Transcript

Australian Racism with Sandy Gifford

Professor Sandy GiffordProfessor Sandy Gifford
s.gifford@latrobe.edu.au

Matt Smith:

This is the La Trobe University Podcast. I’ll be your host Matt Smith. I’m here today with Professor Sandy Gifford who is the Director of La Trobe University’s Refugee Heath Research Center. Thank you for joining me today, Sandy.

Sandy Gifford:

Thank you, Matt.

Matt Smith:

You're here today to talk about racism and are Australian’s racist?

Sandy Gifford:

Of course they’re racist.

Matt Smith:

Really?

Sandy Gifford:

I do but let me say more about that. I’ve been hesitating to say that for a really long time. But I say that in the same way that I say it’s really important to recognize that racism is universal. It’s one of those challenges that we have about being human, about recognizing difference, and ensuring that we don’t turn that difference into discrimination.

I think it’s a bit like, you know, it’s a bit like torture. It’s a bit like genocide. It’s not just the evil other that does that, but that racism is in all of us. It’s a challenge to actually identify that so that we could do something about it.

Matt Smith:

I really have to ask and I'm going to may be validate your entire argument. What gives a Yank like you the right to say something like this to Australians are the racist ones?

Sandy Gifford:

Your comment is really interesting. It’s one that has been a very common reaction to what I’ve written. You know when I wrote that piece, I purposely did not put my citizenship in that piece, because I wanted to find out if people would exactly say what you’ve said.

Now, I think that question goes back to who we are as Australians. I actually am Australian. I’ve been Australian I don’t know about 14 or 15 years. I lived here since 1983, so I’ve had formal citizenship for that long. I think that very question actually raises issues about the legitimacy to speak. Who are we as Australian? What legitimacy do we have to speak? Do only those of us who can trace our ancestors back two or three generations, are we the true Australians?

I worked a lot with newly arrived communities from refugee backgrounds. There are so many people in particularly youth who constantly say, you know, people are saying that you flew here. You flew here, we grew here, therefore. You know, there are a range of discriminations that these young people face. I think that whole issue, you know, you weren’t born here. What rights have you to criticize this society? Well, I’m part of this. I am Australian.

Matt Smith:

But even people who are born here can experience racism. I mean, I’ve got a friend who was Australian born but he is of Chinese descent. He still experiences racism. He’s got now accent. He speaks perfect English of course, because he grew up here and went through the school system, just the fact that he still experiences racism kind of takes away that argument on some sort of grounds, I think at least.

Sandy Gifford:

Yeah. I think it’s a good example. It’s interesting because I’ve received quite a bit of feedback on that piece. Some people have written like two to three pages of emails. You know, one is from a Greek background and basically describes the experiences his parents had and he has and his children have. You know, they’re tragic experiences.

I think that it really means that collectively we have to pause and take a look at who we are and how these things get passed down. You know, covering them up and making excuses isn't going to push change forward.

Matt Smith:

What sorts of people are disagreeing with your argument? They'd be pretty much the people who have been Australian for a fair few generations. White Australian?

Sandy Gifford:

Look, I don’t know but I do want to say I’ve been really interested in the negative responses. I have to say only probably a fourth of the responses that I’ve got, either through phone calls, and through the email have been negative. But it’s not to say that they aren't out there in the blogs, but I actually found them really interesting, because the first thing is to say that we are racist pushes a button.

I mean, I don’t like to say that. If somebody calls me a racist, I will automatically bristle. I mean, it’s a terrible thing.

Matt Smith:

Nobody would like being accused of it.

Sandy Gifford:

No absolutely. But then I was thinking, so is my reaction similar to somebody who is being discriminated against, to being called a bad name. I mean, it hurts, it really hurts. And so, in answer to your question, I think when people respond it pushes a button and it hurts people.

To have to acknowledge that, in fact, there’s a bit of truth to what I’m saying. It takes a lot of courage for people to say, “Yeah. Well, I don’t like that a bit about me and my society. So let’s open up and let’s change it.” I think for a lot of people it’s too hurtful. I actually don’t think it’s only white Australians either. I can’t tell. Some people have told me what their backgrounds are but interestingly not the negative responses.

I think those negative responses are very human too. I mean, I don’t take them personally. I think in some ways they’re more important to look at than the responses from people who have said, “Yes. Thank you.” I think that it’s very difficult to address these issues. I think that those responses are exactly what our politicians have been doing although in a more politically correct manner.

It’s exactly what I’ve been doing for the past 24 years by trying to avoid that I shouldn’t rock the boat. I shouldn’t lash out. I shouldn’t say what I really thinf. Of course, there is more extreme force. When you say well what kind of people are making those comments probably there are a lot of us who would like to make those comments but we haven’t.

