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Racism, denial and false narratives

Race Discrimination

National Advancing Community Cohesion conference

Western Sydney University, Parramatta, Sydney

22 November 2017

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I acknowledge the Darug people as the traditional owners of the land on which we meet. May I also acknowledge Dr Sev Ozdowski and his leadership in convening this important gathering. Through hosting this conference, Western Sydney University demonstrates how crucial a voice it is in our national conversation about social cohesion and multiculturalism.

These are challenging times for multiculturalism. Then again, for friends of multiculturalism, it can always feel that way. That is because our multiculturalism remains a work in progress; the goal of an inclusive society involves an ongoing project. And the dimensions of this project evolve over time. Our society never stands still. It grows, it moves, it changes.

In our global and digital world, change will only continue. It will only accelerate in pace. And changes aren’t always positive. Just as technology is bringing us all closer together, it also has the ability to draw us apart. It can be a tool of cultural understanding, but also a device of division. Whether it is the organisation of extremist terror groups, or the mobilisation of far-right extremist nationalists, we see the two-sided effects of technology on our social cohesion.

My remarks today aren’t about technology – but they are concerned with the flux and uncertainty in our world. Change means it isn’t always easy to make sense of things. With the benefit of hindsight, social development always seems propelled by the irresistible force of history; progress feels like it travels in straight lines. For those of us living through social change, though, it can sometimes be much more confusing and circuitous.

Indeed, there is a paradox in the state of Australian multiculturalism and race relations. Our cultural diversity is stronger and more resilient than we sometimes think; yet it remains vulnerable to social fears and anxieties. There have been moments of late when it appears that intolerance and xenophobia have been normalised. Some would say that our historical gains in race relations are at risk of being undone by the licensing of racism.

Today, I’d like to focus on three aspects of our multiculturalism and race relations: the rise of racial intolerance fuelled by populist far-right nationalism; the relationship between racism and other forms of discrimination; and the denials and deflections that are frequently invoked in debates about race.

Racial intolerance and the Racial Discrimination Act

There is a sense today that liberal democracies around the world are undergoing something of a shift. In those democracies with which we often compare ourselves, liberal democratic norms are coming under some challenge.

In Europe, we have seen the resurgence of far-right, anti-immigration political movements, in France, Austria, Germany, Scandinavia and elsewhere. In the United Kingdom, we had Brexit. Across the Atlantic, we have seen President Donald Trump regularly use muscular anti-immigration rhetoric; on race, he appears to have sympathy with white nationalist movements that have coalesced under the banner of the ‘alt-right’.

Clearly, in many liberal democracies, there are some who are anxious and agitated about racial differences. Contemporary politics around the world is being shaped by those who are feeling as though they are losing their country, or at least their place in it.

Such anxieties exist here as well. There are signs that prejudice and intolerance have been on the rise. Last year’s Scanlon Foundation social cohesion survey found a statistically significant rise in the proportion of people who reported they had experienced racial or religious discrimination: the figure was 20 per cent, up from 14 per cent the previous year.

But we must be careful not to overstate any trend, at least if we’re talking about the state of public support for multiculturalism. The annual Scanlon Foundation survey into social cohesion has found largely stable and strong support for multiculturalism. Eighty-three per cent of Australians believe multiculturalism is good for the country.

Public sentiment is shaped, as we know, by many things. When it concerns race relations, the tone of political leadership matters. Our representatives must set an example for the kind of civil and respectful public dialogue we must have in a multicultural society. Our representatives must be unambiguous in rejecting racism and bigotry. There is a need for leaders to help set the standard.

The law also plays a fundamental role in setting the standard on racial discrimination. There has, as you all know, been significant debate about the Racial Discrimination Act – in particular, section 18C, which makes it unlawful to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate someone because of their race. Last year, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights began an inquiry into freedom of speech and the RDA. The inquiry took hundreds of unique submissions, many from ethnic communities who argued there was no case for changing the provisions of the Act. That Committee reported in March this year, and there followed the introduction of a bill in the parliament to amend the words of section 18C.

Those proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act were voted down by the Senate at the end of March. It is welcome that the Act remains in its current form; it is welcome that there has been in the end no change to section 18C. Because we must do nothing to embolden any racial hatred or discrimination.

Discrimination and false narratives

What is true for racial discrimination is also true for other forms of discrimination. Just as we must reject racial discrimination, so we must also as a society reject discrimination based on disability, age, sex and sexual orientation. We must also hope that those who experience racial discrimination are prepared also to empathise with those who encounter other forms of discrimination. There must be solidarity on the principle of equality and non-discrimination.

This month, the Australian public has spoken resoundingly in favour of changing the law to allow same sex marriage. Following the subsiding of excitement about the survey result, much of the media commentary has focused on the noticeably high ‘No’ vote here in western Sydney. Of particular interest were those ‘No’ voting electorates, which contain a large overseas-born or culturally diverse population. One narrative has centred on ethnic minorities or multicultural communities being hostile towards same-sex marriage, if not also towards the LGBTI community at large.

This has been a tale with some obvious appeal. It is certainly true that there are some ethnic or multicultural communities, whose members are not generally in favour of same sex marriage – whose members adhere to a view of marriage as being only between a man and a woman, as defined by their ethnic, religious or cultural traditions.

