Can We Erase Racism From Australia?

I am writing this post not to provide a detailed analysis of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement because I admittedly lack the education to properly speak on it and provide a meaningful discourse. However, as a person of colour, I am able to relate better to their plight as a non-Caucasian individual living in an environment where existing systems and those running those systems come from a background of White Privilege and entitlement.

It’s so tragic to see what’s happening in the US with the brutal death of George Floyd and the violence that’s occurred from the subsequent clashes between protesters and the police. We are once again reminded of how flawed the existing systems because these incidents just keep on happening over and over again. As a person of colour, I’m saddened to see racism still continue to be a heart-wrenching stain that seems improbable to scrub from humanity. Are we naturally so flawed as a species to be racist and feel threatened by the differences of others?

My sympathy runs deep for my African American brothers and sisters and what they have endured and continue to endure ever since their ancestors were forcibly transported to the Americas as slaves. It’s very disappointing to see the injustice that has been dealt to them and how the institutions currently in place have prevented African Americans from receiving the same level of justice as White Americans in comparison. It’s disheartening to observe all the police brutality that has happened to them and also noting the thousands of victims that did not generate the same level of international outrage as a George Floyd, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray or Travyon Martin. These are the tragedies that occur every single day and often do not get brought to the public’s attention.

The first thing I want to clarify is why responding to the “Black Lives Matter” (BLM) movement with an “All Lives Matter” argument is insensitive and counterproductive. For those who aren’t ignorant, entitled or racist, we all believe that racial differences should be accepted and that the colour of your skin should not dictate how you be treated by others and the institutions in place. That’s a given and a non-negotiable in my opinion. Responding with an “All Lives Matter” statement diminishes and discredits the focus on the injustice and discrimination that black individuals face on a daily basis.

I’ll use an analogy to help you understand. Imagine you’re eating at a restaurant and a dish arrives containing some shaved peanuts. Unfortunately, you possess a peanut allergy and ingesting peanuts could lead to your demise. You raise your hand to beckon over the wait staff and make a complaint. It’s very isolated and focused on addressing the allergy at stake. But imagine if the restaurant workers all start arguing that “all food allergies matter” and that your peanut allergy should not be prioritised above or below other food allergies. Sure, that might be the case, but in this situation, we’re talking about the peanut allergy and the severe implications it has caused for people who’ve died from and suffered for it, and also the risk of you and others who possess the allergy from dying and suffering in the present and in the future.

Where’s the productivity in that?

And that’s what’s happening worldwide when people are responding to “Black Lives Matter” with an “All Lives Matter” answer. They end up downplaying the importance of black lives and disregarding all the suffering that black people have endured in the past. Furthermore, it also deprioritises the possibility of black lives being subjected to further suffering and injustice in the future. The “All Lives Matter” reply is a reflection of the very systems in place that have fed into the problem in the first place.

Another response has been “all lives matter because I don’t see colour or race”. Being able to say that is a privilege and usually stems from someone who has never suffered from being racially discriminated or received unfavourable treatment because they were culturally different from the residual “culture”. Once again, it comes across as deeply insensitive and discounts the racism that people of colour face regularly.

The core of the problem exists because of the aforementioned institutions in place, those who built them and those who are running them. It’s made me re-examine Australia, the country I’ve called home for almost three decades and identify where it has room to improve from a racial and cultural acceptance standpoint.

In western countries such as Australia, our entire social structure revolves around whiteness as a default. We grow up being exposed to white heroes and heroines, both real and imaginary. As a kid, I was encouraged to idolise or respect white Australians such as Sir Donald Bradman (I was always reminded to not forget the “Sir” in front of his name, as well), Gough Whitlam, and Olivia Newton-John. Children’s books are also littered with white characters such as Snow White, and people in high positions of authority in media and government were and continue to be predominantly white. I’m still looking forward to the day where we have a non-white Prime Minister and more leadership diversity and representation in media, government and in the business world.

