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Racism in public: why the majority will be silent no longer

In response to a number of highly publicised events where people from minority religious, ethnic or other cultural backgrounds have been approached on public transport and subjected to a tirade of racist…

Video recorded on cameraphones, such as this from a Melbourne train, is proof that people are willing to shame racism in public and no longer be the ‘silent majority’. Fairfax Media

In response to a number of highly publicised events where people from minority religious, ethnic or other cultural backgrounds have been approached on public transport and subjected to a tirade of racist abuse in Melbourne, columnist Tim Soutphommasane wrote in The Age earlier this month that while racism cannot be entirely eradicated from society, it is time that onlookers confronted acts of public racism as a matter of civic responsibility.

In particular, he pointed out that some of the most harmful long-term effects of racism on individuals is not the hate-filled intent of the minority who engage in racial abuse. Though such experiences are rightly terrifying, the real harm is caused by the silence of the majority, who do nothing to stand up for victims but instead look away. The effect of this for the abuser is a sense of entitlement that they are representing the majority view. For the victim, it is a feeling that the majority somehow condone these acts, or at the very least are unmoved by them.

In the events depicted by Soutphommasane - including a recent verbal attack on a French tourist on a Frankston-line bus - the majority of passengers captured on mobile phone footage did not challenge the perpetrator, but merely watched on.

The more recent case of a woman who racially abused a man of African background on a Melbourne train, however - telling him that her grandfather had gone to war to keep the country free of people like him - was met with a very different response. Instead of remaining silent, a large number of angry passengers confronted the woman, rejecting the version of Australia that she claimed to represent and supporting the victim.

The exchange, which was captured on mobile phone and later distributed through mainstream media outlets shows the woman’s surprise when her views are loudly denounced by the majority, including by a man who tells her: “if this is your country then I don’t want to live here”. The victim of the abuse later claimed that it was “beautiful” that the train stood up for him and supported his right to travel freely through the city without being subjected to racial abuse.

So, what does this tell us about racism in Melbourne, and how does this reflect on the “silent majority”? Firstly, we can no longer assume that the “majority” belong to a dominant ethnic or cultural heritage. Rather, the people that we sit next to on public transport more often than not come from a wide range of ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds. The natural outcome of this is that for the perpetrators of racial abuse and violence, they can no longer seek the cover of the silent majority.

Public manifestations in Australia of racism and xenophobia reached its zenith with the 2005 Cronulla race riots. AAP/Paul Miller

Also, the majority is silent no longer. This has a lot to do with the access that people now have to camera phones and social media channels, meaning that incidents of racial abuse and violence in public space are no longer visible only to the few who are present in that time and place. Instead, these instances are broadcast to a mass audience that is increasingly angry and vocal about such incidents and the way it portrays Australia as a reflection of ourselves and to other nations.

Thinking positively, incidents such as these can often lead to much needed debate about the kind of Australians we want to be, and the kind of country we want to live in. Much to the surprise of the woman on the train, the majority didn’t support her version of Australia - one that she claims her grandfather fought to protect.

As Anzac Day approaches, it is a good reminder that the kind of jingoism, racism and xenophobia that this day unfortunately inspires for some does not represent the majority view. Instead, we should be heartened that this woman while projecting her own racist and exclusionary version of Australia was shouted down by the majority. The actions of this new majority, who refused to remain silent when confronted with racism, contribute to the building of new legacies, inclusive of all Australians.

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  1. Stephen Ralph

    carer

    human beings can be a stupid lot.

    but whilst i don't wan to deny the problem of racism, again it needs to be put into a global and historical context.

    it would be very hard to nominate a country where a greater or lesser degree of racism didn't occur.
    that doesn't offer any excuse for one person to abuse another based on race (or a whole lot of things really).

    interesting that in the cronulla riots, it was often children from migration of the 50s & 60s abusing those later migrants of the…

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    1. In reply to James Hill

      Comment removed by moderator.

    2. Stephen Ralph

      carer

      In reply to James Hill

      who isn't a migrant to this country.... whether it's yesterday or 60,000 years ago.

      like it or not there isn't a pure breed country in the world.

      may be a few tribes here and there at best - but they will not be around in 100 years.

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    3. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Sorry, Stephen, but that comment about migrants abusing migrants does not quite hold.
      The "Shire" or Sutherland Shire, scene of the Cronulla riots was out of the price range of the factory fodder imported into Australia, in the fifties and sixties, to take the low paying jobs that were not good enough for well established third and fourth generation Australians.
      So unless you can argue that they were all trained in from the western suburbs of Sydney at the call of radio shock jocks, then you might just have to recognise that at the Cronulla riots it was the long-term locals repeating their long-term behaviour of abusing migrants.
      Lee Qwan Yu, former Prime Minister of Singapore had something to say about Australian arrogance towards outsiders, apparently too racist to repeat on The Conversation.
      But his prediction appears to be coming true.
      The Asian century will have its poor trash come the Abbott recession.

