: Blog

1 Racism: the taboo topic oft misunderstood

The Sydney Morning Herald recently published an article about 7-Eleven workers of Indian descent continuing to being exploited, despite the outcry back when the exploitation was originally exposed in September 2015.

These immigrant workers were being paid as little as $16 to $0.43 per hour, and well below the minimum rate.

You have to congratulate the Australian Press for and not discussing the broader issue at hand i.e. racism.

Why is racism such a taboo topic to us? Australia is still marred by its own history, the period of colonisation and assimilation, which upended the First Australians and many migrants.

Much has been said and talked about the past, including former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd saying “Sorry” to the Stolen Generations of Aboriginal people.  However, there is a sense of hubris here in the analogy here that once an apology to Aboriginal people, forever no more racism in Australia altogether.

The reality is very different.

Today the country now has over 40 different ethnic racial groups living inside our borders and roughly 1 in 5 Australians have experienced racism in their lives.

Enter Malcolm Turnbull, the Prime Minister who claims to be right-progressive.  For the incumbent PM I have one of my own policies: vouch for a multicultural (and intercultural) Australia.

Alongside the $1bn Innovation boom and the $1bn Clean Energy Innovation Fund, put aside some money to a government initiative: Cultural Diversity Future Fund.

The aforementioned Cultural Diversity Future Fund will be two-pronged: Firstly research into contemporary ethnic and racial issues for 22nd century Australia.  And secondly, commercialising these ideas through the creation of a multicultural, intercultural Australia, which defines people based on talent, or contribution to the economy, instead of ethnicity.

A culturally diverse 22nd century Australia.

Who are the Russians in Australia?

Australia is a country where people from very different cultural, ethnic and national backgrounds live together, build a common future and improve their society. National coherence has become one of the key goals of multiculturalism in Australia.Given this environment, why is it that people from certain ethnic and cultural backgrounds are less represented in mass media than people from other ethnic backgrounds? This state of affairs sometimes raises curiosity about the underrepresented groups, but more often it leads to indifference to their needs, prejudice, and uncertainty about them in the cultural and social sphere.

There are several ethnic groups in Australia which rarely appear in the media. And   among them are Russians in Australia. At the present time there are so many articles and talk shows about Russian international politics, but we never hear voices of everyday people from a Russian background who live on the same street with us, go to the same shops, work and study with us. Why did they come to Australia? Which place in Australian society is occupied by new Australians with Russian roots?

It is important to note that the wave of Russian immigration from the transitional Russia of the 90s, who witnessed the period of crisis and restructuring of the economy after the collapse of the Soviet Union, hasve adopted a particular trait to rely only on themselves. It shapes the image of Russians in general as a resilient nation with mentally and physically strong representatives. Such self-sufficiency in making decisions and building one’s own life makes young people from a Russian background, first, devoid of illusions that life is an endless fairy tale where everything is always smooth, and second, the experience of growing up in the new Russia teaches them to rely on their own strength and to look for flexible ways out of difficult or stressful situations.

Many stories of success of Russian immigrants in Australia started with hard work, openness to change and self-belief. Unfortunately, the flip side of this particular mindset is the difficulty in building group relationships between different generations of Russian immigrants and as a result, there is no solid Russian community, which on behalf of the group would help Russian immigrants in Australia to address domestic issues, organise events with Russian cultural flavor and present itself as a group with a common cultural identity.

I talked to three young Russian Australians. Let me shortly introduce our heroes. Bogdan, Natalia and Olga have the same background: they came from the new post-soviet Russia.

Bogdan

Bogdan represents the newest generation of Russian immigrants. He is still in the process of immigration to Australia. In his past Bogdan graduated from the college in England, lived in Russia, England and the Czech Republic and then decided to try Australia, where he was able to study for a Bachelor of Business, Bogdan Management and Finance at Bond University.

Bogdan thinks that business education is very practical and reality-oriented in Australia. Therefore it maintains a high standard and prepares students to start their professional life on a relatively high level right after graduation from the university.

In addition to his studies at Bond University Bogdan periodically participates in different socially-oriented initiatives. For example, as a volunteer, he helped to organisze a charity race at his university to raise funds for the Heart Foundation. This organization funds life-saving heart research, and works to improve heart disease prevention and care for all Australians. Currently Bogdan helps with the creation of business plans for the organisation, which aims to help people with mental illness so that they had the opportunity to start a business.

