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I’m not racist, but…

33 minutes


Fethi Mansouri

Deakin University

Claire G Coleman


Marc Fennell

Presenter and author

Episode Notes

The data is in: racism in Australia is on the rise. But in recent years has racism become more covert than it once was?  We unpack the spectrum of racist behaviour as we look at racism in Australia today, and consider why, even as it goes undercover, it’s getting worse.


Claire G Coleman (00:01):

I’ve suffered racism most of my life and my dad suffered racism most of his life. And we need to accept that racism occurs.

Ginger Gorman (00:10):

Claire G Coleman is a proud Noongar woman and a writer. A lot of her writing, like her books, Terra Nullius, and also, The Old Lie, examine racism and the impact of colonialism on First Nation’s people. It’s a racism that some deny exists. Others think it’s just our history and we’ve moved on, but that’s not Claire’s experience.

Claire G Coleman (00:37):

There’s this perception I suppose, that racism doesn’t exist in society but most of the time it’s the people who aren’t victims who say it doesn’t exist. Still the majority of Australians are from a kind of Western European, white ancestrian culture. And for the most part, they don’t see racism and when they do there’s, this is kind of intense shock. So, the racism against white people is so rare in Australia that they react with utter horror and shock when they have the slightest inkling that they may be considered to be lesser because of their white skin. The constant rants about anti-white racism, just weird me out because sometimes what they’re complaining about is so innocuous that you can tell they’ve never, ever experienced hate.

Ginger Gorman (01:33):

How are you hearing this? No doubt your own life experience will make you react to Claire’s words in different ways. This might really speak to you because you’ve been copping racism or microaggressions your whole life as well, or maybe racism is alien to you. You never see it or hear it, because most people in your community come from the same background as you. There are two broad statements that I’ve heard in public discourse over the years. One is that Australia is a racist country, the other is that Australia is not a racist country. Well, they can’t both be right.

Professor Fethi Mansouri (02:11):

There has been an underlying portion of our society, that always had strong negative views about people who come from different countries. In particular, if they’re not Europeans, White, if they’re not perhaps English speaking background, and that proportion of 7% to 8% remained constant.

Ginger Gorman (02:32):

Professor Fethi Mansouri is the Director of the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin Uni, and also UNESCO Chair on Cultural Diversity and Social Justice. He’s also a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. Fethi knows this figure from looking at data sets in various studies and the Australian Bureau of Statistics. So according to this research, Australia has always had around 8% to 10% of people who hold negative views about non-white migrants.

Professor Fethi Mansouri (03:06):

You would think that over time with the adoption of multiculturalism, which is a very progressive kind of policy in terms of integrating migrants, you would think that following the 70s and the 80s, we’ll start to see that kind of that figure, that start reducing. Unfortunately, what happened is, in the 90s and particular late 90s, and the 2000s and after, we’ve seen a pickup in that proportion of people who held strong negative views about diversity, multiculturalism, et cetera, and now we are talking really 15% to 20%.

Ginger Gorman (03:40):

Wow. So it’s almost double.

Professor Fethi Mansouri (03:41):

It has almost doubled. It’s almost doubled… Also, you need to look at the context on why things like this happen.

Ginger Gorman (03:49):

This is Seriously Social, I’m Ginger Gorman. And that’s what we are looking at today, the context of racism in Australia and why it’s on the rise.

Professor Fethi Mansouri (03:57):

There are many elements that come into the formation of prejudice. That could well be in relation to cultural backgrounds, ethnicity, religious affiliations, adheres to certain value systems, all of that comes into it. So, it’s not a very neat kind of breakdown in terms of variables that would produce prejudice or a form of bias against a particular group or a cohort. It does change over time, it may well peak at particular points in time because of certain events, but also it could subside over a period of time only to resurface when there are other points or issues if you like socially, or points of tension. So Indigenous Australians, Muslim Australians, Australians of Jewish background, now in the midst of the pandemic, Asian Australians in particular, Chinese Australians, are really bearing the brunt of that kind of racism. And you can actually see it.

