I need to be clear – this is not a video from The Onion, The Shovel or The Chaser. It is not a parody. Difficult to believe I know.
I need to be clear – this is not a video from The Onion, The Shovel or The Chaser. It is not a parody. Difficult to believe I know.
Overnight in Geneva, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) began its two-day review of Australia, asking government representatives to explain their progress in promoting racial equality and tackling racism.
The CERD notified the government in advance of the key focus areas of the review. Not surprisingly, these include the situation of Indigenous people, and of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees; racist hate speech and hate crimes; and human rights and anti-racism protections in Australia’s laws and policies.
Australia has ratified seven of the nine core human rights treaties. Each treaty has its own treaty monitoring body, like the CERD, comprised of independent experts who are nominated by governments but do not represent them.
These bodies monitor states’ compliance with their international law obligations as set out in the treaty, primarily through periodic reporting.
Most recently, Australia received criticism from another one of these bodies, the Human Rights Committee, which highlighted shortcomings in relation to Indigenous rights, treatment of asylum seekers and refugees, and the lack of a national bill of rights.
Read more: UN slams Australia’s human rights record
It is often overlooked that of these nine core treaties, the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), was actually adopted before any of the others. The CERD became operational in 1970, and ICERD is now the third most commonly ratified UN human rights treaty, with 177 states signed up.
The CERD last reviewed Australia’s record in 2010.
The recommendations made in 2010 contained 21 specific actions for the government. These included the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as First Nations Peoples, supporting the proper performance of the Australian Human Rights Commission, appointing a Race Discrimination Commissioner, and addressing Indigenous contact with the criminal justice system.
Like many other UN human rights bodies, in 2010 the CERD also recommended that Australia review its mandatory detention regime of asylum seekers, with a view to finding an alternative to detention and ensuring that the detention of asylum seekers is always a measure of last resort.
Another recommendation in 2010 was that Australia criminalise the dissemination of racist ideas and incitement to racial hatred or discrimination.
In this regard, Australia has formally limited its obligations by having a reservation to the relevant article of the treaty. Reservations allow states to commit to treaty obligations, but with caveats.
Despite criticisms of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act and suggestions that the federal parliament may even have exceeded its external affairs power by going further than was required by the ICERD treaty, the reality is that Australia lacks comprehensive criminal sanctions against incitement to racial hatred. Many other countries have such criminal laws in place.
On Tuesday in Geneva, the government will continue to seek to convince the CERD that it has made progress on these recommendations. It could refer to the appointment of a Race Discrimination Commissioner at the Human Rights Commission, for example Where it has not made good progress, it will be expected to provide explanations.
The last two reviews of Australia by the CERD in 2010 and 2005 were carried out in typical diplomatic mode – the review is called a “constructive dialogue”.
However, Australia’s review by the CERD in 2000 is famous in human rights circles, as there were unusually heated exchanges between Philip Ruddock and one of the committee members.
… if a United Nations committee wants to play domestic politics here in Australia, then it will end up with a bloody nose.
The Human Rights Committee, one of the aforementioned seven treaty bodies, is sometimes confused with the Human Rights Council – a completely separate UN human rights body. The Human Rights Council is the key UN human rights body, a more politicised entity.
Being subject to reviews by international human rights bodies is important for the upholding of human rights in Australia – we are currently the only sestern democracy lacking a statutory or constitutional bill of rights.
Also, unlike many other states, we are not part of a regional human rights framework.
Several interested parties made submissions to the CERD and delegates are in Geneva for informal briefings with the committee members. They will inform the committee of the key concerns they have about the government’s progress. NGOs have already made the committee aware of the situation on Manus Island.
My research has found that such submissions can be quite influential and help shape the recommendations eventually delivered by the committee. However, mechanisms to ensure the government implements the recommendations are lacking.
Therefore, those in civil society with an interest in racial equality, NGOs, academics, trade unions and others should be aware of the recommendations and encourage the government to progress their implementation.
The CERD will finish its review of Australia today, which should be available to view via webcast.
In a few weeks, the committee will hand down its concluding observations, containing recommendations for the Australian government.
Although racism online feels like an insurmountable problem, there are legal and civil actions we can take right now in Australia to address it.
