An unknown Australian girl decides to host an “African”-themed 21st birthday party. One guest is dressed as a Ku Klux Klan member; numerous Caucasians have shoe polish on their faces. She then posts the pictures on Facebook for all to see. When confronted about their racist nature, she posts an apology for the unintended offence she had caused, rather than addressing the problem with hosting such a party. Coverage on American websites Buzzfeed and Jezebel is met with disgust and outrage.
It didn’t take long for commenters on both sites to claim that Australia has a problem with racism – hotly denied by the Australians who posted. Comments such as “Jesus, Mississippi thinks these guys should tone it down” were countered by “Some idiotic bogan having a racist party is not a question of national character.” In the world’s reaction to a bad-taste theme party, we can see the disconnect that exists between Australian and international perceptions of racism here in the lucky country.
The University of Western Sydney’s Challenging Racism report found that 87% of Australians believe that we benefit from cultural and racial diversity. Although the report is more nuanced than this statistic suggests – Australians don’t deny that racism exists here – it hardly paints a portrait of an Australia “chockers with racists”, as one Jezebel commentator thought was the case.
On an institutional level, racism still exists in Australia. But the repeal of the White Australia legislation, and the enactment of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 and its state counterparts demonstrate how far we’ve come. This progress also provides a framework for how we see ourselves – according to the most recent Mapping Social Cohesion report, Australians see themselves as “kind, caring and friendly”. The plethora of specific organisations dedicated to eradicating racial vilification – Racism No Way, It Stops With Me and Human Rights Watch all indicate that while there is a problem, we are taking steps to address it.
To us, web posts saying “When I hear Aussies talking about non-white Asians, it sounds like white in the US talking about people from Latin America” seem unwarranted, given the United States’ well documented history of treating non-Caucasians poorly. The idea that Australia is a bigoted place of institutionalised bias and discrimination by individuals flies directly in the face of our insistence of a fair shake of the sauce bottle – the narrative we like to tell ourselves.
Yet despite this self-perception, “racist as f*ck” was one of the kinder descriptions of Australia by one Jezebel commentator, and the thread was dominated by anecdotal evidence of racism by Australians.
Some observations in Jezebel’s comments are patently ridiculous. “Native American themed weddings seem to be a thing over there too” and “When I went to Australia I was shocked by how many people wore blackface to the supermarket” require no national soul searching. Quite simply, Native American weddings are not a “thing”, and nor is wearing shoe polish on your face at Coles.
But other, more thoughtful commentary could prompt some Australian introspection. Hundreds of comments show how we are seen on the world stage – “Listen to white people there talk about Abo’s on welfare, and you’ll quickly realise America doesn’t really have a race problem,” suggests one Jezebel commentator. Over on Buzzfeed things aren’t much better, where the comment “Australians are well-known for their racism” was widely lauded.
This isn’t the first incident of Australian racism being spotlighted in America, either – John Oliver recently called Australia “the most comfortably racist place” he’d ever been. To his mind, “They’ve really settled into their intolerance like an old resentful slipper.”
No studies have been completed on international perceptions of Australian racism, but this avalanche of anecdotes demonstrates that there is a definite disconnect between our perceptions of ourselves, and how we appear to others. In the age of increasing globalization, this old-world White Australia approach is less and less appealing; more than one Jezebel commentator states they won’t be visiting Australia due to our atrocious treatment of our Indigenous population.
On Jezebel, many Australian commentors are quick to point out that other countries don’t exactly have a clean slate when it comes to oppressing racial minorities. But viewing our treatment of racial minorities through the lens of Europe’s treatment of the Roma doesn’t render our home-grown brand any less entrenched or problematic. Nor does it change the global perception that Australia is a racist paradise, a haven for discrimination and bigotry.
As seen in the Challenging Racism report, we see ourselves as believers in multiculturalism and diversity. But this is obviously in direct contrast with how we are seen on a world stage. Type “Why are Australians” into Google, and wait for the autofill to ask you “Why are Australians so racist?” The disconnect between the perspective espoused by the Challenging Racism Report and the observations made by our foreign friends must surely undermine any confidence we have that Australia is a multicultural place where a fair go is offered to all.
• This article was amended on Friday 25 October 2013. Ku Klux Klan was misspelled in the opening paragraph. This has been corrected.
theguardian.com, Friday 25 October 2013