TIM SOUTPHOMMASANE. Bamboo ceiling and race relations.

Jun 1, 2016

Many of us have good reason for thinking that the state of our race relations is under challenge. We frequently see stories about people being racially vilified on public transport, and our recent public debates are punctuated by controversies about race.

We know racism is a reality in contemporary Australian society. About 20 per cent of Australians say they have experienced racial or religious discrimination of some kind.  About 11 per cent say they have been excluded from social activities or the workplace because of their race.  About 5 per cent say they’ve been physically assaulted because of their racial background.

Perhaps the easiest explanation for the persistence of racism in Australia is that our sensibilities are still catching up with the changes wrought by multiculturalism.

Our institutions and organisations have also failed to change to reflect our multicultural realities. Take, for example, the lack of cultural diversity in our media.

In one interview in 2013, Stan Grant, one of the few Indigenous journalists on commercial television, lamented how during the past 20 years the ABC has not succeeded in sending one Indigenous journalist overseas as a foreign correspondent.

The same criticism could be levelled with respect to non-Anglo journalists more generally. We see few Australians of non-European background reading the news, particularly on commercial channels.

Actors from minority backgrounds periodically emerge with scathing criticisms about a ‘White Australia’ policy in Australian television. Where minority actors are cast to play roles on television dramas they are often consigned to play stereotypical roles as drug dealers, criminals or otherwise shady characters.

There have been some recent exceptions. The success this year of The Family Law on SBS represented the first time that an Asian family had been depicted on Australian TV in serial form.

But when inroads have been made in cultural diversity on TV, it doesn’t take much to reveal how threatened or uncomfortable it can make some people feel. This is the only way we can meaningfully interpret the controversy concerning Waleed Aly, the co-host of Channel Ten’s The Project. Aly has been nominated for the Gold Logie, Australian TV’s most prestigious award for the most popular TV personality. Yet he has been subject to some sniping from anonymous members of the TV industry decrying that he is unworthy of the nomination.

We also fall short on cultural diversity in leadership. We celebrate the idea of being a mobile, egalitarian and meritocratic society. But there are some signs that a cultural ceiling may exist.

Our cultural diversity is not yet remotely close to being represented in the leadership of Australian society. Whether it is the chief executives of the ASX 200, our Federal Parliament, or our public service, we do not see leadership that reflects our multicultural character. Leadership remains a domain of privilege, one where the boundaries appear to exclude certain others – in particular, those of non-European backgrounds.

This is one issue I will be investigating in some more detail later this year. In July, a blueprint will be released to help Australian organisations do better on cultural diversity and inclusive leadership. This reflects the work of a taskforce that I convened last year. The group comprises University of Sydney Business School, Westpac, PwC and Telstra. Bringing together the experience of these taskforce members, the blueprint will outline why organisations must embrace diversity – and how they can do so.

One reason we don’t do as well as we should is that bias and discrimination persist in the workplace. It may be that unconscious – and conscious – bias shapes perceptions of Australians of certain cultural backgrounds, in particular their suitability for positions of leadership. To draw upon one encounter I had, someone newly introduced to me asked what I did for work. When I responded that I worked at the Australian Human Rights Commission, my new friend then asked: ‘So, do you work in the Finance section or IT section at the Commission?’

It is a challenging time for our race relations and community harmony. It is challenging not only because the ugly faces of racism and bigotry are increasingly on display in public, but also because public discussions about race remain fraught with sensitivities. Sometimes you get the impression that calling out racism can be regarded as a worse moral offence than the perpetration of racism itself.

It has perhaps always been this way but in fighting racism we must be guided by hope.

Hope, as the Czech writer Vaclav Havel said, is not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that things will turn out for the end, but rather the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. It’s the idea that we should do things not because we are guaranteed success, but because they are the right things to do.

This is an edited extract of a speech delivered at the Crescent Institute, Brisbane, on 7 April: https://www.humanrights.gov.au/news/speeches/state-our-race-relations-speech-crescent-institute

Dr Tim Soutphommasane is Race Discrimination Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission. 

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