Speaking out about racism does not show disdain for Australia

Australia has a problem when it comes to talking about issues of race and racism, particularly when it is done by people of colour. It is clear when you compare the public treatment of Yassmin Abdel-Magied and the reaction to Red Symons interview of Beverley Wang to the relative silence about comments by Rowan Dean about Tim Soutphomassane and Prue MacSween about Yassmin Abdel-Magied.

Right-wing critics of “identity politics” such as Rowan Dean, Mark Latham and co seem to think that when people of colour speak out about racism and underrepresentation, it is a complaint that comes from a disdain of Australia. People of colour are essentially told to “love it or leave”. These critics could not be further from the truth.

For so many people of colour, Australia is their home and the only one they have known. It comes from a wish for the image of Australia to reflect how it really is, where people of colour are a part of it. Every time there is a pushback with not even coded racist language, it reinforces a sense that people of colour are not allowed a say and will never truly be accepted as Australians. What makes it worse is when you see comparable nations like Canada doing far better. Canada is not perfect but on basic representation in institutions like in Parliament or even measuring the representation of ‘visible minorities’, it is far ahead of Australia.

Those who think it is funny obviously have never experienced the exhaustion, the second guessing and the frustration of it all. To top it off, people of colour are expected to cop it and be servile, to accept it and be grateful they do not live in an underdeveloped country ravaged by the legacy of colonialism. I do not know whether it is a fear of people of colour or malice towards individuals or just a belief they have it good so they should not complain but this is our home as much as theirs.

Personally I do not want white guilt about this situation, I do not even want commentators fired, I just want it to be normalised that racist comments are called out and ridiculed and to move on. I want our institutions to truly reflect our nation’s breadth in race, sexuality, disability, class and gender. I want people to understand that there is not a pure binary of being a racist versus not being a racist so there is not pushback when casual racism is identified. And most of all, I would like people of colour to get the respect they are entitled to when they speak out about these issues and to not be treated as some irritant that has been “tolerated”.


The Real Story Behind Harmony Day: How John Howard Depoliticised Anti-Racism

Tomorrow is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, but you probably haven’t heard it called that before.

The day commemorates the Sharpesville Massacre. On March 21 1960, police opened fire and killed 69 people at a peaceful demonstration against apartheid laws in Sharpeville, South Africa. In proclaiming the day in 1966, the United Nations General Assembly called on the international community to redouble its efforts to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination.

Yet few people in Australia would be aware of the origins of this day since it was re-named as ‪‎Harmony Day. The Racial Discrimination Commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane, and Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews were among the few public figures who mentioned the origins of the day last year on its 50th anniversary.


From Anti-Racism To “Harmony”

You might wonder why this matters. Surely a celebration of cultural diversity fits in with opposition to racism? But calling it Harmony Day drains the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination of its real meaning. Rather than focusing on tackling racism and the structural barriers that continue to exist, it is instead a self-congratulatory day about how “harmonious” we apparently are.

The nature of Harmony Day is unsurprising since it was originally an invention of the Howard Government. It was created 1998 in response to research conducted by Eureka Research for the federal government about the causes of racism and issues of national identity that were prominent at the time.

Rather than addressing Australia’s deep-seated issues and acknowledging there was racism, the project latched onto the idea of celebrating already existing harmony in the community, based on the second phase of research. Celebrating and protecting this harmony would be the focus, avoiding any uncomfortable conversations about racism. It didn’t threaten the status quo, which John Howard was all too happy with.

Nearly two decades on, the day manifests itself by encouraging people to wear orange, for no clear reason, and eating ‘ethnic food’. At best, Harmony Day is cosmo-multiculturalism — a multiculturalism that makes people feel classy and sophisticated, where ‘ethnic’ products are a form of exoticisms for consumption, detached from history and culture.


Racism Exists in Australia

Yes, nowhere is perfect and Australia does better than some other places in the world, but an absence of outright racially discriminatory laws does not mean racism does not exist. It remains in structural barriers, casual racism and instances of abuse throughout the country. Ask any non-white person or anyone visibly from a minority racial group and they can tell you about it.

