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Public servants need to help tackle racism: Soutphommasane

Those holding influence in government need to make particular effort to make clear that racism is socially unacceptable, says race discrimination commissioner Dr Tim Soutphommasane, ahead of his appearance at the National Press Club tomorrow.

“We can all play our part in preventing and responding to racism in the community. Those in public office or a position of influence should be particularly vigilant,” he thinks.

This follows the release last month of Soutphommasane’s book I’m not racist but…, which looks at the history of racism, the limits of free speech, the dimensions of bigotry and the role of legislation in our society’s response to discrimination.

This communication needs to target different groups, he thinks — and the role of leaders is crucial.

“Without the right leadership, extremists can be easily emboldened.”

“Public education should take a two pronged approach, with communication to the general community and to those with extremist views,” the commissioner commented to The Mandarin.

“It’s often difficult and not always realistic to expect change from those with extremist views, but it is important to communicate that their views are not accepted by the majority. Without the right leadership, extremists can be easily emboldened.”

The representation of people of non-European descent in public leadership also lags behind the general population.

As Soutphommasane points out in the book, while one in five Australians speak a language other than English at home and perhaps 10% of Australians have Asian origins, only one Commonwealth departmental secretary of 17 has a non-European background.

There are fewer than ten MPs and senators of 226 “who appear to have non-European cultural origin or ancestry”.

Big business is no better: among the ASX 200, only 1.9% of executive managers and 5% of directors has a non-European background, according to research by Diversity Council Australia in 2013.

Soutphommasane thinks the fortieth anniversary of the Racial Discrimination Act this year is “an opportunity for us to reflect on what has been achieved and how much further we have to go in tackling racism in Australia”.

A key theme of his book is casual racism and the need to tackle the more subtle, everyday words and behaviours that alienate minorities — an issue still not taken seriously by some.

Tim Soutphommasane
Tim Soutphommasane

“Not everyone is comfortable with the proposition that racism may be more prevalent than they believe. We often think of racism as those obvious, confrontational encounters: taunts, threats, belittling or intimidation. But racism persists in many forms: it can be crude as well as subtle, systemic as well as casual,” he told The Mandarin.

“Casual racism is not always easily identifiable. Racism can exist in seemingly harmless humour, passed off as affectionate jesting. It’s often preceded by the curious disclaimer: ‘I’m not racist but…’

“We need identify those more subtle forms of racism and acknowledge that they are indeed forms of racial vilification. We all need to be vigilant against racism and prejudice in our everyday lives.”

“No one has the right to be a bigot … we must not confuse civil debate with racial abuse, or criticism with vilification.”

Asked about the role public servants can play in challenging casual bigotry beyond simply following the letter of the law, Soutphommasane argued:

“No one has the right to be a bigot. In a liberal democracy we should be free to have robust debates about culture, race, religion and belief.

“But we must not confuse civil debate with racial abuse, or criticism with vilification. We should all be free to live our lives without harassment or intimidation, and the onus is on all Australians to challenge bigotry and racism.”

Diversity Council Australia warned in a report last year of the need to do away with the “bamboo ceiling” that prevented those of Asian backgrounds from reaching senior professional positions, despite being well-represented in entry- to mid-level positions.

Published to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of the Racial Discrimination Act, I’m not racist but… includes contributions by Christos Tsiolkas, Alice Pung, Benjamin Law, Maxine Beneba Clarke and Bindi Cole Chocka.

Repeating a story he conveyed at the launch of the DCA report last year, Soutphommasane muses on his own experience of the impact of stereotypes on views of Asians and leadership in the book:

“It may be the case, for instance, that unconscious bias shapes perceptions of Australians of Asian background, particularly their suitability for positions of leadership (an example worth considering, given that Asian-Australians are generally regarded as examples of successful migrant integration in employment).

“To draw upon one encounter I had recently, someone newly introduced to me asked what I did for work. When I responded that I worked at the Australian Human Rights Commission, my new friend then asked: ‘So, do you work in the Finance section or IT section at the Commission?’ It was an innocent question, to which I responded by explaining my responsibility for matters concerning racial discrimination.

“But the question, asked with every good intention, was one that revealed some of the assumptions my new acquaintance had about what someone who looked like me was likely to have as an occupation.

” … There remains the dominant ‘model minority’ stereotype of Asians: the law-abiding, hard-working family with studious and obedient children. So far as stereotypes go, this appears benign enough.

“Yet the model minority stereotype may also belie a more negative stereotype, especially when it applies to a context of leadership. What one perspective may regard as the laudable qualities of being inoffensive, diligent and productive can, from another perspective, sound a lot like passivity, acquiescence and subservience.”

A report conducted by Dr Elizabeth Thomson for the Department of Defence last year highlighted the role language plays in social exclusion of minorities in the defence forces. Thomson pointed out the while humour, banter, practical jokes and nicknaming help build team unity, in some cases they can also be used to signify and perpetuate a line between insider and outsider that can exclude women, racial, religious and ethnic minorities, sexual minorities and those with disabilities.

Read more at The Mandarin: The opportunities and challenges of superdiversity

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne.