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Reflections on casual racism and the sentiments

Race Discrimination



Reflections on casual racism and the sentiments

Centre for Research in Education Annual Oration

University of South Australia, Adelaide

13 November 2014

In the many conversations I have about race, there is a familiar note on which people conclude: ‘We need more education; if only we had more education.’ On matters of equity and social justice, so much rests on the task of education. It is the precondition of progress. As George Bernard Shaw used to remind his fellow Fabians, the challenge of progress is to ‘educate, agitate, organise’.

Education is more than just knowledge, however. It is not only about improving the mind but also elevating the soul. The beneficiaries of a good education are those who are able to walk through doors of opportunity, and to see the world with a wider field of vision. They are citizens who are mindful of their duties, who know how to live with others, and who are prepared to redress injustice and suffering.

An education should equip someone with the right sensibility; it should transform the sentiments. In his Sentimental Education, novelist Gustav Flaubert issued a dire warning about what he saw as the moral deterioration of French society following the revolution of 1848, one of the many upheavals that swept through Europe that year. We see in the novel’s main character, Frederic Moreau, a largely passive figure. Surrounded by social and political foment, Frederic is incapable of thinking for himself or of assuming responsibility. Complacent, quiescent, self-indulgent, he can only channel convention; he is merely one of the crowd.

There was an irony intended in the title of Flaubert’s novel, for there is very little education at all for Frederic. At the novel’s conclusion, almost thirty years after he is introduced to the reader, Frederic is more or less as he was at the beginning. He has learned nothing from all the political change he has witnessed. As for what is sentimental, Flaubert was writing a moral history of his generation, a generation he believed was defined by a corrosive sentiment of inactive passion.[1]

This evening, I offer some reflections on the sentiments and education in two respects. First, in general terms, we urgently need to affirm the civic character of education. Too often, we speak of education without remembering its connection with our fate as citizens. We are increasingly seeing education merely in terms of what it contributes to our economy, and not in terms of how it sustains our democracy; we are also seeing in some quarters a troubling rise in political anti-intellectual reaction. Second, I would like to reflect in more detail on the educational aspects of combating racism. Of particular concern, there is the challenge of responding to contemporary expressions of prejudice such as ‘casual racism’. Flaubert may have been cynical in speaking about a sentimental education, but on matters of race there are few things as important as an education of our sentiments.

What is the purpose of an education?

It is difficult, even misguided, to distil education to one single purpose. Much depends on context. Education may serve some basic needs for some, while for others it serves needs of a more sophisticated nature. As John Adams, one of the early American presidents, wrote, ‘I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.’[2]

In a contemporary setting, education has come to take on a certain justification. More and more, we see education as a means to economic ends. Most parents will wish to see their children complete a university education, knowing that it will improve their children’s prospect of finding a well-paid job. As a nation, we are increasingly seeing the value of education measured against its contribution to productivity and economic growth.

On this latter point, it is striking to see the language that universities themselves are using to explain their role in society. For example, universities now define their role as supporting research so as to contribute to the ‘future prosperity’ of all Australians. A strong university system can be used ‘to power Australia’s economic and industrial renewal and diversification’, and to ‘increase Australia’s innovation and improve productivity’.[3]

At first glance, there is nothing uncontroversial in all this. Who wouldn’t agree that research and scholarship should have economic relevance? Recent developments, though, appear to go further – they go not to merely the impact of education, but education’s very purpose. This is a problem. When economics consumes our entire vision, we can quickly lose sight of how living in a market economy needn’t mean living in a market society.[4]

There can be an illiberal quality to a mercantilist view of learning. Our liberal ideals of individuality point to education as preparation for living a life of discovery, reflection and fulfillment. Written into this ideal is a notion of citizenship. The individual who is open to ideas – and capable of dialogue – is not only equipped to live a happier life, but to become a better citizen.

If there is a civic purpose behind education, it must involve a number of elements. First, education shouldn’t be about producing passive individuals, who recite knowledge or only act according to conventional routine. It should be about empowering people to be curious and critical, to debate and deliberate. It should be about cultivating students into people who can think for themselves, who have the confidence to hold their ground, who can resist authority and speak up when required.