Professor Fethi Mansouri (05:09):

You can pinpoint it, historically, when things will get worse for particular groups. So the war on terror, for instance, right? 9/11 has really came with a huge increase in Islamophobic incidents that have been reported. It’s not as if the incident itself, like out of context, leads to a surge in racism or a surge in particular racist attitudes and behaviours towards a particular group, it’s not. I think it needs to be looked at in relation to the incident absolutely, but also in relation to that race relations, the way we organize our society in terms of the actual demographic makeup of those societies, have not really kept up with the fact that it needed to reflect the diversity in everything we do.

Professor Fethi Mansouri (06:00):

So for instance, in governance, in media, in education, in everything. If diversity was reflected in key institutions across our societies, you will see that even when there is a huge incident like 9/11, that people are very much well equipped to deal with that event simply for what it is. Not to socially and culturally categorize the whole international communities as being basically reflected in those acts of few individuals who might have done and perpetrated those acts of terrorism. And so for me it’s, yes, the incidence is a trigger point, but the incidence is also symptomatic of what we have not fixed as a society.

Ginger Gorman (06:48):

Fethi’s co-authored book, Racism in Australia Today, notes that this increase in racist attitudes has been especially felt by Indigenous Australians. We all know this isn’t new, but according to Fethi, racism, as we know it today, is about as old as colonialism.

Professor Fethi Mansouri (07:06):

If we look at, when did we start thinking of discrimination, oppression, subjugation, all of those things which are really different words for discrimination and racism, you would see that it was really white Western Christian Europe going into other societies and territories and thinking that they are from an ethnically and culturally superior kind of group. And therefore, they have almost a duty or they were entitled to go in and subjugate with a view of managing those societies because they cannot look after themselves and those indigenous people in those societies, whether it’s in Africa, whether it’s in parts of Asia or Latin America, all of those societies were comprised of indigenous populations who had no say whatsoever in those encounters between them and these colonisers.

Ginger Gorman (08:00):

For the next 200 years after colonisers settled in Australia, First Nations people were seen as subhuman. And those attitudes become ingrained even if you don’t consider yourself a racist, even if you abhor racism, it’s hard, maybe even impossible to separate yourself from a social fabric that was threaded with displacement, violence and exclusion.

Professor Fethi Mansouri (08:27):

We’ve taken for granted for so long until the 60s basically, that they are not worthy of the same treatment as other Australians. And as they’ve become much more vocal in asserting their demands for social justice, for economic justice, for recognition in the constitution, for dealing with some of the legacies of settlement in the society, then many groups within Australia started to view them in different ways. And as they become more demanding of those equal rights in particular, in relation to constitutional recognition and in relation to dealing with treaty, et cetera, many people have started to look at them in ways that perhaps problematises them, even justifies that treatment on the basis of some of the social problems that some indigenous communities are witnessing, which as a matter of fact, actually come because of the direct correlation between oppression, and subjugation, and local matters of development, and community cohesion, and antisocial behaviour, all of those things.

Ginger Gorman (09:39):

In other words, instead of acknowledging the impacts of colonialism and trying to rectify the wrongs of the past, people are doubling down.

Professor Fethi Mansouri (09:50):

So Indigenous Australians are, as a matter of fact, a very good illustrative example of what happens when an ideology built upon a notion of superiority of knowing you better than you know yourself, comes into play as a practice. Not just as a thought, as ideology, but becomes a basis of practical engagement.

Ginger Gorman (10:15):

So how does this racism play out for people like Claire G Coleman?

Claire G Coleman (10:21):

The fact of the matter is that growing up with racism as a child and with my family suffered with racism, it taught me that I was somehow lesser and that if I wanted to be seen as the, as equal to anybody else, I’d have to work really hard. My dad has worked harder than almost anyone I know and he’s, my dad’s darker than me. And he has experienced more racism than I have because he is darker, but he’s also worked harder than any of his colleagues too in order to be, to get a decent job. It’s really, it kind of, it’s slightly low-level traumatising to know that you and your family are seen as lesser because of your ancestry.

Ginger Gorman (11:07):

There’s a lot to unpack there. But one thing Claire said really sticks out for me, and that’s how the shade of your skin can change the shade of racism that you experience.

