I was surprised by an email from Martin Leet confirming that he had published my article on racism, over which we had had a sustained difference of opinion. I was willing to agree to differ and leave it at that, feeling that it would have been better for someone more knowledgeable than I to address the point which was behind my article; namely that Australia is a much more racist country than its self-image is willing to accept. A trait which I suspect is true of other liberal democracies.


Published in an amended form from the version below.

I am moved to write about racism because I am troubled by my feeling that Australia is a more racist country than its prevailing self-image is willing to concede. I am not claiming that Australia is a racist country in the way apartheid South Africa was, rather that I feel it is at best  mildly and at worst, moderately racist.  I should emphasise that I do not think Australia necessarily has a worse record than other comparable countries in this regard. My quarrel is with every country whose citizens kid themselves  on this issue, by claiming to be other than what they are, thereby making a bad enough situation worse

My disquiet is partly caused by politicians blandly stating that Australia is not a racist country when they discuss events like the Cronulla riots or the attacks on Indian students in Melbourne, and partly by the fact that because racism festers beneath the surface of community consciousness, it escapes civic censure. Racism is only widely condemned when it comes to public attention – as in the sporting arena, whether AFL, rugby league or cricket. In making my case I am hampered by the lack of a phrase which conveys the idea of a country being mildly or moderately racist. In current usage, associating the word racist with a country implies a paraphernalia built around race or a nation riven by racial conflict. This is evidently not true of Australia and may explain why politicians and public figures – including Michael Kirby in a recent radio interview – believe Australia is not a racist country.

However it is defined, racism reflects a state of mind and the behaviour it may cause; a state of mind, ‘fear of the other’ with its associated ignorance, which also engages in matters of sex, religion, politics and nationalism. Fear of the other (the different, the unknown) appears to be hard-wired in our species because, regardless of any protestation to the contrary, I believe we all connect with it to varying degrees in our lives. Please understand that I am including a person’s non-communicated, innermost and fleeting thoughts in the mix. So it is all the more important that we resist the temptation to make the hard-wiring an “it’s a fair cop, but society’s to blame” sort of excuse.

According to my Webster’s, racism is ‘hatred, rivalry or prejudice accompanying difference of race; belief in inherent superiority of some races over others; discriminative treatment based on that belief.’ Its definition touches on the intensity of feeling inherent in the word. My Concise Oxford is emotionally neutral. It identifies racism as ‘a belief in the superiority of a particular race; prejudice based on this; antagonism towards other races, esp. as a result of this; the theory that human abilities are determined by race’.

The word which most accurately describes the state of mind associated with racism, sexism, chauvinism and their like is prejudice, which can readily but does not inevitably give rise to hatred, resides in a dark place in human nature and reveals itself in negative thought, word and deed. By self-definition, prejudice has no room for subtelty or nuance, but its manifestation can range from fleeting to obsessive thoughts, mild to vitriolic speech and token to murderous action.

Racism is a word with vile connotations. Of all forms of prejudice, it is the worst because it derives its visceral potency from condemning people for no other reason than the normal physical appearance with which they happen to be born, fixing on genetic differences of pigmentation and facial features. The very idea of busying oneself with the ethnic and racial characteristics of an individual or a people for the sole purpose of demonising them, is to me not only grossly unpleasant and offensive, it is also completely uninteresting. It is an abomination to then go to the lengths of bringing in the cruelty and injustice of segregation. It is stupid too, given that it also curtails the freedom of its begetters. An untouchable (strictly speaking a Dalit) KR Narayanan, became President of India, whereas under apartheid, black South Africans  didn’t even have the vote. People can conceal their sexuality and politics. They cannot hide from their innate appearance, even if it does not reveal whether they follow a religion or the country to which they owe allegiance. As an aside, people who are born with a physical disability can be victims of prejudice for much the same reasons as those who are victims of racism.

There are three groups of people who stand out as targets of racism in Australia – aborigines, muslims and boat people (many of whom may be muslims). I think one must reject the assertion that Australia is not a racist country since it makes it hard to define Australia in any other way. It is because racism is always cropping up somewhere in Australian society, whether in casual conversation, in print, on the airwaves, in sport, the military, the police  and above all in the underlying tension between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Australians, that I feel Australia should be regarded as either a mildly or moderately racist country. A country does not have to resemble the former American South or apartheid South Africa to be racist.

I write from the perspective of an agnostic westerner and admit to harbouring and expressing, but not otherwise  acting on prejudice and to having articulated racist views. It is up to us to distance ourselves from those who make prejudice the focus of their lives.  It is also up to each and everyone of us to take responsibilty for our own prejudices, firstly by recognising, and then admitting to ourselves, that they exist within us. Thereafter by leaving them unspoken or unwritten so that they do not gain energy in the world by being heard or read and only when we have failed to keep our prejudices to ourselves, by refusing to take any further action to promote them.

I suspect, but cannot prove that most people think racism, like bad driving, is something which applies to others but not to them, that, whatever their race, they would be morally offended to ever be labled racist. However, I believe that in many cases, such indignation would be tinged with hypocrisy. In a country like Australia, there is no doubting the resentment directed at non-white immigrants for supposedly taking jobs, accommodation and government handouts from white Australians. I have heard people preface their disapproval of these immigrants by stating that they are not racist. Thus, they are either betraying their discomfort or even feelings of guilt at giving in to their baser instincts, or, through lack of self-knowledge, they are unable to see that in venting their annoyance they are actually being racist.

This article has been stirring in me for quite a while. What finally pushed me into writing it was Scott Morrison’s complaint about the government paying for relatives to attend the funeral of boat people who drowned off Christmas Island. Because it deliberately draws on racism (the federal opposition) or weakly panders to racism (the federal government), I find the debate about boat people to be sordid on both sides of politics.

Morrison’s remarks were crass and offensive, their timing callous. They were the kind of remarks a racist would make. If anything could have made matters worse, it was Tony Abbott defending Morrison as one of the most compassionate people he knew, which suggests that  Abbott and others of his close coalition associates, Joe Hockey a notable exception, may be as wanting in compassion as his Shadow Minister for Immigration.

Peter Kuttner

May 2011