RACISM is always with us, but every now and again it becomes the focus of media attention.
Lately, there have been reported attacks against Muslims in Newcastle, including a pig’s head being thrown in front of a mosque and the First Contact program on SBS, on which one Newcastle participant voiced extreme views against Aboriginal people.
What tends to happen is that there is a lot of airplay, a flurry of activity on social media and then it is largely forgotten. However, the incidences of overt racism seem to be becoming more frequent, but not because we are a more racist society.
It is becoming much easier to record public incidences of racial abuse. Images of a woman shouting at a young Chinese woman on a train on the Central Coast becomes the focus of the nightly news grab. On that occasion, several people on the train tried to intervene and calm down the woman, although that part is likely to be more quickly forgotten.
The idea of free speech has been in the news. The comment by Attorney-General George Brandis that people were entitled to be bigots caused an uproar; giving the impression that it was OK to voice negative ideas about people on the basis of their race or religion. When it became clear that public opinion was firmly against repealing Section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act, the government backed down.
The back-down was coupled with the focus on ‘‘Team Australia’’, and was linked to stories from the Middle East about the extremist group ISIL and atrocities such as beheadings. In the public imagination, being Muslim becomes associated with not being part of ‘‘Team Australia’’. There has certainly been an increase of attacks, physical and verbal, on Muslim women wearing the hijab as the most visible manifestation of the Muslim faith. They are easy targets, but they are most removed from the actions of groups such as ISIL.
There is little logic to acts of racial abuse or negative views against a whole social group. This has become obvious in First Contact, an immersive reality TV show that took six white people with strong views against Aboriginal people on a one-month journey across Aboriginal Australia. One of the most vocal, Sandy from Newcastle, chose to leave the show before the end of the journey. This is a great pity because the five other participants have dramatically changed their views. The show is based on emotional journeys; that’s what makes it such compelling television. The biographies of the participants are known from the beginning and so contradictions between their own lived realities and their views of Aboriginal people can be exposed as flawed. The hope is that, as their flawed views are exposed, so are our own.
Schools and the media have a role in counteracting racism. But we all have a responsibility.
We need to learn what we can about the lives of others and hopefully develop greater empathy and understanding on the way.
Learning about others helps develop empathy, writes Margot Ford.
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