Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Racism in Australia Today: The Ugly Truth

‘When it comes to racial inequality, even as much has changed, much remains the same’
(Kwane Anthony Appiah)

Racism in Australia Today
Captain Pete Brookshaw (2015)


You could liken racism in Australia to soup in a pot boiling away on the stove and occasionally someone turns up the heat and the pot overflows. Right from the settlement of white immigrants in the late 18th Century there has been racial tension, and discrimination has been bubbling away, coming to the surface on occasions. Racism in the past has informed racism today. Before exploring such matters, a definition of racial discrimination is helpful.

The United Nations General Assembly (21st December, 1965) defined ‘racial discrimination’ as:

Any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, or human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life. (Yarwood, Yarwood, & Knowling, 1982, p. 257)

The racial tensions in Australia’s history and contemporary society can be better understood by looking at the foundational aspects of both the biblical writings and subsequently the work of the United Nations in the mid-20th Century with the establishment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The inequality between races in Australia has caused disadvantage in employment, education, Government social service benefits, other economic disadvantages and even verbal and physical abuse of the powerless. What is the way forward for the Australian community, when we have such a checkered past and fickle present?  

A Brief History of Race-Relations in Australia

The underlying issues of racism that exist within the Australian population today have evolved from the paradigms of thinking and behaviour from generations past[1]. The way Australians speak of others, how we treat each other and the upholding or otherwise of the human rights of others, stems from deeply rooted historical places.

Prior to 1788, the first Australians, the Aboriginal people, enjoyed the nomadic lifestyle and rugged terrain of the Australian landscape. The indigenous people lived off the land, and expressed their culture through a hunter-gatherer mindset, with their own cultural practices unique to such a way of living. From 1788 circumstances changed dramatically. The white people had arrived. Captain Cook and the First Fleet arrived on the shores of Botany Bay and before long, there was tension between British immigrants and long-standing Indigenous people who had been working the land for many, many years previous.

The tensions of race-relations between the white Anglo-Saxons and indigenous people has been prevalent in Australian culture since the First Fleet.  After the Federation of Australia in 1901, the government passed the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, which declared all varying types of reasons why immigrants could not enter into Australia (e.g. mental illness, having an infectious disease, an inability to pass a dictation test), yet seemed to show favour to the British. Could it be, that policies were enacted by the Australian government that discriminated against particular people because of their race, but was done so in a way appearing not to be overtly racist? During the days of the Second World War, Australian Prime Minister John Curtin said, 'This country shall remain forever the home of the descendants of those people who came here in peace in order to establish in the South Seas an outpost of the British race'[2]. The racist tone of the Australian people was clearly evident, as spoken by an Australian Prime Minister. The articles of the UDHR were not produced until following the atrocities of World War II, and in its 30 articles, we have content that challenges words just mentioned. Article one is foundational: ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights…’ Arguably a mildly racist tone amongst white Anglo-Saxons had existed for years amongst the Australian rhetoric, where people were not treated as being equal in dignity and rights. The inherent racism within the Australian culture, especially towards indigenous people was contrary to those newly developed human rights standards.

Racism in Australia Today

Does racism still exist in Australia today? One would have surely thought, that in today’s culture of political correctness and tolerance that racism in Australia would be a distant memory of a bygone era. Not true. Within the multicultural diverse demographic of people that make up the Australian population there is still an underlying racism that permeates the rhetoric of many Australians. We find ourselves in the tea-room at work, and someone relays a denigrating joke about an aboriginal. Then we hear about the racial-tensions between Muslims wanting to build a Mosque directly adjacent to an Assyrian Christian Church. Furthermore we could speak of the current Federal Government’s policies around the treatment of refugees and what that says about what we think about race. Read social media for more than five minutes, and you read of everyday Australians holding to some very vocal, down-right bigoted views of other nationalities.

