This article was originally published by All Together Now’s Managing Director in Online Opinion
The recent protest in Sydney by a small number of Muslims has provided another opportunity for social commentators to examine the pros and cons of multiculturalism in Australia.
It quickly became clear during the days following the recent Sydney protests that a small group of Muslims perpetrated the violent behaviour seen on 15 September. This lead some commentators to conclude that Australia has lost its unique path to successful multiculturalism.
The recent focus on multiculturalism has provided our society with an opportunity to clarify some assumptions about what type of behaviour should be acceptable. The underlying assumption within this dialogue is that newcomers are not observing Australian values. This leads us to question what values are supposedly not being observed, and who decides what those values should be and how they should be upheld.
One case in point is the Editorial in last Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald. One could take from this article that Australia’s political leaders need to be firmer in articulating what Australian values are, and by doing so they would help to create a more culturally tolerant nation.
Our political leaders certainly have a role to play in reminding us of our shared values, but they aren’t solely responsible. Rather, each Australian shares this responsibility. In fact, new migrants are likely to be familiar with the Australian Values Statement, having signed it before receiving their visa.
Among the values in the Statement are the notion of freedom, including freedom of religion, the respect of our democracy and egalitarianism, and the English language as a unifying element of Australian society. This is an important starting point. However, beyond a set of specified values, Australian society relies on the ability of residents to feel a sense of community and mutual respect, to acknowledge interdependence with others and to feel part of a larger stable collective.
The response of Islamic leaders in the days following the protest on 15 September conveys that the majority of Muslims live according to these values and behaviours. They made it clear that the actions of a radical few do not represent the views or behaviour of the majority of the Islamic communities in Sydney.
Initially, few mainstream and niche media outlets chose to emphasise this fact, instead giving the impression of a deteriorating relationship between the Islamic community as a whole and other Australians. They chose to tell the story using emotive and divisive images and language rather than reporting the incident factually.
By emphasizing images of the physical violence and verbal insults perpetrated by a small number of Muslims the media have instilled a sense of indignation among some sections of the community. This in turn has resulted in a backlash by a small number of people in the white community and armed forces, which are indicative of broader damage to social cohesion in this country.
Essential Media’s poll on the protest and broader issues of racism found one third of respondents believe the protests were representative of Muslim people because they are more likely to be extremist in their views. This is clearly a prejudiced view as it implies that all Muslims behave in a specific way. This view is connected to racism because intolerance of religion often implies intolerance of culture or ethnicity, an obvious example being the genocide of Jews during World War II.
Dr Naryan Gopalksrishnan of James Cook University believes that this behaviour by the media – called infeartainment – is a way of channelling people’s stress and anxiety while also entertaining them.
Infeartainment often takes the form of easily understood stories expressed in opposites as good and evil which encourages people to think in terms of us and them. Infeartainment can lead to those wearing a turban or a hijab being targeted in public spaces as scapegoats.
In multicultural Australia, the use of infeartainment is a much greater threat to a sense of community and mutual respect and social stability than violent behaviour by small groups of people whether Muslim, Christian or otherwise. In times of crisis or doubt, it’s easy to turn to the politics of hate.
This where our political leaders and journalists certainly have a role to play in steering society away from such divisive and damaging behaviour. They have the choice whether to respond in a way that encourages constructive and informed dialogue, or in a way that is divisive and sensationalist.
Living in a multicultural society means respectful coexistence with people from diverse cultural, religious and ethnic groups. Although Australia has been doing this well for a long time, continued success requires a more balanced and informed approach to public information that moves us beyond the real and present dangers of infeartainment.
Article by Priscilla Brice-Weller and Yin Paradies | First Published March 8, 2012 for Right Now magazine
Anyone living in Australia who keeps up with current affairs would have noticed a recent increase in the amount of discussion around racism in both mainstream and social media. Everything has been covered from statements by politicians to slip-ups by sportspeople, through to the bigger questions about racism in Australia, including:
“Is Australia a racist country?”
(Yes and no, some people have racist attitudes and some people don’t)
“Is Australia more or less racist than other countries?”
(It isn’t a competition; racism is rife throughout the world. Australia is more tolerant than many countries but less so than some)
“Should [public figure] be sacked for racism?”
(Yes, but shouldn’t we be asking why our public figures are engaging in racism in the first place?)
Such questions waft up like a bad smell at any mention of racism. Initially they are healthy questions for a country to ask itself – it shows that people are willing to self-reflect and learn from their collective mistakes. But they don’t really aid people’s self-understanding. Nor does it progress the debate about racism in Australia or encourage people to act, because it avoids the true complexity of racism in a multicultural country such as Australia.
Instead, we need a renewed commitment to a “fair go” for all Australians; an inspiring vision of the sort of country we could become, including an inclusive form of national identity; and unflinching recognition that racial prejudice is a harsh reality in Australia. People’s values and views on cultural diversity determine which approaches will work best for them.
Most Australians would agree that the desire for a “fair go” or equality for all is a shared national goal. Some of us have become cynical of clichéd terms such as “mateship” and “fair go”, but the sentiment remains. This sentiment is shared by the fifty percent of Australians who are positive about cultural diversity.
Most people who believe in the merits of multiculturalism are not confident discussing issues of race, racism or anti-racism. Some cope with this by avoiding the ‘R’ word altogether, others use political correctness as a crutch to avoid robust discussion, and yet others become angry and blame politicians, the media – anyone else but themselves – for the racism in this country.
Organisations like All Together Now and the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation (VicHealth) are working to help people understand the harsh reality of racism in Australia, while at the same time promoting the confidence and ability to take action to combat racism. This work is based on the fact that racism is not an insurmountable problem, especially if the majority of people are prepared to act!
To progress debate about racism in Australia among people who are positive about cultural diversity, try starting a discussion with one of these questions:
“What are the subtleties of racism?”
“What effect does racism have on individuals and society?”
“Rather than solely focusing on addressing inequality, how can we tackle racism as an underlying cause?”
“What can we do as individuals to prevent racism?”
The other half of Australians – the forty percent who are at best ambivalent about cultural diversity and the ten percent or so who are openly racist – tend to deny that racism exists. They are invested in maintaining the status quo (although, it is important to note that not all individuals with these attitudes are Anglo-Australians, nor do all Anglo-Australians share these attitudes).
One may recognise people in this group as those that start sentences with “I’m not racist, but…” and proclaim that those who think multiculturalism and diversity benefit Australia are, in fact, anti-white and anti-free speech (ironically trying to suppress a valid form of free speech).
People in this group need to be provoked into action to reduce or cease their destructive behaviour. The most effective conversation that can ensure this happens is for somebody to empathetically but firmly disagree with any person they witness saying something racist (providing it is safe for them to do so). This can include dispelling false beliefs and pointing out inconsistencies (such as the free speech example above). Australian research shows that people with racist attitudes partly justify their behaviour by overestimating those around them who share their view. So, honest and forthright disagreement is vital to changing attitudes and improving behaviour.
Again this is why is it important for bystanders to stand up and act – without timely and direct intervention the racist behaviour will continue. Acting is more effective for those who know the person engaging in racist behaviour, or if they are from the same cultural background as the perpetrator. Try starting with one of these:
“It’s not funny, nobody is laughing. Why did you say that?”
“I thought you believed in a fair go! Why do you say that?”
“It makes me uncomfortable to hear you say that, what do you really mean?”
There is an opportunity right now, while racism is being discussed widely in Australian society, to move towards more constructive self-reflection on this topic. Ultimately, this is what will lead to action and create new social norms of respect and inclusion for all.
Changing the conversation requires action from individuals, business, government and community sector organisations alike. To this end the Australian Human Rights Commission is currently undertaking a national consultation which will result in a National Anti-Racism Partnership and Strategy, due to be launched later this year.
Added to this is a remarkably small number of community sector organisations running underfunded and under-supported anti-racism programs. This work is vital in promoting the prevention of racism because unlike government initiatives, NGOs are able to promote courageous messages that get to the heart of the matter. While this work is generally evidence-based and effective, it is a drop in the ocean compared with what could be achieved if more philanthropists and foundations, large corporations and the media industry added their support.
It is only through collective and creative strategies that we can progress the discussion and debate about racism in Australia. Let each of us take seriously our personal responsibility to create constructive conversations about racism in Australian society.
Priscilla Brice-Weller is the Founder and Managing Director of All Together Now, the only national not-for-profit organisation working solely to address racism in Australia. Please see www.alltogethernow.org.au for further information about All Together Now’s work.
Yin Paradies is a non-executive Director at All Together Now and Senior Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne. He is an international expert in the social, economic and health impacts of racism as well as anti-racism theory, policy and practice.
We’re really angry to hear Jay Laga’aia was written off Home and Away due to his ethnicity – its about time mainstream TV producers showed the multi-ethnic faces of Australia!
This poll on The Age website shows that the majority of their readers agree:
Our Managing Director, Priscilla, wrote a guest blog post for the Centre for Social Impact about All Together Now’s partnership with The Body Shop.
The Body Shop, with its national reach of 83 retail stores, provided an amazing opportunity to ignite conversations about racism between store staff and customers. The intention of these conversations was to provide people with a better understanding of racism and feel confident about speaking up when they witness it.