When the personal becomes political: a call to action on racism

When the personal becomes political: a call to action on racism

Over the past year Australians have seen a litany of racial tirades on public transport captured on camera and brought to wider attention through media coverage. Faced with documented evidence of the persistence of racism in everyday public settings, recently, PhD students and academics in the Department of Sociology at the University of Sydney have engaged in discussions about the ways in which we as sociologists can respond to the issue of racism.

Our discussions revealed the challenges involved in turning our knowledge of an inherently complex phenomenon like racism into efficacious personal, institutional and societal action in response to it.

Participation in this institutional exercise served as a reminder that in the midst of the alienation and fatigue that often underlies intellectual labour concerning social injustices, as feminists contend, it is at the personal level that social realities are rendered most deeply political. We are intellectually aware of issues of racism through much of our work in migration. However, it was when a close friend and colleague of ours became the subject of a recently reported public racial attack that we were galvanized to address it more publicly. In writing a response to what occurred to our friend we spoke not merely from our intellectual interest in a contemporary social phenomenon, but more importantly from our own experiences of the ways in which racism and racialization shape our lives in Australia.

Below is the opinion piece we wrote in early April.   

Racism: it’s more than what we say

Following the Easter long weekend we were rudely confronted with video footage of a man launching a tirade of racial abuse on a public bus in Sydney. We were horrified to find that his incoherent vitriol about “disgusting Japanese pigs” was directed at a friend and fellow PhD student at The University of Sydney – who is not Japanese at all – but rather of Korean descent. In the past few months we have seen several media reports of racial abuse on public transport, and we are, sadly, becoming increasingly unsurprised.

As scholars researching the impact of international migration in changing societies we are well aware of the complexities of racism in a society like Australia that has been built on immigration. Whether Australian citizens or international students, we, the authors of this article, are all migrants to this country who share the experience of racial abuse or discrimination either personally or through the experiences of our parents.

We know that for people like our friend this particular instance of abuse was not an isolated incident. He and other friends of ours – some international students, some long-term residents of Australia, and some who were born in Australia – have experienced racism on many more occasions without their experiences becoming public knowledge. This has included racial abuse hurled at them as they walked down the street or waited at a traffic light, as well as less public examples of discriminatory treatment in workplaces, on campus, or in shops. Often such treatment stems from perceptions that if you do not look white you are merely a visitor and must not belong in Australia. Contrary to initial reports, ‘Mr Kim’ is not an “Asian tourist”. He is an international student who has been living in Australia with his family for three years while completing his doctoral study.

In this instance, our friend felt that the perpetrator of the racial abuse may have been an “unstable, marginalised or disadvantaged” man. This incident was a reminder that some of the people involved in such public outbursts may be facing some form of disadvantage in their own life, perhaps to do with lack of education, or their financial, mental or physical health, perhaps exacerbated by substance abuse. Members of society who are themselves disadvantaged – no doubt drawing on the words of political leaders – may find in migrants an easy scapegoat for society’s broader ills.

It is easy to pillory one individual who happened to be caught on camera and condemn his actions as an outrage. However, such incidents should prompt deeper reflection on the ways in which silence is central to the practice of racism in Australia – whether it is the silence of a bus driver, or commuters, or anyone who witnesses derogatory comments about different racial, ethnic, or cultural groups in the course of everyday life and allows them to pass unchallenged.

We know that the most insidious forms of racism are not shouted out in public, but are bred in more private spaces, and are buttressed by broader structures related to education, the media, workplace cultures, and government policies. These broader institutional structures can embolden perpetrators of racism to make others feel inferior based on their background.

For most people racism takes more subtle forms than public invective. It more often manifests in experiences of disrespect, incivility, intolerance or contempt of their visible difference, culture, ethnicity or religion. Often it takes the form of negative cultural stereotypes – whether used in earnest or in jest. It includes being perpetually questioned on whether you truly belong in Australia based on the colour of your skin, or being told to ‘go back to where you came from’ – even if you ‘come’ from Australia. It includes facing disadvantages in the labour market or being treated like a second-class citizen simply because you have an accent and by implication cannot speak ‘proper’ English.

In many cases, the indignity of such experiences is compounded by the silence that results from the complexity of explaining why such treatment is experienced as racism. We know that often victims of racism and related forms of discrimination are forced to shrug off their experiences and forget them as best they can, while steeling themselves for future encounters of the same nature. For people who experience it, racism can be difficult to name and challenge. Yet, it is real and hurtful. Every such experience erodes a person’s sense of belonging and dignity.

Today, over a quarter of the Australian population is born overseas, and around half of us are of migrant background. As one of the most diverse countries in the world we need to find more articulate and effective ways of dealing with issues of racism and discrimination.

In order to name and understand racism we need to be more articulate about our diversity. This includes efforts to ensure that our mainstream media reflects the demographic and everyday reality of diversity in Australia. Why is it that on Australian public television this diversity is confined to SBS, or one or two non-white news anchors on the ABC? The diverse faces, stories and neighbourhoods of Australia should be better reflected in mainstream media.

As an Australian society, we also need better education and awareness of our own complex and multi-faceted history, the histories and cultures of our neighbouring countries, and of Australia’s place in an interconnected world. For example, the recent focus on the importance of “Asia literacy” should be about more than our strategic economic and geopolitical interests in the ‘Asian century’. First and foremost, Australians need to better understand the heritage of Australians of Asian and other non-British backgrounds as a part of our story as a nation.

We need better resources for people providing public services, such as bus drivers, to deal with issues of racism and discrimination in the cacophony of everyday diversity.

There also needs to be an awareness on the part of all Australians that belonging to a dominant ethnic group does not accord a superior entitlement to question “others” on their place in Australia. It has to be possible for Australians to imagine ‘us’ as a multitude that cannot be reduced to one colour or one perspective.

We write as residents of Sydney and members of a student community who care deeply about our city, about Australia, and the well being of the people we share it with.  We do not want our friends and colleagues, whether they were born here, or migrated here, to have to accept racism as a ‘normal’ part of their lives, or to face the question “where are you really from” for the rest of their lives in Australia. No one deserves to have their belonging in Australia undermined, in public or otherwise.

Elsa Koleth, Magdalena Arias Cubas, Sohoon Lee and Derya Ozkul are PhD candidates in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Sydney.