Racism is, has been, and remains, a serious and endemic problem in Australia. The community consultations carried out by the Acting Race Discrimination Commissioner, Dr. William Jonas, have
clearly indicated that racially discriminatory practices are widespread, institutional in nature, and practised at all levels of society.
One of the saddest and most troublesome after-effects of the Tampa crisis and the events of September 11 has been the public legitimation of intolerance in Australia. Tolerance is not enough.
Indigenous people and migrants don't want to be tolerated - they want respect and equality.
But especially now that intolerance has gained renewed credibility in Australian society, we need to defend the value of tolerance as a necessary precondition for a harmonious society. This
means, it is crucially important for us to develop initiatives and create circumstances, which enhance the practice of toleration in civil society - minimally needed as a basis for a more
proactive and positive social campaign for respect, equality and justice for all.
The most well known approach to the struggle against racism is the legal one: the attempt to combat acts and expressions of racism by outlawing them. This is indeed a crucially important aspect
of the task. Anti-discrimination and vilification laws are absolutely necessary to provide official protection to those who are most vulnerable to explicit racist attacks and other discriminatory
practices (for example, in the workplace).
However, the legal approach alone is not enough. Education is another key area of intervention. Much remains to be done in the development of appropriate and effective educational strategies in
this area. Especially about popular and public pedagogies, aimed at countering the reactionary trend in public opinion, seen in the past half decade.
Too often, antiracist education itself is conceived in a legalistic and overly rationalistic manner. People are told that racism is 'wrong' and therefore they should refrain from it. Such an
educational model is based on the assumption that people expressing racist views are somehow irrational, stupid or misguided, and that they should simply be helped to see the light.
The problem is that the politics of blame and accusation involved in such programs, will eventually only push racist attitudes underground. People know that they are not allowed to say negative
things about Aborigines or migrants, for example, so they won't do so in public, but they will share them in private - until someone like Pauline Hanson comes along who gives them permission to
express their discontent.
How often do we hear people say, "I'm not a racist but…" This signals that official anti-racist discourse and legalistic educational programs can produce profoundly
Anti-racist education should not be based on a legalistic approach, but on a nuanced cultural understanding of the operation of racisms in particular social contexts.
The main long-term goal of anti-racist educational programs should be the gradual development of a general culture of what I want to call interracial trust. It may be the case that some
fundamental form of racism - associated with ethnocentrism and intolerance against those who are different - is part and parcel of human nature: it is deeply embedded in the very culture of human
society. Often these attitudes are the function of plain self-interest, as well as prejudice, ignorance or misguided parochialism.
None of us should take up the position of blamelessness. We all share a human capacity to be intolerant. What matters is the creation of a society in which such imperfect human behaviour is
held in check to prevent it from causing harm. That is what a civilised society is about.
From a legal point of view it is necessary to draw a clear line between what constitutes an act of racism and what does not. However, from a cultural psychological point of view we must
recognise the situation is more complex. There is a substantial grey area in which it is very hard to determine with any certainty exactly what is going on, who is being racist or not etc.
Discuss in our Forums
See what other readers are saying about this article!
Click here to read & post comments.