Second, an education for citizenship should nurture empathy and fellow-feeling. Good citizens must have a moral imagination. They should be able to imagine themselves in the position of others. They should be citizens who can understand the human interests behind an economic or political debate. They shouldn’t be one-dimensional machines capable only of cold calculations about utility.

The civic dimension of education can sometimes get lost. As I’ve noted, the economistic tone of public conversations has redefined our understanding of educational purposes. There is another enemy of education’s civic purposes. There has recently emerged a strangely reactionary view of education, namely, university education. In his book The Lucky Culture, Nick Cater – formerly an editor at The Australian and now the director of the Menzies Research Centre – has argued Australia is ruled by a new self-appointed ruling class called the ‘bunyip alumni’. According to Cater, this is a ‘cosmopolitan and sophisticated’ tertiary-educated middle class – the product of the expansion of university education – which believes itself to be superior to ‘ordinary Australians’.[5]

Clearly, the Cater thesis doesn’t accord with a notion of good citizenship as outlined. A capacity to show solidarity with minority groups is mocked and derided, though exactly why is unclear. So is a concern with the environment or human rights. So, for that matter, is any capacity to question power or to do anything that runs contrary to what Cater regards as the standards of ‘ordinary Australians’.

On Cater’s view, it is never made clear what purposes education in Australian society should serve. By implication, a university education is presented as something that should be confined only to a few (which is ironic, given the charge of elitism). The thesis of The Lucky Culture may pay homage to Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country, but there is something perverse in the appropriation. Where Horne criticized the Australia of the 1960s for its conformity and mediocrity, Cater proposes that any capacity for independent thought and for challenging custom is un-Australian. Horne would be turning in his grave to hear people suggesting that being an ‘ordinary Australian’ must involve rejecting education.

From a civic perspective, then, there are two enemies of education: the economistic view of learning and research, and a new reactionary anti-intellectualism. These orientations promote a singular view of education. For the former, something only truly has value if it serves our push for economic productivity. For the latter, education must never equip students with the skills required to challenge power or prejudice.

Tolerance and civility

I have briefly spelled out some of the qualities or dispositions that a beneficiary of education should display as a citizen: an open mind capable of inquiry, a capacity to empathise with those who are different. You might say that these point to certain virtues that an ideal citizen should possess.

A mind open to inquiry points to a civic virtue of tolerance. The tolerant citizen is someone who can regard other citizens as reasonable people who are worthy of respect. They can acknowledge that there may be differences between them and others. But any divergence in social values, cultural identification, religious commitment or philosophical belief provides no reason for denying others equal treatment.

At the same time, tolerance needn’t mean total indifference. Tolerance leaves open the possibility of empathy towards those people with whom we disagree. A tolerant citizen may come to appreciate and relate to commitments different from their own.

Nor must we confuse tolerance with relativism. The tolerant citizen isn’t required to renounce her own conception of the good or her belief that some ways of life are superior to others. What tolerance does imply is a particular way of reconciling moral disagreement. It implies that we should seek to educate or persuade others about our position, rather than coercing them to accept it.

Some people have reservations about tolerance and its implied meaning for cultural diversity. They highlight its root in the Latin tolerare – which means to have endured. To tolerate something plainly means to put up with it. And you put up with something that is wrong, that you don’t especially like or that is rather unpleasant. We tolerate annoying behavior from strangers on buses and trains; we tolerate the bad habits of our family and friends.

If used in the sense of racial tolerance, it may fairly be asked whether this implies a standard that isn’t demanding enough. When it concerns racial or cultural difference, referring to tolerance can imply that a person’s race or culture is somehow wrong or distasteful, but which must be endured. Members of a minority may say that they’re not asking to be tolerated, but are demanding to be accepted.

Of course, not everyone is in a position to embrace diversity, to welcome it without reservation. And it makes no sense to compel someone to endorse diversity, when their heart isn’t in it; in such cases, asking one to tolerate diversity may be entirely appropriate.

