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Are Australians racist? We have them, but they’re not most of us

No room for racismPETER KRANZ

THE rise of Pauline Hanson's One Nation (‘we'll be swamped by Asians, we'll be swamped by Muslims’) political party has given some impetus to the growth of racist sentiment in Australia in recent years.

But, although a recent poll showed 17% of Queenslanders supporting One Nation, I believe this only a tiny minority of Australians are racist.

That’s good news given our history of entrenched racism.

There were the goldfield riots against Chinese workers and ‘blackbirding’ (effectively slave labour) in the 19th century. In the 20th century there was the white Australia policy and not allowing Aboriginal Australians to be counted as citizens until 1967. Overall, we’ve been a pretty sorry bunch of bigots.

The Immigration Restriction Act 1901 put in place the law that became the cornerstone of the white Australia' policy. The Governor-General signed the document two days before Christmas Day 1901, a week after he had signed the Pacific Islander Labourers Act into law.

Together with Section 15 of the 1901 Post and Telegraph Act, these formed a powerful set of legal instruments shaping immigration policy at the foundation of the Commonwealth of Australia. They continued to guide thinking on immigration for half a century.

White Australian pineapplesThe Immigration Restriction Act enabled the government to exclude any person who 'when asked to do so by an officer fails to write out at dictation and sign in the presence of the officer, a passage of 50 words in length in a European language directed by the officer'. The dictation test could be administered to any immigrant during the first year of residence.

It was initially proposed that the test would be in English but it was argued that this could discourage European migration and advantage Japanese people and Americans of African descent. Instead, any European language was specified. In 1905 this was changed to any prescribed language to lessen offence to the Japanese. From 1932 the test could be given during the first five years of residence and any number of times.

The dictation test was administered 805 times in 1902–03 with 46 people passing and 554 times in 1904–09 with only six people successful. After 1909 no person passed the dictation test and people who failed were refused entry or deported.

The Act remained in force until 1958.

And what about today?

My Papua New Guinean wife, Rose, and I have lived together happily in Australia for 10 years now and in all that time have been met only with kindness, generosity and love from our white Australian friends.

But there have been three incidents of overt racism.

The first was in a Brisbane pub where Rose was sitting in a corner with some PNG friends. A somewhat inebriated white man at the bar started railing about "allowing these black bitches into the bar".

Rose took him to task and pointed out that her ancestors had saved the lives of many Aussie soldiers during World War II. Things got a bit heated and the other patrons rose up to support Rose. The offender was forced to apologise and was ejected from the pub. Round one to Rose.

In the second incident, we were window shopping in Tuggerah Mall on the NSW central coast when I became aware of a white woman with two teenagers walking behind us with exaggerated steps and whistling ‘Old Macdonald had a Farm’.

Rose thought nothing of it, but I realised what they were doing and rounded on them saying, in not uncertain terms, where they could go before I called security. Round two to Peter.

Incident three. Sadly, even though we live in a pretty multicultural community (the SDA College nearby has lots of PNG and Pacific islander students passing through), we have a United Patriots Front supporter passing out literature in our local shopping centre.

Now the UPF is probably the most blatant and provocative white supremacist movements in Australia and is often given oxygen by some right-wing media commentators. The UPF chose to give out its magazine outside our local shopping centre next to the Indian restaurant.

Go-back-to-where-yuu-bloody-came-fromWhen I saw this I grabbed all the magazines and dumped them in the nearest rubbish bin – but only after taking a copy and showing it to the local shopkeepers.

"If you want to keep your customers,” I told them, “don't allow this to be on display outside your shop." They agreed and promised to ditch the stuff if it appeared again. Round three for multiculturalism.

I'm all for freedom of speech but this doesn't allow you to shout out "Fire! Fire!" in a crowded theatre when there is no fire.

So is Australia racist? For the vast majority of us I'd say no. But some few sick individuals manage to maintain the rage against humanity and decency.

And those politicians and media commentators who fan the flames have a lot to answer for.

Comments

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Bernard Corden

The president of Augusta golf club has never presented Tiger Woods with the green jacket after winning the US Masters.
The task was given to a subordinate.

Lindsay F Bond

Stunning extra narrative Peter. How gracious that soldier. Frontiers are not just for shirt-fronting, but for meaningful utility of exchange in search of better understanding.

Peter Kranz

Thanks Chris - wise comments. I would add one thing, racism is all too often the product of ignorance. So we should look to our education systems.

I remember well my first mum-in-law opening up about her experiences in WW2 which she never usually talked about, except for one evening after a few glasses of Gewürztraminer. She had been a trained nurse from Latvia in the Baltic, and after the German occupation was "invited" to work for the German military as a Gasterbeiter (guest worker) a euphemism for forced labour, as nurses were in great demand. After many painful experiences she ended up on the streets of Berlin in 1946, unfortunately in the Russian sector. The Russians were rounding up anyone who was suspected of working for the Germans and sending them back to the mercy of Stalin's gulags and firing squads.

But in those early days before the cold war, allied patrols were allowed into each others sectors.

Some of her family and friends had been captured by Stalin's troops and 'disappeared'. She was sitting on the side of the road weeping, when an American tank pulled up next to her. Out of the top popped an African American soldier. She was scared. As she said "he was the first black man I'd ever seen". But he asked her what was wrong, offered her some American chocolate and then proposed she get into his tank and he would take her to the British sector. She had nothing to lose, so jumped in. He duly dropped her off near the red cross centre, and the rest is history - migration to the UK as a displaced person and subsequent marriage to an English doctor whom she met at the hospital where was working.

She told me "I was scared of that black man, but he helped me and saved my life and gave me a new start."

Chris Overland

I entirely agree with Peter Kranz's conclusion that only a very small minority of Australians are genuine racists.

I also think that a great deal of media attention is focussed on the activities of this group, whose significance is grossly overstated and, all too frequently, used as "evidence" that Australia was and remains a racist country.

It is rather like how the very real social problems associated with some remote Aboriginal communities are given great media prominence, leaving people to infer that all Aboriginal people are lazy or drunks or criminals, who routinely beat their wives.

The fact that most Aboriginal people are just trying to get on with their lives without fuss or bother gets entirely missed.

In short, some of our politicians and many social activists, aided and abetted by the media, whether by accident or design, end up reinforcing stereotypes.

Only someone living under a rock on Mars would not know about Australia's lamentable history of entrenched racism, yet many politicians and the media keep endlessly banging on about it as if this country alone had pursued such policies.

This is, of course, completely untrue. Racism, in one form or another, is found all over the world.

Just look at Turkey's treatment of its Kurdish minority today and, in 1915, the extermination of at least 1.5 million of its Armenian minority (which it still officially denies to this day).

How about Japan? It is virtually impossible for an immigrant or refugee to become a Japanese citizen. Even as their population ages rapidly and their need for additional, younger people becomes more acute, Japan resolutely refuses to contemplate immigration as a solution. They just politely say that it is incompatible with their customs and traditions.

What about the USA? Home of the brave, land of the free? I don't think so!

So, we Australians should stop hyperventilating about our purportedly built in racism and recognise that while problems continue to exist, especially for Aboriginal people, we are actually not especially racist at all.

We can and should acknowledge our history but it doesn't need to define us as a nation or a people.

What is more important is that we resolve to stamp out racism in all its forms and continue with the creation of our generally peaceful, prosperous, inclusive, multi-cultural society, that is already the envy of the rest of the world.

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