Our Post-Racial Australia

By Sonala De Silva

Racism in Australia? Many of you probably think that the levels of racism permeating society have decreased over the years. One would expect that because Australia prides itself over the fact that it is “so multicultural”, racism would slowly start diminishing along with its impact on the lives of people who have done nothing to deserve its affliction. Well, if you were like me, your assumptions were wrong.

A recent survey compiled by the Scanlon Foundation found that 19 per cent of the Australian population were discriminated against on the basis of either skin colour, religious beliefs or ethnic origin, up from 12 per cent in 2012. People focus a lot of their attention on what they think are the flaws and imperfections of other individuals, most particularly, members of oppressed groups. I personally think that everyday, more forms of oppression are being created rather than working to eliminate the existing ones. Society is creating oppressions that don’t need to be made. Queer or mentally ill? These people should not be oppressed by things that they cannot control, or by things they do not want to change. As long as they are happy with themselves and not harming anyone around them, what is the big deal?

Based on what we wear, how we talk or express ourselves, the food we eat, or simply our appearance, we would be kidding ourselves if we remained under the impression that discrimination can only be experienced by a limited few. In reality, most of us either experience or participate in such acts, whether we are conscious of this or not. Personally, I know that when I am with friends, we sometimes engage in conversations that in fact do include racial slurs or stereotypes. My closest group of friends are from ethnically diverse backgrounds, and as a friendship group, we like to explore each other’s cultures, and we definitely like to try each other’s cuisines. If someone was to say something culturally insensitive to us, we would feel resentful towards them. At the same time, there would be no problem for us to sit in our friendship groups and hold perceptions of, and essentially judge, other people based on their backgrounds. Upon reflection, I feel a mixture of guilt and anger.

People of Colour (PoC) and Women of Colour (WoC) are considered minority groups at this university, and more broadly, in this country. Unsurprisingly, we are certainly not a minority. Students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds actually make up quite a significant part of the student body of UNSW, a little over 41 per cent.

I was having a conversation with a friend the other day and she was telling me about how she thought she was confused. Throughout the course of just one day, she heard the same racial slurs repeated by numerous people around her. I’m not saying that I am innocent and have never said anything I regret; human beings aren’t perfect, and we make mistakes. We say things which can be interpreted by others in many different ways.

Has anyone been asked what nationality they are, and when you asked that person to guess, they just threw a random country’s name at you because of their belief you look like you “fit” that category? I am Sri Lankan, but get mistaken for Indian or Fijian Indian a majority of the time. Apparently “they’re the same thing”. They most definitely are not. Yes, the locations of these countries are within relative proximity of each other on the world map. Yes, the skin tones of our populations could be perceived as indistinguishable, however, that does not mean our values, ethics and customs are identical. Based on my lived experience, I can say this with certainty.

For instance, my boyfriend is Indian. He was born in India and migrated to Australia with his family when he was still a child. If you took one look at him, you probably wouldn’t guess that he was Indian, or that he wasn’t born in Sydney. He doesn’t have the “stereotypical” accent, nor does he have the “stereotypical” dark skin. Place him next to me and ask a stranger who they thought was Indian and born overseas? My bet is that they’ll say it’s me.

My point is, embarrassingly, that many people look at a person, and in a number of seconds, have come to unreasonable conclusions. As Australia continues to embrace multiculturalism, what it fails to do is appreciate every individual and who they are as person. A lot of people are afraid or even simply unable to attempt activities they would like, as a result of either having experienced, or in the fear of experiencing, racial discrimination. I mean, if one PoC from one particular non-white culture was to do or say something, then automatically every other person also from that culture is perceived to act the same, right? So many innocent people are being excluded or treated differently solely on the basis of the colour of their skin.

I’m a Sydney-born Sri Lankan girl. I was born and raised here, exactly the same as any other Sydney-born girl, with the exception of having brown skin. So what? That automatically makes me different? Less worthy of respect? I think not. Race is not something that can be controlled nor changed, but it is definitely something that can be embraced and should be embraced by individuals and the wider society.