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Public Transport Racists are Derailing Australia’s Racism Debate

In Australia, when the assaults against Indian students happened a few years ago, the government’s response was to remind everyone of their economic importance.
April 17, 2013, 6:39am

Immigration is an economic force. The new world – Australia, Canada, America – started allowing Asian immigrants into the country once it realised the cash value they provided. In the 60s, America abandoned its “whites only” policy to welcome Indian doctors and engineers partly because they wanted a way to keep up with the Russians during the Cold War. Here in Australia, when the assaults against Indian students happened a few years ago, the government’s response was to remind everyone of their economic importance to the local economy. That may seem a tad offensive, but if we accept that this is the main reason foreign non whites are in the country to begin with, as opposed to a genuine longing for a multicultural society, it puts outbursts like this one into perspective. In any sort of historical context, the immigration policies and multicultural development of the New World can be considered a new experiment. They’re going to be freckled with fuck ups.


A University of Sydney study reports that at least half the country believes that some cultural groups simply do not belong in the country and that 42 percent believe the country is damaged by ethnicities that stick to their “old ways.” This being said, only 12 percent of Australians are willing to acknowledge they possess any prejudice.

According to the ANU, people with Arabic sounding last names have to apply for 64 percent more jobs than people with Anglo names in order to get the same number of interviews – which makes it understandable that 38 percent of visibly ethnic Australians believe they have been treated with less trust and respect because of their appearance.

So it’s obvious: like everywhere, there is a lot of racism going on. The curry shop and sushi rolls aspect of multiculturalism is an offshoot of an economic policy, and true acceptance really isn’t systematically represented anywhere. So why then, the complete bafflement at some nutter on the tram? Why does a relatively minor incident become national debate? Perhaps because it makes the rest of us feel better about ourselves.

David Penberthy’s editorial on the most recent public transport incident from the Herald Sun provides little insight. He uses the opportunity to back away from the idea that any racism can be attributed to incidents like the Cronulla riots, saying, “The Cronulla riots were basically a small, three-day festival for the dumbest people in Australia.” The riots were huge; they made international news for a reason. Embarrassment and defensiveness is the wrong reaction and so is Penberthy’s view that it was a simple case of “bogans fuelled by VB and the Muslims fuelled by a nutty brand of Islam.”

Actual conversation about racism in Australia isn’t going to happen if we refuse to acknowledge that Australians can be racist. Penberthy isn’t alone in this – the Prime Minister at the time, John Howard, refused to acknowledge that racial tensions played a role in the riots. The lady from the Melbourne incident is incredulous that she could be ridiculed in her own country for her comments, but why wouldn’t she think that? In Frankston last November, half the bus rose up to attack the French victim and someone even offered the aggressor a beer. In Sydney, passengers speaking up were told to quiet down. Mr Kim, the victim of the Sydney assault, nails it, telling the Age, “we had given up taking any action against him, simply because we thought this incident is only one of many similar cases happening on a daily basis and we have never heard about any case resolved in favour of victims.”


Penberthy ends his article with blinders on, speaking about the Melbourne happenings, “The good conduct of the many people on this train says more about our society than the Cronulla riots did.” He’s blind to the discrepancy of what he treats like a solitary, un-Australian incident that reveals nothing damaging and what Mr Kim knows is a regular event. For Penberthy, the Sydney and Melbourne incidents are easy to deal with because they’re not really part of life.

Waleed Aly of The Age admirably raises the issues, but limply refers to it as, “the polite racism of the educated middle class.” Interwoven with the statistics about ethnic job hunters, he manages to provide the position an escape route, “The most insidious racism is just so ingrained it's involuntary” and suggests that the HR managers responsible for the statistics would be appalled by their own racism, as if they lacked the self awareness to realise when someone’s colour is making them uncomfortable. Unlike Penberthy, he understands that there’s more to it, noting, “…self-examination is crucial. Without it we have nothing to fix, and only other people to blame.”

It’s true. People like the South Melbourne lady who freaked out on the train become national fodder for the voyeuristic, “That dude is way more racist than I am” value of the situation. They allow us to stop the discussion and admire the train wreck. But for people who have to deal with prejudice on a regular basis, it’s hardly the most pressing issue.


I haven’t been surprised by racism since grade 3 when my buddy Joseph called me a Paki. In Australia I’ve been called a cunt for holding my white girlfriends hand, compared to Osama Bin Laden a few times, and had my ability to speak English questioned. This doesn’t haunt me. Dumb people talk dumb shit. It makes me angry and it’s offensive, sure, but it makes me angrier to think that everyday racism like this is removed from the discussion because a YouTube video has gone viral.

We can’t be satisfied to find and chastise people that are way more outwardly racist than we are. It takes zero understanding to get angry at the crazy dude on the bus acting like an asshole. It takes a little more effort to see the crazy dude on the bus acting like an asshole inside all of us. After all, who’s doing more damage: a handful of boneheads on buses? Or the millions of us going about our daily lives who are ignorant of our own unsavory tendencies.

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