Thinking about the future, Bogdan, like many young representatives of his generation, who came from Russia to build a better life in Australia, knows exactly what he wants: to gain financial independence and build a career in order to be able to help his loved ones in Russia. Setting goals and striving for success, he does it for the sake of others, and, is willing to work hard and benefit Australia. Like all young people who have left their home country chasing a dream, he has a plan for the future.

Bogdan: “The main goal is, of course, to begin to build a career, because there is a responsibility for the family, responsibility for myself, and responsibility to build a financial fundament for the future of me, my parents and future family. Plus I’m determined to help my family.”

Natalia

Natalia Nataliafirst come to Australia in 2000. Before immigrating, she studied in England. During her life in Australia Natalia transited to the Australian environment, graduated from the university, took part in social initiatives, and found a job. Currently she is the Chief Executive Officer position of a membership-based organisation in the health sector.

Now Natalia feels more Australian than Russian, however, the strength and resilience which formed the core of her personality during the childhood in Russia help her in life here.

Natalia came to Australia to work hard and do well and found out that this really works in Australia. She was very determined to be successful in life and didn’t let herself relax as much as others could. She thinks being from Russia was a real advantage, because of her strict past in the soviet-model school environment where children learn to be street-smart.

Natalia: “When you experience moving from one country to another one, you need all your smarts to adjust in the place you are. When you first come and don’t know anyone you are trying to meet people and to understand what to do. That makes you very strong, but also quite flexible. You don’t have to be a rock, you become like a river. And you learn quickly under pressure, you just flow over obstacles.”

Natalia also believes that it is important to contribute to the society in which she lives. For 6 years she was on the Management Committee for NSW at Australians of Native Title and Reconciliation. This is a civic organization that supports the rights of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders within Australian society. Natalia organised a Parliamentary Greeting Event for Aboriginal people in the New South Wales Parliament and hoeld responsibilities of a treasurer for this organisation.

Natalia: “I believe that issues experienced by Aboriginal people in Australia are severe and unjust. I think as an immigrant to this country I don’t have to be blinded by some episodes of the history by which some Australians have been blinded. Because of growing up in this country they cannot see the injustice that is still faced by Aboriginal people. But I didn’t grow up with it and these problems are obvious to me. I think that it is important to volunteer on issues that are close to your heart if you are going to contribute to the country in which you live. And for me it’s a social injustice and issues of human rights.”

Olga

Olga moved to Australia 5 years ago charmed by this unique and distant country during her studieOlgas in English

school. Coming through different stages of immigration, Olga has realized the uniqueness of her Russian cultural identity and opened “IZBA Russian Treats” which is a Russian-flavored bakery located in Sydney. Through theis business Olga opened the channel to Russian cuisine and culture for Australians who wants to try something new and start discovering a distant Russia.

Olga believes that all barriers are in your mind. If you really want to achieve something, all is in your hands. Australia contains a lot of opportunities and it is very important to step across your fears and start trying something.

Olga: “Our generation grew up in the country where life wasn’t easy at that time. We came through the disintegration of the Soviet Union, crisis in all spheres of life in 90s, restructuring of Russia…It is fair enough to say that we’ve seen a lot of restless times. And I think that this gave us a more realistic view of life. We can easier adjust to different situations. I mean, we are able to respond more flexibly to certain things, to get used to any kind of situations. Maybe, because of this side of Russian mentality we are stronger in difficulties. Additionally, Russian culture exists for many centuries and that influences our perceptions of reality, that gives us a bigger perspective. I feel that all expats from Russia and former Soviet Union have this advantage of great and long-standing Russian culture which gives them a specific perspective of life.”

Relying on themselves and inspiring others by their own example, the founders of “IZBA Russian Treats” help schools in their business district, act actively as representatives of small businesses on different professional forums and promote Russian culture supporting such cultural initiatives like Russian Film Festival.

Being Russian as well, I personally share the idea of our heroes that we have to be persistent and goal-oriented in our work, be open to new ideas and cultures and help the society where we live to become a better place. As one of my interlocutors noticed, from whatever background a person is, there are always some strengths  from the culture that you have. Only through acceptance of yourself and your background, acceptance and understanding of other cultures, do you have a chance to live harmoniously in multicultural Australia.

Journalism and Response-ability

Journalism and Responsibility

 

On Monday 22nd of February, Paul Sheehan, an Australian reporter from the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) released a double page spread about an Australian woman named Louise. She claimed to have been brutally assaulted and raped by a group of men from a specific ethnic minority group. In the article the sub-heading stated, “We’ll never know the scale of the rape epidemic in Sydney”.