Racism expressed on social media sites provided by Facebook and the Alphabet stable (which includes Google and YouTube) ranges from advocacy of white power, support of the extermination of Jews and the call for political action against Muslim citizens because of their faith. Increasingly it occurs within the now “private” pages of groups that “like” racism.
At the heart of the problem is the clash between commercial goals of social media companies (based around creating communities, building audiences, and publishing and curating content to sell to advertisers), and self-ascribed ethical responsibilities of companies to users.
Although some platforms show growing awareness of the need to respond more quickly to complaints, it’s a very slow process to automate.
Australia should focus on laws that protect internet users from overt hate, and civil actions to help balance out power relationships.
At the global level, Australia could withdraw its reservation to Article 4 of the International Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Such a move has been flagged in the past, but stymied by opposition from an alliance of free speech and social conservative activists and politicians.
The convention is a global agreement to outlaw racism and racial discrimination, and Article 4 committed signatories to criminalise race hate speech. Australia’s reservation reflected the conservative governments’ reluctance to use the criminal law, similar to the civil law debate over section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act in 2016/7.
New data released by the eSafety Commissioner showed young people are subjected to extensive online hate. Amongst other findings, 53% of young Muslims said they had faced harmful online content; Indigenous people and asylum seekers were also frequent targets of online hate. Perhaps this could lead governments and opposition parties to a common cause.
Secondly, while Australian law has adopted the European Convention on Cyber Crime, it could move further and adopt the additional protocol. This outlaws racial vilification, and the advocacy of xenophobia and racism.
The impact of these international agreements would be to make serious cases of racial vilification online criminal acts in Australia, and the executive employees of platforms that refused to remove them personally criminally liable. This situation has emerged in Germany where Facebook executives have been threatened with the use of such laws. Mark Zuckerberg visited Germany to pledge opposition to anti-immigrant vilification in 2016.
Finally, Australia could adopt a version of New Zealand’s approach to harmful digital communication. Here, platforms are held ultimately accountable for the publication of online content that seriously offends, and users can challenge the failure of platforms to take down offensive material in the realm of race hate. Currently complaints via the Australian Human Rights Commission do elicit informal cooperation in some cases, but citizen rights are limited.
Taken together, these elements would mark out to providers and users of internet services that there is a shared responsibility for reasonable civility.
In addition to legal avenues, civil initiatives can empower those who are the targets of hate speech, and disempower those who are the perpetrators of race hate.
People who are targeted by racists need support and affirmation. This approach underpins the eSafety commissioner’s development of a Young and Safe portal, which offers stories and scenarios designed to build confidence and grow skills in young people. This is extending to address concerns of women and children, racism, and other forms of bullying.
The Online Hate Prevention Institute (OHPI) has become a reservoir of insights and capacities to identify and pursue perpetrators. As proposed by OHPI, a CyberLine could be created for tipping and reporting race hate speech online, for follow up and possible legal action. Such a hotline would also serve as a discussion portal on what racism looks like and what responses are appropriate.
Anti-racism workshops (some have already been run by the E Safety commissioner) have aimed to push back against hate, and build structures where people can come together online. Modelling and disseminating best practice against race hate speech offers resources to wider communities that can then be replicated elsewhere.
The Point magazine (an online youth-centred publication for the government agency Multicultural New South Wales) reported two major events where governments sponsored industry/community collaboration to find ways forward against cyber racism.
The growth of online racism marks the struggle between a dark and destructive social movement that wishes to suppress or minimise the recognition of cultural differences, confronted by an emergent social movement that treasures cultural differences and egalitarian outcomes in education and wider society.
Advocacy organisations can play a critical role in advancing an agenda of civility and responsibility through the state, the economy and civil society. The social movements of inclusion will ultimately put pressure on the state and in the economy to ensure the major platforms do in fact accept full responsibilities for the consequences of their actions. If a platform refuses to publish hate speech or acts to remove it when it receives valid complaints, such views remain a private matter for the individual who holds them, not a corrosive undermining of civil society.
We need to rebalance the equation between civil society, government and the internet industry, so that when the population confronts the industry, demonstrating it wants answers, we will begin to see responsibility emerge.