Claire G Coleman (11:20):

To an extent I’m, I suppose, white-passing to a degree and people’s opinion, some people see me as quite Aboriginal and other people see me as essentially appearing white. And of course, this creates problems because the people who are, who consider me quite Aboriginal don’t think I’m equal to them and the people see me as looking white, don’t think I should get some of the, any of the support networks or anything that Aboriginal people receive, which isn’t that much. But they believe I shouldn’t be able to call myself Aboriginal.

Ginger Gorman (11:50):

This brings us to the tussle that exists between the colonial idea of what it means to be black and the cultural reality that being B-L-A-K, blak is not really about colour. Claire has written a lot about the idea of being “too white” in inverted commas.

Claire G Coleman (12:09):

It’s actually really strange. It’s hard to unpack this particular concept because it was actually white Australian culture that in order to protect whiteness, came up with the one-drop rule. The one-drop rule meaning that, anyone who had even one ancestor that could be found who was not white, that person wouldn’t be considered white so they could protect whiteness. And that was the rule that was instigated in Australia back in the 19th century, in the White Australia policy. And by that policy of course I’m not white because I’m, I have got more than one drop of Aboriginal blood. But on the other hand, there’s this perception in Australia that Aboriginal people are given special treatment or special resources just because of being Aboriginal. And there’s a belief that people pretend to be Aboriginal in order to unfairly receive these resources and receive advantage against non-Aboriginal Australians.

Claire G Coleman (13:09):

When in reality, the few times it has occurred, it’s far more rare than people think, and it’s far less likely that happens than an Aboriginal person suffers racism. That’s just a simple fact. An Aboriginal person is more likely to suffer workplace discrimination and not get a decent job, than a white person to pretend to be Aboriginal, to get an Aboriginal identified position. And also, I think in Australia, there’s this perception that Aboriginal people fit a certain stereotype, which is dark skin, uneducated, spiritual rather than material, living in a desert community and not entering the capital cities.

Claire G Coleman (13:54):

That perception is patently false. Although the common perception of Aboriginal people is dark-skinned people living in Aboriginal communities. In reality, the majority of Aboriginal people actually live in Melbourne and Sydney and Adelaide. So… I think it makes it easier for the racist culture in Australia to try and find a way to discount the Aboriginal people of mixed race, such as when Lang Hancock, Gina Rinehart’s father, called for Aboriginal people of mixed race to be all put in a camp together and for our water to be drugged to make us all sterile so that there were no more of us. There’s this, I think there’s this perception that educated, mixed-race Aboriginal people are possibly a danger to white supremacy and they want us eliminated.

Ginger Gorman (14:45):

Lang Hancock was an influential Australian mining magnate, and also the father of Australia’s richest woman, Gina Rinehart. The comment Claire is talking about was one of many overtly racist views that you might have heard politicians and business leaders spouting on the nightly news as solutions to Australia’s so-called, Aboriginal problem. Many were collated and used in the 1984 documentary “Couldn’t be fairer”.

Lang Hancock (15:18):

The ones that are no good to themselves, who can’t accept things, the half-caste, and this is where most of the trouble come. I would dope the water up so that they were sterile and would breed themselves out in future, and that would solve the problem.

Ginger Gorman (15:28):

There is a lot to hate about that clip obviously, but the thing that troubles me is that it’s so extreme, so overtly racist that it’s easy to say, that’s what racism is, extreme and overt. Most people don’t talk like that anymore. Therefore, racism is no longer a problem. But racism doesn’t just manifest in words. Here is Professor Fethi Mansouri again.

Professor Fethi Mansouri (15:56):

Just picture in your mind 1960s, Australia, right? Picture in your mind, the 1940s, 50s, America, really old forms of racism. You go, try to go into a school in suburbia in Victoria, Melbourne or whatever in America and it’ll tell you, no coloured people allowed. So that is a very good example of old forms of racism, segregation based along race lines or skin colour lines even, to be more blunt.

Now, newer forms of racism, they much less about that, open segregation, discrimination and much more about how we are treating, we are dealing with groups which come from those minoritised backgrounds, indigenous backgrounds, recently arrived migrants who are not from English-speaking backgrounds and it varies a lot. There is a spectrum of racist behaviour and racist ideologies, which go from a name-calling to very subtle avoidance strategies.

