I vividly remember a scuffle on a cricket field as a university student. A bowler mumbled something to my batting partner, who was a burly Sri Lankan. He was incensed, dropped his bat and started walking threateningly to the bowler. “You called me a black prick” he shouted. This energised everybody. My team mates started walking out on to the field in support. The bowler stood firm defensively, shook his head and retorted: “Don’t call me a racist. I didn’t call you a black prick. I called you a fat prick.”
The tension eased. Much laughter followed, although my batting partner was still annoyed and left red faced.
A couple of things this encounter underlines.
First, race is an emotionally charged topic and not one easy to debate rationally. It touches on our primitive urges, an innate suspicion of difference. We make unconscious judgments based on race, looks or height every day.
Second, those who may be victims of racism, or are minority groups, are often sensitised, seeing racism when it may not be there. As a result, it is often a simplistic charge that belies the complexity of human motives.
The term racism is used in a loose and unreflective way to describe the hostile feelings of one ethnic group to another. This group centred prejudice and snobbery is an almost universal human failing.
The climax of the history of racism came in the 20th century, when the antipathy one group felt to another reached a single mindedness and brutality that was unprecedented. The Nazis, South African Apartheid and the American South were some of the worst examples where a group was seen as having, unchangeable, inferior traits because of their race, ethnicity or religion.
Its prelude was a century of the conquests of Empire, colonialism and the notion of the white man’s burden to civilise the lesser peoples of the non white world.
What makes this racism so conspicuous is that it developed in a context that presumed human equality of some kind- an idea that remains novel in most parts of the world. First came the doctrine of all Christian believers equal before God. Later came the more revolutionary concept that all "men" are born free and equal and entitled to equal rights in society and government.
The logic of racism was derived from the West where it was also being identified, condemned and resisted from within the same cultural tradition.
This debate begins with the assumption that Australia shares this racist past of our cultural ancestry. There is much evidence to support this- from the founding act to exclude Chinese and Melanesian labour, to the treatment of Aborigines, to our fear of Asian or Japanese invasion.
Australia is a country that, despite lacking a grand mythology and having an isolated, barren geography, has developed into one of the most successful and diverse countries in the world. Some of the measures that indicate this are social mobility, rates of mixed marriage and immigration flows. We are one of the most desirable nations to emigrate to.
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Dr Tanveer Ahmed is a psychiatrist, author and local councillor. His first book is a migration memoir called The Exotic Rissole. He is a former SBS journalist, Fairfax columnist and writes for a wide range of local and international publications.
He was elected to Canada Bay Council in 2012. He practises in western Sydney and rural NSW.