Governments also need to see their role as more strongly ensuring a balance between the right to a civil discourse and the profitability of platforms. Currently the Australian government seems not to accept that it has such a role, even though a number of states have begun to act.
The Cyber Racism and Community Resilience Project CRaCR explores why cyber racism has grown in Australia and globally, and what concerned communities have and can do about it. This article summarises the recommendations CRaCR made to industry partners.
We live in a richly diverse country, populated by Indigenous Australians, recent immigrants, and descendants of relatively recent immigrants. Some feel threatened by this diversity; some relish it.
Most of us, I think, are unsure quite how to talk about it.
We have many words to describe diversity. We ask people about their ancestry, their ethnicity, and – most awkwardly – their “background”. We seem least comfortable asking people about their “race”, and with good reason.
Read more: The markers of everyday racism in Australia
Racial classification has been used to justify some of the most heinous crimes of modernity, including those committed on our own shores. Asking people about their “race” can make you sound a bit, well, racist.
Yet “racial” classification is still commonplace. Many articles in The Conversation use the term “race” to describe human diversity. For example, one asks what’s behind racial differences in restaurant tipping?, while another tells us that infants learn to distinguish between races.
What justifies the continued use of racial classification? Nothing, or so I argue in Replacing Race, an open-access article published recently in the philosophy journal Ergo.
I argue that there are no races, only racialised groups – groups that have been misunderstood as biological races.
The reader may object – “surely, I can see race with my bare eyes!” However, it is not race we see, but the superficial visible biological diversity within our species: variation in traits such as skin colour, hair form and eye shape. This variation is not enough to justify racial classification. Our biological diversity is too small, and too smoothly distributed across geographic space, for race to be real.
This is not merely an opinion. From a scientific perspective, the best candidate for a synonym for “race” is “subspecies” (the classification level below “species” in biology). When scientists apply the standard criteria to determine whether there are subspecies/races in humans, none are found. In chimpanzees yes, but in humans no.
Racial classification is unscientific. However, humanities scholars have their own justifications for race-talk. Many argue that while there are no biological races, there are social races. Race, as philosophers put it, is a social kind.
In my view, the redefinition of race as a social kind has been a major mistake. Most people still think of race as a biological category. By redefining it socially, we risk miscommunicating with each other on this fraught topic.
Not only is the redefinition of race as a social kind confusing, I argue that race does not exist even as a social kind. Racism is real, in both an interpersonal and a structural sense, but race is not.
Once the idea of race is divorced from biology, strange things start happening, conceptually. What makes a group a “race”, if race is social, rather than biological?
We could say that races are just the groups that are labelled as races, but this doesn’t work. Just as witches are not women accused of being witches, races are not merely groups labelled as races. There has to be something more to the group for it to qualify as a social kind.
Nobody has put their finger on this “something more”. Some tie “race” to “essentialism”. Essentialism is the view that groups have essenses: fixed traits that all members of a group have, and which are unique to that group. “Social races”, on this view, are groups treated as if they have some unchangeable essence.
This move fails. While racialisation is often essentialising, it is not always. If you look at current “scientific” racism, you’ll see that it’s all about alleged inborn average differences between the so-called “races”, not racial essences (which does not make it any less horrid, or more plausible).
Moreover, essentialist thinking is not only applied to racialised groups. Gender is also essentialised, and so is ethnicity.
Remember when I said strange things start happening when race is defined socially? Well, if races are social groups subject to essentialism, we would have to accept that men and women constitute de facto races!
We should abandon attempts to save the category of race. There is no good way to make sense of the category from a biological or a social perspective. There are no races, only groups misunderstood as races: racialised groups.
Racialised groups are not biological groups, in the sense that they are not biological races. Yet how you are racialised does depend on superficial biological characteristics, such as skin colour. That is to say, racialised groups have biological inclusion criteria, vague and arbitrary as they may be.
These biological inclusion criteria are determined by social factors. Philosophical debates about “race” have relied on a dichotomy between the biological and the social. However, this is a false dichotomy: the biological and the social interact.
In racialisation, the biological and the social interact with a number of other factors: administrative, cultural, economic, geographic, gendered, historical, lingual, phenomenological, political, psychological, religious, and so on. I call this view “interactive constructionism about racialised groups”.