There is also a distinction to be made between tolerance and toleration.

Historically speaking, toleration emerged in the 17th-century as a response to religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics. In practice, it was defined by permission or co-existence. Toleration was about an authority or a majority group giving permission to a minority to live according to their beliefs – conditional on them accepting an authority or a majority’s position of dominance. In other cases, toleration was pursued as a means of avoiding conflict between groups that were roughly equal in power – that is, toleration was pursued for the sake of peace.[6]

Tolerance has a more recent provenance. It has largely emerged as a response to the challenge of racial diversity and moral pluralism. Thus understood, racial or cultural tolerance has been about respect and recognition. It is about tolerating parties respecting one another. These parties may have different identities, cultural practices and ethical beliefs, but they recognise each other as moral and political equals. Such tolerance may also imply that the parties have a kind of esteem for each others’ identities and beliefs – that these are held with good reasons, even they differ from one’s own.[7]

Implied in such a form of tolerance are a number of other virtues: fairness and civility. Where people take others as equals, they will abide by a standard of fairness. This will be expressed not only in the rules that govern society, but in the decorum that citizens adopt towards one another. That is to say, relations between citizens should be civil. Citizens can disagree with respect, and debate matters in good faith. Some matters may never find resolution, but parties should be prepared to find common ground and seek understanding.

In a multicultural setting, tolerance and civility call for a certain discipline. They demand that people refrain from unjustly discriminating on the grounds of race. They demand that people desist from racial abuse and denigration. Such requirements are not merely abstract – they are written in our laws. Under the Racial Discrimination Act, it is unlawful to treat people unfavourably or favourably because of their racial background. It is also unlawful to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate people on the grounds of race, colour, ethnicity or national origin.

Most of us, I venture, would find such demands to be entirely reasonable. Yet a small minority would say that standards of tolerance and civility are just another way of smuggling political correctness into our public life. Much is said about political correctness, a term almost universally regarded as pejorative. Few who would openly defend political correctness.

But if political correctness does stifle debate, it does so in both directions. Namely, those who make the charge that someone is being politically correct is doing just as much to foreclose debate as any alleged member of the PC police. Because the mere suggestion that something is politically correct is often enough to silence people into compliance, out of a fear that they will be cast as overly sensitive souls.

Tolerance and civility are not, however, about censorship. To borrow the words of the British writer A. A. Gill, they stand for the modest proposition that, ‘while respect is something that individuals have to earn, it’s also something that groups and sections of society have a reasonable right to expect’.[8] Those familiar with Gill – a writer who tends not to pull his punches, and who has caused offence to groups on more than one occasion – may be surprised by the sentiment.

Yet the sentiment is telling. How telling it is that even someone as ostensibly ‘politically incorrect’ as A. A. Gill can appreciate certain virtues in public discourse. As Gill elaborates, the demands of tolerance and civility should be regarded as wholly uncontentious and uncontroversial:

How could you possibly find fault with wanting to put people at ease – being polite and not offering unintended offence? ... It costs nothing more than the thought to change a word here and there, and the result is equally small but important. A term of address, an added politeness, doesn’t get anyone a job or a better house or an education or a free lunch, but it does indicate that the user is aware of those other things and that you want them to be better. That you want those whom you address and talk about to be part of a pluralistic, accommodating, comfortable society.[9]

Casual racism

The historian John Hirst has described Australia as a democracy of manners – we treat each other as social equals.[10] We are certainly informal and familiar in how we interact. We sit in the front seat with a taxi driver, we rarely refer to people as ‘sir’ or ‘madam’. And yes, we like to let rip with raillery and banter. Our laughter, our talent for leveling, our capacity for self-deprecation: these are all cultural expressions of egalitarianism.

But there are times when such tendencies can assume less exalted forms. I refer here to the phenomenon of so-called casual racism. If the task of racial tolerance and cultural civility are to be understood as involving an education of the sentiments, it is perhaps this form of racism that warrants the most immediate attention.

Australia is fortunate not to have the forms of racial discrimination that exist elsewhere. Racism here isn’t about explicit rules of exclusion, though as I will later explain institutional dimensions of discrimination remain. Nor, for that matter, is contemporary racism in this country isn’t about organized social movements guided by racial doctrines (though such elements do exist). As others have described it, when it comes to race in Australia, the problem may be that we have a high level of low level intolerance – a significant level of casual racism.

To say that something is casual can denote a number of things. We speak of people having a casual job, we speak of casual dress. We speak of a casual remark or of casual observers. These various definitions of casual also apply to casual expressions of racism. Often we think of racism as being ultimately about racial hatred or superiority. However, you don’t need to advocate violence or noxious doctrine to do something with racist implications. A racist remark or act can be made or done without thought or premeditation. It can happen by chance. The effects of racist speech or discrimination don’t depend on someone being a dedicated full-time bigot.

In this sense, casual racism refers to conduct involving negative stereotypes or prejudices about people on the basis of race, colour or ethnicity. It isn’t always accompanied by an intention to cause harm or offence. And it needn’t involve any belief in the superiority of races. Rather, it tends to concern negative prejudice or stereotypes, often expressed in the form of jokes or off-handed comments. Think here of jokes about Irish drunks, or puns about chinks and Asian eyes. Or of laughter about curry-munchers or coons.

Some question whether casual racism is the appropriate nomenclature. It is said that referring to racist language or racist incidents as ‘casual’ can trivialise the issue. Or create a misleading impression that racism is somehow irregular or unexpected. Some scholars have said that it would be better for us to refer to ‘everyday’ racism instead of casual. These are the forms of subtle prejudice and discrimination that people may regard as ‘normal’ in daily interactions.[11]

No term will ever be perfect in capturing a social phenomenon. But it is important that we acknowledge casual racism. Displacing the terminology of casual racism with everyday racism runs the risk of confusing two aspects of prejudice. In addition to frequency, there is an obvious difference between the everyday and casual varieties of racism. Everyday racism appears to refer more to the settings and social contexts in which racism can occur, while casual racism refers to the manner in which discrimination is expressed.

That we are talking about two different aspects of contemporary racism becomes clearer with the facts. Consider the recent findings of the 2014 Scanlon Foundation survey on social cohesion. The survey found that 18 per cent of respondents reported they had experienced racial or religious discrimination during the past 12 months. Among other things, the survey looked into the locations where people experienced racial or religious discrimination. The largest proportion (58 per cent) indicated that they experienced this in their neighbourhood. Forty-two per cent said they had experienced discrimination in a shopping centre, with 39 per cent indicating they had experienced it at a place of work.[12]

This does highlight one respect in which racism can be ‘everyday’ in nature. It can occur in those places where people go about their ordinary affairs as a member of society. Yet the findings of the Scanlon survey also point to reasons why everyday racism shouldn’t displace casual racism as a category. Because describing something as being of an ‘everyday’ nature fundamentally implies an ‘everyday’ frequency. To suggest that casual racism is better described as everyday racism, in this sense, would be fundamentally inaccurate.

Granted, there are some groups that experience racism with alarming regularity – in particular, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.[13] But this is not the case for most.

According to the Scanlon findings, of those who reported discrimination, the largest proportion, 47 per cent, indicated that it occurred infrequently, ‘just once or twice in the last year’. Twenty-two per cent indicated they experienced it ‘three to six times in the last year’. By contrast, 14 per cent indicated that discrimination occurred ‘about once a month in the last year’; while 15 per cent indicated that it occurred ‘often – most weeks in the year’.[14]

In other words, the majority of those who experience racism in Australia appear not to experience it with ‘everyday’ frequency. Describing something as casual racism is accurate in conveying not just the demeanour of those who express it, but to a large extent the frequency with which it is experienced. There is nothing inherent in this observation that diminishes racism’s importance, or trivialises the harms it causes.

Indeed, let’s be clear about why casual racism is a problem. It may not rank as the most severe form of racial discrimination conceivable, but the harm of casual racism can be insidious. Passing off bigotry as jokes can give permission for intolerance. It can make racial stereotypes and prejudices more easily accepted. Seemingly lower forms of bigotry can escalate. What starts as low level ignorance can, over time, grow into hate.

