You might picture Australia as the lucky country. You might view us as a relaxed, chilled-out nation of bronzed bodies and rugged Bushmen. You may even see us as a slightly backwards, lazier version of the British, just with better weather. I’m not sure, but in my experience, it appears the rest of the world views us as a very multi-cultural society, and as such quite tolerant of all comers, goers and stayers. Certainly, our politicians absolutely adore the term multiculturalism, and it’s indoctrinated in to children at a young age as a representation of part of the vast wealth of this country. We are a tolerant society who accepts every race, religion, skin color, and nationality under the sun to join us in our beautiful nation.
The truth, unfortunately, is somewhat different to this picture. Like all good propaganda campaigns, the view of Australia as a tolerant nation is constantly watered and nurtured in the public eye. Every time an incident that even resembles racism emerges, it is uniformly condemned and the guilty parties are subject to serious public derision. For a few days. A week at most. Then the status quo resumes, and we lie in wait for the next drunken tweet or off-hand remark to shout about. But is this public face the same color as our private one?
No, quite frankly. Australia suffers from a chronic racism growth that was sown in 1788 and never properly or fully weeded out. The leaves have been cut, the stem has been broken off, but the roots continue to reside in their dirty, dank hole, always there tormenting.
Without boring you, for those who are not Australian, the worst injustice in our history was the way the British and European settlers treated our nations native people, our Aboriginals. They were treated as inferior, denied any right of citizenship, and a series of grave injustices were committed against them, most famously, the stolen generation. This consisted of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander born children who were taken from their families and “assimilated” in to white/European society. Essentially the aim was to ‘phase out’ their native heritage, and some commentators have likened it to a form of genocide. It is a horrible, sad chapter in Australia’s history, one that wasn’t closed until 1969. An apology was not received by our native countrymen until Kevin Rudd delivered one in 2008. Staggering.
Of course the White Australia Policy is another famous piece of Australian racism, one that was designed to ensure the British nature of the population, and one which also further limited Aboriginal’s rights. Not until Harold Holt (and if you’re reading this Mr. Holt, thank you) took a stand with the Migration Act in 1967, superseding the White Australia Policy, although it must be remembered Sir Robert Menzies was the first Prime Minister to start abolishing things like the dictation test and increasing the rights of Aboriginals.
Today, the country is a patchwork of races, religions and colors. Indigenous Australians represent just 2.5% of our population, with British ancestry ranking the highest (55.4%). Large populations of Asian and Lebanese also inhabit the country. With such a melting pot of influences and cultures, disputes, disagreements and even violence, you’d argue, is bound to erupt on occasion. My point, however, is that racism runs much deeper in the veins of our country than the odd disagreement. It is a systemic problem that infects not just British and locally born Australians, but inhabits the populations of those from other nations living here.
Most recently of course we have Eddie McGuire’s awful gaff (I hope it was a gaff) on breakfast radio, saying Indigenous footballer Adam Goodes should be the face of the campaign for ‘King Kong’ the musical. This comes just days after Goodes was racially abused by a 13 year old female during a game of football, Indigenous round no less. That Eddie McGuire, the president of the Collingwood football club, one of the largest clubs in the AFL and one steeped in history and achievement, even has these thoughts running through his head is evidence of a systematic problem.
Further proof is the continued existence of the stain that is Pauline Hanson. Somehow she was elected in to Australian Parliament in 1996, despite phrases such as Australia is ‘swamped by Asians’ and forming a party called One Nation, whose policies included an end to immigration and wiping out multiculturalism due to an unbalanced Australian population. Incredibly, she announced in March 2013 she was yet again going to stand in the Federal election.
Australians may also recall the Cronulla Riots of 2005 and the 2009 attacks on Indian students in Melbourne as further public proof of our tortured relationship with racial vilification. But this article is more than a history lesson. As a 24 year old male who has studied with, lived with, worked with, and played sport with almost every major Australian race under the sun, I have been privy to most forms of racism, most of it committed behind closed doors, out of sight of those it is intended to debase – a kind of casual racism that people accept all too readily as part of every day life.
