosions, it can also be found in more banal forms – forms which may not capture the media’s attention.
Research has been done on where racism occurs most commonly. And it tells us that it occurs most commonly in neighbourhoods, shopping centres and in workplaces. Public transport only features after such locations. My point here is that racism is well beyond the glare of the national media, and in a range of ordinary, everyday places.
It may surprise some that to know that racism may be more prevalent than we may like to admit. About 20 per cent of Australians say they have experienced racial or religious discrimination of some kind. About 11 per cent say they have been excluded from social activities or the workplace because of their race. About 5 per cent say they’ve been physically assaulted because of their racial background.
Remember these are just the overall figures. Some members of our society will experience racism more commonly. If you are of a non-European background, the likelihood of experiencing discrimination will be higher. If you are someone of Aboriginal or Torres-Strait Islander background, the likelihood is higher still.
Let’s consider some of the consequences of racism. We know from a large body of research that racism does harm to those who experience it. It can lead to stress, negative emotions, psychological damage, even physiological effects.
We don’t always focus, however, on racism’s impact on our civic health. What I mean by this is the impact racism can have on the civility and cohesion of our society. Because when someone is subjected to racism, it can have the effect of undermining their standing as a fellow member of our community, and can have a fundamental impact on their freedom.
Earlier this year, I conducted some consultations across the country about communities’ experiences of racism. What was striking about the testimony that we gathered were people’s reflections about how racism impinged on their fundamental freedoms. Racism can make people feel that they are not able to speak out in a way that they otherwise might, and also inhibit their ability to go out, or feel safe in public places.
In short, the experience of racism undermines the assurance of security to which every member of a good society is entitled; the sense of confidence that everyone will be treated fairly and justly; that everyone can walk down the street and conduct their business without fear of abuse or assault, or without feeling that they have to keep their heads down.
Power, privilege and discrimination
This dimension of racism should remind us of its connection to power. Racism is something that is used to reduce, diminish and humiliate its victims. And when it does exist, some people benefit from it. The beneficiaries of racism may be direct: often, the perpetrators of racism do what they do because it can make them feel more powerful.
Then there are those who are the passive or indirect beneficiaries of racial power. Some may benefit from the status quo without even realising it. Some may enjoy the benefits of a social privilege bound up in race.
The concept of privilege refers to how some may enjoy unearned or unacknowledged advantages over others. The concept emerged in the 1980s through the work of feminist scholar Peggy McIntosh. In a celebrated essay, McIntosh wrote, that, ‘as a white person’, she had been taught not to see how social privilege placed her at a certain advantage. Privilege was like an ‘invisible package of unearned assets’, a ‘weightless backpack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank cheques’.
McIntosh listed more than 40 ways in which she could cash in on such privilege each day. Some of these examples related to the mundane details of everyday life. Thus, if McIntosh wanted to do so, she could be pretty sure of moving into an area and be assured that her neighbours would be neutral or pleasant to her. She could turn on the television or open the front page of the newspaper and see people of her race widely represented.
Then there were the ways in which privilege could shape others’ perception of McIntosh. She could swear or dress in second hand clothes or not answer letters, without having people attribute those choices to the bad morals, poverty or illiteracy of her race. She could speak in public without putting her race on trial; and if she did so well, she would never be called a credit to her race. She would, indeed, never be asked to speak for all the people of her racial group.
The beneficiaries of social privilege may not be aware of their privileged position. Part of this is because conversations about discrimination tend to focus on those who are disadvantaged by prejudice. It isn’t always the case that we consider the other side of the coin: what it says about those who do not experience discrimination.
For example, in 2013 economists at the University of Queensland conducted a study on Brisbane buses, where four groups of students boarded a bus with a faulty ticket and asked drivers if they could travel for free. The four groups were defined along racial lines. One group was defined as black; one was defined as Indians; one was defined as fair-skinned Asians; and one group defined as fair-skinned Caucasians. The study found that in 72 per cent of the encounters white Caucasian passengers were given a free ride, compared to 51 per cent of Indians, 36 per cent of blacks and 73 per cent of Asians.
Consider another study conducted by economists at the Australian National University in 2010. This involved researchers sending more than 4000 fake job applications for entry-level jobs. The applications contained the same qualifications but with different names, distinguished by their ethnic origin. In order to get as many interviews as an applicant with an Anglo-Saxon name, someone with a Chinese name needed to submit 68 per cent more applications. Those with a Middle Eastern name would need 64 per cent more. By comparison, those with an Italian name needed to put in 12 per cent more applications.
There are two ways of making sense of these findings. One would be to say that there are particular groups which appear more susceptible to experiencing racial discrimination: in the bus study, blacks and Indians; in the resume example, people with Chinese names and Middle Eastern names. The other interpretation is to say that in both cases we see some groups because of their race or colour ostensibly enjoying a form of social privilege.
Standing with Adam Goodes
Privilege, as I said, is linked to power. There is more than one way, of course, that power manifests in conversations about race. Often, race can be brought to the fore when people seek to challenge power.
