Dear Television: Let’s Stop Wondering Whether or Not ‘Australia is Racist’

Features. Posted 7 months ago

Yen-Rong Wong


Image: Journalist Ray Martin. Image Source.

At the conclusion of SBS’ first program for FU2Racism week, Ray Martin declared that ‘Australia is not a racist country’. This proclamation was followed by a series of other middle aged white men affirming his position. Naturally, this got my hackles up, and I fired off a bunch of sarcastic tweets. This triggered a steady stream of abuse from the racist side of Twitter, a community I am fortunate not to have encountered frequently in the past.

All bearing the hashtag #dingotwitter in their bios, these men (I’m assuming they’re men – all of them had photos of men as their profile photos) also expressed the sentiment that they are anti-women, anti-immigrant, and so on. You know the types of people I’m talking about. I honestly can’t remember what they said, but they included comments to the tune of “go back to where you came from” (um, you mean Brisbane? Sunnybank? Back into my mother’s uterus?), and a couple went in for the tried and tested method of mocking my name. There was even a “ching chong” thrown in there for good measure, a phrase I’m surprised still exists in the racist white male’s bag of tricks.

I was sceptical of SBS’ programming as soon as I saw the ads. It seemed like an idea that was rooted in good intentions, but also one that would ultimately fail in practice. Originally, I wasn’t intending on watching any of the FU2Racism programs. Is Australia Racist? focused on Indigenous people, as well as those who identify as Muslim. I do not presume to speak for either of these groups, but I feel like I can speak to similar experiences of racial discrimination.

For me, and I daresay many others like me, or who identify as being in a marginalised group, I don’t need a series of television shows to tell me that Australia is a racist country. I also don’t need them to tell me I have racist biases too – ones I have as a result of both my cultural and social upbringing. But eventually, I succumbed to my curious nature, and I ended up switching the channel over to SBS.

In one section of the program, Rahila, a student who moved to Australia from Afghanistan six years ago, attends a Reclaim Australia rally. She was subjected to people telling her she had been brainwashed, that they did not want sharia law in Australia, and more verbal abuse. The police were eventually called (for some reason), and she was issued an order to move on – despite doing nothing but literally standing there and talking to people in a calm, considered manner. And halfway through her chat with the police, two white women who were at the rally come to Rahila’s defence.

Don’t get me wrong – I am glad they came up and vouched for her. But the problem here is twofold. Firstly, why is it that a white person is believed more readily than someone who is not? This should be considered both in terms of the police being called in the first place, and the women who spoke for Rahila. Secondly, I was worried about the way in which this act of “standing up for a Muslim person” would be received. They were not inspiring, they were not brave, because what those women did was literally the least they could do, as decent human beings.

These proceedings, along with the other scenarios posited in the program, were filmed with a hidden camera, which claimed to provide the audience with a firsthand view of the situations faced by those of marginalised groups. But putting a hidden camera on someone does not provide the full spectrum of a lived experience. It doesn’t provide you with the rush of adrenaline you get when you’re being verbally abused and you have to figure out if you’re going to run away or yell back. It doesn’t provide you with the sound of your heart pounding oh-so-loudly in your chest and in your ears, and it doesn’t provide you with the tears and the rage that burn hot behind your eyes.

Yes, I know there are many countries that are significantly more racist than Australia, and others that are significantly less racist. I can also acknowledge that in some instances, we are a less racist country than we were, say, a hundred years ago. But racism still exists in this country, whether we like it or not. I know this because I experience it myself, because people still think it’s okay to ask me where I’m from, or to tell me I speak good English.

I can see the program’s merits, but ultimately, it did not hit the mark. It claimed to target racism, but it offered no real solutions, no suggestions for ways in which we can combat systemic racism against migrants and Indigenous people, and the rising tide of racism against the Muslim community. Continuing to ask the question is Australia racist in such a program may in fact normalise racist ideals, providing even more space for debates that skirt the very real issues. Especially if the verdict is a resounding “not racist” from Ray Martin.

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Australia, I’m Tired of Your Casual Racism