We’re also constantly surrounded by consumerism that is geared towards a white audience or promoting a ‘white lifestyle’. I grew up encouraged by my white teachers, white mentors and white neighbours to pursue that aspiration of whiteness. A successful life in Australia was one where I’d be sipping a cold beer at the Northies Cronulla Hotel, complaining with my white Aussie mates about our spouses, and cheering on the Cronulla Sharks. Or taking a punt with my white Aussie private-school educated mates at a pub in Paddo, catching a Swans or Rabbitohs match, and going to work the next day at a wealth management firm in Martin Place. That was the environment I grew up in and those were the scenarios I was advised to pursue. Even by my own parents, who had suffered racism as 1st generation immigrants who did not speak any English when they first arrived in Sydney. They wanted me to purposely make friends with the white, the privileged, and the entitled so I could be accepted and eventually live a life where I did not have to experience the prejudices they had encountered.

What they did not realise was that those who were white and privileged did not so willingly or naturally accept those of colour, such as the Chinese son of Chinese parents. They did they proactively wish to understand or embrace those that didn’t fit the same white cloth they were woven from.

Furthermore, respect and acceptance were just not dictated by how much money you earned, where you lived or what type of car you drove. Being white and privileged felt like a birthright and that was something I’d never attain, no matter how hard I tried to pursue that illusion.

And look everywhere, the vast majority of advertising and marketing is tailored towards a white audience. I’ve worked in advertising and marketing for a decade and there have been times where I’ve been in uncomfortable situations where my proposed idea was met with closet, racist euphemism such as it being “demographic appropriate enough” or it had to be tweaked to “suit the optimal, target audience”.

Australia is a country where White Privilege and entitlement is rampant. We have our own dark past to blame for that. This is a country which had the racially discriminatory Immigrations Restriction Act 1901 aka “White Australia Policy” and subsequent, amended versions in place until 1973. This is also a country where the Stolen Generations occurred, once again an initiative that was designed by the government. White Australia has done an appalling job in the racial acceptance department and this is also reflected in the disproportionate number of indigenous Australians dying in policy custody or incarceration in comparison to their White counterparts. It’s the worst kept secret about how disgusting we’ve mistreated the indigenous Australians and how much pain and suffering has been inflicted on them in the past and in the present.

Racism as a construct is degenerative and harmful. Unfortunately, it has always existed and remains a core part of human nature. If you scroll through the annals of human history, you will discover numerous incidents where civilisations waged war and persecuted others because of their racial and cultural differences. That’s because societies have historically been driven by this fear of external forces. We’re afraid of the unknown and the type of disruptive change it may bring on our lives, should we invite them into our communities.

Racism in mainstream media has also existed for decades. Films with deeply racist elements such as “Mandingo”, “The Mask of Fu Manchu” and “The Birth of a Nation” were Hollywood productions that were watched by thousands of cinema goers. It’s bewildering when you realise that this was considered socially acceptable by a predominantly white audience less than a hundred years ago. White actors even wore blackface make-up in films such as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “The Jazz Singer”, portraying caricatures of African American stereotypes. Furthermore, newspapers and tabloids regularly pushed out headlines depicting “The Yellow Peril” during the 1940s to 1970s, further demonising Asian people and portraying them as sinister, infectious and terrorising. They all contributed to the general fear and disdain for non-Caucasian people in Western countries.

I personally experienced racism when I was five years old. Two years prior, I had moved to Australia with my mum and had quickly learned English and made friends with the kids in my kindergarten. I had embraced life in Australia and saw myself as becoming more Aussie with each passing day. I played rugby, ate vegemite, watched “Round the Twist” most of my friends were White Australians.

There were two isolated incidents that highlighted to me the existence of racism and how I was viewed as being different by others.  

The first incident happened over a period of three weeks. Or at least, it took me three weeks before I realised it. I used to play frequently with two other boys, let’s call them “Billy” and “Joel” in this recount. We were all in the same class and lived quite close to each other. My dad would drop me off at school around 8am each morning and so did Billy’s. Billy and I would cheerily greet each other and play together for roughly half an hour. That’s when Joel would arrive, and he’d join us. Billy would then start playing with Joel and tell me to sod off essentially. It really puzzled me at the time and for three weeks, I just accepted it. Finally, I did not accept it anymore. One Friday morning, I was playing on the slides with Billy and Joel arrived. Billy immediately grinned and started moving towards Joel to welcome him. He turned to me and told me to “go play with someone else”.

“Why?”

My response stumped him. He had not been expecting me to react. He paused for a moment and blinked repeatedly before he strung together a response.