The category of the “racialised group” can be of great value, politically. It offers a way for those who have historically been treated as members of “inferior races” to assert and defend themselves collectively, while distancing themselves from the negative and misleading associations of the term “race”. “Race” is not needed for purposes of social justice.
According to researcher Victoria Grieves in her article Culture, not colour, is the heart of Aboriginal identity,
Being of Aboriginal descent is crucial because this is our link to country and the natural world. But at the same time, Aboriginal people do not rely on a race-based identity … continuing cultural values and practice are the true basis of Aboriginal identity in the whole of Australia today
The category of race is not needed for cultural identity or political action.
We need to be talking about racism, racialisation, and racialised groups, not “race”. Given that “race” fails as both a biological and a social category, let’s consign it to the dustbin of history’s bad ideas.
Pauline Hanson’s stunt of wearing a burqa into the Senate on Thursday drew a swingeing attack from Attorney-General George Brandis, amid widespread condemnation.
But an unrepentant Hanson – who admitted her action, which she’s been considering for months, was “extreme” – told 2GB she hoped it was “creating debate”.
Brandis’ denunciation, delivered with emotion, was greeted with a standing ovation from Labor and the Greens, and more limited and hesitant clapping on his own side.
Education Minister Simon Birmingham tweeted:
Senators were shocked when Hanson – who has called for a ban on Muslim immigration – appeared in the chamber shrouded in the voluminous black garment. She removed it as she rose to ask Brandis whether he would work to ban the burqa, citing foiled and actual terrorist incidents. “There has been a large majority of Australians [who] wish to see the banning of the burqa,” she said.
“Senator Hanson, no, we will not be banning the burqa,” Brandis said.
He said he was not going to pretend to ignore her stunt – and warned of the damage such behaviour could do.
“I would caution you and counsel you, senator Hanson, with respect, to be very, very careful of the offence you may do to the religious sensibilities of other Australians.
“We have about half-a-million Australians in this country of the Islamic faith, and the vast majority of them are law-abiding, good Australians. Senator Hanson, it is absolutely consistent being a good, law-abiding Australian and being a strict-adherent Muslim.”
He said the advice of each director-general of security and each commissioner of the Australian Federal Police with whom he had worked was “that it is vital for their intelligence and law enforcement work that they work co-operatively with the Muslim community.
“To ridicule that community, to drive it into a corner, to mock its religious garments is an appalling thing to do, and I would ask you to reflect on what you have done.”
Hanson then asked whether the government would “ban the burqa in this house … as a security risk” and “also, the fact is the people of Australia have the right to see the face of a person that they elect to this parliament”.
Senate President Stephen Parry said this came within the purview of parliament’s presiding officers, not the attorney-general.
“The Speaker and I have made arrangements that anyone who enters these premises with their face covered by whatever means is clearly identified prior to entering the building.” He said he had ascertained when she entered who she was.
Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus tweeted praise for Brandis:
Later Hanson moved a motion calling on “the government to ban full face coverings in public places on the grounds of social cohesion, the need to identify people seeking community support and for public safety”. It was defeated on the voices.
“Muslims determine the electoral outcomes in up to 15 lower house seats,” she told the Senate in her speech on the motion.
“The Muslim vote will continue to increase in importance because of the high birth rates in Australian Muslim communities. The number of Muslims in Australia doubled in the decade from 2006 to 2016 through immigration and high numbers of children born to Muslim families.
“If we do not draw a line in the sand against immigration from Islamic countries the influence of Muslims in this country will continue to grow and Australia will continue down the path of Islamisation.”
She told 2GB that just outside the Senate chamber she had passed Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson. “He actually put out his hand to shake my hand. Now I shook it. He has never done that to me as Pauline Hanson. He did it to shake hands at a person completely covered up. It was a tokenism that he was shaking the hand of Islam.”
Crossbencher Jacqui Lambie said Hanson had diminished the chamber and was dividing the nation.
Anne Aly, a member of the House of Representatives, said Hanson had made a mockery of the parliament and her behaviour needed to be called out.
Crossbench senator Nick Xenophon said her action was offensive, “demeaning to people of other faiths”.
“I wouldn’t even call this a stunt, this was just toxic,” Xenophon said.
