How (not) to advance our conversation about racism in Australia

Jun 1, 2024
Melbourne Australia - December 3, 2018: Unidentified people cross street in downtown Melbourne Australia.

The question has been asked many times, but it has rarely led to constructive public debates: is Australia a racist country?

Depending on how we interpret the recent comments by ABC veteran journalist Laura Tingle, she seems to have expressed a view that is hardly controversial but widely shared in Australia. Not only have various academics and other experts come forward in support (some with certain caveats) in recent days, but according to the 2023 Scanlon Foundation Mapping Social Cohesion survey, 62 per cent of Australians believe that racism is a ‘fairly or very big problem in Australia’. The 2021 Australia Talks survey, commissioned by the ABC, even found that 76% of Australians somewhat or strongly agreed that ‘there is still a lot of racism in Australia these days’ (Crabb 2021).

Research has consistently confirmed that the majority is not wrong here. There is little doubt that racism continues to exist in Australia. Countless studies have demonstrated that people from culturally or racially marginalised communities experience racism in many areas of life, including but not limited to employment and education, in shopping centres and on the streets or public transport. In addition to these surveys on self-reported experiences of racism, we also have robust empirical evidence – in Australia like in many other western societies – that job applicants with a non-Anglo-Saxon sounding name are statistically significantly less likely to be invited to a job interview, even when they have the identical qualifications as their white co-applicants. A systemic failure of the meritocratic promise, one could say. And for those who need more proof, there are representative surveys that show that a significant proportion of the Australian population admit to having prejudice towards people from certain religious or ethnic communities. Again, this is anything but unique to Australia.

Why have these unquestionable empirical facts not encouraged a broad, constructive public debate about racial justice and inequality and how Australia, the land of the ‘fair-go’ and self-proclaimed champion of multiculturalism, can better live up to its claims of inclusiveness and equity?

One reason seems to be that a significant proportion (but probably not a majority) of Australians, including some political and public leaders, are profoundly uncomfortable and unwilling to engage in a debate that acknowledges that racial prejudice, discrimination and everyday racism persistently limit the life opportunities of many in our multicultural society and question their equal belonging in Australia. They don’t want to talk about racism because, simply put, it makes ‘us’ look bad, creates division and ‘does not provide any sense of pride for our children’, as Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price put it last week. The fact that it is racism itself – and not the acknowledgement of its existence – that creates division and social harm is ignored, the debate is rejected, and racism remains uncontested.

A second reason lies in the common misunderstanding that reduces racism to personal prejudice and interpersonal discrimination, in other words, to attitudinal and behavioural racism. Here, the argument often goes that, yes, these forms of racism exist and, yes, more should be done to stop discrimination and racially abusive behaviour. But some “bad apples” don’t justify labelling our country as ‘racist’. In a similar vein, many may acknowledge colonial dispossession and violence against Australia’s First Nations peoples as historic injustices but fail to fully grasp the profound ongoing effects of these racist systems on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities today. Many Australians, even those who acknowledge racism remains a problem in Australia, subscribe to such a shallow understanding of racism that ignores its crucial defining dimension: socially and historically engrained racial hierarchies and power imbalances, which create and cement systemic and institutional forms of exclusion.

Laura Tingle alluded to this institutional power dimension in her follow-up statement about racism in ‘our policing and justice system’. She writes, ‘without even going into the historic record, there is also ample evidence that racism remains a particular problem in our legal and policing systems.’ Others have also emphasised the importance of recognising how ‘racism is embedded in our society and culture’ and ‘how race operates to give privilege and power to some over others’, as the Australian Race Discrimination Commissioner, Giri Sivaraman, wrote.

This is crucial – and racial justice activists, human rights agencies, many academics and others with a particular interest in the topic are well aware of the systemic nature of how racism operates. Unfortunately, however, discussions about white privilege, racial power imbalances and hierarchies have failed to reach, and much less convince, larger segments of our society. For many, it simply sounds too abstract, and it challenges their long-held view that racism can be best described as prejudice and discrimination. Others defensively avoid these conversations entirely, displaying what Robin DiAngelo famously described as white fragility. For them, acknowledging their white privilege would somehow indicate they haven’t worked hard to earn their social status or they feel it would disregard their personal economic hardship – a misperception that ignores what W.E.B. Bois famously called ‘public and psychological wage’ that white people gain (not earn) as a result of these racial hierarchies.

We have often struggled to bring along as many Australians as possible for a conversation that centres both the lived experiences of racism and the systemic nature of racialised power imbalances. Most of the time we are talking to the converted. We have not been good at explaining how these racial hierarchies were once established and used to justify colonisation, slavery and other forms of exploitation, and that they are not a ‘thing of the past’ but continue to shape so many of our institutions and practices until today. This is much less abstract as it may first appear if we start discussing the interplay between prejudice, everyday racism and racialised structures. Racial prejudices ‘are the product of myths that reflect and reinforce existing power structures’, as Monnica T. Williams argues. And they give permission to discriminatory treatment and forms of everyday racism, which in turn reinforce prejudices as well as structures of racial exclusion and hierarchies.

There would be ample examples to explore these interplays, from the operation and effects of racial profiling to the paucity of culturally sensitive mental health services to the continuous under-representation of people of colour in leadership position in politics, media the corporate world and even in the non-government sector, which is a manifestation of exclusionary practices and, at the same time, cement existing power imbalance. But we rarely find the time nor the right space to jointly and properly explore these issues across our social bubbles – which in itself points to the luxury of the privileged.

So, is Australia racist country? As tempting as it may be to jump in with one’s opinion, maybe we should stop using this question as a conversation starter about justice and equality for all Australians – a crucial and urgent conversation that requires a lot more calm listening and learning from different perspectives and less political games.


For more on this topic, P&I recommends:

We need to talk about racism in Australia today

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