Racism: What’s it all about?

A couple of weeks ago on the ABC’s Insiders programme, there was a discussion about racism and the results of a racism survey that had been conducted by the University of Western Sydney. There was some discussion about the results of the research within the media and amongst politicians on what these results say about Australian society.

I don’t want to specifically deal with the survey right now – that’s for another time.

My post is about the panellist’s discussions around racism and how I believe their misunderstandings about racism are reflective of many people’s beliefs.

he segment was introduced by Barry Cassidy:

Barry: Survey published in the Fairfax Press on racism earlier in the week. Um. You can hardly say that there are no racists in the country anymore because 12% of Australians actually declared themselves… if you take the definition that you’ve got a prejudice against a particular culture, that makes you a racist.

Panellist 1: But what’s it all about? What is this navel gazing? This, this, this constant looking at ourselves and asking ourselves who we are and what we are.. I mean there’s much more domestic violence in this country and and biffos between drunken blokes on a Saturday night in the pub than there is racism attacks on each other. I mean why don’t we just get on and live the life. I mean I can’t understand that survey’s been going since 2001 or something. I mean..

Let’s start with the ‘navel gazing’ comment. Should we not attempt to understand how we think? Is this type of reflective practice not something a thinking society should engage in? Australia spends way too much time thinking about sporting teams and venerating sporting heroes. We spend less time valuing our artists, philosophers and scientists. I think therefore, that a little self-reflection doesn’t hurt at all.
There are two assumptions here. Firstly that unless racism is manifest in actual physical violence it is not really an issue, and secondly that racism must be violent in order to be considered harmful. These assumptions fail to acknowledge that racism takes many different forms. The ‘you black bastard’ is only one type.
Why can’t we all just get on and live our lives? That’s a progressive thought isn’t it? I wonder how many women who struggled to attend universities in the middle and last decades of last century were told, why don’t you just live your lives, why do you have to talk about all this feminist stuff. Imagine how many people told Charlie Perkins, Faith Bandler, Gary Foley, and Bobbi Sykes, why don’t you just go and live your life, stop talking about Aboriginal rights. Imagine it.

Barrie: 12.5 thousand people were surveyed over about a ten year period

P1: … a ten year period and then they come to these conclusions. Some of the questions looked fairly open ended to me. And the proof is in the pudding and the way we live and the way our communities are and um I just can’t see the sense in this nonsense.

What is interesting here is that the despite there being a large scale data gathering survey, and despite the fact that many people discuss the impact of racism regularly, this topic is still seen as nonsense and a non-issue. Just because you have not experienced it, doesn’t mean it does not exist. And by you saying that it is nonsense, just highlights the privilege that you have. It doesn’t happen in your world. It most certainly happens in mine.

Barrie: Do you think you seen any impact on the politicians and the way they think and the way they campaign?

P2 Yeah. I think it does. And I don’t think you can sort of dismiss it. I think obviously these kinds of sentiments do exist in the community. There’s no doubt about that.

P1. But if it does. What does it matter? What does it matter if it’s not played out in any way in the way people live their lives? If they, I mean if… I don’t understand why we continually have to ask ourselves whether we all get along.

P2 Well there are times when we don’t. I mean I think the Cronulla Riots were an example of that.

P1. Oh Yeah of course

Why can’t we all just get along? Oh dear. Yes. Well if we all just got along we wouldn’t need rules, and police and a justice system. But the fact is, people don’t always get along, they don’t always play nice with each other. And yes, it is played out in our lives. Maybe not your life, but defnitely in the lives of other Australians.
There are many types of racism. The most visible type of racism is that type played out in Cronulla Riot style – ugly, violent, alcohol-fuelled, and physical. But there are other types of racism that reflect different world views and is hidden, covert, and polite. Polite racism like,’I’m not racist but I don’t understand why the Aborigines don’t just get jobs’, is very real and just as damaging to people, communities and to our nation as a whole.

P2. You do often get attacks on Muslims and the way Muslims are either integrating or not integrating into Australian society. So you know these things this kind of bubbles away and every now and then they surface and I don’t think you can pretend that they’re not real when they are real. And the thing is to work out ways of constructively engaging.

Barrie: And of course if you pick on Muslims you can described as a racist. Appreciate if you pick on the irish you are equally you’re a racist.

