National acceptance of racism is the first step toward true harmony

The National Anti-Racism Partnership and Strategy discussion paper, released last week by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), marks an important milestone in Australian's national battle against racism.

Professor Kevin Dunn, Dean of the School of Social Sciences and Psychology at the University of Western Sydney, says the discussion paper should be recognised as a step in the right direction for Australia.

"The AHRC have taken this step at the request of the Australian Government. Since February 2011, a national partnership has been created, consultations have been held with the community, and a national response to the issue of racism in this country has been drafted," says Professor Dunn.

"This initiative is an important recognition on behalf of the Government that racism does exist in this country. In a short time, we have come a long way – only a few years ago, the dominant political response to racism was public denial."

Professor Dunn was the lead researcher on the 12 year Challenging Racism Project, which in February 2011 revealed the perspectives of more than 12,500 surveyed Australians and provided a national picture of the racism, ethnic relations and cultural diversity.

He says most Australians have readily admitted for some time that racism is a problem in Australia, but politicians have taken longer to see the signs.

"Australian people acknowledge that racism is an issue," says Professor Dunn.

"27 per cent have experienced it in the form of name-calling and insults and 23.4 per cent have been treated less respectfully on the basis of race – and still, politicians were quick to reject the link.

"Time and time again, when an incident with a clear racial element attracted public attention, the automatic response was to deny, deny, deny."

Professor Dunn says the attacks against Indian students in Melbourne and Sydney in 2009 are an example of the political denial. Another well-known example was the Howard Government's response to the Cronulla riots in late 2005.

"When students of Indian appearance were robbed and violently beaten on at least 14 occasions in less than two months, our political representatives asked for the public to view the attacks as mere crimes of opportunity," says Professor Dunn.

"And when Prime Minister John Howard denied that the riots indicated a problem with racism in Australia, he audaciously asserted that he had a "more optimistic view of the character of the Australian people"."

In a recent article, published in the Journal of Intercultural Studies, Professor Dunn explained how this discourse of denial, which was so regularly demonstrated by our politicians, also exists within segments of the community.

"In responses to the Challenging Racism Project, Australians from non-Anglo backgrounds, including those born in the Middle East and South Asia, were significantly more likely to deny the existence of racial prejudice," he says.

"While some research suggests that members of those groups who are the target of racism will be more likely to acknowledge it, other research suggests personal costs associated with acknowledging racism may prevent people from doing so.

"Racism is allowed to continue, as an undercurrent of society, because people may fear the social costs of being labelled a complainer."

Professor Dunn says it has been abundantly clear to researchers, and to most everyday Australians, for some time that strong leadership is needed to reinforce multiculturalism in this country and to stamp out racism.

"The National Anti-Racism Partnership and Strategy will provide this leadership and action, but it is still early days. The AHRC still require members of the community to go online, view the discussion documents, and provide their feedback," he says.

"In the fight against racism, one of our most powerful weapons is public discussion – bringing the most difficult issues to the front of people's minds, and not allowing them to hide in the shadows. The discussion paper provides this opportunity, and the Australian public should take it."

Contact: Danielle Roddick, Senior Media Officer