The Turnbull government has announced proposed changes to Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act: the law that makes it unlawful to engage in acts that are reasonably likely to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” someone because of their race or ethnicity.
Under the proposals, the word “harass” will replace the words “offend, insult, humiliate”. A provision will also be included saying the test to be applied in deciding whether 18C has been breached is the objective standard of “the reasonable member of the Australian community”.
There are also proposed changes to the processes the Australian Human Rights Commission follows when someone lodges a complaint under 18C. For example, the commission will have to contact the people a complaint affects.
The changes to the commission’s processes are relatively uncontroversial; the commission supports many of them. They should also avoid a repeat of cases such as that involving three Queensland University of Technology students, who were not contacted until 14 months after the complaint was made.
However, the government’s objectives in seeking to change 18C are unclear. This may have the effect of confusing rather than clarifying what the law means.
Much of the controversy surrounding 18C has focused on the words “offend” and “insult”. This is unsurprising: many people recognise these words are capable of applying to slights that should not be the concern of hate-speech laws.
Many also think that, in a democracy, there shouldn’t be a right not to be offended or insulted. The hate-speech laws of most other democracies don’t cover offensive and insulting acts.
The Federal Court has recognised the difficulties with 18C by interpreting it that so it applies only to:
… profound and serious effects, not to be likened to mere slights.
18C’s legal meaning is therefore different from its ordinary meaning.
However, this is not always well understood, either by critics of 18C and possibly by some people who have brought complaints under the provision. Many have argued there is a case for amending 18C to bring the law’s ordinary meaning into line with the Federal Court’s interpretation.
Against this, there have been concerns that any changes to 18C could send a problematic message to minority groups and give a green light to people who want to engage in racist behaviour. There have also been concerns about unintended effects upon a settled body of Federal Court decisions.
Clearly, any change to 18C would have to be carefully managed to clarify its meaning while avoiding these negative outcomes.
In this light, the government has not adequately explained what it is hoping to achieve by changing the wording of 18C. For example, why remove the word “humiliate” when controversy has focused on the words “offend” and “insult”? Why has the word “harass” been chosen instead of other options, like “vilify” or “degrade”?
It is also unclear if the government is seeking to bring 18C in line with the Federal Court’s interpretation, or if the government’s view is that the Federal Court’s current approach makes it too easy for race-hate complaints to succeed under 18C.
Unless the government adequately explains what it is seeking to achieve by changing 18C’s wording, it is unlikely to win broad support for its proposals, which look likely to be blocked by the Senate. It is also unlikely to achieve its stated aims of making the law clearer and more effective.
Under the Federal Court’s interpretation of 18C, an “objective”, rather than “subjective” test is applied in deciding whether it has been breached.
The question is not whether the person making the complaint was subjectively “insulted, offended, humiliated or intimidated”, but whether the act was reasonably likely to have “profound and serious effects”.
In this regard, the Federal Court will often apply a “reasonable person” test. This involves considering the conduct’s likely effect on a reasonable member of the racial or ethnic group that is the target of the alleged conduct.
The government’s proposal that the standard should be “the reasonable member of the Australian community” therefore clarifies that the test under 18C is objective as opposed to subjective. However, a crucial difference is that the reasonable person is no longer a member of the racial or ethnic group that has been targeted, but is instead a member of the broader Australian community.
The government has not adequately explained what it is seeking to achieve through this change. One possible concern is that “reasonable” Australians who are ignorant of what is likely to harass or intimidate minority groups should not inadvertently breach 18C. However, a clear danger of the new test is that a law meant to protect minorities will not adequately reflect their perspectives.
One way this problem could be avoided would be for the Human Rights Commission and the Federal Court to regard the “reasonable member of the Australian community” as sensitive to minority concerns. However, in the short term, the change is more likely to confuse rather than clarify 18C’s meaning.
Malcolm Turnbull has announced a watering down of the controversial Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, in a major victory for the conservatives in the Liberal Party.
Under the proposal the words “offend, insult, humiliate” will be replaced by “harass”. The word “intimidate” will remain.
Turnbull argued the government was “strengthening” the act, not weakening it.
