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Australia racist? Well, der!

By Bill Collopy - posted Monday, 30 August 2010

Having arrived with her family from Kabul 12 months ago, 15-year-old Zara is walking home from high school. She passes three younger girls in a playground. Two turn away when they see her in the hijab, carrying textbooks, but one calls out: “You're a terrorist. You kill people. Go back to your own country.”

Running home seems to take Zara forever.

This happened last year in Dandenong, where every second person is from a non-English speaking background. In Victoria's most diverse multicultural community, mixing more than a hundred ethnicities together isn’t easy: living in harmony takes work.


Racism is the thief that steals from haves and have-nots alike, from victim and perpetrator and onlooker. It degrades integrity and human rights, and then tries to blame the theft on its victim. “What else can you expect from one of 'them'?” Insert the word Jew, Arab, Aborigine, Vietnamese, Chinese, Lebanese, Sudanese, Pole, Greek or Maori, to name a few maligned groups of recent decades. But are we a racist country today?

The one-word answer is an Australian expression that new settlers often strain to comprehend: a schoolyard idiom-intoned with prepubescent ennui - the word “der” (as in “Der, Fred”). Though seldom seen written, and originating in a less tolerant time, it means “mega-obvious”, a hyper-truism. The Americans have “Duh” and “D'oh” but these lack the crushing schoolyard putdown of a “der”.

Few Australians will admit to racial intolerance. Well, der. We'd sooner admit to Satanism. “I'm not a racist but ...” is the usual disclaimer. But.

Our tradition of fear and loathing on these shores began with the first European arrivals. Presently, in 1788, a British fleet ferried human refuse across several oceans to fulfil Jeremy Bentham's vision of a thieves' colony in the empire's back yard. Enlightenment visionaries got their continental panopticon with its seas and wilderness in place of walls, and an uber-jail in place of decommissioned battleships on the Thames scooping the overflow of full prisons.

Our forebears called Port Jackson a penal settlement. If founded today, it would be a “detention centre”.

Immediately upon arrival, settlers feared the shadowy Other. We've been afraid ever since, with each new plane or boatload. What agenda might the Other have?


Racial awareness is endogenous for Australians, whether guilt-ridden or conscience-free, but does this make us racist? Racism has no homeland, no borders and no scientific basis; despite the efforts of Eysenck, Jensen and Rushton to develop a racial league table.

Lack of logic doesn't stop Australians uttering abusive taunts, however innocuous our intent. Been to the footy lately and listened to some of the barracking? Heard the terrible things schoolkids say about gays?

And at some time, most Australians will speak a version of the following: X people work hard. Y people are natural musicians/athletes/dancers. Z people treat the world like they own it. Q people are violent. R people are drunkards. S people mistreat their women. T people are arrogant. V people are queue jumpers. Racial generalising becomes racist only if we accept its false premise.

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First published by on August 25, 2010. This essay was Highly Commended by the judges of the 2010 Eureka Street/Reader's Feast Award.

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About the Author

Bill Collopy is a Melbourne novelist who teaches writing programs at Swinburne University. He is assembling a book about how we misuse language.

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