P1. Well that’s been happening for decades

Quite often, White People like to defend racism against non-Whites by saying well the Irish are picked on too, or if you’re from United Kingdom talk about how ‘native’ British people have become a minority in their own land. Well, if you live in Australia, there are absolutely more White People than non-White People. Look at all areas of Australian society, politics, commerce, sport, religion, and education, there are very few non-White People in positions of power. By simply saying, what about the Irish, they get picked on too, is a cop out. When you arrive in Australia and you have White skin, you have a degree of privilege over people without White skin.
I had thought about calling this post, These Insiders need to get outside more. I’m not really surprised by the response of the panellists to this topic. They ranged from silence (Panellist 3), basic understanding and recognition of the issue (Panellist 2) and pretty much no-idea and a rejection that racism is a problem at all (Panellist 1). This is pretty consistent with my experience of how many people think about racism.
If anything the survey highlighted to me the need to continue to talk about racism. We shouldn’t be scared to discuss it, what it means, and how each of us wins and fails each day in words and actions. Our media doesn’t really help. The nature of that beast is to look for stories that will generate sales through infotainment and they naturally love good guys and bad guys.
But racism is more than good guys and bad guys. And everyone being nice and polite does not make it go away. We need to talk about it to deal with it. That’s what racism is about.
*It should be noted that all the panellists were White People with White skin.

4 thoughts on “Racism: What’s it all about?”

  1. Discussion – n. the examination or consideration of a matter in speech or writing. Great discussion of that "discussion" Leesa, if a matter is only discussed by people who share ethnicity and profession then the limits of that discussion will often be pretty tight. If they needed to keep their "discussion" to just their fellow-Insiders they could have at least ensured some non-Anglo fellow journos. Please. Of course the inimitable George Megalogenis comes to mind, but I'm sure there are others. THANKS for examining with such care and thought, I know it does me good to read such fine, critical and accessible thinking. I/we need more and more and more.

  2. Hi Leesa

    I missed this debate. But I quite agree there is racism in this country and has been since I was a kid. I was very lucky to grow up in a non racist family as well as a father that did not think it was a womans place to be barefoot in the kitchen and would teach his daughters how to do 'guy' stuff, it's made me the independant strong woman I am today.

    I do feel having lived in both city and country areas of Australia that racism to me seems to be worse in country areas. There is a strong Aboriginal (Koori) community in this area (Shepparton), but I have noticed that a lot of what I term old school early white mentality towards them remains. I dont understand this, but seems to me to be an attitude that is passed down from white generation to generation. Ironically this areas has a lot of migratory people passing through due to the seasonal work. A majority of these people are from all different cultures, and I personally love meeting them and finding out about their backgrounds. But again I have witnessed racist comments towards many with no basis.

    Another irony is a lot of the racism is between these cultures as well, eg; malaysian having a go at phillipino's or vice versa. So racism in this country isn't just between whites and aboriginal, it's also between other cultural groups as well. That to me is disturbing and is probably something that has not been looked into either.

    The only way to combat racism is through education in kindy and primary school. I reckon it needs to start that early to broaden a childs perspective to combat against home influence where the parents may be racist.

    My neighbour and good friend H has Koorie/German heritage, unfortunately he is ashamed of his Koori heritage, and I have talked with him about this and tried to adjust his thinking, but due to the racism he suffered as a child and the abuse by his father (very nasty shit) I dont know if that will ever change in him. He is 38 and already pretty set in his ways. Though it's something I will keep working on when the subject arises.

    H as one example (though I have known others), is I see part of the problem with some of Aboriginal/Koori heritage, that the racism that was experienced as children and also by their parents has carried on and affected their sense of pride in their heritage.

    You know what I'd like to see, is a first Australian day, where a celebration of Aboriginal/Koori heritage is the focus, to help boister up a pride and respect for the heritage for people like H. It would do so much for their self esteem.

    Overall I dont think we will ever be free from racism, I do think Australia is better given the variety of cultures that are integrated together than some other countries (thinking USA). Fear is the only cause of racism, lack of understanding and an ignorance in some people to bothering educating themselves about other cultures.

    I used to have an old saying…we all look the same to a blind man. Racism is only a cultural and visual distinction, under the surface we are all the same, we bleed red blood, we have the same emotions, we love, we hate, we laugh, we cry. At the base we are all of part of the same species. All differences are a creation of the human mind.

    I hope I have not offended you with any of my waffle it was not my intent 🙂

    Jo (Joanne) Barnes

  3. Hey leesa, I've popped over from twitter:) Interesting blog post…I like Jo's words at the end re the sameness of people underneath skin. It's wierd how we humans always find stuff to do to make life shite for other humans, like racism…we're a pretty wierd species in general when i think about it. Being white, I never experienced racism towards me in this country I grew up in, but I have overseas. It's certainly not fun, & living with it from the day you're born would be seriously challenging, if not totally debilitating. Have experienced plenty of sexism all my life, goes with the deal of being a chic:)
    Cheers, neroli makim.

  4. I really appreciate your dissection of the views expressed and the discusssion of polite racism.

    The inner looking is indeed vital, to face any prejudices/racism or otherwise we have or others have in order to tackle them and overcome them.

    Experiences of living where you are not in the dominant group are eye opening – and travellers with open hearts learn from this.

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