We must stamp on the cockroach of racism
8 April 2013
Racism is like a cockroach of civilised society. It is vile, revolting, and it breeds prodigiously. Few things appear capable of eradicating it. It seems always to return, no matter what we do to stamp it out.
Of late, there have been plenty of reminders about this unfortunate fact of life. Melburnians will remember the video footage of a racist attack directed at a young French woman on a Frankston-line replacement bus last year. In Sydney during the Easter weekend, a man on a city bus launched a racist tirade against an Asian family from Korea to an audience of unmoved passengers. Earlier this year - also in Sydney - ABC newsreader Jeremy Fernandez was subjected to racial abuse while on a bus with his young daughter.
Such episodes happen daily, to be sure. For every incident that gets recorded by someone on their mobile phone, many others go unnoticed and undocumented. But having video footage of racism does add a new dimension. Where once it may have been possible to avoid ever seeing the nasty face of bigotry, it is no longer.
For those who have ever suffered racism on a bus, tram or train - or seen it happen - there are few surprises. The genre is familiar. The perpetrators are always angry and violent, frothing at the mouth and ready to pounce. There are always the bystanders who pretend they see nothing or who, worse, enjoy the spectacle.
We should be worried that these incidents appear to be growing in frequency. While racism takes many forms - as Waleed Aly wrote in these pages on Friday, some of its manifestations can be insidious - there is something particularly disturbing about racism in public places.
After all, the way we act in public is revealing of our society. It may be one thing to harbour certain private racist thoughts. It is another to voice the sentiment, in public, to someone's face. Doing this requires a certain disdain and hate.
For me, this is where the real harm of racism lies. When unchecked, it can allow people to believe they are empowered to harass, belittle and intimidate others because of their race, ethnicity or colour. Those who suffer a racist threat, taunt or insult can often feel like a second-class citizen or a lesser person. Racism is repugnant because it wounds the value of equality.
This may seem obvious enough. But we frequently fail even to recognise the civic harm of racism. At times, political leaders appear only to recognise racism as bad because it damages our reputation or jeopardises our export earnings. It was striking, for example, that complaints about racial violence against Indian students a few years ago were routinely met with statements affirming the economic value of international students to the local economy.
There is another problem perhaps more fundamental. In recent years, a section of Australian society has grown to believe racism is a figment of the politically correct imagination. This was embodied in former prime minister John Howard's response to the Cronulla riot of 2005: ''I do not accept there is underlying racism in this country.'' The effect of this has been to make it extraordinarily difficult to talk about race relations in a measured way. Any suggestion of racism, post-Cronulla, has been construed as some absolute judgment about an underlying quality in the national character. Any incident becomes a prompt for asking, ''Is Australia essentially or implacably racist?''
The question is nonsensical in one respect. Every country has its racists. And there are many countries that are guilty of much worse prejudice and violence. Australia for the most part does well. Countries elsewhere have had to deal with regular race riots and widespread overt discrimination - things that we have been fortunate to avoid. But resisting self-flagellation doesn't mean succumbing to triumphalism. Any historical achievement in race relations shouldn't invite complacency. We must be careful not to squander the gains made by past generations.
Any vigilance on racism must extend into our everyday lives, not least our public spaces. Civic harms require civic remedies.
By this I mean that combating racism involves a test of citizenship. Too often, otherwise good citizens fail to do their part. Faced with the intimidating prospect of having to stand up to verbal or physical violence, we find it easier to shrink away - to rationalise that the safest option is to mind our own business and not speak up.
Does this mean there is an obligation to put ourselves in harm's way in solidarity with a fellow citizen or person in need? I'm hesitant to go so far. Insisting on this is easier said than done, especially if a confrontation has escalated into a potential bloodbath. Sometimes it can be enough for us to show support for a victim, to report an incident, or to bear witness.
What matters, though, is that we assume some responsibility - that we do something.
Like the cockroach it resembles, racism thrives on the crumbs of indifference. Improving our civic hygiene is the best response.
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