In a series of changes to the act and the Human Rights Commission legislation, the government will introduce a “reasonable member of the Australian community” standard by which contraventions of 18C should be judged (rather than the present “reasonable member of the relevant community”), and toughen the commission’s processes to stop spurious claims and give greater fairness to those subject to complaints.
The legislation will raise the threshold for the commission to accept a complaint, provide additional powers for it terminate unmeritorious complaints, and limit access to the courts for unsuccessful complaints.
The change was unveiled on Harmony Day.
The Coalition partyroom overwhelmingly backed the measures, but five MPs – Julian Leeser, David Coleman, Julia Banks, Russell Broadbent and Craig Laundy, who is an assistant minister – opposed the change in wording. There is concern among some Liberals that the issue will lose them votes in seats with large ethnic communities.
Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce told the partyroom if MPs kept talking about 18C, votes would be lost because it would distract from the government’s agenda.
Turnbull said the new 18C would “strengthen the protections of Australians from racial vilification and strengthen the protection of free speech – one of the fundamental freedoms upon which our democracy depends”.
The wording of the present law had “lost the credibility that a good law needs”. “If you have language that is too wide, too general, it has a chilling effect on free speech,” he said.
He admitted there would be many critics and opponents of the change – “but this is an issue of values … free speech is a value at the very core of our party”.
In parliament Labor MP Anne Aly, who said she had been subject to racism time and again, pressed Turnbull on what he wanted people to be able to say that they could not now. He replied: “The suggestion that those people who support a change to the wording of Section 18C are somehow or other racist is a deeply offensive one”, listing a number of critics of 18C.
In the Senate, Indigenous senator Malarndirri McCarthy said Turnbull had “on at least 16 occasions ruled out his government amending Section 18C”.
Before the election Turnbull indicated he did not plan to revisit 18C. His predecessor, Tony Abbott, had moved to reform it but then retreated. Abbott at the party meeting congratulated Turnbull and Attorney-General George Brandis, saying the situation had altered since his experience.
Asked at his news conference what had changed since his earlier stand, Turnbull cited the experience of the QUT university students who endured a long court case, which finally failed, and the late Bill Leak being taken to the commission over a cartoon in The Australian, a complaint which was dropped.
The changes will be introduced in the Senate and their fate will depend on what the Nick Xenophon Team does. Xenophon told the ABC that he supported comprehensive reform of the commission’s processes but did not support overhauling the wording.
“Let’s get rid of those frivolous and, some would say, vexatious claims by improving the process and then we can then look down the track, if there are still problems in respect to the wording,” he said.
He said there was strong feedback from a whole range of ethnic communities, including the Jewish community and Islamic communities, saying the wording should be kept as it was.
Xenophon later in a statement confirmed his Team’s opposition to changing 18C’s wording.
Conservative Liberal senator Eric Abetz, who has campaigned for change to 18C, said that: “Today’s announcement will be welcomed by Australians who prioritise freedom of speech above politically correct left-wing groupthink”.
“I am also pleased that the government will rein in the Australian Human Rights Commission which has morphed into self-appointed thought police,” Abetz said.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said the 18C change “isn’t about free speech, it’s about the prime minister appeasing his party”.
“The only two cases the prime minister held up today as his rationale could both have been addressed by improving the process – not by changing the law,” Shorten told parliament. He said the change to the Racial Discrimination Act would “make it easier for people to be insulted or humiliated on the basis of race”.
Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane tweeted:
The Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils expressed dismay at the proposal to change 18C. Chairman Joe Caputo said it sent “a strong signal that racism is acceptable”.
“Australia’s international reputation as a strong, successful multicultural and multi-faith community is threatened by this proposal,” he said.
While Australians value equality, our multicultural nation contains markers of racial discrimination. Some are so innocuous we may not recognise them.
Experiencing racism is part of the everyday lives of many Australians. What is it like to negotiate daily life in a material world that often excludes you, or selectively seeks to control you?
Let’s try to understand the experience of everyday racism by negotiating the material world of an Aboriginal person in northern Australia. You have come into Katherine, Northern Territory, from a remote community. It might be say, Barunga, 80 kilometres away, or Bulman 300 kilometres away, or Lajamanu, 600 kilometres away.