Let me suggest that Anglo-Saxon Australians today still have reverberations of racist overtones permeating their words and actions that can be fundamentally attributed to cultural alliances with racist ideologies from years past. Only recently we saw Pauline Hanson (famous for not understanding the question, ‘Are you xenophobic?’) put her hand up again to contest a seat in the next Australian Federal election. She is known as someone with a philosophical leaning that verges on outright racist. Interestingly though, she has her own particular following. In the UDHR, article 15, we read that everyone has the right to a nationality and that no one should be deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality. Pauline Hanson and others with similar outlooks would do well to consider what it means for someone to have the right to their own nationality. Not only that, they have the right to seek asylum when persecuted (Article 14), and in those circumstances, they are no doubt hoping for a welcoming, inclusive community; not a racist one. There are parts of ‘White Australia’ that are absolutely committed to people conforming to their standards and to their culture. The problem is, Australians cannot articulate what that culture is!

We have confused patriotism with religious and cultural conformity.  In recent months Australia saw ‘Reclaim Australia’ rallies right around the country, protesting for a reclaiming of Australia. Australians want to reclaim Australia, yet the people protesting are not even indigenous? People who have had the freedom to immigrate to Australia (over the last two hundred plus years), and have had afforded to them the privileges of everything that makes Australia great, are now protesting about others wanting to have the same freedom afforded to them?! The classic is the picture of an indigenous Australian holding a banner that said, ‘Australia is not yours to reclaim.’

Tensions exist between the Australian Muslim community and Anglo-Saxon Australians. Complex societal factors contribute to the tensions, but fundamentally the issues are about race and religion. Abu-Rayya and White (Ata, 2014, p. 22) say that:

Muslims in Australia endure problematic portrayals, stereotyping and negative perceptions within Australian society, and that these perceptions are linked to real-world impacts including exclusion, racist violence, arson and various forms of unfair treatment.

Two factors contribute to a negative connection between Australian Muslims and other Australians; that of fear and ignorance. Only in the last couple of months, have there been examples of the radicalization of young Australians in local suburbs, with the online grooming by terrorists towards young people to fight with Islamic State. The fear is real, but the ignorance is such, that many Australians place the majority of peace-abiding, moderate Muslims in the same basket as Islamic State militants. Article 18 of the UDHR says that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. It is a human right to express one’s religion without the consequences of dealing with racist actions of bigoted white Australians. Conversely, when the actions of a small number in Australian society begin to use indoctrinated beliefs with a foundation of violence that impinge on another’s human rights, then Australian law enforcement must act. The challenge is for the Australian public to understand that which relates to a minority group of individuals and to not make unfounded rash generalizations about a particular people group (Ata, 2014, p. 36).    

Racism at its Biblical Roots

What would Jesus think about all this racism? Or more broadly, how can the biblical Scriptures inform us about philosophical anthropology and its relation to racism? There is something within the essence of humanity, right from the beginnings of the stories of Genesis, where we see humanity’s desire for power, significance and control. Eve and then subsequently Adam, were tempted to take that which they had been asked not to consume. In the second generation, Cain murdered his younger brother Abel because of jealousy that God had favoured Abel’s offering over and above his own. In the story of Noah and the Ark, God brought judgment upon the people, yet showed mercy upon Noah and his family because they were righteous. The Old Testament biblical accounts of the Torah, not to mention the stories of the twelve kings of Israel, the Davidic Kingdom and the Minor Prophets, reveal the wrestle of humanity with dealing with the temptations and consequences of sinfulness. It is the quest for power that corrupts the human heart, stemming right back to the creation narratives. This power and control is what led British immigrants to kill Aborigines in a battle to secure land on the eastern sea-board in the late 18th Century. This desire for control, is what seems to keep the current Australian Federal Government so resolutely committed to their inhumane border protection policies.  

One could mention with great detail the theological implications of biblical particularism and that the Jews are the ‘chosen people’. Christianity then, ‘claimed to universalize the Hebrew Bible’s supposedly parochial view of the divine covenant, making it available to all the nations of the earth.’ (Brett, 1996, p. 143) We can see within the ministry of Jesus Christ and the beginnings of the Christian church, a radical embracing of all people, not just Jews, but Gentiles too. The Apostle Paul sums up the universalist idea when he wrote, ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor freeman, neither male nor female. You are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28).[3] He was simply reaffirming the words and actions of Christ, like when Jesus offered prophetic words of healing to a Samaritan woman, in Samaria. The ministry of Jesus exemplified a life committed to upholding equality amongst people with a clear mandate that challenged racial prejudice and discrimination. One may argue then that the implementation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights midway through the 20th Century was heavily influenced by the teachings and life of Christ.
So, we see two important progressions in history; one is of the poor choices and sinfulness of a broken people and another is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Racism is birthed in that place of sinfulness, where power and control take hold, but in the person of Jesus Christ, racism is challenged at the core.  

