We’re only as racist as our pollies make us out to be

By James Arvanitakis

3 March 2011

Indian youths protest against Lebanese gangs in the author�s haunt of Western Sydney. Image thanks to AFP.

I have just returned from spending five weeks in India. The purpose of the trip was to deliver a number of papers and lectures, attending various conferences including the Indian Association for the Study of Australia – a three-day conference looking at the cultural interactions between the two nations.

Leading up to the World Cup, there were obviously discussions about cricket, but the history is a lot more complicated than that, as our nations are intertwined in ways that most of us are ignorant of.

For example, Professor Deb Narayan Bandyopadhyay is researching the way our two countries collaborated during the World Fair in the nineteenth century. Researcher Amit Ranjan presented a personal account of his research into the grave of Australian Alice Garden who died of cholera in Calcutta in 1882: Why was she there? What kind of interactions did she represent?

Another issue that is often raised is the experience of Indian students in Australia – not only the attacks of last year, but the more general encounters between Australians and Indians. In the context of a history that includes the mistreatment of indigenous Australians and the infamous ‘White Australia Policy’, I am asked: ‘Is Australia a racist country?’

The question carries no malice or accusation – it is simply one that reflects how Australia has recently been portrayed in the media.

My response is immediate: “No, we are not a racist country. Countries are not racist, people can be racist, but on the whole, Australia is a pretty tolerant place. Cultural interactions are always more complex than we may recognise.”

Asked to elaborate, I discuss Australia’s history as a multicultural nation, everyday interactions between Australians and my own personal experiences. Sure, there have been times I have been called all sorts of things because of my long and complicated name and even the colour of my skin, but most of this is the surface-level insults of bullies who have nothing left in their bag of tricks.

Likewise, at my university based in the western suburbs of Sydney – yes, the land of the felafel – where over 100 nationalities interact, there is little evidence of racism or discrimination. Within classes, interactions are not always polite but it is a rare case when they are not respectful.

This is not to say that there are not elements of tension in our society. Far from it: my students often share negative experiences from the young woman wearing a hijab told to ‘go home’ (though her Australian family tree goes back over a century); the African student called a ‘refo’; the Cook Islander called a ‘FOB” (Fresh off the Boat).

This evidence of Australians getting on pretty well is not only evident in our experiences, but also in scholarly work. Academics Barbara Bloch and Tanja Dreher looked at everyday diversity and everyday racism in Southern Sydney.

They found that we simultaneously see the presence of high levels of cross-cultural mixing which includes an appreciation of the area’s culturally diverse population, while at the same time some strong prejudices. These prejudices can be about misunderstandings and concerns about issues such as economic restructuring where migrants can be an easy target.

This is not racism per se, but fear brought on by changes in the world that we cannot control. The problem, however, is that in a globalised and complex world, there seems less and less we can control and these sentiments can simmer and turn into something much more sinister.

This is important for the work of a colleague of mine, Prof. Kevin Dunn, who has found that people with a grudge towards certain parts of the population feel emboldened to act on this if they feel the political climate is right.

So, here enters Scott Morrison and his now comments about the costs of the refugee funerals. He raised his concerns about the “the government is flying people to funerals” on the very day they were occurring. We later found out that he was also encouraging his colleagues to act on community concerns about the Muslim population and take an anti-Muslim stance through a discriminatory immigration policy.

As we know, Morrison apologised for the timing of his comments rather than what he said. This was followed by Tony Abbott defending Mr Morrison and congratulating him on being ‘man enough’ to admit that he got the timing wrong. Unfortunately Abbott said nothing about the sentiments of Morrison’s statements.

We can also combine this with the ongoing mission of South Australian Liberal senator Cory Bernardi to bash all things Muslim – even the way meals are prepared.

The point here is that we are not a racist country, but there are always tensions that exist in communities. These tensions can be about language – as we have seen in Belgium with the split between French and Dutch speakers. The tensions can also be about religion and they can emerge based on who has access to economic resources and who feels neglected.

In Australia we have seen tensions emerge based on race and ethnicity, and these have been linked with different waves of migrants: Greeks, Italians, Vietnamese, Lebanese and so on.

Exploiting these tensions for political and personal gain will not solve them, but will exacerbate them. And as this occurs, we will find ourselves living in a racist country – a country that most of us will not recognise.

Article originally posted on The Punch (opens in a new window).

Image thanks to AFP: Indian youths protest against Lebanese gangs in the author’s haunt of Western Sydney.