By Sara McCallum
Last year I lived in Sydney for two months, the largest city in Australia and one of the most popular destinations for travellers worldwide. Yet in an area a ten minute walk from the City Centre, generally seen as one of the most liberal in the area, I encountered a level of racism I have never encountered before.
You may ask ‘Why does this matter to us?’, but the fact that ever increasing amounts of Brits are choosing to immigrate to Australia makes this an important issue to address. As someone that holds dual citizenship between the UK and Australia, I feel that it is not only my right, but my duty as a citizen, to question this racism. Certainly ex-pats may be surprised to see that racism exists in a radically different form than it does here in the UK. Here, it tends to be institutionalised, a la the BNP. Or in that more innocent type of racism, the ‘politically correct’ racism seen with David Cameron in the debates – ‘I was talking to a 40 year old Black man…’ Obviously there are pockets of the UK where multi-culturalism has not hit yet and xenophobia exists, but the racism I witnessed in Australia was altogether more widespread, hitting all sections of society. When challenged, people tended to be defensive, the ignorance that is often – if not always – coupled with racism, rearing its ugly head. Racism is rarely apathetic, it is often active. Sometimes it’s hidden, but in Australia it’s unashamedly overt and – perhaps more worryingly – accepted.
One might argue that because I have only briefly lived in Australia, in one area, that I was just unlucky, that it was on a par with going to an area in the UK with a high level of racism. Yet, time and time again, I hear similar stories from others, who make more than a cursory reference to the racism they witnessed in Australia. Dawn French, in her recent autobiography ‘Dear Fatty’, spoke about an incident she witnessed where a taxi driver spat on an Aboriginal man, then carried on with the journey, attempting to engage her in his racist rant. Two incidents from my own stay in Australia stand out in my mind; the first was when I went to see a kung-fu film at the cinema. The clerk asked me three times whether that was the film I wanted to see, as if she couldn’t quite understand why a white person would want to see an ‘Asian film’ (her words, not mine). Yes – that woman was clearly not a violent racist, but it revealed a subtlety in Australian culture that I saw constantly. The second was whilst talking with my new flatmates. They were lamenting in crude racial terms about the annoyance of Aboriginals begging at the central train station in Sydney. I couldn’t help but think this, from a purely historic viewpoint, was fairly illogical; white people essentially raped the Aboriginal’s country, their culture, their livelihoods, and then have the cheek to complain that two or three of them have the audacity to beg on their knees for their own survival. And I suppose what shocked me more, was that these people were educated and intelligent; rational on every other topic.
As someone who has family in Cronulla, the riots of 2005 came as no big surprise. The Lebanese in this case were singled out, and although both sides were violent, it did highlight an Islamaphobia that is also present in white Australian contemporary culture. The recent murder of an Indian student in Victoria exposed an increase in violence against Indians in the region, and provides perhaps the most obvious reason for tackling racism in the country. A racially-insensitive KFC advert offended many black people in Australia and abroad, earlier this year, and it is clear that the ‘Aussie sense of humour’ is often used to mask xenophobic and racist attitudes. The Australian vernacular – particularly the use of terms such as ‘wog’ – also lends itself to racist outbursts. Moreover, the racism towards Aboriginals is not only vocal, but violent.
Germaine Greer has also written extensively on the issue of racism in Australia, particularly towards the Aboriginal community. She points to the fact that high levels of alcoholism and child abuse in the Aboriginal community are used by white Australians to justify a lot of the racism directed at Aboriginals. Yet alcoholism and child abuse are also problems that exist in White Australian culture, particularly – as I witnessed – the former.
Recently ousted Australian PM Kevin Rudd (think Gordon Brown with an iota more charisma), made a small step towards redemption with the Aboriginal community with his historical ‘Sorry’ speech, but much more is needed. Perhaps a traditional approach to combating racism is required; a comprehensive educational campaign that reaches every citizen would seemingly challenge the widespread, deeply-held racist views. Until then – at the risk of sounding sanctimonious – ex-pats and visitors to Australia should continue to ‘fight the good fight’ and challenge racism at every juncture.