Matt Smith:

One common argument that you must get is people who say, “I’m not racist. I’ve got a friend from say this country. Does that automatically excuse them from being racist though, that sort of argument?

Sandy Gifford:

Yeah. You know, we’ve had all really interesting conversations. Here, at wor, with my family and friends. I think there’s a particular complicity that happens. There are so many issues that I tried to raised that so if you're having dinner with a bunch of friends and somebody makes a racist joke or do you interrupt the flow of the conversation I say, “Hey. That’s not on.”

Do you actually say nothing in order to protect the social connectiveness of what’s going on? Or do you have the courage to disrupt it? I think that there are lots of people who have friends from many different backgrounds. We may know this difference. I think that some of the things around racism are so embodied that we don’t even realize it but I think what’s really important is for people to have the courage to speak up. I actually think that they are few of us who at every single turn, every single event where there has been something that has been racist in its nature that’s happened we’re more likely to take a safe way out.

Matt Smith:

Can I ask you how are you defining racism?

Sandy Gifford:

I’m interested I suppose in this case, the structural racism or what we can quiet violence or other people have talked about it in terms of everyday instability. So, it’s the kinds of things that you wouldn’t actually identify as being overtly racist. It’s not so much calling somebody a really nasty name or not hiring them because they have an accent or the color of their skin or whatever.

It’s the kinds of things that happen constantly. You know the looks that some of the women of color get when they walk into a shop like you shouldn’t be here, or women who wear the scarf. You don’t have legitimate like to be here. It has to do with the kinds of bullying that takes in the schools that starts to turn into racial slurs.

It has to do with the kinds of social exclusions, so many people who go in and they apply. They apply for rental, for housing. I cannot tell you the number of people that I know who are turned down. Their applications are turned down. Why? They have is a Muslim-sounding last name or they looked different.

Are they going to be the right kinds of applicants? I think we have real problems in terms of who we hire a part from the issues of qualifications. There is a systemic I think discrimination in the workplace. That’s why I think we really need to have some kind of an affirmative action quota system. I think we don’t realize these things consciously. We can make all sorts of justifications for.

Matt Smith:

Yeah, yeah. Is there a hope for Australia? Have we been getting better as time goes on? Or is racism becoming more of an issue, more of a problem?

Sandy Gifford:

Well, it’s an interesting thing, because one has to believe in progress. I’m an optimist. I’m basically an optimist but I don’t think optimism excuses what’s happening now. I mean, I’m very optimistic that Australia does lot of things right and we’re a democratic society. We are very socially inclusive but we have a long way to go.

Matt Smith:

You said in your opinion pace that it’s not just Australia that has a problem with the racism. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a country that isn't racist in some way or another to some other group of people somewhere in the world. Can I ask you… in the case of America though with the way their political correctness now is that the issue of race actually helped somebody like President Obama be elected.

Sandy Gifford:

The first I’ll say is that the United States still has a long way to go and that its discrimination and racism is very deeply engrained but I think what has happened is because its been named, because there has been a collective. When I mean a collective civil rights movement, I mean one that still exists in a collective memory. Everybody getting out and protesting which unfortunately you know also had a share of violence with it. I think that in the U.S. there is still really violent racism, and there is a far right that we don’t have in Australia to the same extent. Thankfully, I believe that strongly.

But I also think that what the U.S. has done is it’s named it. It’s named it in academics. It’s named it everyday life. And what that actually means is that in the U.S., there are people of color now holding positions throughout social life. That doesn’t mean that the U.S. has solved its problem, because it certainly hasn’t. There’s I think a real deep violence in American society that it has to continue to be addressed. I would never compare the U.S. in Australia. I think you can’t do that. We have completely different histories but it doesn’t absolve us from actually looking deep into our history, which I think is a history of theft.

Matt Smith:

Well, I think in some ways America has acknowledged that they have or had a problem in their past and that’s something that Australia is only just beginning to do within the last few years it seems.

Sandy Gifford:

It’s really interesting, because I think until everybody has the courage including our leaders to stand up and to say, “Yes,” you know. We have a problem with racism. We aren’t going to be silent about it anymore. It’s not just about losing money from overseas students. It’s not just about this silence with the Indians students or the murder of the young Sudanese man two years ago in Noble Park.

These aren’t the little instances. This is like a little bubbling volcano that erupts and until we actually get down to the source of it, it’s going to continue erupting. That’s not the society I want my kids and my grandkids to live in. I mean, my family is here and my friends are here. I do not want; I don’t want my country’s future to be like that. And so, that’s why I think it’s really important for all of us to start having the courage to be politically incorrect and speak out and change. Change that world in which we live in and to actually start to identify those little things in everyday life that make a lot of our fellow citizens really miserable.

Matt Smith:

Professor Sandy Gifford, thank you for your time today.