WILLIAM BRIGGS. How Australia became a racist country

Is Australia a racist country? Are Australians racist? The questions crop up with unfortunate regularity. There is another question. How did Australia become a racist country? An accident of birth cannot be a reason for what has become an entrenched fear of the other, and yet there is a deeply rooted xenophobia in Australia. How did we get to this point? After all waves of migration have marked the development of Australia since Europeans first arrived.

Ask almost any politician and you will be told that Australia is a country made special because of its tolerance, its spirit of a fair go. We are told that it shines as a beacon to the world as the most successful multi-cultural society on the planet. Many migrants found peace, security and home. For others, life was difficult. Australia has never been a benign, happy and blessed land. It can be a cruel and heartless place.

Australia shares with almost every other country, a sense of nation, a call to nationalist sentiment in the cause of promoting unity and social cohesion. It is something that has been carefully honed over decades and centuries. Taken to its illogical conclusion we could say that Gina Rinehart, Frank Lowy, someone working ten hours a week and needing more, and the Newstart recipient all share common values and aspirations because they are all Australian. It’s a nonsense and we all know it, but we have been told, from birth that we are egalitarian, and we are Australians, first second and last. So why has this country had such a shameful history of racism? The answer is very simple. Fear, xenophobia, and racism became, very early on, valuable tools by which to forge an artificial unity that became the Australian national identity.

The decades leading to Federation were spent fostering an emergent Australian nationalism. From the 1880s until well into the 20th century the Bulletin magazine had the infamous Australia for the White Man masthead. The trade unions and the fledgling ALP were fierce advocates of white nationalism and racism. Echoes of this of this can still be heard with only ever-more slightly sophisticated fear-mongering about foreign workers. Conservative parties since Federation have been no better.

Today in Australia there is a disturbing degree of anti-Asian sentiment. It exists at all levels of society, from professors who clothe racism in intellectual garb, to all sides of the political divide, to the overtly racist political movements and parties that seem to be proliferating in Australia. The recent shameful attempt by the Monash University Students Union to effectively ban international students from running in student elections would have made those early Bulletin editors proud.

The anti-China racism is but the latest in a history of exclusion. Leaving aside institutional anti-Aboriginal racism, the Chinese were the first to feel the force of bigotry and they are again the focus of racism that is both personal and state-sponsored. Australia has come a long way from the brutality of the gold fields, and it has been a journey marked by constant waves of migration. Every wave of migration assisted the development of the Australian state. They came, they built, they developed. They created the infrastructure and the wealth that comes from the work of many hands for the benefit of the few, and wave after wave suffered low and high-level racism, that came from being the ‘other’.

The intensity of the racism correlated with the health or otherwise of the economy. After WWII Australian business and government called out to European migrants who were white-enough to slip through the ‘White Australia’ guidelines. They built the factories, the steel mills, dams, and power stations. They worked hard and contributed mightily to making this a wealthy country. This was the golden age of the world economy. These migrants learned to bear the brunt of the jibes and jokes. If you could ‘take a joke’ then you would be tolerated, if not embraced. The 1970s brought economic hard times. The good old days were never really to return.

The next waves of migration, from Lebanon, from Vietnam, faced more difficult times. There was more than a little spite in the racism that greeted these arrivals. Manufacturing industries were beginning to leave Australia for greener, more lucrative pastures. Unemployment was rising. Fear and mistrust of our geographic place in the region and the world became politically useful. Something was wrong. The good times were no longer rolling. It’s got to be someone’s fault. In time honoured fashion it became the fault of the foreigner, the migrant, the refugee, the job stealer, the ones who were not quite like us.

Today one in eleven workers are underemployed. Hundreds of thousands have no work. Recession looms. It’s just the right time for a good old-fashioned scapegoat. The foreign student, the asylum seeker, those who ‘won’t accept our values’ are all looked at with mistrust.

Australia is a racist country, but the Australian people are no more or less racist than any other. Racism serves a political purpose, but no good purpose. We have a lot more in common with each other than we might think. The wealth of this continent was created by us all. Let us not find divisions.

Dr William Briggs is a political economist, affiliated with Deakin University. His special interest areas are in the fields of political theory and international political economy.


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10 Responses to WILLIAM BRIGGS. How Australia became a racist country

  1. Evan Hadkins says:

    Side note: interesting thing I learned in my uni history class.

    Before Federation some of the colonies had the vote for Aboriginal people.

  2. John Doyle says:

    We can never be rid of racism. It’s all deeply embedded from our tribal times. It gets worse when there is competition over resources, like land. Tribalism goes all the way back to our emergence as homo sapiens. The only way to subdue it is when everybody is approximately equally affluent. This is the case today but wearing thin under neoliberal, predatory capitalism. It’s past due that it be stopped, for it will fire up conflict again.

  3. Malcolm Crout says:

    Racism in Australia? Try doing business in Indonesia, SE Asia or China and it smacks you in the face. Not just overt racism towards overseas “long noses” but their own institutionalised racism against their own citizens of perceived differing ethnicity. Ever been to India and seen what they call their culture of caste, which is nothing more than in your face racism held together by laws and so called cultural boundaries. When you compare what this author calls racism in Australia with that in the countries mentioned, then Australia is a lightweight by comparison.

    It’s all very well to express idealism in general regarding race, but it irritates me when I’m lectured to about a personal view of Australian racism without points of comparison of other countries. By our standards, in some cases we treat migrants badly and have been disgraceful to indigenous communities since discovering Australia. However, as a nation we do not condone this behaviour and work towards correcting these practices, whereas in many other countries it is encourages racism and is even institutionalised. So let’s just take a breath and consider the context.

  4. Bob Ellis says:

    I think that William has a superficial view of what he calls ‘Australian racism’. He might find it useful to examine the role of post-war English (and European) migrants in creating the modern expressions of discrimination and particularly of structural discrimination (including of young unemployed ‘bludgers’ sic) in Australia. Ms Lieuw is not a victim but an exponent of capitalist exceptionalism.

  5. Kien Choong says:

    Hi, I often think that it’s far better to focus on “parochialism” vs “racism”. Not denying racism, but would argue that it’s a symptom of something deeper, i.e., parochialism.

    No one likes to think that they are racist, but we can all readily acknowledge our parochialism to some extent. If we consistently take measures to overcome parochialism (e.g., by befriending people outside our community), racism will melt away or at least dissipate.

    Personally, I think Australia’s problem is parochialism, not racism. (But not denying the reality of racism towards Aborigines, including by Asians not just “white Australians”.)

    • Evan Hadkins says:

      I think there is genuine racism towards Aboriginal people; but I think you are mostly right about parochialism for the rest.

  6. Rosemary O'Grady says:

    This is all too glib.
    To start a substantial conversation about Australian civilisation/culture/politics – one might do no worse than to re-evaluate V.Gordon Childe.
    I’ll leave you with that thought…

  7. Geoff Fitzgerald says:

    I agree with much of what you say.

    However I think you need more nuance when you describe the union movements concerns about overseas labor. There is a legitimate concern that has nothing to do with racism. A concern about capitalism’s readiness to move cheap labour around the world to undercut local workers. Reducing this concern to racism is lazy.

    I also think the more interesting question is “How did Australia convince itself that it is not racist?” or “How did Australians convince themselves that villifying people if different ethnicity isn’t racism?”

    This self delusion I think is what is think about Australia.

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