Racism is holding Australia back

Racism is holding Australia back

Racism is driven by fear and ignorance and must be got rid of so Australia can move forward

Some Australian politicians never want to admit that racism exists.

They would suggest the Cronulla riots in 2005 -- when Anglo-Australians wore the national flag as a cape, drank Victoria Bitter and protested against ethnicities going to the southern Sydney beach -- weren’t a reflection on Australian society. Similar denial exists about the racial motivation of attacks on Indian students in Melbourne. Or the negative perceptions of Asians.

Yet the political rhetoric that justifies policies towards asylum seekers and refugees fans the flames of racism in everyday life.

It’s just so easy for a white person to pretend racism doesn’t exist in Australia: we are not the ones stopped for “random” security checks at airports. We aren’t constantly asked where we are from or stared at for wearing a hijab. We are not the Aborigines targeted by police in Sydney's Redfern and asked to empty our pockets.

I grew up in a small town on the south coast of New South Wales, where I loved to travel metaphorically around the world by gobbling up books. While there were few Asian, Arab, African or Latino faces in my country town in the 1980s, I heard about trips to Thailand and Vietnam and wondered about different ways of life.

In my mind, imagination and experience, the diversity of the world and its peoples has become a gift to savor and enjoy.

One of my favorite things about Sydney is the racial diversity. It’s fascinating to catch a train to Parramatta and overhear simultaneous conversations in so many different languages. I love to visit the suburbs and taste foods from Indonesia, Ethiopia and Chile. It’s cool that on any given night in I can go and dance salsa with Latinos or dance to Caribbean beats.

Racism is strongly driven by an irrational fear of the unknown. We’re told how dangerous places are and to distrust certain cultures. My experience has been that the people I am meant to fear are actually just going about their daily lives in the way they know how.  

In Australia, since September 11, Muslims have become the perceived bogeyman: their beards, headscarves and way of praying strikes fear into many a VB drinking, board short-wearing, football-loving patriot. In my opinion, Sharia law is none too friendly, but this is not a real danger to women’s rights in Australia. While radical Muslims exist, they are merely on a par with fundamentalist Christians.

Don’t forget it’s the Christian leaders of our country who squeeze money from schools and hospitals in order to fund police to beat us up at the rallies where we protest these policies.

Hand-in-hand with an inexhaustible drive for profits, racism drives wars and foreign invasions. It serves only the interests of politicians who pander to corporations. It divides and weakens people and keeps us from seeing who our real enemies are.

It is just stupid to judge a person based on the color of their skin or place of birth.

If we could see an Iraqi or Afghan person for what they are, equal to you and me in humanity, could we stand for what our governments are doing to them in our name?

On the flip side, many Australians of English or Irish stock are vehemently against racism. We organize and march in demonstrations protesting war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the continuing occupation of Palestine. We protest the continuing theft of Aboriginal lands by mining companies -- such as is now happening in the Kimberley in Western Australia, Lake Cowal in western New South Wales and Muckaty in the Northern Territory. 

We try to be aware that we are often very privileged in this society purely because of the pale coloring of our skins and our Anglo names.

I detest the idea that a fifth generation Irish-Australian is more “Aussie” than a second-generation Lebanese-Australian or so-called “boat people” from Sudan or Somalia.

Unless you are of the first peoples -- the many nations of Aboriginal people of this ancient land -- to be Australian is to be an immigrant. That is irrespective of why or when in the past 223 years you -- or your ancestors -- came here.

As much as political leaders try and encourage us to fear each other, we can fight against the poison that is racism by opening our eyes to the beauty of difference that make our common humanity so interesting.

And only then can Australia move forward.

The opinions of this commentary are solely those of Liz Cush.