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Celebrating 41 years of the Racial Discrimination Act

Race Race Discrimination
Mohamed Semra winning the 'Racism. It Stops With Me' essay prize, presented by Dr Tim Soutphommasane

On this day, 41 years ago, the Racial Discrimination Act came into effect.

“The Act is Australian society’s official statement against racial discrimination,” said Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane.

“It has been the foundation of racial equality and the legislative expression of Australian multiculturalism.”

To commemorate the anniversary of the Racial Discrimination Act, Dr Soutphommasane hosted the 2nd annual Kep Enderby Memorial Lecture, delivered this year by Australian of the Year, David Morrison.

“When we talk about matters of race, we are often guided by the future – by our aspiration for the kind of society we would like Australia to be,” Dr Soutphommasane said.

“We look to a future where race, colour or ethnicity have no effect in determining how far we get in life, or the opportunities we receive.

“We work towards a future where people of all different backgrounds can live together in harmony, guided by respect, united as Australians.

“Combating racism is about education – in the broadest sense. And if we are serious about education, it must include our children and youth.”

Earlier this year, Dr Soutphommasane invited year 10 and 11 school students across Australia to submit an essay or speech, reflecting on the question of racism in Australian society.

“I’m delighted to announce the winner of our inaugural Student Prize. The winner is a Year 11 student from Maribyrnong College, in Melbourne, Mohamed Semra.

“Mohamed submitted an essay about his experience growing up in Sudan and in Melbourne. Let me read to you some of Mohamed’s essay entry:

By knowing one another and reaching out to minorities, we can eradicate ignorance with love and respect. By understanding a person who is different to us, we can come to terms with our pride and open a gateway to unity. Yet sometimes overcoming these assumptions is difficult because often entwining ignorance is fear. It strikes at the foundation of prejudice, and lies at the heart of 'privilege and power'. …

Being afraid of the unknown will only lead us into isolation, in accepting one another can we move forward. … it is in human nature to categorise, and prejudge, but in the end we need to make a choice to move beyond this, for ignorance breeds fear and fear breeds hate. It is only with love, respect and kindness can the cycle of discrimination finally end.

“Reading those words, I reflected on what Kep Enderby said more than 40 years ago.

“The task of having a law against racial discrimination was about making ‘people more aware of the evils, the undesirable and unsociable consequences of discrimination – the hurtful consequences of discrimination – and make them more obvious and conspicuous’.

“As Kep continued, there was an ‘educative role’ for any law – one about educating attitudes and sentiments.

“Kep Enderby was Attorney-General in the Whitlam Government for only nine months. Yet he was responsible for driving some of that Government's most significant reforms: the creation of no-fault divorce in family law; the decriminalisation of abortion and homosexuality in the territories; and, of course, the introduction of the Racial Discrimination Act.

“As ongoing debates demonstrate, there has been intense public interest in the Racial Discrimination Act. Against such a backdrop, it is important that we pause and reflect on how we should understand matters of racism. That we have intelligent discourse on what can be a contentious issue.”

Related story: Why we can be proud of Kep Enderby's legacy

Photo: Student Prize winner Mohamed Semra and Dr Tim Soutphommasane.