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Is Australia racist? Not so fast

But please don’t call me a ‘person of colour’

5 June 2021

9:00 AM

5 June 2021

9:00 AM

I’ve had a soft spot for Australia since going to boarding school in India run by Australasian Jesuits. The camaraderie and fellowship of classmates who have boarded together in school for many years has no parallel. And so, some years ago, about ten of us returned there for a 50th anniversary reunion. In a mark of abiding affection and admiration for the dedicated souls who had migrated young from Australasia and left their families behind – a sacrifice whose true worth we appreciate only now as adult parents ourselves – we drove to their cemetery for final respects and farewells. We also pooled funds to set up an annual award in honour of the late founding principal. The values of tolerance, inclusiveness and respect for fellow human beings irrespective of religion, caste and skin colour were permanently instilled in most of us by those ‘pale, male and stale’ priests. As an aside, religious, caste and colour prejudice is still far more of an everyday reality in India than here.

Years later, I met and married my wife as fellow graduate students in Canada. We first ‘connected’ when, on learning she was Australian, I recycled a few of the racier jokes from the more colourful priests in school. These days that would earn me a formal rebuke yet here we are, having celebrated our 47th anniversary this week. We gradually made our way via Fiji and New Zealand to the ANU in Canberra. My first visit to Australia was in 1979 to attend a professional conference. I flew into Sydney and changed planes for the flight to Hobart. The stewardess came down the aisle offering tea or coffee, white or black. After I chose coffee, she asked, ‘White or… With or without milk, sir?’

The history and legacy of White Australia notwithstanding, I thought, Australians were race-sensitive but no longer racist. After years of living here, including driving holidays through remote country towns and outback areas, I’m yet to encounter a single racist word or action. In New Zealand I used to drive some white liberal friends to fury by saying if the educational system is so racially biased, how come Indians and East Asians often top their class? At the same time, data do confirm the serious under-representation of Asian-Australians in senior public service and private sector board positions, which is hard to explain other than because of ‘structural’ racism. But that’s a different story for another time.

For now, let me just say as a very frequent flyer, I have been the target of racial profiling many a time in Europe, but not once in the United States (where immigration and customs officers all seem to have an attitude problem whose rudeness doesn’t discriminate by race, religion or skin colour) or New Zealand and, with the exception of security screening at Sydney airport, anywhere else in Australia.

I was catching a flight once from Belfast to Birmingham. In addition to the standard mandatory security checks for all passengers after checking in and before boarding, there was a system of discretionary checks in place as we entered the terminal building. The Good Friday agreement had brought an end to the ‘Troubles’ and in the more relaxed atmosphere, everyone was being allowed into the terminal without checking. But they stopped and body-patted me lightly. When they were finished, I commented that I was accustomed to profiling at airports, understood why and did not really mind. But they should get their profiling right: When was the last time Northern Ireland had experienced a terrorist attack by an Asian?

‘Move on, sir’, he said. I did.

The point of this story is: I object to public policy treating me as an ‘ethnic’. I demand no rights not available to every Australian, but claim all rights available to any Australian. Which is why I have always objected to the pernicious and perverse human rights consequences of the well-intentioned s.18C of Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act.

It may leave supporters feeling good but does little practical good to the intended beneficiaries. Meant to promote racial harmony and reconciliation, instead it has contributed to hardening racial identity, divisions and resentment. Its loose wording, combined with the asymmetric incentive structure – potential financial windfalls for those claiming hurt, no penalty if the action fails and heavy financial and reputational penalties for the ‘defendant’ even if ultimately cleared – invites abuse by means of a legal shakedown.

All these pathologies were shown only too starkly in the cases of the Queensland University of Technology students and the late Bill Leak’s cartoon in the Australian, depicting the reality of parental delinquency by some indigenous dads (notwithstanding an indigenous police officer as an authority figure). By mishandling these cases in a heavy-handed approach, the Australian Human Rights Commission suffered institutional damage to its ability to promote and defend human rights.

All human beings are rights-bearing equals. Human rights advocacy requires a moral imagination to feel the pain of others as one’s own. Owing to a failure of moral imagination, ordinarily decent people allow inhumanity to be inflicted in the name of border protection, fighting terrorists, combating racism or eradicating a virus. They should recall Pastor Martin Niemöller’s Nazi-era lament that indifference to others’ plight meant that when the oppressors ‘came after me, there was no one left to speak for me’.

Finally, a personal but deeply felt whinge about the creeping invasion of the ugly American phrase ‘person of colour’. I find it racist and offensive. It insults us by implying there’s white folk as the norm, and all the rest non-Caucasians can be lumped together in one portmanteau category. This is factually so wrong. We don’t call Caucasians ‘people without colour’. We are not a monolithic cohort to be classified at the whim of the Caucasians who make up a small fraction of the world’s total population. I remember a cartoon from ‘once upon a time’ in Punch where an English society hostess gushingly introduces a guest from Nigeria to one from India and says: ‘You must have a lot in common. You’re both natives’. I’m happy to be called any one of Australian, Indo-Australian, Australian of Indian origin, Indian, or Asian. Besides, as one recent joke has it; whites are the real people of colour – pink when born, scarlet when embarrassed, red when angry or sunburnt, blue when cold, purple when bruised, grey when dead, yellow with fear and green with envy.

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