You shop for food at the Woolworths complex. You use your Basics Card to pay. This is a bit embarrassing as it declares you to be living on managed government money. You understand that this card is a legacy of the NT Intervention, designed to ensure that Aboriginal people spend half their government benefits on food and essentials. You understand that this “income management” signals a lack of faith in your ability to budget your own money.
You purchase some power-cards to pre-pay electricity in your home. You hope you won’t have to share them with friends or family who run out of electricity. You understand that power cards are not the norm in towns or cities of the NT, only in Aboriginal communities.
After shopping, you need to go to the toilet. It is the tourist season and the toilets in the Woolworths complex charge $1 per person. There is a guard at the front to collect the money. Throughout the town, the toilets have “closed”, “staff only” or “patrons only” signs. Often, the public toilets in the main street are out of order.
You want to meet some relatives in town. It is difficult to meet at the Woolworths complex due to the “no loitering” signs.
You understand that these signs are not intended for townspeople, who have homes to go to, or tourists, who are staying in hotels or caravan parks. You understand that they are aimed at you, and people like you.
There are other signs that are not aimed at you. Those signs, such as the lead photo for this article, depict variations of “ideal” white Australian families. Such signs exist throughout Australia. Inadvertently, they exclude those who do not fit the proposed ideal.
There is a nice sitting area at the tourist information centre but it is fenced. You would have to be a bit braver than you feel to go in. So you sit on the ground outside the fence, next to the car park. You watch tourists eating their lunch in comfort at the tables inside the fence. You wonder if they wonder why you don’t come in.
Like most Territorians, you enjoy a beer in hot weather. The bottle shop has police officers stationed at it. You have to show your address and explain where you will drink the beer. However, your address is that of a remote Aboriginal community, one that does not allow alcohol consumption. You do not have a town address, and for you to buy beer the police officer has to believe you will not consume it in the town’s public areas.
You’ve convinced the police officer that you will drink your beer at the unofficial “drinking spot”, 25 kilometres from your community.
On the way there, you pass the rest area for tourists, replete with lights, toilets, water tanks, tables. You could stop here, but you wouldn’t feel comfortable – and you would be moved on if a tourist complained to the police. At the Aboriginal drinking spot, there are no such facilities. You are expected to sit in the dirt, drink from the creek and go to the toilet in the bush.
There is no light either. While sitting at the drinking spot, you think about the people who have been killed here by vehicles driving at night. You are aware that there is no mobile phone coverage to call in an emergency.
On your way to the community, you pass road signs with Aboriginal people depicted in a cartoon-like fashion. You are glad the graffiti on the Liquor Act sign, “This means Niggers, too” has been erased. You pass the “prescribed area” sign, which warns against bringing alcohol or “prohibited materials” into the community.
Erected in 2007 as part of the Intervention, the original signs were more explicit: “No Liquor. No Pornography”. Somehow, these signs seemed to imply that everyone in your community wants to get drunk or use pornography. You wonder how people in the cities would feel if they had a sign like that at the entrance to their suburb.
Archaeology can provide unique insights into how material culture can reflect racism. However, racism is not the only form of discrimination. The Scanlon report on Mapping Social Cohesion in Australia found that experiences of discrimination on the basis of “skin colour, ethnic origin or religion” increased to 20% in 2016. The report does not provide figures for Indigenous Australians, but records an increase in negative sentiment towards Muslim people.
Nevertheless, the report argues that Australia is characterised by strong social cohesion. We may have problems, but it seems that we are a long way from the treatment of Muslim women who want to wear Burkinis on the beaches of France.
Racism occurs in everyday life. It happens to everyday people in everyday locations. It can be redressed through everyday practices.
There are reasons behind the differences described in this article. Townspeople have had bad experiences with some community children leaving a mess in public toilets (itself a reflection of the dearth of adequate working bathrooms in Aboriginal communities). Rest areas are under different government jurisdictions. The Basics card helps people to budget (and now it is being rolled out in wider Australia).
But while there are explanations for individual practices, taken together they create a system of control and exclusion. The outcomes include mental health issues for individuals, barriers to economic participation and a weakening of Australia’s social fabric.
Minimum standards of courtesy, safety and equality should be maintained for all Australians. The systematic discrimination of everyday racism diminishes us all.