Racism – it’s not black & white

Racism. The recent accusations that Australia is a racist country have had people (predominantly politicians) jumping to our own defence, waving their hands frantically at our accusers with worried looks on their faces saying ‘No. No. We’re not racist. Really we’re not.’

If it is not so, what worries us so much about it?

Aside from the obvious reasons of bad international press (and God knows we’ve had enough of that over the years – Tampa etc), the answer, I think, lies in our history .

The word ‘racism’ actually strikes a chord in this country because it is so embedded in our history. It’s what we built this country on. That and hard work and mateship and a fair go. Somewhere in our cultural soul, whether we consciously admit to it or not, we know that ‘racist’ is exactly what this country used to be. It used to be segregated. The lines between ‘us’ and ‘others’ used to be painfully clear. And it wasn’t THAT long ago, only a handful of decades, if that.

Now, in 2010, we are culturally aware enough to know that this attitude of separation, which made us terribly comfortable in the past, is not acceptable anymore. As a nation we are (and should be) embarrassed by it. We are ashamed, but not particularly willing to admit to it. Like any shameful skeleton in the closet, we’d rather not refer to it, rather not talk about it, rather leave it in the past and get on with now – because now is what matters – right?

Right. Which is what makes how we are dissecting and discussing the whole issue of racism in this country so interesting . It’s an issue which arises every year or two as a result of some revolting incident of violence or violation. And it usually involves lots of speculative conversations where people reassure each other that, no, we live in harmony here, there is very little racial tension, no we are not racist.

Well, yes, all those reassurances are true. Compared with places like South Africa and the Middle East and Israel/Palestine, Australia is a model melting pot. We live, work, travel and commune together happily. And yet, amongst it all, there still exists discomfort.

Racism is not a black and white issue (no pun intended). It exists on a sliding scale and doesn’t have to manifest as direct violation of another persons humanity through violence or discrimination. It can be subtle. It can manifest as a simple feeling of discomfort or unease in the presence of someone from another culture. This feeling usually arises from beliefs we have about other cultures. We might have heard or read things about the culture that directly conflict with our own values or beliefs. Consequently when we come into contact with someone from that culture all those biases arise and they colour our views and behaviour. Friendliness becomes veiled behind a cool smile.

I’ve noticed these biases in others when I mention I’ve worked with Aboriginal communities. More often than not the person I’m speaking to murmurs a brief acknowledgement, looks away and after a moments awkward silence, changes the subject. This discomfort is interesting to me. What is it about my working with Aboriginal people that is so uncomfortable? The people I speak to would not describe themselves as racist, yet they are not sure what to do with this piece of information about me and prefer to move quickly on to more comfortable subjects like the footy or renovating. 

Most of us living in Australia are probably not racist. Not directly anyway. We keep close to those whom we recognise, those who validate our identity, those who make us feel we fit in, no matter what culture we come from. And if this means we actively exclude people who don’t fit that picture, that’s not racism. Is it?

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