Is Australia Racist?

 Last week there was a media report of some survey findings that concluded that half of Australians harbour anti-Muslim sentiments and a quarter are anti-Semitic.

Having read through the findings, I am not sure that taking an academic approach towards either measuring or responding to this issue is the best way forward.  At least that is how I felt when I was walking home with my children from the Synagogue last Saturday, as a passing car hurled racist abuse out of the window.

It is also how I felt after I listened to this matter being discussed on talkback radio.  Essentially the callers, reinforced by a moron of a radio host, dismissed the suggestion that Australia has racist undertones within its community, whilst simultaneously blaming anybody who is not like themselves for creating racial disharmony in Australia.  The overwhelming sentiment was people who don’t like Australian values should go back to where they came from. Those who reject the Australian lifestyle should not be here.  Effectively they were concluding that it is the fault of the multi-ethnic communities of Australia that Australian’s are racist. 

The newspapers also extended significant coverage to this story.  In thier coverage the issue was further enhanced by statements from UK, and European leaders that acknowledge the “policy of multiculturalism” has failed. 

I fear for Australia, but not for myself, the reason being that I am very comfortable and confident with my own identity.  My fear for Australia is because this whole discussion has been so generalised and “dumbed down” that it has become socially repressive.  Either the environment is so politically correct that contentious debate is avoided, or so politically incorrect that the debate is predicated on a disrespectful tone.  Where is the middle ground?

As a starting point, I find that the terminology of “the Australian lifestyle” or “Australian values” is so generic that it is almost meaningless.  If by this people mean the surf, beach, beer, BBQ’s, a fair go, being a mate, or whatever other cliché/stereotype you wish to apply, I would suggest that as many Jews, Muslims, Asian’s, Greeks, Italians, or any other relgious/ethnic group adhere to such a lifestyle choice as white anglo-saxon Australians. 

What this discussion is really about is respect.  Respect for the law, respect for individual freedom, and respect for ethnic identity.  When it comes to respect in relationships, it must work both ways.  I am the first to agree when people say that citizens of this country who do not respect the rule of law, be they Jew, Islam, or Brendan O’Connell, do not deserve the liberty of living freely in our society.  However those who do, should be welcome to express their identity, within the framework of the law, and in a way that does not force their beliefs or lifestyle onto others. 

I do not believe that the majority of Australian’s are racist.  As a country the majority of Australian’s are fair-minded, and the majority of Australian’s are also themselves of non-Australian ethnic extraction, sometimes second or third generation.  A third of Perth’s citizens were not born locally.  Melbourne is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world.  We have much to be proud of.  With that said, I believe that Australian communities are trending in the wrong direction, becoming more insular, less understanding, and less tolerant of diversity and difference.

Jewish people themselves are as guilty of this as any other.  I have met Jews (in Melbourne of course, not Perth!) who are very intolerant of the beliefs of others, or who unreasonably blame circumstances that do not fall in their favour on their Jewish identity.  Not everybody is a damn anti-Semite because they don’t agree with what you say.

It concerns me that a quarter of the survey respondents feel ambivalent towards Jewish people.  Ironically, I believe the solution lies in the Jewish community being more visible.  Every member of the Perth Jewish community is an ambassador for the community as a whole.  If they shelter and hide their Jewish identity, they are sending a signal that they have a sense of shame.  If they proudly display and talk about the Jewish values they hold, what they represent, and how they are universal in application, then bridges are built.  It is important that the community is seen and heard.   I wonder how many of those survey respondents that are intolerant of Jews have ever worked with, studied with, or lived amongst Jewish people. 

To improve the survey results, Australian’s need to better define the question.  Julia Gillard sensibly commented that multiculturalism models and structures in Australia differ from Europe.  The assimilationist culture of Australia is also more mature.  It is wrong however to define the opposite of multiculturalism as assimilation into monoculturalism.  You can be Australian and ethnically identified at the same time, and the dual identity does not need to conflict. 

Let’s not bury or harbour our resentment of ethnic differences.  Lets take an interest in them and celebrate them.  At the very least, let’s develop an understanding of our cultural leanings are, and educate ourselves in the traditions of many different peoples. 

The greatest fear is the fear of the unknown.  Australia may be the “lucky country”, but if societal attitudes continue to shift towards cultural isolation and intolerance, then Australia’s luck may well run out.

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