Racist attitudes a cancer on the nation’s soul

Australian multiculturalism exists alongside hypocrisy about our diversity

WE do not have the luxury of pretending that everything is OK with our society, when a comedy sketch on Australian TV can ignite overseas branding of Australians as racist and when Indian students are being attacked. It gives us cause to ask ourselves honestly what it means to be Australian.

The perception that racism is a problem in Australia exists, whether we accept it or not. If the perception matches the reality, then there is a problem we must deal with. If it does not match the reality, then we still have a problem to deal with. The issue needs to be explored in open and honest dialogue. We are a great society, yet we are not a perfect society.

If we are honest with ourselves, we would acknowledge we are affected by racism. Let’s not over-read this problem but racism is a cancer with the very real potential to erode the soul of our nation.

Authentic multiculturalism is muddled and disorganised; it is uncomfortable for some because it includes conflicts, disagreements and misunderstandings. That’s just how it is. It’s complex, but complexity is OK.

Since European settlement, and even long before that, Australia has been host to diverse cultures. Indigenous people of Australia are diverse, so the very fabric of Australian society is founded on diversity. It has never been and cannot now be considered mono-cultural, regardless of the overwhelming political, economic and social dominance of white Australians.

Indeed mainstream Australian culture is often presented as generic, but really is as diverse as your battling farmers, bronzed beach babes, metro latte sippers, pompous monarchists, yuppy republicans, sporty heroes, Aussie ockers, tireless tradies, soccer mums and fishing tragics.

The expectation that we should all be some kind of “same” is not only impossible, but it also lacks integrity. Living in and embracing authentic multiculturalism is not about being reactionary or anti-white. It is about aspiring to social cohesion and respect for each other and ourselves as Australians and as human beings.

Further, multiculturalism is not just about assimilation since assimilation depends in part not only on the desire of different groups but also the extent to which such groups are considered desirable to the mainstream culture.

Some groups are blocked from access by a process of social exclusion.

Informal social processes and interactions can either deepen authentic multiculturalism or can prevent it; the choice is ours.

Richard Bernstein of The New York Times in the late 1980s made an observation that is very relevant for us in Australia and helps us to understood how multiculturalism here and elsewhere has been presented.

He pointed out that the normal pattern of multiculturalism has been that we are not really “interested in the other so much as an insistence that the other be interested in me”.

Multiculturalism in Australia exists alongside hypocrisy about diversity, not to mention discrimination and victimisation, but this is not authentic multiculturalism. We seem to like cultural diversity just fine when it’s superficial — food, music, dance, arts, crafts and fashion — but go deeper and we seem to become uneasy and threatened.

Take for example the showcasing of bumper stickers across Australia, such as “Australia, love it or leave it” or “Australia, we’re full, f*** off”‘. These highlight public intolerance among some of others, displayed without regard that the person with the sticker is also an early unwelcome coloniser/immigrant/settler/descendant etc.

It is taken for granted by some Australians that to be Australian is to be of European descent and everyone else is, well, “everyone else”.

The “love it or leave it” mantra, while anchored by fear and ignorance, is an assertion of power, albeit a kind of power that seriously lacks integrity and decency. The assertion might work for some, to some extent, but ultimately it is a position that denies us all the ultimate ability to be an exceptional society.

We Australians are as complex as any other global citizenry. There are many layers to our being. I am sure at times it confuses people to know that I can be tremendously proud to be Aboriginal, Italian and Australian without feeling divided. Perhaps a good way to understand this is to reflect on how great some of us feel as Australians on Australia Day, and then reflect on how intensely passionate some of us are as Queenslanders on State of Origin night. It is easily do-able in the right context.

There should be no contradiction between being culturally centred and being patriotic and part of the Australian social fabric, but this entails admitting that there are social and political inequalities and those inequalities feed separateness and can lead to intolerance, racism and reactionary violence.


3 Responses

  1. Yes we have to face this ‘cancer’ which can sometimes be fueled by the ‘smart alec’ culture that has been prevalent in our society for a long time. Half smart comments are made about others perhaps initially without real malice but can be so very offensive to people and can lead to more insidious racism including violence and vilification.

  2. And then there are the people, some of them close to us, who do not accept that racism is as bad as we report it to be and that we are being overly sensitive.
    Great article, Dr Sarra.

  3. As a teacher I am constantly amazed by the racist views held by what I would argue is the majority of my students. I teach some of the most disadvantaged young people in my area. You would expect that they of all people would have some empathy for others in our society who have also experienced various forms of inequity. Not the case! I personally believe that the majority of those people holding racist opinions are also the most uninformed. I like to challenge their unquestioned beliefs and it gives me great satisfaction when they actually start to question their own rationale for holding those beliefs. I would say that many have never had an alternative put to them and when they do, it is wonderful to watch the lights go on! Education is the answer.

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