Escalation is a particular problem with casual racism because it tends to be accompanied by levity. Toleration of casual racism allows people to justify bigotry on the basis that they’re just having a laugh, and to dismiss people who complain as politically correct kill-joys. We have all heard the refrain before: Why can’t you just take a joke? Why are you making such a fuss?

For those on the receiving end of casual racism, however, the feeling can be far from funny. And it is not just about hurt feelings. It is all about exclusion. The things we say and the things we do matter: they define who belongs and who doesn’t. Intolerance and incivility sow seeds of unease and distrust, which we should never allow to take root.

Structural racism and media

Casual racism doesn’t exhaust the entire field of contemporary racism. Racism resides not only in the social interactions that people have, but also in society’s institutions. It may be there in the systems and rules, written and unwritten, which govern what is normal and what is deviant. The systems and rules whose effect may be to place some groups at a disadvantage and others in a privileged position.[15]

Such structural forms of racism can be covert and go unrecognised. But they can exist in the economy, in schools, in hospitals, in the justice system, in government. Here, I want to focus on how it manifests in another setting: our media. I do so because the media occupies a special position in shaping and filtering our civic sentiments. It is through media that a society projects its identity, that it comes to understand itself. If we are interested in cultivating tolerance and civility, our prospects would be improved if we could do that work through our media.

Most of us would recognise that Australian media doesn’t quite reflect our multicultural society. This has been an anomaly, as in so many other respects Australian multiculturalism has been an exemplar. When it concerns social cohesion or economic participation, Australia does remarkably well. Our national life is not blighted by the periodic racial rioting and ethnic disturbances that characterise others. The children of migrants outperform those of native-born Australians in education and employment.

Yet when it comes to our media – especially our television screens – such multicultural success doesn’t seem to be replicated. We fare somewhat poorly when compared to similar English-speaking societies. In Britain, for example, it is possible to point to the fact that journalists from ethnic minority backgrounds have fronted the major news bulletins for decades. Names such as Trevor McDonald, George Alagiah and Krishna Gurumuthy have been senior newsreaders on ITV, BBC and Channel Four.

Such equivalent prominence or seniority here for journalists of non-Anglo background has arguably been rare – notwithstanding the fine work of broadcasters such as George Donikian, Mary Kostakidis or Lee Lin Chin. In one interview last year, Stan Grant, one of the few Indigenous journalists on commercial television, lamented how during the past 20 years the ABC has not succeeded in sending one Indigenous journalist overseas as a foreign correspondent.[16] The same criticism could be levelled with respect to non-Anglo journalists more generally.

This has also been the case in other forms of programming. Actors from minority backgrounds periodically emerge with scathing criticisms about a ‘White Australia’ policy in Australian television – as recently with the likes of Firass Dirani and Jay Laga’aia.[17] Where minority actors are cast to play roles on television dramas, they are often consigned to play stereotypical roles as drug dealers, criminals or otherwise shady characters.

The numbers certainly tell the story. The current popular Channel Ten drama Wonderland, for example, features a cast of nine main characters – all white (although one is played by an actress who is part-Chinese). Other popular dramas are similar in composition. Perennial soapie Home and Away currently has a cast list of 27, which includes only three with non-English surnames (Nicodemou, Giovinazzio, Hara). Neighbours is even more conspicuous in having as its sole cast member of non-Anglo background Indigenous actor Mayne Wyatt.

It wasn’t long ago, of course, that Neighbours attracted plaudits for the arrival of the Kapoor family to Ramsay Street. But the Indian-Australian family lasted only a year, before being written out of the show (the family was sent back to India, despite the family members being born, educated and raised in Australia). The fate of the Kapoors is much like that experienced by the two ‘ethnic’ Chinese and Italian families who were but transient lodgers on Ramsay Street. The Lims and the Cammenitis haven’t had the same staying power as the Robinsons and the Kennedys.