We have seen this through the example of footballer Adam Goodes, who for much of this year has been subjected to constant booing from opposition supporters at AFL matches. The booing has been a recent phenomenon. It appears only to have begun after Goodes took exception to being called an ape by a young spectator at the MCG in 2013 – and to have grown after Goodes was named Australian of the Year for 2014. The booing has further intensified since May, after Goodes performed an Aboriginal war dance during a match in the AFL’s Indigenous Round.
The booing of Adam Goodes has involved an element of racism, even if some say it occurs because spectators disapprove of Goodes’s playing style. Clearly, the booing
has coincided with the public stand that he has taken on matters of racism and Indigenous affairs. If the booing was to do with Goodes’s playing style, why was there not booing for the first decade or so of his career? If Goodes has such an objectionable style, how is that he won the AFL’s Brownlow Medal – the decoration for the league’s best player – on two occasions? And how is it that such a champion and statesman of the game is being treated like a pantomime villain?
It is strange, too, that the denial of racism has been typically accompanied by such intense feeling. Some have expressed deep hostility to any accusation that race and racial prejudice could be at play.
Let me be clear. There is no question that the booing is of an ugly and unedifying nature. It has everything to do with Goodes standing up against racism and speaking out about Indigenous issues. Goodes has been a public figure not afraid of challenging prejudice; not afraid of asking questions about Australian history and society. He has done it in ways that have made some people feel uncomfortable.
And it beggars belief to think that those booing somehow don’t know what they are doing. Not when there has been so much debate about it being tied to racial malice (last weekend, for instance, the booing in Perth was accompanied by some spectators being ejected for racial abuse aimed at Goodes). As others have noted, many may be joining in with the booing because they are seeking to put a proud Aboriginal man ‘in his place’ – because he has dared to speak out on issues touching on race.
Whatever the motivations, the booing has gone too far. The vilification has got to stop. Because it is doing damage – not just to the game of AFL but also to our society. With each match, each week, that this booing is tolerated, more and more people are being given licence to degrade, humiliate and intimidate; to believe that they can hound someone who speaks out about racism into silence. It is an unfortunate sign of the times that this has been allowed to go on for too long, to the point where there is now even the prospect that one of the greats of the sport may be booed into retirement.
It was welcome yesterday that the AFL issued a statement making clear that racism had no place in the game, acknowledging that ‘it is now impossible to separate this issue from the issue of race’. We can only hope that the AFL, its clubs and captains can help put this to an end. If things do not improve (and assuming Goodes plays on), it may have to come to the players taking matters into their own hands. In Europe, there have been occasions in football when teams have walked off the pitch in protest against racist abuse. What an indictment on our society it would be, were things to come to reach such a point.
We should not forget as well the toll all this is having on the man in question. During the past two years I have had the opportunity to do some work with Adam Goodes. We are proud to have him as an ambassador of our ‘Racism. It Stops with Me’ campaign. His impact has been significant. In taking a stand against racism, he has inspired many, empowering others to do the same. And, partly because of that, he is now the target of despicable behaviour.
Adam Goodes is a champion of football, an advocate for human rights, a man of integrity. He deserves our respect. It is not him, but those targeting him, who deserve our contempt.
Threats to community harmony
On matters of race, it is important that we have honesty and good faith. An honest view today would recognise that we are at risk of a deterioration of our community harmony.
Anxieties about the threat of Islamist extremism have led many Muslim and Arab Australians feel as though they are under suspicion of disloyalty. Reports of anti-Semitism have risen, reflecting growing anti-Jewish feeling around the world. There are signs of rising anti-Chinese sentiment, stimulated not only by the property market in Sydney and Melbourne but also by debates about trade policy.
And organised racist movements appear to be revitalised. We have seen this, for example, in the recent Reclaim Australia rallies.
At these rallies, far-right, racial supremacist agitators have been visibly present. People with xenophobic political agendas have also been present. The pictures and footage taken of the rallies clearly show that people sporting Nazi tattoos and other insignia have been openly parading their extremist sympathies. We’ve seen placards calling for an end to non-white immigration. Pamphlets have been distributed calling for an end to a supposed Chinese invasion of Australia, as in the case of the Reclaim Australia rally in Sydney.
There is no doubt that unsavoury elements are driving many of these rallies. While people have a right to protest and to exercise their free speech, they should also be held to account for it. It is only appropriate that we reject and condemn the messages of fear, hatred and division being peddled at these events. Where people engage in speech that stimulates racial hatred, those who may be its targets should be free to seek the protection of laws that prohibit such hatred. If there is any violence, let it be met with the full force of the criminal law.
At the same time, it’s important that we maintain our perspective. Anti-Islam, anti-multiculturalism protestors represent a small, albeit noisy, minority in our society. The overwhelming majority of Australians support multiculturalism, and reject racism and religious bigotry. The Scanlon Foundation’s social cohesion survey in 2014, for example, found that 85 per cent of Australians believe multiculturalism is good for the country.