Ginger Gorman (16:59):


Professor Fethi Mansouri (16:59):

And then there is even more than that, there is the neighbourhoods where by it’s not segregation as such, but when certain communities apply to set up or to establish religious buildings for practice, for whole of neighbourhoods come together and say, no, we do not want that. We are predominantly this, we do not want that. And that’s not because we don’t like Muslims or we don’t like Buddhists or Jews or whatever, but simply it’s just not who we are and we prefer not to upset the status quo here. So you see it from urban planning, you see from the makeup of school leaderships, you see it even of the makeup of university leadership.

Professor Fethi Mansouri (17:39):

There was a recent survey done by the Australian Human Rights Commission, whereby shockingly almost 98% of university senior exec were of a particular ethnocultural background, which is White Anglo-Saxon almost. Shocking in this day and age when you think about how many working people in universities come from different backgrounds. What it is really is, a system of oppression. That’s, I mean, it’s always about oppression, racism. It’s about conveying an ideology, a belief that some social groups are inherently superior to other social groups on the basis of cultural, ethnic, religious background. Yeah? So, it’s that systematic belief that there is a hierarchy, if you like, of different groups and that one group is better than the others. And therefore that group is entitled to a preferential treatment.

Ginger Gorman (18:39):

Why does it matter that, we talk about and think about racism and work towards trying to reduce and get rid of it in society?

Professor Fethi Mansouri (18:49):

It matters for so many reasons. There should not be now, even before or in the future, there should not be a basis for any system, whether it’s system dealing with institutional arrangements, that is citizenship for instance, the provision of judicial justice, a system that deals with economic distribution of resources, interpersonal, even relationships, there really should be no basis for any system that would take as part of its core assumptions, that there’s a hierarchy whereby someone by right of birth has a better set of features that will entitle them to a differential treatment. That goes against all the beliefs around social justice. If we don’t do that, what we’ll end up with is that a significant proportions of our communities and societies are basically hampered and constrained and not allowed to achieve their full potential, and not allowed to make the contributions they can make to society. And so, there’s a loss to society as a matter of fact, not just loss to those individuals impacted by racism, but to all of us as a society, as a result of perpetuating and enduring system of structural inequality and oppression.

Ginger Gorman (20:13):

Claire talked anecdotally about the traumatizing effect of growing up with racism. What does the research tell us about the impact of racism on kids? In 2009, Fethi led a study with the Foundation of Young Australians and Deakin University that examined this with over 800 young Australians from across the country. School dropout and social disengagement were impacts, but the most frequently recorded impacts resulting from the experience of racist behavior were feeling angry and frustrated, and feelings of not belonging to the local community.

Professor Fethi Mansouri (20:50):

Many of them talked specifically about the mental burden of experiencing racism in particular, in formal institutional settings, like in schools and the difficulties they had in even talking about it, reporting it to teachers and to school leaders. In that study the proportion of people who said, we at least experienced racism once over the last year or so was extremely high.

Ginger Gorman (21:16):

Over 70%.

Professor Fethi Mansouri (21:17):

That is an extremely high number.

Ginger Gorman (21:19):

It’s incredible, isn’t it? And then you’ve not just got health and mental health impacts. Presumably there’s a massive economic cost to this, Fethi.

Professor Fethi Mansouri (21:28):

Absolutely. And actually one of the, my colleagues was co-author of this book, Amanuel Elias, his all doctoral research was on looking at the economic cost of racism. Really for Australia, it’s in the billions of dollars. Why it’s billions of dollars?

Because of lost productivity. When people are not mentally well, when they’re suffering as a result of racism, even if they turn up to work, productivity will be diminished. But in many cases they cannot even turn up to work because they are not able to go and engage. And you can add to that other lost productivity in relation to education, how education is impacted negatively by racism. And you look at careers and career pathways, which are detrimentally impacted, but when you really quantify all of that economically in terms of what we lose as a society, it’s unmeasurable in many ways, but if you want to measure it’ll be in the billions of dollars. I can assure you of that.

Ginger Gorman (22:26):

After our interview, Fethi sent me information on the estimated figure on lost productivity, linked to the health impacts of racism measured in GDP terms. His colleague and co-lead author, Amanuel Elias, is the expert in this and the reported economic cost of the experience of racial discrimination, ranges between $21.1 and $54.7 billion.