Such patterns are sometimes explained away as merely an expression of the television viewing market. It is said that Australian audiences may turn off from diversity, that they aren’t ready to see more colour on their television screens. This is a difficult view to sustain, given how comfortable Australian society is with the reality of multiculturalism. If we can accept cultural diversity in just about every aspect of our life, why not also in television? Some recent studies in the United States have shown that television viewers are more likely to watch shows that have racially diverse casts and writers.[18] Perhaps one reason for the success of reality programs such as Masterchef has been that it has actually represented through its contestants the authentic face of multicultural Australia.

In all this, there is an element of what has been described as colourblind dominance. This is a form of structural racism, in which there are proclamations of robust anti-racism accompanied by failures to improve the status quo.[19] Thus, in response to criticisms about a lack of non-white faces on Australian television, one producer was quoted in a media report as maintaining there was no agenda to exclude people of certain backgrounds. ‘I respect the opinion of people who say we should reflect a wide ethnic cast but we can’t go out and search for specific people,’ according to this producer. As he further explained, ‘we are accused of racism but to do it another way would be equally racist’.[20]

One thing here should be made clear about structural racism. To say that racism exists within certain institutions is not to say that all those who work in such institutions are consciously seeking to discriminate against people. The point here isn’t about apportioning individual blame. It is about recognising that race can’t be understood without acknowledging power and that conscious effort to boost diversity may be required.

We should also reflect on some of the initiatives being undertaken in Britain in improving ethnic and racial diversity on television. There, the director-general of the BBC Tony Hall has pledged that one in seven presenters and actors are to be black, Asian or minority ethnic within the next three years.[21] BBC’s news boss, James Harding, has also commented on the need to increase ethnic minorities on screen as a result of unconscious biases which he feels manifests in a tendency to recruit in our own image.[22] Are we having such conversations in Australia?

Race and religion

So far I have spoken of two dimensions of contemporary racism in Australia: casual racism and structural racism in the media. There is another dimension to which I now turn: that concerning religious bigotry.

There has been a noticeable rise in anti-Muslim sentiment during recent months, amid community anxiety about the threat of terrorism. There have been media reports of mosques being defaced, of Muslim Australians being abused or threatened in public places because of their religion. Many Muslim communities have made clear to me their concerns about the safety of their members, especially women who wear visible Islamic dress such as headscarves.

There have been more subtle forms of anti-Muslim hate as well. Last week, here in South Australia, the Fleurieu Milk and Yoghurt Company was targeted by a social media campaign for its Halal certification. This company has been the latest food business to be targeted for complying with Islamic dietary standards, with campaigners suggesting that fees paid for Halal certification are being used to fund terrorism. Anti-Halal campaigners have also aggressively targeted meat pie maker Four’N Twenty and the Byron Bay Cookie Company. In the cases of Four N’ Twenty and Byron Bay Cookie Company, the companies held firm and refused to drop their Halal certification – a stance that should be commended. In the case of Fluerieu, the company unfortunately chose to end its yoghurt supply deal with the Dubai-based Emirates airline, fearing adverse publicity.[23]

Let us be clear. Such forms of anti-Muslim sentiment should have no place in our society. Every person should be free to live their lives, without being harassed or intimidated because of their religion. The overwhelming majority of Muslim Australians are law-abiding and loyal Australian citizens who should not be tarred by the brush of prejudice. We should not be judging the many by the behaviour of a fanatical few.

And when it comes to halal, ongoing campaigns against it are little more than anti-Islamic bullying, which aims to stimulate fear and divide Australians. Any suggestion that certification fees are proceeds to terrorism is unfounded. Australia has laws that forbid people and organisations from funding illegal activity such as terrorism. Organisations that provide Halal certification services are not immune from such laws.