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    4. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Leigh Burrell

      Apparently a well known public quote from the former Prime Minister of Singapore must be moderated.

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    5. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Passing the buck for the Cronulla riots on to the descendants of the immediate post-war migrants, who were themselves subject to racism, is just a little bit too cute and borders on abuse itself.
      Sorry, Stephen, you are, in my opinion, wrong to do so.

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    6. Stephen Ralph

      carer

      In reply to James Hill

      hi james

      from the footage (and there was lots) it doesn't look like well-heeled rebellious tykes, but more angry young men carrying on like animals let out of the cage.

      me thinks they came from near and far - the internet is a powerful gatherer of the so called "dispossessed".

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  2. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    Certainly it is great to see that some people were prepared to stand up to an abusive woman but I suspect there will always be the situation of who is doing the abusing too.

    I recall that the abuse on the bus referred to in this article came from a man and no doubt whether they be male or female, such people are likely to be of a belligerent nature and so obviously people need to look at just what action may be best.
    Film, it, report it and even advise authorities ASAP so as the culprit may be apprehended or the chance of that increased but go past that and get involved with the perpetrator and one could end up in a physical confrontation with who knows what result.

    So before we start telling people to remain the silent majority no longer, perhaps we also need to educate people on how to handle situations.

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    1. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Trevor Kerr

      I hope I'd have the courage, but both Greg and Trevor make a fair point.

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  3. James Hill

    Industrial Designer

    And yet that majority are set to give all power to the racist religious conservatives in September.
    That is exactly what the Turn Back the Boats slogan is, racism, impure and simple.
    Abbott will destroy our relations with our neighbours and breed dissension in the local community.
    It is called divide and conquer, the ancient and unspoken policy of the religious conservative.
    Don't know about that? You'll find out soon enough how good conservatives are at drumming up law and order campaigns to bolster their re-election.

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    1. John Phillip
      John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Grumpy Old Man

      In reply to James Hill

      James, you really are over simplifying things to suit your political bent. There are many reasons with NOTHING to do with race for the turn back the boats approach not the least of which is to prevent more drownings. Your assertions re Abbott and 'the conservatives' (whoever they might be) border on the lunatic fringe of paranoid and can only be considered as humourous hyperbole.

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    2. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to John Phillip

      As you wish, John, but our immediate Asian neighbours might develop a different view.
      They will not be amused by an Abbott administration repeating the embarrassing arrogance displayed towards our neighbours while in opposition and confirmed by the election of an Abbott government.
      Walk a mile in their shoes before you discount their view points.

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  4. Mat Hardy

    Lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University

    You've got to laugh at someone who thinks that Australians signed up for World War 2 in order to keep migration policy strong.

    Laugh...or maybe weep at the utter bone-headed stupidity of it.

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  5. Michael Vagg

    Clinical Senior Lecturer at Deakin University School of Medicine & Pain Specialist at Barwon Health

    Thanks for this very thoughtful article Amelia. As a returned service member ( Timor Leste) I have often found it sad that ANZAC Day brings out mindless xenophobia in some people. Particularly when one reflects on the sacrifices that our Asia-Pacific neighbours made as part of protecting our island. The people of Timor lost nearly a tenth of their population as reprisal for helping prevent their country being used as a springboard to attack Darwin, and that debt went unpaid until InterFET helped liberate them 50 years later.
    We live in a connected, interdependent world, and I agree it is heartening that maybe the tide is turning against such casual racism and xenophobia.

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  6. Felix MacNeill

    Environmental Manager

    Well, both my grandfathers fought (one in WW1 and the other in WW2 - both fibbed about their age one way or the other!) and I can tell you with great confidence that, though both were by nature quiet men, that woman on the train would have copped a piece of both their minds for that kind of crap.

    They were both well aware of what they at least intended to fight for and it was to do with freedom and a fair go for all (cliched as that might sound and imperfect as the reality might have been). Anzac Day is indeed a good time to remember - but let's remember the truth, not concocted lies.

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    1. Rafe Gee

      Engineer

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      Over the past few months I have experienced racism on several occasions and it sickens me, to the point where I am ashamed of my Australian citizenship. This hasn't been from drunk belligerent yobbos but from middle aged people who you would have trouble telling apart in a crowd.

      Draw you own conclusions from this, just sharing my experiences.

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    2. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      Meant to add, I myself now find that the sight of an Australian flag displayed sends a shiver down my spine - not much different from the sight of a swastika.

      I never particularly wanted to wave 'my' national flag, but I didn't expect or want to be ashamed of it.

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    3. John Phillip
      John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Grumpy Old Man

      In reply to Rafe Gee

      Rafe, I empathise with you. I loathe such bigotry and try to at least say something when it rears itrs ugly head. I am, however, proud of this country and its flag. Don't let the bigots among us take that away from you.

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  7. Che Gorilla

    Human Rights Activist

    Are anti-racists a majority?