Racism and the Way Forward for Australian Culture Today

It is all well and good to speak of racism in Australian culture today, but the challenge comes on what can be done about it. Firstly, the presupposition is, that based on the discussion of a foundation of racial tension within the Australian population, that positive change against such views is needed. Confirming that, the next question is what can be done?

Colin Chapman in Cross and Crescent offers some thoughts about what Christians could do when facing the political challenges of the Islamic faith. These thoughts relate well to the Australian public at large, beyond Islam and to race in general, with assisting us with ideas that help us deal with racial inequality (Chapman, 2003, pp. 296-301)[4].

·         Obtain accurate information – This relates to ensuring that you know all the facts. Racial prejudice is quite often related to ignorance.
·         Be responsible with publicity – The media and individuals have a responsibility to communicate publicly only that which is fair and reasonable and true.
·         Conduct local, united protests – Interestingly, how many Australians would find the violation of human rights, in relation to racial inequality something they feel strongly about enough to protest?[5]
·         Appeal to international law – Article 18 of the UDHR appeals to the right that people have for the freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Pittaway[6] says, ‘All people should be treated the same—we should all be free’ (2015, p. 29).
·         Turn the other cheek and follow the Golden Rule – Chapman highlights the importance of following the ways of Jesus. This is critical if we truly want to be a racially-tolerant, loving and compassionate society that upholds a strong morality with foundations in the Word of God.
·         Learn the lessons from history – Australians would do well to learn from the racial prejudice of days gone by; the way politicians treated the first peoples of Australia, and the way Anglo-Saxons treated their ethnic brothers and sisters.

The ugly truth of racism in Australia, is that it was rife right from British settlement, and still bubbles away under the surface of political and societal discourse, rearing its unpleasant head regularly. Each Australian resident has a responsibility to uphold the human rights of others and subsequently establish a culture where Australians are respected, equal, empowered and free. Anything less is an abuse of human rights.


Ata, A. W. (2014). Education Integration Challenges: The Case of Australian Muslims. Victoria: David Lovell Publishing.
Australian Immigration. (2015, May 10). Retrieved from http://www.immi.gov.au/media/fact-sheets/08abolition.htm
Brett, M. G. (1996). Ethnicity and the Bible. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill.
Chapman, C. (2003). Cross and Crescent: Responding to the Challenge of Islam. Illinois: InterVarsity Press.
Drehle, D. V. (April 20, 2015). TIME: Black Lives Matter. Time Magazine.
Mackay, H. (2007). Advance Australia Where? Sydney: Hachette Livre Australia.
Moreton-Robinson, A. (2004). Whitening Race: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press.
Nations, U. (2015, April 24). Articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Retrieved from http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml#a3
Pittaway, T. (2015). Freedom Unleashed. Maryborough: McPherson's Printing.
Rose, G. (March/April 2015). The Trouble with Race. Foreign Affairs.
Yarwood, A. T., Yarwood, A. T., & Knowling, M. J. (1982). Race Relations in Australia: A History. New South Wales: Methuen Australia.

[1] Racism is inherent within some cultures, like the U.S.A, where on April 4th of this year, one clear Saturday morning, a white police officer, Michael Thomas Slager, shot an unarmed black man in the back 8 times. The chilling video depicts the situation, where one would say, race was again at the forefront of American culture. Time magazine run with the heading on April 20th, 2015 with Black Lives Matter, though the content of the journalism did very little to address the issue of racism within the American culture, but rather the journalists touched on slightly less provocative angles, like the culture that exists within law enforcement in America.

[2] http://www.immi.gov.au/media/fact-sheets/08abolition.htm
[3] Galatians 3:26-29 – ‘26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
[4] I have used Chapman’s writing and added my own thoughts as it relates to the more general topic of racism in Australia, not just amongst Muslims, but other ethnic minorities in Australian society.
[5] Voltaire famously said, ‘I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.’ 
[6] Captain Troy Pittaway - The Salvation Army

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