You see it in the lack of diverse representation in our institutions. Soutphommasane, for example, has spoken about a “bamboo ceiling” preventing Asian Australians from taking their share of leadership positions. You see it in outright hostile depictions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in our broadsheets. You see it in our politicians’ rhetoric about who we decide to let into this country and the circumstances in which they come.

We also seem to do far worse than other comparable countries in terms of general parliamentary representation. In Canada, for example, people from minorities have served as premier, governor-general and make up 14 percent of the Canadian parliament. In Australia, less than 10 percent of our federal parliamentarians are from non-English speaking backgrounds, even though nearly one in four Australians are.

The image of Australia projects of itself is predominantly still Anglo-Australian, both overseas and even at home. Race becomes the defining feature of anyone who is not an Anglo-Australian and any proper representation of a culturally diverse Australia in the media seems to be siphoned off to SBS. Then there are the more subtle forms of racism such as media reporting about Arab Australians and Asian Australians. The endless articles about “the Chinese” buying up property immediately come to mind.

As long as we continue to call it Harmony Day, we are legitimising this widespread denial about racism in Australia. One day can’t fix racism, but we can start by calling it what it actually is, and staying true to its real message: the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

Published in Junkee on 20 March 2017

Battling the Pauline Hanson battler myth

The big surprise of the recent federal election was the success of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party. Not only was Hanson elected but three other One Nation Senators were as well. Their election has led to much soul searching about Hanson’s ongoing appeal, and public discussion about how to respond.

A recent SBS Insight episode suggested that those who voted for Hanson predominantly were disillusioned with the major parties and believed Hanson had a passion and authenticity that the others lack. Hanson benefitted from the perception that she is a political outsider who speaks for ‘ordinary Australians’.

This affirmed polling by Essential Research that found 62 per cent thought she speaks for a lot of ordinary Australians and 65 per cent thought she spoke about issues politicians are too scared to tackle.

It is ironic that Hanson thrives on the perception that she is an authentic outsider against ‘the system’ when in fact she is part of that system. Think about how she is constantly given paid platforms by television networks.

She hasn’t been silenced by ‘the system’, her voice is heard and has been amplified. She is also no amateur, she is a professional and knows exactly what she is doing. She is not some ‘battler’ being picked on, and that needs to be emphasised.

The resonance of Hanson’s message goes beyond being seen as an outsider. Part of it also comes from her portrayal of her views as ‘common sense’. Her perspective is never complicated or sophisticated; it is matter of fact, and based on practical intuition. Think back to her maiden speech and her comparison of immigration to being allowed to choose who she invites into her home.

A good recent example of how Hanson uses ‘common sense’ was her comments about squat toilets in the Tax Office. Her simple message was that if you cannot figure out how to use something as simple as a toilet, how can you know how to run something complex like a tax system?

Her messages are not based on facts, so fact checking is pointless, as are overtures to diversity or that it does not matter. They are simple ‘common sense’ messages, so they cut through.

That ‘common sense’ approach thrives in the current media landscape and explains why it favours populists. Simple messages cut through the noise and grab media attention, in an era where resources for serious journalism are limited. It is a vicious cycle where the media and populists have an almost parasitic relationship.

While Hanson is not the only One Nation senator, the party’s success has always been reliant on her. There has been increasing scrutiny of some of the other One Nation senators but it seems unlikely to damage the party. One Nation, like other similar parties, is reliant on a charismatic figure. As Ben Moffitt points out, populist parties tend towards extreme personalisation where party leaders ‘speak for, represent and embody the hopes, desires and voice of ‘the people’. The re-branding of the party as Pauline Hanson’s One Nation is a case in point. So long as One Nation and Pauline Hanson are seen as synonymous, the other senators might cause some embarrassment but will not undercut the party’s base level of support.

Given all of this, how should those who want to challenge Hanson respond? Firstly, Hanson and One Nation should not be indulged, but the broader concerns of her voters should be acknowledged. Acknowledging is not the same as agreeing.

The myth that she is an authentic outsider also needs to be challenged. She is not some poor downtrodden member of society, but very much a part of the system and a beneficiary of it.

The attempts to correct her using facts or talking up the benefits of what she opposes should stop. When responding to Hanson, don’t fact check; point out how her view’s lack ‘common sense’ and respond to them on that basis.