This reflects a number of things. Our ethnic, racial and cultural diversity runs deep. More than 28 per cent of people in Australia were born overseas; another 20 per cent are the children of migrants. Just about every person’s extended family, if not immediate family, will have someone who was or is a migrant Australian.
It reflects as well the nation-building character of our multiculturalism. The proposition of multiculturalism is simple. It says that everyone can be part of the family of the nation. That every person can be a citizen, regardless of their background. That everyone can be Australian, but also not have to renounce their heritage. That everyone can be relaxed and comfortable in their own skin.
There has always been a social compact at the heart of Australian multiculturalism. Any right to express one’s cultural identity is accompanied by civic responsibilities. Namely, a commitment to our parliamentary democracy; to the rule of law; to equality of the sexes; to freedom of speech.
Thus, any notion that multiculturalism somehow licenses the adoption of different legal systems based on religious doctrine is absurd. Nowhere does multiculturalism mean the adoption of sharia law – or for that matter, Christian canon law or Jewish halacha law. Multiculturalism is grounded in secular democracy.
This goes to the heart of the misinformed views that are propagated by those involved in anti-Islam protests. To those who say they are concerned with extremism, I welcome sober debate about such issues. But I fail to see how we combat extremism by not dealing with the facts of our multiculturalism or declining to attempt a civil discussion. It is not clear to me that we should respond to radical extremism by mongering fear and stoking division.
How, then, should we respond?
Leadership is important. On this issue, we have seen it from some unexpected quarters. Musicians Jimmy Barnes, John Farnham and John Williamson have been vocal in rejecting the Reclaim Australia rallies – specifically, the use of their songs by protestors. They have all sent timely messages about tolerance. As Barnes said, ‘the Australia I belong to and love is a tolerant Australia. A place that is open and giving. It is a place that embraces all sorts of different people, in fact it is made stronger by the diversity of its people.’
We must also see national leadership from all sides of politics in responding to racism and religious bigotry. It is surprising that national political leaders have not said more to date. Yet they should be emphatic in rejecting the unedifying messages that have been sent by anti-Islam protesters. We must never be complacent about our social cohesion and national unity.
The tone of our response is important, too. I agree with the many Australians who believe it is important not to allow extremism to go unanswered. Just as those protesting in the name of Reclaim Australia have a right to speech, so do those who wish to counter hatred. It makes no sense, however, for people to respond to ugliness with ugliness of their own. Fair-minded citizens should be careful not to give encouragement to extremists in search of violence.
Let me return to my opening comment about patriotism – and why it should not descend into a vice, but rather be elevated into a virtue.
At its most basic, patriotism means a love of country. Yet that on its own says very little. We can, after all, love many different things about our country: the lifestyle, the landscape, the culture, the people.
If we can love many things about a country, we can also love it in different ways. To love something means having a certain devotion, and caring for that object in a special way. But often, we are guilty of loving not too wisely but too well. Some who describe themselves as patriotic believe their country is not only the best in the world but must be protected jealously from any criticism.
It is in this manner that patriotism can morph into jingoism. Loving your country may mutate: into a belief in your country's superiority and into imposing it on to others.
Over the past decade, we are seeing some of this sentiment on the rise. Not all that long ago, “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie” was just a harmless chant at sporting events. Waving the national flag in public was regarded as something done not by Aussies but by Americans. The idea of tattooing your flesh with the Southern Cross was, well, strange.
Not today. And there is a strain of patriotic expression that is tainted with the stain of aggressive nationalism. For some, loving your country means declaring: ‘Australia: love it or leave it’, or ‘Go back to where you came from’. For some, patriotism means believing that you can identify ‘real’ Aussies, on the one hand, and those who don't belong here, on the other.
This is the sort of corrupted national pride that was on display during the Cronulla riots of 2005. Many are rightly concerned that we are seeing the same elements coming into focus through recent rallies.
We should be careful, though, not to treat all forms of patriotism as the same. Yes, there can be a nasty form of national pride. But patriotism can also be different.
As Australians, most of us take our attachment to egalitarianism and a fair go seriously. Most of us have a warm affection for our country and its qualities. Such feelings are part of a patriotism that can unite rather than divide us. A patriotism that isn’t aggressive but generous, that isn’t about race but about citizenship.
A genuine patriotism means that you have special concern for your country, accompanied by a belief that it must live up to certain standards. You love Australia not just because it’s your country, but also because it has qualities that make it worth celebrating. And sometimes you may have to demand more of your country or compatriots. After all, if you truly love something, if you wish it to do better; you will want to improve it.
This is why patriotism can be, as I’ve suggested, a bulwark against racism. For when racism occurs, it prevents our country from being the best it can be. It holds our country back.
A genuine love of country is about civic responsibility, not about blind pride. It says ‘no’ to racism, ‘no’ to bigotry and ‘no’ to intolerance.
It is time that we reclaim patriotism. Because our national story and symbols don’t belong to just a select few. They belong to all of us.