“Because you’re Chinese, not Aussie. You’re different. My mum and dad said so”.

It didn’t register at first that he was made aware of this by his parents. My attention was directed towards the fact that I was not Australian, but Chinese. In retrospect, it was disheartening to realise that his parents were feeding him that type of information and influencing his behaviour. Nobody is born with racist viewpoints and it’s only the result of our upbringing and the environment we grow up in that inherently shapes our opinions and how we choose to treat others. Therefore, it was the institutions in place which had contributed to their mentality.

The second incident occurred a year later. I was walking home from school and a ute with three White Australian men in their thirties and forties started tailing me. They guffawed, sneered and called me a “chink”, telling me to “go back to China” and that my “ching chong chang” was not welcome in Australia. When it happened, I was very fearful and afraid, not so much by the words they uttered but by the malice and conviction in their voices. Afterwards, I reflected on their exact comments and once again, was reminded that I was different and not seen as Australian. Would I always be seen as an outsider by white Australians even though deep down, I felt I was Australian as well?

In subsequent years, I experienced more racism, especially after we moved to the Sutherland Shire, where I ended up spending the majority of my childhood. One anecdote particularly sticks out like sore thumb. I remember being one of the handful of Asian students at my new primary school and how much I was made to feel like an exotic, zoo animal on my first day. Kids were excitedly running circles around me as the principal took me on a tour of the premises. I remember seeing their noses pressed tightly against the windows as they watched me walk past their classrooms.

“Chinese boy! A Chinese!”

“Ching chong china!”

At the time, I remember trying to snuff out all the commotion and jeers. What made the experience even more astounding was how seemingly oblivious the principal was to their behaviour. She just continued walking and speaking to me about the school and its facilities. It’s the existence of this kind of behaviour that represents everything that is wrong with our society. If people in positions of influence, such as educational institutions, choose to turn a blind eye to this behaviour, then it explains a lot about why people of colour continue to be subjected to racial discrimination. If children aren’t corrected by their parents and other adults in their life, or even worse, taught by them to differentiate and treat someone a certain way based on their skin colour, then the vicious cycle will repeat endlessly.

How do you end racism though? That’s a question which is linked directly to the very essence of what makes us human. Bearing in mind, we are naturally fearful of what’s different and protective of our way of life. Is multiculturalism the answer? Does multiculturalism gnaw away at racism until its last bone is reduced to dust? Conceptually, the presence of people from different backgrounds co-existing in harmony can lead to a decline in racial discrimination over time. However, it sounds almost too simple on paper though and disconnected from the reality of the human condition.

Take the example of Australia and let’s examine its brand of multiculturalism. Personally, I am critical of how Australia perceives itself to be a multicultural country. I am not denying the fact that it is diverse and populated by thousands of people from different races and ethnicities. And certain ethnic communities and local governments do try and celebrate their culture through initiatives such as planned events and outdoor markets. However, I personally see Australia as possessing a very shallow brand of multiculturalism and I’ll provide an explanation.

It’s all linked to the overall mindset. In my conversations and encounters with many White Australians, their examples of what makes Australia a multicultural society is the convenience of being able to walk down their street and enjoy a delicious Pad Thai for dinner, or the fact that their children are classmates with people from all different ethnicities.

To me, that is not true multiculturalism is. Their examples are merely situational ones and that’s why I labelled it as a shallow brand of multiculturalism. If multiculturalism was a tree, then you want to examine the roots, the trunk and the branches. You can’t base your assessment just on the shape or colour of the leaves and twigs on that tree.

Furthermore, just because something is there, doesn’t mean you buy into it or understand it completely. You can acknowledge its presence and recognise the associated advantages of its existence, but do you actually feel genuine solidarity though?

Thus, if you were to throw a bunch of people from different races together on an island, then it isn’t enough to label them a multicultural society if they do not seek to understand and accept each other’s differences.

My definition of multiculturalism is a society where its citizens have the proactive intent to learn, understand and accept different cultures. ‘Proactive intent’ is the key phrase because there is a huge difference between seeking to understand a construct that is different versus being merely exposed to something that is different. It’s not the same – you can make a concerted effort to learn more about something new as opposed to find yourself in the presence of something new due to circumstance, and not seek to attain greater knowledge about it.