As for the certification process itself, this has no negative bearing on the ability of non-Muslims to consume different food products. Halal may be grounded in religion, but the process of Halal labelling is primarily focused on hygiene and ingredients – on ensuring, for instance, that ingredients are free from pork and that machinery involved in making food has not been cleaned with alcohol. The Australian Food and Grocery Council explains that the exercise can be best compared to vegan or gluten-free labelling.[24]

Most halal slaughter in Australia is also consistent with standards of animal welfare. According to the RSPCA, the vast majority of halal slaughter in Australia complies with the national standard requiring that all animals be stunned unconscious prior to slaughter. In this respect, halal practices in Australia differ from halal slaughter in many other countries.[25]

Looking at the bigger picture, we should be concerned not only with the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment, but also the manner in which it is being framed. Many of those rehearing anti-Muslim bigotry are hiding behind semantics. Some would say, for instance, that I should have no business in linking this issue to race. They will say that Islam is a religion, and not a race or ethnicity. That any hostility they harbour for Islam concerns what Muslims believe, not for what they intrinsically are. They will argue that any charge of racism is misplaced.

And yet there is frequently a racial element to anti-Muslim feeling. Religion can be used as a surrogate for race. When we see verbal and other attacks against Muslim Australians, it is often accompanied by a nastiness and logic that resembles racial hatred. Let me briefly explain how religious intolerance can be tied to racism.

The relationship between race and religion is by no means simple. The two are more entangled than you might think. In his historical survey of race, the American scholar George M. Frederickson in fact argues that the prototypical forms of modern racism can be found in the treatment of conversos, Jewish converts to Christianity in 15th and 16th century Spain. These converts were identified and discriminated against because some Spanish Christians believed the impurity of their blood made them incapable of experiencing a true conversion.[26]

This early example demonstrates the essential condition of racism: the idea that some differences between racial or cultural groups are permanent and ineradicable. There is a good deal in contemporary understandings of Islam and Muslims, which reveals this condition.

Consider one recent episode of SBS’s Living with the Enemy program, a series which asks people to live with others whose lifestyles and beliefs directly contradict their own. One recent episode involved a Muslim couple, Ahmed and Lydia, spending time with Ben, an Anglo-Australian who believes Islam is a dangerous religion. For much of the episode Ben was confounded by the experience of discovering he had more in common with Ahmed and Lydia than expected.

Yet Ben’s views remain unchanged. He continued to believe there was no such thing as a moderate Muslim: Ahmed and Lydia may have been Muslims but there was no way that they could be representative of Islam. In Ben’s view, the difference between Islam and the West was something permanent and ineradicable.

Religious difference today can also be racialised. When it concerns Muslims and Islam, often we are talking about negative stereotypes that are directed particularly at people who come from the Middle East. The stereotype is one about the incompatibility of Muslim practices with an Australian way of life, but it is frequently one that takes on a racial tinge.

Take, for example, some of the recent commentary about the suburb of Lakemba, which is home to some of Sydney’s Muslim communities. One newspaper in August featured a two-page spread about the suburb titled, ‘Inside Sydney’s Muslim Land’. It was declared at the top of the article that the correspondent had spent 24 hours in a place ‘where a pervasive monoculture has erased the traditional Aussie way of life’. In the piece itself, the correspondent would observe that the suburb had an ethnic mix ‘similar to what you’d find in any Arabic city’.[27] In the space of a few sentences, then, we see the conflation of Muslim and Arab – of religion quickly expanding into something more cultural, ethnic, and arguably racial.

It is in these respects that anti-Muslim sentiment can indeed involve racialised cultural hostility. Anyone who may look like a Muslim will be presumed to be a bearer of a certain culture that is incompatible with Australian culture. But what determines whether someone looks like they are Muslim will necessarily draw upon race and ethnicity. Not everyone will be necessarily aware of, say, the difference between a Lebanese-Australian Muslim or an Egyptian-Australian Coptic. To those who may rehearse negative stereotypes about Muslims, such distinctions may not be obvious.