 

Louise’s story was later shown to be fictitious.

 

The article was then retracted by the SMH, but the stigma associated with the ethnic minority group is likely to remain, just like the stigma has remained with refugees and asylum seekers from the “Children Overboard Scandal”. The damage created by the media is difficult to reverse.

 

This is because such stories conjure up horrifying images in the minds of readers and whilst reading the article, the readers believe the information that they are consuming is fact. The initial shock value of these stories has a real affect in the mind of the reader; it virtually imprints itself like an un-washable stain.

 

The ABC’s “Media Watch” recently investigated the SMH report and showed an Australian woman speaking at a Reclaim Australia rally at Martin Place on April 4th 2015. This was Louise telling the same story that Sheehan reported in the SMH in February 2016. To call the story “news” is debatable.

 

To add insult to injury in this saga, the SMH printed a small apology (of 99 words) in the bottom corner of page 2 on the following Wednesday. That’s right: the lie takes up two pages and the truth gets 99 words.

 

The most basic form of modern racism makes people from minority ethnic backgrounds invisible. A more sinister form of racism makes people visible through negative acts.

 

Even if the SMH story was true it would still be a form of racism to nominate the ethnicity of the men because it’s really not important. If the story happened to be true, then the rapists are still rapists regardless of their ethnic or cultural background.

 

To make any impact on achieving racial equality, journalists need to play their role: to tell real stories as they happened, and without prejudice. After all, racism stops with every single one of us.

 

Comedy Vs Racism

Based on the turnout at this week’s Comedy Vs Racism event in Sydney, All Together Now declares this event a success!

Each of the comedians gave a 5-minute performance, and were then joined by the panelists in deconstructing humour, race, and racism. Some of the themes included the expectation that audiences have from comedians of colour, and the power of telling stories about racism in a funny-but-serious way.

If you had your photo taken in the photo booth, please search for and tag your pic via our Facebook album.

If you missed the event entirely, check out the #ComedyVsRacism twitter feed, which was tweeted live on the night by the wonderful Grace Titioka who blogs over at withsomegrace.com.

Our sincere thanks to the following people who very generously offered their time to make this event super-special:

We’d also like to thank these volunteers who ensured the event ran seamlessly on the night:

  • Grace Titioka who blogs over at withsomegrace.com
  • Rezan Amiruddin
  • Lisa Huang
  • Chandra Banerjee
  • Vaani Sukhija
  • Margaret Antaki
  • Priscilla Brice
  • Aaron from Public Style
  • Karen Blazquez
  • Phillip Nguyen
  • Rosie Kane
  • Yue Ling Ho
  • Bianca Manlulo
  • David So (he manned the Town Hall steps)
  • Anuar Valerdi
  • Winmas Yu

And of course we’d like to thank the comedians and panelists who generously gave their thoughts and insights on the night:

Working With Diversity

Today All Together Now officially launches its new project, Working With Diversity.

Working With Diversity shines a light on racism in Australian workplaces and works with businesses to eliminate racism so that employees can work in an environment safe from racial harassment and discrimination.

This project started in early 2015 when several of our volunteers disclosed that they had been targets of racism in Australian workplaces. We were curious, and decided to investigate further by asking a wider range of people about their experiences.

Over one year, we found many people who were willing to share their story with us. They mentioned overt racial discrimination like abuse, resume filtering, hearing comments or jokes in the workplace based on stereotypes, verbal assumptions about English language skills, and stereotyping people into roles due to their ethnic background.

Some people we spoke with also mentioned more covert behaviours that meant discrimination was unsatisfactorily dealt with, such as reluctance to discuss racism in the workplace, and lack of role models (i.e. lack of people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds — including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people — in middle and senior management positions).

Some also mentioned workplace initiatives to improve outcomes for people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, such as leadership programs, and some mentioned easy solutions that employers could implement, such as training for staff.

Unfortunately we are unable to feature all of the stories on our website. We found that some people who were brave enough to tell us their story later retracted it because they were concerned about the ramifications of speaking out. They were concerned that talking about workplace discrimination might brand them as a whistle-blower or complainer and consequently affect their future work prospects.

It is extremely concerning to us that people are too scared to speak publicly about racism in the workplace. It suggests that victims are being denied the right to freely express their experiences, while the perpetrators continue with their discriminatory behaviour. This silencing behaviour means Australians are unaware that racism is occurring in workplaces across Australia.