Finally, try to avoid giving attention that aids her. Every time she says something and we feed the frenzy, she gets more attention from the media, which ultimately aids her. Nuanced replies on her terrain do not win.

All of this is easier said than done, but relying on reasoning or facts will not undercut Hanson’s appeal.

Published in Eureka Street on 16 September 2016

Those decrying Chinese homebuyers actually fear losing their own privilege

My earliest political memory was from when I was 10 years old.

I remember hearing bits of Pauline Hanson’s maiden speech on television, stating that Asians “have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate.” It was the first time I felt like I didn’t belong, that I was not really Australian, and never could be in the eyes of others.

You don’t forget what it feels like, and it was only afterwards that I really started to notice the racist undertones in public discourse.

Until recently, I thought we had moved past most of the anti-Asian (and particularly anti-Chinese) sentiment of the late 1990s. Sadly, I have been proven wrong.

You can hear similar protestations today but they are couched differently. Susie O’Brien’s column about cashed-up Chinese nationals taking over suburbs near good schools is a good illustration of how this discourse now plays out. 

As a “Chinese” person who owns property in the inner suburbs of Sydney, who went to a selective school, and who shops at a local Asian grocery store with signs in two languages, I must be Susie O’Brien’s worst nightmare.

In her column, O’Brien displayed the thinly veiled anti-Chinese sentiment that you see in “respectable” media outlets, including Fairfax. It covers-up a fear by the conservative upper-middle class about a loss of their privileged position.

The rhetoric reminds me of NIMBYism, except with racist undertones. The racist (and classist) feelings are dressed-up in concerns about cultural change and unfair processes that prevent the pursuit of educational opportunities and access to housing.

The inability of young people to afford housing where they grew-up is a well founded concern, but those complaining about new Chinese neighbours don’t focus on the government policies that have driven up prices such as the 50 per cent capital gains tax discount, negative gearing, or planning laws.

Media reports and public concern about “the Chinese” driving up property prices gloss over the obvious point that you can be ethnically Chinese and also an Australian citizen. The idea that someone who is speaking in Mandarin (possibly to their parents) or looks Chinese must be a foreigner reinforces the idea that to be considered Australian, you must be a white English speaker without an accent.

It’s not as if Chinese migration to Australia is new; China has been our largest source of migration since 2010-11, before the current boom took off. 

There is a particular reason why the upper middle-class is so concerned about “the Chinese”. Recent migrants and their children are far wealthier and more privileged than Chinese migrants have been in the past. 

The complaints are occurring because properties being bought are in the inner ring of more affluent suburbs. The Chinese nouveau riche are migrating, becoming Australian citizens, and moving into “their” areas.

The established upper-middle class do not like the demographic change and are uncomfortable with the fact that these migrants – who are not the same as them culturally and do not value their upper-middle class traditions or institutions – are their socio-economic equals, not the less well-off Asian migrants they have been used to.

The rhetoric used about Asians in secondary and tertiary education is very similar.

Recently there have been stories in Fairfax papers about selective schools becoming “full of Asians” (they’re taking over!) who go to coaching colleges and are not “well-rounded”. These stories have been doing the rounds for over a decade, including when I was still at high school.

The most notable example was a complaint by the Old Boys of Sydney Boys High, who were concerned the school wouldn’t have a first grade rugby team if Asian enrolment increased.

Similarly, there was a media frenzy over a decade ago about the number of Asians being accepted to medicine solely based on their university admission scores. They too were accused of not being “well-rounded”. The term pops up again and again to delegitimise their place.

In both cases, the rhetoric implied an unfair process was allowing Asians to take over, leaving other (non-Asian) kids to miss out as a result. The answer proposed was to change the selection process, not to address underlying causes such as concerns about social mobility, or by expanding access to quality public education.

None of this is to say that housing affordability is not a problem and access to quality public education is important. But the current rhetoric, laden with racist undertones, is being used because sections of the upper-middle class are finding that their privileged position is being undermined and they do not like it.

Many do not suggest or support solutions that would actually improve housing affordability or make quality education more accessible for the vast majority because they do not care. Those decrying the current situation and blaming “the Chinese” should be called-out on their privilege and concern with maintaining it for themselves.

Published at New Matilda on 17 June 2015