Are We a Racist Country? Let’s Ask a Better Question

There was something about former Telstra CEO, Sol Trujillo that many Australians never warmed to: maybe it was his brash style or the fact his vision for Telstra was so far removed from what many of us thought it should be, that any goodwill quickly disappeared. His recent interview confirms he never quite clicked with Australia, and his view that Australia is a racist country confirms he never quite “got” us, or our humour. Or does it?

Let’s begin with considering what racism is: it is the conflation of social characteristics with biology that confirms and serves to perpetuate a hierarchy of privilege.

We’d like to think that Australians could criticize Trujillo’s poor management and rancid politics without resorting to his ethnicity or hanging off stereotypes – did it never occur to the cartoonists that depicting a person with a Latino name and background wearing a huge sombrero, riding a mule, might be as offensive as drawing a Jew with a huge nose and a pile of coins?  But let’s face it – Sol Trujillo never suffered in his enjoyment of his fundamental human rights or freedoms while in Australia.

The ‘adios’ quip by the Prime Minister, confirms that stereotyping continues, and even when it is as harmless as Rudd’s ‘adios’, it shows a lack of leadership, and perhaps even interest, in the issue of racism – especially coming from our leaders.

Such issues of racial stereotyping – and the superficial debate it has sparked – distract us from addressing institutionalised racism and the privilege it entrenches in our society.

So are we a racist country? The answer is that race and race politics have always played a strong role in Australia: from the white Australia Policy, to Pauline Hanson, our treatment of asylum seekers to the continuing NT Intervention.  Racism takes on a more sinister aspect when we consider the poor media coverage of recent events: the police response to the many attacks on International students from India and Deputy Commissioner Kieran Walshe further stereotyping of the students as vulnerable to attack because they were by nature quiet and passive people, the targetted violence simply reduced to “opportunistic activity”; and the fear and hatred of ‘the other’ that has fuelled arguments used by Camden residents to oppose an Islamic school in their town.

We need to reflect on how much does saying “adios” to a powerful CEO who has departed the country with millions really mean, when we continue to perpetuate the systemic disadvantage that affects International students, entire migrant communities that have lived here for years or many generations, and the communities who have been here for 100,000 years? Perhaps some better question to ask ourselves: How do we, as a society, continue combat the racism that exists? And what direction are we really heading in?