Why are Australians perceived to be racist?
In 2012, Australian Trenton Oldfield jumped into the River Thames to protest against the Oxford and Cambridge boat race, which he believed to be a symbol of elitism. Oldfield was subsequently jailed for six months and threatened with deportation. He argued that he should be allowed to stay in England because his wife was of Indian descent and she would suffer extreme racism if he was deported to Australia. (The claim that Australia was racist resonated with the English and he was allowed to stay in England.)
Oldfield’s actions provided a very useful starting point for understanding why Australia has an international reputation for being a racist society. In short, Oldfield's actions reflected Australia's cultural sympathies for the underdog that lead to the denigration of "elites". Sometimes these elites are defined by the socioeconomic or cultural groups they belong to. Sometimes, the elites are defined by their attitudes which may be seen to have racially superior tones. In Oldfield's mind, both the English rowers and Australians in general were fair targets for his vilification because they were elites.
While the English didn’t perceive Oldfield’s actions as racism, the same kind anti-elite protest against a non-white culture is often perceived by that culture to be racially motivated. For example, Ryann Connel, the ex-chief editor of the English website of The Mainichi Daily News, busied himself with writing columns about a Japanese restaurant where patrons allegedly had sex with animals before eating them and Japanese men who cheat on their wives. For a while, Japanese politeness held sway and they simply ignored the Australian. Eventually, the Japanese just returned fire. A blogging campaign commenced with comments such as:
Sponsors also reacted, and pulled advertising estimated to be worth more than 20 million yen ($195,000). The newspaper issued a 1277-word apology, reprimanded several staff and put Connell on three months' disciplinary leave.
Another example of anti-elitism morphing into a perception of racism came in 2009 with the vilification of American Solomon Dennis "Sol" Trujillo. As an American and a multimillionaire, many Australian journalists and politicians felt he was an elite who was fair game for ridicule. This ridicule usually came by caricaturing him as an incompetent Mexican. When Trujillo returned to America, prime minister Kevin Rudd celebrated his departure with the words "adios." Reporting journalists laughed at the comment.
Back in America, Trujillo told an American audience that he was the victim of racism. It was a claim many Hispanic Americans agreed with. As far as they were concerned, the jokes were the equivalent of drawing Obama looking like a monkey in order to belittle his policies. Some Australian journalists later made concessions that although Trujillo had a small point, they also said it was hard to feel sorry for a multi-millionaire. While Sol was indeed a millionaire, a derogatory stereotype of a culture had been used to demean the tall-poppy and in that regard, a whole race had been offended in the desire to offend the singular individual. A particularly absurd aspect of the vilification was that Trujilo wasn't even Mexican.
The anti-elite basis of Australian racism can be seen as a legacy of the unique social dynamic that was formed in Australia’s penal era. Nearly two generations into Australia's urban era, nearly 80 per cent of the population was a Convict, Emancipist, or of Convict descent. As a consequence, the majority of the population were second class-citizens, and the exclusive free settlers were the disliked minority. As more free migrants joined the colony, they assimilated the anti-exclusive values. In this social dynamic, race was insignificant in comparison to the taint of a Convict in the ancestry, which in turn allowed non-whites to gain a level of popularity that they were unable to attain in other colonial communities. For example, Billy Blue was a Convict of African descent who arguably became the colony’s first celebrity as he had a character that seemed to mock the pompous. In tribute to his legacy, many streets, landmarks, hotels and businesses in Nth Sydney have been named in his honour. These include Blues Point, William Street, Blues Point Road, The Commodore Hotel, and the Billy Blue Design School.
In his top hat and military uniform, black Convict Billy Blue became arguably Australia's first celebrity.
Ironically, anti-elitism itself became a form of prejudice, with Asians the principle victims. The success of Asians on the gold fields made some Australians fear that Asians would become a master race. Such fears gave rise to the White Australia Policy, that was specifically targeted at Asians. The policy’s architect, Alfred Deakin, justified the policy with reference to Asian superiority:
Although Australians of the era were hostile to Asians, they had positive attitudes to people of African descent, probably because they were not seen as a threat. For example, Henry Lawson, a nationalistic poet of the era, wrote an essay saying the Chinese must be kept out; however, he also said:
Admittedly, some propaganda of the era likened Asians to Convicts and the need to keep out Asians was equated with previous campaigns to stop Convict transportation. Such campaigns would suggest a framing of Asians in terms of inferiority (rather than superiority); however, it was a status of inferiority shared by Caucasians.
Today, anti-racism campaigns continue to show that there is a sympathy towards the underdog but also that only some races are framed as underdogs. Perhaps the best example of this was the federal government’s 2013 “Racism, it stops with me” campaign. The advertisements featured a variety of black and white sportspeople looking at the camera and declaring that racism had no place in sport. The advertisement included black and white children opposing racism. Absent from the campaign were Asians. This would imply that the makers of the advertisement either didn't believe that Asians suffer racism in Australian sport or if they did, the racism was not worth worrying about as it was when suffered by someone with black skin.
Racism, it stops with me (except if I am Asian )
In a perverse way, to be targeted for vilification in Australia is an indication of a degree of respect. In Australia, Asians are visible as the high achievers in school classes, as surgeons and as residents of high income areas. Arguably, this success threatens some Australians as it did in the era of the White Australia Policy. Meanwhile, sports stars aside, Aborigines are stereotyped through the media as disadvantaged drug abusers who need help. A desire to help the “underdogs” results in attacks on the elites who are blamed for turning Aborigines into underdogs. In its own unique way, it is a racist way of thinking.
The egalitarian basis of racism in Australia can perhaps be likened to the egalitarian basis of human rights abuses in Communist countries during the cold war era. Under Communism, individuals were labelled "bourgeoisie" on the basis of their education, religion, income and ethnic group. Some were subsequently paraded through the streets with human faeces smeared in their hair. Others were executed. In short, a label of elitism was applied to some people as a justification to bully, discriminate and kill them.
On the positive side, the anti-elite culture has made Australians very open to anti-racism campaigns. Certainly, there are almost no Australians who boast that “racism, it starts with me”. In other words, almost no Australians want to be racist. On the negative side, despite almost all Australians proudly believing they are not racist, the anti-elite culture doesn’t always equip Australians to deal with cultural diversity. Some Australians like Trenton Oldfield attack the cultural traditions of Britain because they are seen as elitist while other Australians attack the cultural traditions of India because they are seen as elitist. Likewise, some Australians criticise other Australians for being racist, while some other Australians criticise Japan, China, America and so on for being racist. When experiencing the criticism, the targets from other countries don’t change their cultures, rather, they just assume Australians are being racist again.
Questions to think about
Look at comments about Australians made by outsiders and decide if they are beneficial or harmful
Analysis: In 1998, the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission defined racism as
Look at the comments about Australians below. Which ones are racist?