Look, the truth is I actually find it really depressing that we have to make an argument in dollar figures to make folks pay attention.

Stepping back to the impacts of racism on young people when it comes to reducing the problem, schools and education are great places to begin undoing some of this damage.

Marc Fennell (23:14):

If you take racism and boil it down to its attendant elements, every single one of us, no matter the color of our skin or our gender identity, we all have biases.

Ginger Gorman (23:25):

You probably know Marc Fennell from a bunch of documentaries on SBS and ABC, and also his podcasts like, Stuff The British Stole.

Marc Fennell (23:35):

There is all sort of arguments why evolutionarily people have used stereotypes and things like that. But at its core, we all kind of form quick snap stereotype judgments on different people. Those eventually sort of calcify into biases and when you start making decisions on them, they turn into prejudices, and when it gets out of hand, that’s your capital-R racism.

Ginger Gorman (23:55):

This is the idea that motivated Marc to take on the ABC TV project, the school that tried to end racism. The show explored a primary school-based program aimed at arming kids with the ability to identify racial bias and make positive changes.

Marc Fennell (24:12):

The thing is, when you say the word racism, or you call somebody racist or you say, “hey, that thing you did, I think is racist”. Let me tell you, you’re not going to get a good reaction to that person. It never works because everybody, and this doesn’t matter the color of your skin, because certainly white people do not have the monopoly on racism, right? The moment you accuse somebody of that, they fall into a defensive mode, no matter how nice they are as a person.

Ginger Gorman (24:37):


Marc Fennell (24:38):

So I find that moment very hard to navigate, right? So it’s actually… The thing that struck me about I was like, okay, if we can roll back from that point, if we start to be aware of how we form stereotypes and how those things turn into biases, and how that turns into prejudice, if we can start to kind of get some literacy around that and identify it, there’s a lot of things that we could stop before they turn into racism. No one’s suggesting it’s solvable in its entirety, but if we start to be cognisant of how those ideas form, and we start to give kids tools for how to identify it in a way that is constructive, in a way that is restorative, in a way that brings everyone along for the run, then it becomes a solvable problem.

Ginger Gorman (25:19):

Marc says the project is about first understanding ourselves.

Marc Fennell (25:25):

No matter where we are on that spectrum of privilege and race and all those other things that we like to categorise people with. It’s about working out where are we within that, and what’s the baggage we carry out into the world.

Ginger Gorman (25:36):

But here’s what Marc didn’t expect from the project.

Marc Fennell (25:40):

Well, there’s a few things I didn’t expect, was how game the kids were. You hear all the time about kids brains just being geared for knowledge and absorbing information. But sometimes when you presented with it enmasse staring in front of a primary school, it’s like, “Oh, you’re so ready for this”. And these weren’t just the gifted kids, right? These were, it’s actually quite a good cross-section of kids from across the academic spectrum. And they were so ready to absorb it and challenge ideas and engage on it.

Ginger Gorman (26:05):

It was amazing.

Marc Fennell (26:06):

And I thought it was really impressive.

Ginger Gorman (26:07):

Oh Marc, I cried through the whole thing. I just found it so profound, the realisations that they were having about themselves, their identities and each other and the kindness that was coming out in them, it sounds simplistic but it was absolutely profound. I was in floods of tears. I have to throw in a kind of fire bomb here though. The evidence and research is showing that racism in schools is worsening in Australia. And the question I have for you is from your experience with the school that tried to end racism, did that seem like the case to you?

Marc Fennell (26:56):

I think it’d be completely disingenuous to say it was a school filled with raging racist children. It certainly was not. And I… It definitely wasn’t, but we all carry with us those stereotypes and biases and certainly they were present within that school, right? And so it doesn’t overly surprise me that it’s still very present in schools and getting worse because it’s still very present in society and probably getting worse. And to large degrees, schools are a byproduct of parents. And I think media is a big component, but particularly when you get into primary school, they’ve all got these hidden TikTok and Instagram accounts they’re not supposed to have. I think those things feed into it as well. So, I would observe as an adult that there’s a high level of racism and intolerance in the adult population. The idea that racism in schools is getting worse, to me is an indicator that racism in Australia at large is probably getting worse.