The Lebanese are the ones singled out most commonly in passing conversation, especially by our friends in uniform. A special dislike exists for the group as a whole, despite the fact that the trouble makers represent such a minority that you probably couldn’t fill a single mosque up with them. Muslim has become a dirty word for some, and it sickens me to say I am closely associated with some who believe those of the Muslim faith and of Lebanese heritage are somehow inferior beings.
Aboriginals also have their own special place reserved in the hearts of Anglo-Australians. A culture of ‘love them or hate them’ seems to have emerged, with Australia seemingly split down the middle on the issue of how to relate best to them. At dinner not an hour ago I sat through an extremely cultured conversation about race and color, mainly the color of babies and recessive genes and the like. It was great, right up till the end when we were discussing how Aboriginals’ heritage is confirmed in order for them to receive the benefits that the Government bestows upon them. One of the blokes said to test them they just check to see ‘if they like VB’; “a couple of long necks and if they get em down in 5 minutes they’re Abo”. Charming. Yet it is such a common occurrence, Aboriginals being attacked in this manner, that no-one bats an eyelid. For every 2 people who stand up to defend them, there are 2 who will throw stereotypes at them.
Asians. They can’t drive, right? One of my mates swears they have permanent blinkers attached to their head, he claims their total lack of peripheral vision is a condition exclusive to their race. I even heard one person remark, and I am quoting, “Do you think Asians have such little spatial awareness because their eyes are so slanty?” Yes, I slapped him around the head. But was I surprised, shocked? Slightly, but not enough. Off-hand remarks like this are all too common, altogether way too common, and it’s not a huge surprise when someone spurts something like this out. We all turn around, cluck a bit, but ultimately go back to our conversation without judging the offending individual. It’s a blatant culture that has been maintained through generations of racist Australians, and it seems it isn’t going anywhere no matter how tolerant our country claims to be.
Too often, I think Aussies hide behind our larrikin exterior when dealing out racist remarks or opinions. Yes, we love a joke – we are a laid back culture who doesn’t take itself too seriously – although this is changing, and yes we can take as good as we get. But when does that cross the line? When is the point where we stop laughing and start saying ‘hang on, that isn’t an appropriate thing to say, there was malice behind that remark’? I think we’ve passed that point, yet no-one acknowledges it.
Of course, it isn’t limited to Australians. Going to the University of New South Wales was for me an eye opening experience. Anyone who is remotely aware of it knows it houses a huge Asian population. Some say upwards of 90%, although that is a generous Aussie exaggeration. My first experience of racism against Australians was experienced here, in a Mathematics tutorial that had 22 Asians and 2 Australians. When attempting to join a group for group work, me and my comrade were turned down by every other person in the room until the tutor assigned us to a group. I thought this curious, and it was only my first year, so I was extremely shy and very put off by it. It wasn’t until a few weeks later, in the computer room, when I overheard 2 classmates talking about the group situation. One of them said, and yes, I quote, it is burnt in my mind, “Lucky we didn’t get stuck with those 2 skips, they’d fuck it all up.” Skip is apparently a derogatory term for an Australian. It wasn’t the last time I encountered the phrase, or the sentiment, in my University career, in fact it happened quite a lot. “Anglo’s” were seen as less intelligent, lazier workers. Of course, in my case, they were right on the intelligence – I couldn’t match my more gifted Asian counterparts. The stereotype hurt though.
Australia is a wonderful country, the best in the world. This is made up equal parts of land and people. But we have a dirty secret, a seedy underbelly that exists mostly out of public view. If you’ve spent any kind of time in this brilliant country, you will surely have experienced some of what I have. How we fix this problem, I do not know. It’s an unfortunate state of affairs that I would hope would slowly die out with the older generations, however in my experience it is an affliction that has infected Generations X, Y, and Z as well. It isn’t going anywhere, and that is kind of sad.