Is the lucky country also racist?

January 20, 2014
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We may have an enduring nostalgia for being a lucky country, but in recent months Australia has also started to garner a global rep for something a little less illustrious: racism.

Following a recent tour of Australia, international comedian John Oliver professed on The Daily Show last year that Australia was “one of the most comfortably racist countries” that he’d ever visited. In October, pictures of an unknown Australian girl’s African-themed 21st, including guests dressed in black face and as members of the Ku Klux Klan, sparked outrage on major American websites Jezebel and Buzzfeed. Then in December, Aussie protestor Trenton Oldfield, notorious for disrupting the 2012 Oxford Cambridge boat race, refused deportation from the UK. His reasoning: he didn’t want to go back to a land of “passive-aggressive racists”.

Racism seems out of place for a nation with the second highest proportion of foreign-born citizens. It’s an ugly accusation, but a difficult charge to argue with. Racism in Australia is like ‘A clothesline out the back/Verandah out the front/And an old rocking chair’. It’s simply just become part of the furniture, and an accepted part of the Australian culture. But is Australia, at least compared to the rest of the world, really so racist?

When contemplating the issue of racism in Australia, the Cronulla riots of 2005 immediately come to mind, as do the bashings of Indian students in Melbourne that caught the media’s attention in 2009. You also don’t have to be capable of winning Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? to realise that Eddie Maguire’s racial slur towards Adam Goodes was disgusting and inappropriate, but these incidents are hardly unique to Australia. No nation is innocent of racism, and each have experienced ugly periods of hate speech and racial tensions that have often boiled into violent outbursts and protests.

Many would point at politics for normalizing a racist vernacular into Australian culture that seems to come in and out of vogue on the hill. One Nation, led by Pauline Hanson (the redhead you can trust…to forever be a narrow-minded bigot) received 9 per cent of the popular vote in the 1998 election, and it’s not irrational to estimate that it would be around this number of Australians who truly did believe they were being “swamped by Asians”. While the support of One Nation has since declined into negligible obscurity, radical far-right political parties have been gaining traction around the world, particularly throughout Europe. Just look at Geert Wilders and the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, Golden Dawn in Greece, and the National Front in France. Racist political movements in Australia pale in comparison.

Measuring racism across a nation is too often anecdotal. A study by the University of Western Sydney in 2011 showed that 14.5 per cent of Aussies believe that “it is not a good thing for a society to be made up of people from different cultures”. This last statistic is about 14.5 per cent higher to my liking, and I’d hope most of those reading will agree.

It's more helpful to look at how Australia compares to the rest of the world. Over the past two decades, World Values Survey measured racism across 81 countries, equating racism with picking “people from another race” as a group of people the participants would not want as neighbours. When surveyed in 2005, Australia was amongst the most racially tolerant nations in the world, with only 4.2 per cent of surveyed Australians answering racistly. The US? 3.8 per cent. The UK? 4.9 per cent. Staggeringly, racism in France was at 22.7 per cent, and over a majority in India.

Our 4.2 figure is hardly a figure to pat ourselves on the back over, especially considering that surveys can easily be a little fudged and racism is undoubtedly a problem in Australia. However, at the very least, it’s clear our racism is a little exaggerated by the rest of the world. We must remember that neralised stereotypes of an entire nation rarely ring true… although admittedly most are not such a bitter pill to swallow (down with a stubby of VB, of course). Surely Australia has a richer national identity than just racism, right? [Insert crickets chirp.]

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Out of interest and slightly disillusioned myself, I asked friends and family to summarise Australia’s identity in a few words. I was surprised by how varied and convoluted the answers were. I wager: maybe this hole is where racism fills a void. We have little idea of our national identity, so our identity instead becomes a definition by exclusion.

In 2007, Today Tonight (not exactly a beacon of tolerance itself) unwittingly proved this point when the program equated Australian-ness with knowledge about 1. Don Bradman, 2. Pavlova, and 3. ‘Waltzing Matilda’. Ridiculous? Maybe. Incorrect? Definitely. Bradman excelled at a sport introduced by the British; pavlova was invented by New Zealand to honour a ballet dancer from Russia; and ‘Waltzing Matilda’ tells the tale of a swagman – hardly appropriate for a nation where 89 per cent of the population now lives in urban areas. This pavlova test sought to capture Australian culture in three recognizable symbols, but instead only revealed how this culture is instead a confused muddle abstracted from other countries. Today Tonight has little clue, like most of us, what ‘Australian’ might possibly mean, yet are somehow swift to point out when others are being ‘un-Australian’. 

In 1988, then-opposition leader John Howard trumped Today Tonight when introducing the coalition’s One Australia policy. (Please keep in mind that this man eventually became Australia’s second-longest serving Prime Minister.) Here's Howard's quote on the matter: "Multiculturalism is in effect saying that it is impossible to have an Australian ethos, that it is impossible to have a common Australian culture. So we have to pretend that we are a federation of cultures and that we've got a bit from every part of the world.” 

Howard represents a major aspect of racist Australia. There is a notion that our national identity is so weak and fragile that the welcoming of other cultures is a threatening affront to whatever culture it is we do stand for. Howard made those comments in the 80s, but it’s still reminiscent of Australia today. This is a nation where racism is often top-down rather than bottom-up; shaping an intolerant and insidious political vernacular that pervades even into an ongoing debate over asylum seekers.

One Canberra evening, a group of friends and I went out to dinner – no mean feat considering the state of our student budgets and the fact that most restaurants close up shop in the capital by 8pm. The destination? A Japanese restarestaurant. At the last second (as in almost through the doorway) a housemate of mine opted out of our dinner plans and instead walked down the road to Maccas because he was not as “cultured” as the rest of us might have been.

Like my housemate, Australia opts for French fries and a Big Mac when confronted with sushi and ramen. We clutch at our Anglo-Saxan roots whenever this multicultural land we’ve somehow found ourselves in becomes just a little bit too terrifying to bear. Whether racist or just simply confused, the joke is on us now, and that should make us very uncomfortable indeed.

Ben Latham

Ben Latham is a student at The Australian National University.

Photo credit: Genevieve French, The University of Sydney