Additionally, it suggests that more research needs to be done to understand the extent to which discussions about race-based prejudice in the workplace are taking place. To address the problem we need to have a better understanding about what ordinary people are experiencing on a larger scale.

All Together Now believes that the first step to creating that understanding is to gather more stories about people’s experiences. This will create a clearer picture of what is really happening. You can help us do this. If you have witnessed or experienced racism at work please send us your stories. If you’re not clear what racism is in a work context, there’s a definition on All Together Now’s website.

The Secret River and the Power of the Arts

I’ve seen the power of the arts to move, to educate, drive change and foster social cohesion many times. I experienced it intensely first hand, when I produced Crossings: Songs from the East in 2013.

The concert showcased a cross-cultural collaboration of traditional and improvised music spanning the Greek, Kurdish, Arabic and Persian traditions. It was an exciting coming-together for the first time of local Sydney-based musicians; four out of the five were first generation Australians from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds. They drew from both their musical heritage and their contemporary experience of multicultural Australia.

The audience, which we surveyed, said things like:

“Beautiful to see a coming together of cultures through the arts”…

“Brought back memories of home”…

“Wonderful! Especially watching the musicians improvising – working together… so much richness (and they say multiculturalism doesn’t work)! It is alive and brings so much richness to our lives and to Australia”…

The experience of that production impacted all involved, from the artists to the audience and everyone in between, in ways that only arts and cultural experiences can sometimes – on the level where words cease and only the senses and the human spirit exist. One comes away from an experience like that with a sense that something in them is a little different… a little changed.

As an audience member watching the Sydney Theatre Company’s latest production of The Secret River, I came away with exactly that feeling. I was shattered at the brutality of the story – the brutal truth in the story – but I was compelled to watch and listen.

I felt like I was bearing witness to a history not told often enough. In the author, Kate Grenville’s, words: “This book isn’t history, but it’s solidly based on history. Most of the events in the book “really happened” and much of the dialogue is what people really said or wrote.” Knowing this, I felt the weight of responsibility, like I was almost charged with the duty of carrying this history on, of re-telling it. So I made it my mission for days afterwards to tell everyone I met to go see the show.

It was hard to watch at times. The woman sitting to my left had her eyes closed for much of the massacre scene. It wasn’t explicit or visually disturbing – but it sat in that space – the space where words cease and only the senses exist. Clearly for the woman beside me, her senses were in overwhelm. I was grateful that the night I attended happened to be followed by the Q and A session with the actors and co-director afterwards – it was an opportunity for the audience to re-compose and debrief almost. More than that, it was a way to bring the savage racism of our history into the present.

The discussion that ensued was open and honest. The actors told of their own experiences of facing and witnessing racism today. Actor Ningali Lawford-Wolf told of how she was refused a ride by four taxi drivers on the street just outside the theatre. Richard Piper, who played the most savage of the white characters, talked of how the experience of being a part of this production changed him – made him reflect on times where he had been a bystander to racist incidences and had not acted. He spoke of the need for us all to speak up and take a stand in similar situations, and of his resolve to do differently next time. An audience member asked the questions: “What can we do? How can we do better when we leave this theatre?”. One of the younger cast members, Madeleine Madden, spoke about the power of the arts to move and affect change. Everyone on stage seemed to acknowledge a sort of shared social responsibility to tell the story with authenticity and sensitivity.

I came away with the feeling that the sentiment in that Q and A session was shared company-wide, and with 2 mins of online research I discovered the Sydney Theatre Company’s ‘Human Rights and Social Performance Statement’ As part of STC’s commitment to “operating as a responsible organisation” they state: “STC’s statement on Human Rights and Social Performance reflect our ability to uphold human rights within our organisation and our sphere of influence. We adhere to both international and local human rights legislation and reflect these in our human resources policies, practices and Code of Conduct.” Further down, in relation to audiences and the arts industry, it states: “We share our learning and promote human rights issues through giving voice to social issues by our choices in productions and our industry networks by contributing to conversations.”

This initiative – of writing the importance of social responsibility into the policies and strategic objectives of an organisation – is exactly what we need more of – especially in the arts and cultural industries, whose core ‘business’ is in the creation of meaning.

Go and see The Secret River if you can. Or read the book. Or watch the TV series. And share the story. Continue the conversation. It is our shared responsibility.

Review by Kiriaki Koubaroulis