Date: 
Monday 21 June 2010

Click here to return to the Articles and Opinion Pieces Index

The following opinion pieces have been published by the President and Commissioners. Reproduction of the opinion pieces must include reference to where the opinion piece was originally published.


Still judged by skin colour

Author: By Graeme Innes AM, Race Discrimination Commissioner

Publication: The Age, Monday 21 June 2010


Just for a moment, imagine that you live in an unstable, war-torn country.

For as long as you can remember, you and your family have lived in fear. People close to you have been harassed, intimidated and even tortured. Life around you has so obviously deteriorated that you have to find a safer place for your family to live.

So you migrate to a country that is renowned internationally as a safe, just and lucky country – a place that takes pride in giving people ‘a fair go’.

However, when you get there you find a lack of housing, limited employment opportunities and barriers to accessing education.

There are jobs that you know you can do - which are way below your skill and experience level - but you are knocked back when you apply for them. There are houses you want to rent, which you know are available, but no-one is prepared to let you live there.

You are repeatedly told that you are lazy, cannot be trusted and are dangerous – and this is by people who don’t even know you.

Why? One reason – the colour of your skin.

This is reality for many new migrants.

History has shown that each new wave of migrants that has come to Australia (whether from China, Greece, Italy, Vietnam or India) has faced a range of settlement and social inclusion issues – both positive and negative – as they have sought to establish themselves and become part of our society.

But regardless of how they arrived in Australia, or whether they had been here for a short time or their whole lives, many of these migrants experienced discrimination and prejudice as part of their everyday lives.

As a community, Australia has recognised this in the past. But the thing that astonishes me is that, as a community, we seem to have failed to learn from it.

Recently, we have seen a significant increase in the number of people immigrating to Australia from the various countries in Africa.

In 2006, a total of 248,699 people born in Africa were living in Australia. That’s 5.6% of Australia’s overseas-born population. Since then, around 50,000 more people born in Africa have arrived in Australia. They come from nearly all countries on the African continent, representing a diverse range of cultures, religions and language groups.

Over the past few years, I have been involved in a national consultation with African Australian people, which has looked at the challenges and human rights and social inclusion issues that they encounter in their everyday experiences here.

The over-riding finding has been that African Australians experience widespread discrimination – both direct and indirect – in relation to employment, housing, education, health services and in connection with the justice system.

Put yourself in the shoes of this man for a moment, if you will: “The amount of times I hear real estate agents say that they had a bad experience with an African and so they are not renting out to Africans. How many times have they had a bad experience with a white Australian? They would need to shut down if they took that attitude with every skin colour that didn’t pay their rent.”

These experiences – which often happen over and over again – do nothing to reinforce a person’s self worth or feelings of value. In fact, they can have profound negative psychological effects - which can then lead directly to the issue of indirect discrimination.

In many African cultures, psychological illness and disability are not recognized. How do get yourself to a position where you ‘understand’ you need to seek counselling in such a situation?

This leads me to the wider issue of healthcare itself. Our healthcare system is simple to us, but horrifyingly complex to many African Australians – and rarely explained to them, let alone in an African language. We take dental care for granted, but many Africans have never experienced it and experience tremendous anxiety when confronted by it.

The examples of direct and indirect discrimination are myriad, and it is clear that Governments need to make action, that will address discrimination and racism, an urgent priority for all Australians.

But there is good news in this story. Many creative and successful initiatives have been established by African Australian communities themselves and by other organisations to respond to these concerns.

The common ground in the best of these initiatives is that they utilize a collaborative approach, which builds on the strengths and assets of African Australian communities, promotes their genuine participation, appreciates their different backgrounds and patterns of arrival, respects their diverse cultures and also recognises, for some, particular vulnerabilities and risks.

As a community member from a consultation in South Australia said: African Australians have so much to contribute to the Australian society, but this can only happen when there is a sense of belonging, when people feel part of this country, when they call this country home.”

Until we recognise this, we will be condemned to repeat history in a negative way for new migrants who arrive in our country full of hope and aspirations and ready to live the ‘Australian dream’.