“Talking about racism isn’t divisive. Responding to it isn’t divisive. Perpetrating it is divisive," said Tim Soutphommasane, the former Race Discrimination Commissioner and now Professor of Practice at the University of Sydney.
In an extensive conversation with Faruqi at a Sydney Ideas event, Professor Soutphommasane called for an end to a false equivalence in public discourse between racism and anti-racism. Observing the challenges in calling out racism, he said there is a tendency among Australians to view race issues as being primarily about “harmony”, as opposed to the task of dealing with discrimination.
“We struggle to name racism, even when the rest of the world is talking about it, even when there is permission to talk about racial discrimination,” said Professor Soutphommasane.
In his latest book, On Hate, Professor Soutphommasane charts the troubling rise of nationalist populism.
He argues the events of the year 2018 represented a new normalisation of hate and racism, culminating in Government senators voting in support of Pauline Hanson’s infamous “It’s ok to be white” motion in the Senate (support later retracted).
That motion in November 2018 followed the maiden speech of Queensland senator Fraser Anning, who called for a “final solution” to Australia’s immigration problem.
“In the space of just two months, we went from consensus in condemning racism and bigotry to then an endorsement. That was pretty instructive,” said Professor Soutphommasane.
Professor Soutphommasane pointed to the need for a reset of our political response to racism and far-right extremism, following the recent terror attack in Christchurch.
This could include, he argued, new government funding of a national anti-racism campaign, a strengthening of hate speech laws, and a resolution to end race politics.
“It's essential that as a society we renew our commitment to anti-racism and equality. If we don't get this right, what we end up with is ugliness and violence,” he said.
According to him, the media also has a responsibility to scrutinise extremist ideas, rather than providing far-right advocates with a soft platform.
“It's very clear that far right elements internationally are becoming more sophisticated at concealing or disguising their ideas and doctrines so that they appear benign and reasonable.”
Two months into his return to academia, Professor Soutphommasane says he will continue to be a voice in public debates about human rights and race.
During the next twelve months, as part of his role as the University’s first Professor of Practice, he will deliver a series of public lectures on leadership in human rights and democratic politics.
He will also work with the Business School to institute an executive education program on cultural diversity and leadership, and collaborate with Sydney Policy Lab to hold an anti-racism advocacy workshop for civil society leaders.
According to Professor Soutphommasane, “The University plays an important role in leading and shaping so many of our public debates – this naturally includes on matters of race and cultural diversity.”
Lead image and photography by Bill Green.