However, a more clear-eyed examination of the postal survey reveals that the narrative of a dominant multicultural ‘No’ vote is a false one. A closer look at the data shows that it was not cultural diversity as such that explained a ‘No’ vote. Rather, it was religiosity or religious adherence that appeared to be the main driving factor. It is clear, too, that the targeting of western Sydney by those campaigning for a ‘No’ vote had its desired effect.

If we were to look at cultural diversity, there is a strong argument that multicultural Australia voted ‘Yes’. If you looked outside western Sydney, electorates with populations where more than 40 per cent were born overseas overwhelmingly voted ‘Yes’. This includes some of the most multicultural electorates in NSW such as Sydney, Grayndler, Kingsford Smith, Bradfield, and some the most multicultural electorates in Victoria such as Batman, Wills, Gellibrand and Chisholm.

Moreover, within many multicultural communities, there was clear and concerted support for a ‘Yes’ vote. For example, the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia, the peak ethnic community body, took a public position to support same sex marriage.

To suggest that an overwhelming majority of multicultural communities voted No – and did so out of some essential cultural hostility against gays and lesbians – is to entertain something that comes close to an unkind stereotype. Some 38 per cent of people voted ‘No’. That included people from a range of backgrounds. Yet judging from some commentary, you’d be mistaken to think that vote came almost exclusively from migrant and ethnic communities.

Perhaps more troubling is the manner in which those from multicultural backgrounds are held to a standard that isn’t necessarily applied to others. There is implied in the narrative of the multicultural ‘No’ vote an idea that it’s acceptable to have voted ‘No’ if you are from the majority, but not acceptable if you are from a minority. There is that notion that migrants are somehow ‘ungrateful’ to Australia in not extending to others the kind of respect and tolerance that they demand themselves. How interesting that this judgment doesn’t appear to have been formed about others who may have voted ‘No’.

Let me note one lesson, among many, we can draw from this. We must avoid adopting easy narratives, without first looking at the evidence. In a world that many describe as post-truth or post-factual, our social cohesion is not always well served by jumping to conclusions. Once appealing narratives take hold, they can help fuel stereotypes about others – and these can be difficult to shake off. Sometimes this is because they may conveniently help to confirm cultural hierarchies in our society.

Denials and deflections

Returning to racial discrimination, there is always a temptation of easy and false narratives. I have encountered in my work many such narratives, which get rehearsed in public debates and conversations. While most reasonable people recognise that racism exists, there is a section of our society that seeks to deny racism or to deflect discussions about racism.

Let me highlight a number of categories of denial or deflection.

First, there are the fundamental denials of racism – denials that racism has in fact occurred. When presented with an instance of racial discrimination, some respond by saying they haven’t seen it happen. Because they haven’t seen it happen, it doesn’t happen – and cannot happen.

One variant of such denial is what has been referred to as ‘gaslighting’: when people are questioned about whether something they have experienced has actually happened. When such doubt has been planted, people may even begin to question whether they are just imagining things.

This is one dynamic that arguably appears to play out in the experiences of migrants on racism. In their study of racism denial, involving a survey of 12 500 respondents, Kevin Dunn and colleagues found that some migrant groups, including those known to have higher exposure to racism compared to others, also exhibited higher rates of denial (namely, they did not believe there was racial prejudice in Australia or they did not believe that those from a British background enjoy a privileged position in Australian society).

Then there is another kind of denial. These are the category denials of racism. What we may regard as something involving racial prejudice or discrimination gets re-defined or re-characterised as something else. For example, while there may be a recognition that someone has experienced unfair treatment or been subjected to unfair stereotyping, there can be a dispute that race is the key factor. We see this in many discussions involving race and class: those sceptical about racism suggest that it is not racial prejudice at play but rather class-based sentiments or conceptions.

The next family of denials and deflections can be described as involving the ‘moral high ground’. People may deflect diagnoses of racism by highlighting that the problem is much worse elsewhere – or deny that diagnoses of racism fail to deal with ‘real racism’ that is severe enough to warrant our attention. The moral high ground is claimed by implying that complaints about relatively minor instances of racism trivialise the issue.

Finally, there are the suggestions about ‘reverse racism’, the idea that the cultural or racial majority are in fact the real victims of racism. We should be clear about one thing: racial hostility towards any group should be condemned. But when we talk about racism, power matters. There are some groups that experience racism of a kind that is institutional or structural, and there are some groups who enjoy social privilege because of their racial background. To talk about ‘reverse racism’ deflects from the hierarchies and exercises of power that are at the heart of prejudice and discrimination.


Denials and deflections can fuel false narratives around racism. They can feed populist narratives, which have the potential to undermine our social cohesion and racial harmony.

Such challenges have always been present for our multiculturalism. There can never be any guarantee against such challenges. The best defence of our cohesion and harmony, as ever, is our vigilance and our virtue. We must be prepared to defend liberal values of equality, tolerance and non-discrimination. And it is not enough for our society merely to be non-racist; it must be resolutely anti-racist.


Dr Tim Soutphommasane, Race Discrimination Commissioner