I conclude by returning to the matter of educating the sentiments. In general terms, there can be suspicion about venturing into such territory. Who are we, after all, to play with the sentiments and sensibilities of others? And should we place our faith in matters that are not entirely rational, but implicate emotion – and all the potential excesses that may come with it?
Such questions have currency at a time when appeals to patriotism are being frequently made in our national conversation. There will always be some who would regard patriotism as a pathology. Better that we avoid a love of country altogether, since it all too often descends into jingoism. On matters of race, patriotism and national pride can often be the enemies of tolerance rather than its friends.
If we are interested, however, in educating for tolerance and civility, I do not believe we have this luxury. Patriotism can be a powerful stimulant of progress, when taken in the right measure. The most genuine love of country is a generous one, an inclusive one – one which demands of us an obligation to improve our country.[28] It is an entirely appropriate sentiment to which we must appeal in combating racial intolerance and cultural bigotry. 

[1] G Flaubert, Sentimental Education (1869).
[2] See, D Kennedy, L Cohen and T Bailer, The American Pageant: Volume 1: To 1877 (2010) p 100.
[3] See (viewed 12 November 2014).
[4] See T Judt, Ill Fares the Land (2010).
[5] N Cater, The Lucky Culture and the Rise of an Australian Ruling Class (2013).
[6]R Forst, Standford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (at 4 May 2012) ‘Toleration’. At (viewed 13 November 2014).
[7] R Forst, Standford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (at 4 May 2012) ‘Toleration’. At (viewed 13 November 2014).
[8] A A Gill, The Angry Island: Hunting the English (2010) p 163.
[9] A A Gill, The Angry Island: Hunting the English (2010) p 164.
[10] J Hirst, Sense and Nonsense in Australian History (2006) p 301.
[11] See, eg, J Nelson and J Walton, ‘Explainer: What is Casual Racism?’, SBS News, 2 September 2014. At… (viewed 12 November 2014).
[12] A Markus, Mapping Social Cohesion 2014: The Scanlon Foundation Surveys National Report (2014) p 24. At… (viewed 10 November 2014).
[13] A Ferdinand, Y Paradies & M Kelaher, Mental Health Impacts of Racial Discrimination in Victorian Aboriginal Communities, The Lowitja Institute (2013). At (viewed 12 November 2014).
[14] A Markus, Mapping Social Cohesion 2014: The Scanlon Foundation Surveys National Report (2014). At… (viewed 10 November 2014).
[15] C Mills, The Racial Contract (1997).
[16] Cited in H Vatsikopoulos, ‘Whose Australian stories? Cultural diversity at the ABC’, The Conversation, 23 July 2014. At… (viewed 10 November 2014).
[17] See, P Kalina, ‘Diversity still out of the picture’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 1 March 2012. At (viewed 10 November 2014).
[18] Ralph Bunche Centre for African American Studies at UCLA, 2014 Hollywood Diversity Report: Making Sense of the Disconnect (2014).
[19] R Coates, ‘Covert Racism: Theories, Types and Examples’ in R Coates (ed) Covert Racism: Theories, Institutions, and Experiences (2011).
[20] See, P Kalina, ‘Diversity still out of the picture’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 1 March 2012. At (viewed 10 November 2014).
[21] Cited in H Furness, ‘One in seven BBC presenters and actors to be black, Asian or ethnic minority under new Lord Hall pledge’, The Telegraph, 20 June 2014. At… (viewed 10 November 2014).
[22] A Glennie, ‘BBC’s bias against minorities: Corporation’s new boss says there are not enough black or female presenters because managers tend to recruit in their own image’, The Daily Mail, 29 April 2014. At… (viewed 10 November 2014).
[23] See, eg, G Dyett, ‘Businesses are resisting a social media campaign targeting them over Halal certification fees’, SBS News, 12 November 2014. At… (viewed 12 November 2014).
[24] At (viewed 12 November 2014).
[25] RSPCA, ‘What is Halal slaughter in Australia?’ At (viewed 13 November 2014).
[26] G Fredrickson, Racism: A Short History (2002) p 31.
[27] T Blair, ‘Inside Sydney’s Muslim Land’, The Daily Telegraph, 18 August 2014. 
[28] T Soutphommasane, The Virtuous Citizen: Patriotism in a Multicultural Society (2012).

Dr Tim Soutphommasane, Race Discrimination Commissioner