It’s time to end the “futile debate” about whether or not Australia has a problem with racism, and to tackle the issue head on.
That’s the challenge thrown out by Todd Harper, CEO of the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation (VicHealth), to those in leadership positions right across society.
“Thousands of Australians will dine at their local Indian restaurant tomorrow, to support Mia Northrop’s Vindaloo against Violence campaign.
This community event is an important symbolic gesture to convey concerns about racially motivated violence. It’s also a chance for Australians to express their visible support for the Indian community.
Such demonstrations of support for cultural diversity aren’t new in Victoria, but arguably never has such support been so needed.
Victorians value cultural diversity. A 2007 community survey commissioned by VicHealth shows 90 per cent of Victorians believe it’s good to have a society made up of diverse cultures. It’s a shame that the response to the unacceptable violence experienced by Indian students has degenerated into a debate about whether or not Australia is a racist society.
Reducing the issue to this misses far more important matters, such as the impact of discrimination on our society, our health and our economy. It also diverts us from thinking about how we can strengthen our commitment to cultural diversity.
The ‘are we or aren’t we’ debate misses the point that all societies – Victoria and Australia included – have elements that value cultural diversity and some that condone racism. On the whole, these results suggest Victoria compares favourably on measures of support for cultural diversity compared to other countries.
VicHealth’s survey shows that around one in ten Victorians hold views that could reasonably be described as racist (similar surveys suggest it is as high as one in three in Europe). In addition, around one in three could be said to have some ambivalence about diversity. This is in turn reflected in reported experience of discrimination.
Around one in two people born overseas in a non-English speaking country, and three in four Indigenous Australians, report experiencing racism. Victorians themselves know this is an issue, with 84 per cent of respondents in our survey agreeing that racial prejudice exists in Victoria.
Australia has small numbers of people holding racist attitudes, being ranked among the top five countries in the world on most accepted measures. But we have no reason to be complacent, as discrimination in any form has negative health and economic implications.
The marked international difference in attitudes on race and culture is instructive. It suggests that such attitudes are highly sensitive to wider social, economic and cultural forces. Many of these can in turn be influenced by the actions of governments, communities, organisations and, as Mia Northrop has demonstrated, by individuals.
The solution to racism lies in part in broader social and economic policies to address inequality, deprivation and geographic disadvantage. This is because the intense competition for jobs, housing and other resources often associated with these problems is widely regarded as a recipe for inter-racial tension.
Research undertaken by VicHealth and its partners shows that there are also other factors that contribute to racism, and if we have the will, our community can take practical steps to address the problem.
Initiatives showing promise include improving conflict resolution skills through school and workplace programs, fostering opportunities for sustained and meaningful inter-group interaction and building understanding, empathy or a climate of ‘no tolerance of intolerance’ through advertising campaigns.
Also proven to be effective are programs to change organisational cultures through training and policy reforms so that people know that they won’t get away with racist and intolerant behaviour in any setting – in the workplace, at public events, on or off the sports field, or at school.
Throughout the history of European settlement, governments have sought to manage the challenges associated with race relations. Our record in this regard is not without fault. The fact that Indigenous life expectancy has lagged so far behind other Australians for so many decades is inexcusable.
However, there’s also much to celebrate about the way governments, organisations and individuals have embraced cultural diversity. This has occurred through a combination of good social and economic policy and conscious programs designed to support diversity. This historical leadership carries an obligation to continually strive to strengthen our support for diversity. It also gives us strong foundations on which to build our support for cultural difference.
Sport has provided us with good examples of the success we can achieve. In 2009, Eddie McGuire reflecting on the AFL’s achievements in reducing racism in football commented: “Just over a decade ago it was ‘fine’ to call an Indigenous footballer in the AFL a ‘black c— and think it was less than sporting if they retaliated. Then the Football world led by Michael Long and Nicky Winmar, who were quickly supported by all fair thinking people and the leadership in the AFL, said ‘no more’. Racial vilification is a thing of the past and to indulge in it is to become a pariah”.
The AFL achieved and now sustains this cultural change using a multi-pronged approach from building leadership support and providing player education and training to introducing rules prohibiting racist behavior and penalties for those who break them. It has also made concerted efforts to ensure the participation of Indigenous, migrant and refugee communities at all levels of the League. That we are weeks away from marveling at the skills of players like Naitanui, Tambling, Wonaeamirri, Nahas, Lovett-Murray, Rodan, Ediriwickrama and Rioli is testament to a strategy that embraces cultural diversity.
The AFL’s journey represents in microcosm the challenge facing Victoria. The recent violence toward Indian students, together with research indicating unacceptable levels of discrimination experienced by Indigenous and those born overseas must strengthen our resolve to value and support diversity.
Let us waste no more time in the futile debate over whether or not we have a problem with racism. Let’s instead work with the strengths we have in the form of both majority community support for diversity and good policies and programs to nurture it.
Let’s bring leaders from business, governments, the community, sports and arts sectors in a strong partnership that has an unflinching resolve to support and sustain positive intercultural relations in Australia.
Such a strategy would serve not only to reduce the negative impacts of racism on those directly affected. It would also ensure that we all continue to reap the economic and social benefits of our cultural diversity, our state’s strong Indigenous heritage and our national and international reputation as a vital and successful multicultural society.”