Ginger Gorman (27:51):

But you do seem to see some hope here, Marc. So, what steps do you think could be taken to reverse this current trend where racism is in fact getting worse in this country?

Marc Fennell (28:06):

The school tried to and racism taught me that these are solvable problems, right? I’m not necessarily suggesting and no one actually is suggesting that exact program should be rolled out in schools, but there are versions of it that are being run in different places around Australia. And I think it’s really… The program, it was a pilot program to kind of see what aspects of it worked. It was also a pilot program to show what it could look like. One thing we’ve known, one thing we know is from looking at the US is anytime somebody tries to bring anti-racism lessons into a classroom, there is a certain cabal of commentators that go absolutely to town on it and try and turn it into something, this ridiculous boogeyman that it is not. And I think part of why programs like that, television programs like that, are worthwhile is to actually show people what it actually looks like in class and not let that be dictated by some ridiculous tabloid newspaper.

So I think part of the project is kind of give people some visibility into, okay, so this is what a version of what it looks like. So I have hope because I, the pilot program we did, showed me that there was a marked change. I’m not suggesting that program should represent qualtitative academic research, although it was certainly informed by it. But I would argue that the principles of it worked. And I think it, I would argue as a parent that I think there’s value in aspects of it being rolled out in schools, across Australia. Now I can say that till I’m blue in the face, ultimately that is a decision for Departments of Education, principals, teachers – they have to take up that mantle but they listen to parents, right? Because parents vote.

Marc Fennell (29:38):

And I was inundated with parents and families that watched together. And I think I would just say, if you think it will work for your kids, if you think it would work in your school community, now is the time to start talking to teachers, now is the time to start talking to principals and now’s the time to start talking to departments of education or ministers of education. If you think you want your kids to have a more holistic understanding of what makes them different and what makes them the same as other people and strengthen those bonds by understanding difference.

Ginger Gorman (30:11):

For what it’s worth, Professor Fethi Mansouri doesn’t think Australia is a racist society.

Professor Fethi Mansouri (30:18):

We were always very careful about language. Language is very powerful and I never would use the word racist society, for instance. I say there is racism in our society, we are not a racist society because by saying we are racist society, we somehow characterise everything in this society to be racist deliberately. That is really a very problematic statement to make, but definitely there is racism in our society. Definitely the situation’s not getting better, definitely we need to have some more meaningful, deeper interventions in key institutions. How do we start doing that? The first thing we should start doing is actually talking about it. And what is happening right now, Ginger is that, some political leaders do not even accept that we have this problem. So where…You cannot really start making inroads if you’re not even accepting that we do have a problem, this is a generational issue and it requires this kind of commitment.

Professor Fethi Mansouri (31:17):

So we start with our kids, start with schooling. But to do schooling properly, look at our teacher training programs. To do that properly, you look at all sorts of other things that come into it. Then we can talk about corporate leadership, we can talk about political representation, we can talk about economic justice. All of those things can come into it. Yes, certainly dealing with the short term problems in ways that you can try to improve as much as you can, but have a mid to long term agenda and commitment that we do not want to be in the same situation in 20, 30 years time.

Ginger Gorman (31:50):

I’ll give the final word on this issue to Claire G Coleman reading from her book, Lies, Damned Lies.

Claire G Coleman (32:00):

Words are weapons, stories are dangerous for they define who we are. They define our history, they can be weaponised. Stories and history are tools and weapons of war, stories can be used as part of genocide because if you say people extinct, other people might believe it. Stories can be part of genocide, because you can use stories to erase a culture.

Ginger Gorman (32:30):

Thanks for listening to Seriously Social, I’m Ginger Gorman. And if you’re enjoying the podcast, one of the best ways to support us is to subscribe. And if you listen through apple podcasts, drop a review in there for us as well. We love reading them and it helps other people find us. Seriously Social is produced by Kim Lester, engineered by Mark Gageldonk aka Baldy, and executive produced by Sue White and Bonnie Johnson. It’s an initiative of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. Next time from, ‘Its time’ to ‘Yes we can’. The rise of the campaign speech and the inspiring words stay with us long after they are first spoken. See you next time.

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