Sunday, October 07, 2007

"Race" and "Racism" in Australia

I had not intended to comment again about Australian attitudes to race and racism so soon after my post on Mr Andrews and the discussion on African refugees. Indeed, I have a lot of things that I should be doing instead. However, because of a discussion with Neil Whitfield in the comments section of the Andrews' post I feel a need to make my personal position as clear as possible.

Bluntly, I think that the way many Australians - and especially those in the media - use the terms "race" and "racism" as epithets creates confusion and has become poisonous and damaging to both our reputation as a country and to civilised discussion itself.

To start by clearing some undergrowth.

Does racial prejudice exist in Australia? Yes, it does and has. Is it a bad thing? Yes, it is. Does it exist in other places? Yes, it does. Is it worse in Australia than other places? I do not think so. Is modern Australia itself a racist country? On any objective definition it is not, even though individuals or even groups in Australia may experience racism.

Next, we need to recognise and distinguish between Australian debate on things such as the Andrews matter and the way that debate is perceived and interpreted overseas.

We live in a post-colonial world. To Australians, that colonial past has become remote. This is not the case in, say, Africa where previous European assumptions of superiority grate and grate hard. You only have to read some of the African discussion around Mr Mugabe, to compare Australian and African responses to the Mugabe regime, to see this.

The domestic discussions that we Australians have carry round the world and are transmuted to fit within the ideas, perceptions and prejudices held by others. Among other things, this reinforces previously formed views that Australia is a racist county.

Does this mean that we should not have such discussions? Does it mean that we should not be aware of our own past mistakes and injustices? No it does not. All that I am saying is that we need to be more sensitive, to recognise that we do live in a global gold fish bowl, that the use and abuse of the racist epithet does us global damage.

Turning now to the confusions that surround the terms "race", "racist" and "racism". You will find source material here and here.

Growing up, the terms "racist" and "racism" seemed quite simple and clear-cut.

This was a world in which long held prejudices against the Jews, Darwinian concepts of natural selection and of eugenics had turned into a pseudo scientific racism leading to the horrors of places such as Belsen and the systematic mass murder of Jews and Gypsies. In response, this was also a world which saw the first international action against racism, decolonisation as well as the emergence of the US civil rights movement.

In this world, racist meant prejudice based on concepts of racial superiority, racism the application of those prejudices in practice.

Even then, there were confusions surrounding the terms.

Were the prejudices of some Australians against southern Europeans at the start of the modern mass migration program racist?

Yes if you considered southern Europeans to be a different and inferior race from those further north. No if you considered southern Europeans to be Europeans. In this second case we were dealing with ethnic and cultural prejudices.

The White Australia policy was clearly racially based, but was it racist?

While some of its supporters held views about racial superiority, others presented it in terms of the preservation of a homogeneous culture and society. To those from outside prevented from entering the country on grounds of race the answer seemed clearly yes.

Were policies towards Australia's Aboriginal people racist? In this case I would say clearly yes, because here we did have assumptions about racial superiority expressed in action. Yet there was also a constant and earnest thread running through discussion that did not focus on race, but culture. Are prejudices about different cultures racist?

Confusions abound.

Because of this, Wikipedia records that as early as 1950:

UNESCO suggested in The Race Question —a statement signed by 21 scholars including Ashley Montagu, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Gunnar Myrdal and Julian Huxley, etc. — to "drop the term race altogether and instead speak of ethnic groups". The statement condemned scientific racism theories which had played a role in the Holocaust. It aimed both at debunking scientific racist theories, by popularizing modern knowledge concerning "the race question," and morally condemned racism as contrary to the philosophy of the Enlightenment and its assumption of equal rights for all. Along with Myrdal's An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944), The Race Question influenced the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court desegregation decision in "Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka".

If there was confusion in 1950 about the terms race and racism, it is far worse in Australia today when the term has come to cover so many forms of perceived discrimination and prejudice.

As I write, one of the Sunday TV review programs has been discussing the Andrews' matter. I had to laugh when youngest said so the Sudanese adults drink and the young men make a lot of noise? As my wife responded, they are clearly through to the semis as Australians!

Yet I also felt sad because my family, too, interpreted Mr Andrews' remarks within the racist frame set by previous reporting.

By global standards, we live in a remarkably open, pluralist, tolerant, polycultural society. We have transformed ourselves as a country and a people. Yet based on our own reporting of ourselves, an outsider could be forgiven for thinking that this is a place were racial bigotry runs rampant.

Mr Andrews is not known for his ability to handle things in a sensible and tactful fashion. Yet when I look at the facts, the ones who introduced and then followed up the race issue were the media and commentators more broadly. They created the problem.

There are a small number of genuine old style racists in the Australian community who do try to take advantage of this type of event. They did so in Tamworth following the controversy. As happened with Tamworth, they will fail.

There is a larger group who feel threatened by the pace of change and who fear becoming aliens in their own country. Alienated during the changes of the eighties and nineties, this was the group that One Nation appealed to. Most were in no way racist in the true meaning of the term, but their alienation made them vulnerable to messages with racist undertones.

Then there is everybody else all of whom have varied mixes of prejudices.

Some Australians are prejudiced against Muslims, some are prejudiced against Christians, some prejudiced against anyone of faith. Some are prejudiced against city people, some against country people, some against Sydney's eastern suburbs, some against the western suburbs. Some are prejudiced against Americans, some against Chinese, some against Indians, a number against anything to do with anglo-celtic Australia. The response to Mr Andrews is itself an example of prejudice.

If you want an extreme example of cultural prejudice you only have to look at the word bogan, a term that I had not even heard of until a few years ago when I heard some of my daughters' friends use it.

My point in all this is that all Australians are a mix of sometimes conflicting prejudices of which attitudes towards race is just one element. Any prejudice can derail sensible discussion. This is just what happened in Tamworth and now in the current case where views expressed in the media and by commentators derailed sensible discussion. In the meantime, core issues about the way we resource and manage refugee resettlement programs go unresolved.


Lexcen said...

It isn't hard to label somebody we disagree with as "racist". From there is it only a small step to dismissing any opinion that that person may hold. Using "racism" as a derogatory term means we do not allow for any rational debate or allow ourselves to be receptive to different opinions.
A closed mindset where one's opinion is right and everybody else's is wrong is dangerous territory. I have visions of Maoist China where anyone could be condemned as "counter - revolutionary". It's ok to disagree with but dangerous to label others. Labelling only leads to an inability to think for ourselves.

Jim Belshaw said...

I agree, Lexcen

ninglun said...

Hmm. Despite our different perspectives we are in serious danger of converging, Jim, as you may have seen here.

Jim Belshaw said...

We may, indeed, be in danger of convergence, Neil.

Listen TELUGU SONGS said...


THEY(AMERICAN MAFIA) BEEN financing all illegal people in AUSTRALIA & INDIA AS WELL.

U PPL(INDIANS) thinking, only Australians are doing this. nope . This is DONE by American MAFIA(designed & executed with local australinas) .
SO We need to THINK abt this new evil AMERICAN MAFIA as well.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jim Belshaw said...

Robina, while I could understand your concerns, I removed your comment because it could have exposed you and this blog to legal action.