Lifting the veil on our ingrained racism
Lifting the veil on our ingrained racism
15 Jun 2009
Professor Sandy Gifford
Originally published in The Age on 13 June, 2009
An audio version (MP3 5.7MB) of this opinion piece read by Professor Sandy Gifford is also available.
Australia is a racist society. There, I've said it. I've wanted to say this for the past 24 years - from the time I arrived here. Within my first week on Aussie soil a well meaning young man offered to introduce me to "boongs" - I thought he meant an Australian kind of dope smoking pipe. When I expressed my shock on discovering that it referred to an Australian form of racism, he assured me that I would agree with him once I knew the truth. Anyway, I was a Yank and a foreigner so what did I know?
It is exactly this attitude that helps perpetuate our collective denial that racism is part of our national character. Racism in Australia is pervasive, part of the fabric of everyday life and normalised in ways that render it invisible and make it one of the strongest forms of structural violence.
Confronting our racism is painful but denying it is wrong and making up excuses for specific acts of violence makes us complicit. It also makes us racist.
Racism in my Australia is like racism in my family _ mostly invisible. I grew up in an American family that was proudly not racist. We were appalled at the genocide of the Jews, the discrimination against Catholics, apartheid in South Africa and violent segregation of African Americans.
My parents had friends who looked different to us and they invited them home for dinner. My family fully supported the civil rights movement and affirmative action. And, like any family, we had our share of relatives whose views differed from the kind of family we were _ and had to be contained. This mostly happened at family gatherings and we learned to express our disapproval by not laughing at "ethnic" jokes, changing the subject or offering a politically correct excuse.
But more powerfully, I came to embody this racism through subtle everyday day family life. When I wanted a new pair of white shoes to go with my Easter dress, I was told by a progressive relative: "Only coloured children wear white shoes." To this day, I have never owned a pair of white dress shoes.
In my professional life, I research forms of social exclusion including racism. The recent violence has generated much discussion and debate among friends and colleagues. I find it troubling that much of this "enlightened" discourse attempts to explain away these episodes of racism by arguing that they are one-off events or that every society has some racist citizens or that these things happen to everyone at some point in their life or that all newcomers to Australia experience racism but that this disappears as they "assimilate".
But the stories people tell of their own experiences illuminate the kind of racism that operates in my Australia. Let me put it bluntly. Ask any second generation Vietnamese-Australian who rides the train to Footscray and they will tell you that racism is alive and well. Ask any African born young man living in Melbourne and he is likely to describe a range of racisms including being called a "nigger".
So many people have stories to tell about those subtle but powerful acts of every day incivility. Comments made about the "brownness" of their skin, the white taxi drivers who won't pick them up, and those who have gone to the USA or the UK because they don't want to raise their not-so white skinned kids in our Australian society. And what do we make of a statement by a young man in my research who says, "In my life there is very little discrimination because I choose to hang out with my own kind of people"?
Racism in Australia is not an aberration. The more we make excuses for it, ignore it and refuse to look it in the eye, refuse to see it for what it is, refuse to name it plainly, the more it will grow. The argument that Australia has less racism or is less racist than other countries is not an excuse.
Racism like rape, like genocide, like torture, is wrong and having less of it or being better than other countries does not make it right. Acts of hate violence such as in the recent attacks on Indian students must be seen as stemming from deeper problems in our society.
Australia as we know it was and is shaped by a deep racism directed towards Indigenous Australians. This racism has continued to thrive and extend its harm to other individuals and communities. It is sobering to wonder why Australia has never had a strong and collective civil rights movement or why we don't have a strong universal program of compulsory affirmative action. These are not one stop fixes to the problem but they are essential approaches towards fundamental transformation and social change. They force us to confront the underlying causes of racism and allow us to come to know the "other" as one of us - as our colleague, a fellow student, our elected public political representative, our Prime Minister.
It is shameful that we are pussyfooting around the current violence with responses directed at the victims - Indian students are soft targets, and that the damage is the potential loss of millions of dollars of overseas student income.
The real damage is about the loss of the kind of society we could be now and in the future.
Yes, racism runs deep in my country - Australia. So, there I've said it. This is what I feel, what I believe and I for one have been silent far too long. I passionately hope that the argument I have put will be proved wrong but I suspect that responses to this critique will only serve to prove me right.