I also picture a community where everyone is celebrating each other’s cultural customs not because it’s trendy or convenient but because they genuinely wanted to embrace that culture and learn something new. Furthermore, I visualise an image of local Australians sincerely embracing those from international backgrounds, welcoming them to be a part of the community, and showing them their way of life and vice versa.

This flavour of multiculturalism sadly does not possess a consistent presence, even in 2020. Many friends and acquaintances of mine who came to Australia as international students or on working holiday visas from non-English speaking countries have a shared experience of how they were treated by the locals. The vast majority of them thought many Australians were polite but rarely made a proactive effort to understand and embrace their cultural background, or to bring them into their social circles. They all agreed that it wasn’t necessarily a negative experience where they felt discrimination, but it wasn’t a welcoming one because of how neutral and sterile the response from local Australians felt to them.  

Local Aussies will counter with the argument that the international students also don’t make an effort to assimilate into Australian society or that they preferred to socialise only with people from their ethnic background. That’s understandable because we tend to reach out to what is or feels familiar when we find ourselves in a new environment that is filled with uncertainty and unfamiliarity. Hence, I can also empathise with that counter argument. It’s a two-way street – both parties have to make an effort and meet each other halfway in order for the desired outcome to occur.

However, the issue lies with the environment and how much work is required to shift the collective mindset and erase those close-minded viewpoints from the past. Australia is still freshly removed from the days of demonising Asians with no public backlash, the genocidal policies implemented against the Indigenous Australians, and of the White Australia Policy itself. All these actions happened because they were the unfortunate by-product of the overall thinking of both the government and the Australian public.

People grew up in an environment where this was socially accepted by the vast majority of white Australians. And many of these people went on to have children and raise them with these beliefs passed down to them or least, their children grew up with their parents and grandparents having negative viewpoints about people from different cultural backgrounds. As a result, there is something wrong fundamentally and that’s a deeply entrenched root that will be almost impossible to eliminate overnight.

The viable solution is not one remedy, but a collection of wilful actions imbued with themes of consistency, education and duty.

The solution lies in the youth of today and of tomorrow. Younger generations are witnessing the tragedies such as George Floyd’s brutal death and observing the discrimination faced by people of colour. They are educating themselves, forming their own opinions, and hopefully they’re ones of anti-privilege and geared towards ending racism. They will go on to become contributing members of society and many will replace the conservative and entitled thinkers currently in positions of authority in government, media, commerce and education. I look forward to a day where we see more diversity especially in those categories and where harsher punishment is imposed on those who are openly racist towards others.

The solution also lies through a regular education of those who grew up in an environment that was hostile towards people of colour. I’m looking at you, Baby Boomers and Generation X.  As a cohort, they lack sufficient awareness of the struggles of being a person of colour living in a White Privilege landscape. I hope they take a more proactive approach to understand them better, discard their outdated thinking, and accept those who are racially and culturally different.  

Finally, the solution also resides in us all. We have to proactively call out behaviour that is racist and it is our moral responsibility to educate and promote the overarching message that it is unacceptable to racially discriminate.

We may not eradicate racism overnight because of how deeply rooted it resides in our societies, but we can accelerate the process through our own actions. We have to hold both ourselves and others accountable, to educate and be willing to be educated, and to call out behaviour and existing process that violate the acceptance and fair treatment of people from different races and ethnicities.

Don’t be that principal who chose to turn a blind eye as the students yelled racial slurs at a young Chinese boy on his first day at a new primary school. Don’t be that parent who consciously points out the differences of their child’s classmate and influencing them to distance themselves as opposed to embracing them for who they are. If a relative or colleague makes an inappropriate and racist joke in a ‘safe’ environment, be brave enough to criticise them.

Governments and those in positions of power also have to do a better and more proactive job in stamping out racism and revamping existing systems so that people from non-white backgrounds receive equal treatment. We cannot afford to have more George Floyd incidents occurring to instil change. It shouldn’t have to come to this. We have to be less reactive and more proactive – address these issues head on.

There should be a day in the future where the statement “all lives matter” is said not from a position of privilege and as a counter argument against a movement hoping to instil real change, but from a position that is a reflection of a truly accepting and multicultural environment.

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