    Certainly non-racists are a majority among the general population but there should be no doubt that among the political left and especially in the universities racism in its ugliest possible form is as virulent as it has ever been since the thirties.

    Antizionism is the new antisemitism.

    If you cannot accept that truth it is because you are a welded on racist to the core of your bones. As bad as they get.

    http://geofffff.blogspot.com.au/

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    1. Stephen Ralph

      carer

      In reply to Che Gorilla

      i hear you.....but unfortunately in many ways zionists make it so easy for many to lash out against.

      and again some may see zionism as another form of racism.

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    2. Che Gorilla

      Human Rights Activist

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Huh ha

      And the Jews were responsible for the Nazis, African Americans are to blame for the Ku Klux Klan and women are to blame for rape.

      Hear that. Then the next time you hear a vile lying antisemitic vilification from the antizionist left and especially Stuart Lees and his ugly publicly funded little group of bigots you might decide to hear a little more closely to what they are really saying.

      Antizionism is the new antisemitism. How can there possibly be any doubt about this?

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    3. Che Gorilla

      Human Rights Activist

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Then you need to look into your soul.

      This anti-Israel hysteria everywhere,especially in the universities, based entirely on lies and ideology from an era best left to history as a memorial to how ugly and stupid humans can get, has to be confronted for what it is.

      Racism. Pure and simple. You should hang your head in shame.

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    4. Stephen Ralph

      carer

      In reply to Che Gorilla

      i don't hang my head in shame and probably like every person on the planet i can not honestly say that in truth i am not racist in some small way..........but i where it exists in me it is a reasonably eclectic and a small "r" racism.

      no race is perfect and none can even pretend to be.

      we all hold inherited thoughts and opinions that have been inculcated into our brains, and inherit cultural stereotyping from the moment we first breathe. for most of us we spend a lifetime cutting away the…

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    5. Che Gorilla

      Human Rights Activist

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      "Zionism is viewed by critics as a system that fosters apartheid and racism***"

      Only by racists.

      There is no longer any excuse for this muck. Those who speak like this should be treated with the same contempt as those who half a generation earlier demanded Aborigines be kept out of the clubs and pubs and down the back of the bus.

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    6. Che Gorilla

      Human Rights Activist

      In reply to Che Gorilla

      And a generation earlier were smashing the windows of "Zionist" shops in Berlin.

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    7. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Che Gorilla

      Surely the anti-Zionism which you decry is simply an extension of anti-semitism since Jewish and Arabic people count themselves as descendants of the Patriarch Abraham.

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    8. John Perry

      Teacher

      In reply to Che Gorilla

      Zionism is a political ideology. Plenty of fundamentalist Christians in the US and in other places call themselves Zionists (for rather disturbing religious reasons, but that's another story). Plenty of Jews (including some people I know) are not Zionists.

      Zionism and Judaism are two different things. And there are plenty of Israeli Jews who disagree, at times very strongly, with the policies of their country's government and the direction of the society that at heart they feel very closely linked to.

      Therefore, please don't conflate "anti-Zionism" with antisemitism. Just because I disagree with Israel's social policies does not make me a hard core racist. Any such accusation is really just rabble-rousing.

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    9. Che Gorilla

      Human Rights Activist

      In reply to John Perry

      Antizionism is something much much more than "disagreeing with the policies of their country's government and the direction of the society that at heart they feel very closely linked to" or whatever other crap you want to come up with to justify the most pernicious form of racism to emerge since the downfall of the Nazis.

      Your reference to "fundamentalist religion", as if it was the Zionists and their friends among decent Christians, who are the problem, says it all really about where you are…

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    10. John Perry

      Teacher

      In reply to Che Gorilla

      "I think you are lying. I don't think you know any Jews at all."

      Think what you like. I KNOW you are wrong in your assumption. I live in Melbourne and I am surrounded by Jews of every stripe imaginable. I have learned a number of traditional dances from Israeli friends and played in a number of performances of Klezmer music. But why I'm bothered to tell you this, I'm not sure, as you will no doubt call me a liar again. Besides that, this comment

      "It's time that antizionists everywhere were purged from the public payroll and refused access to children. Exactly as if they were paid up members of the Ku Klux Klan"

      shows just how unhinged your arguments are.

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    11. Che Gorilla

      Human Rights Activist

      In reply to John Perry

      Surrounded by Jews?

      Geez mate. Life must be a horror for you.

      I don't believe for a second that you know people "who are Jews and antizionist".

      I still don't. For sure they exist but they are so few you could name them all on 30 seconds reflection.

      You need to stop dancing and look into your soul. This is not about you. Racism is never about the racists. Least of all when it is so common.

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  8. Jim KABLE

    teacher

    I find it heartening that others are speaking up against the racist abuse being suffered on public transport - and I've dived in there myself, too - and reported on it elsewhere. But I see the futility in the latest case of the woman who is claiming to be doing no more than carry on the work/thinking of a grand-father who fought for this country to keep others out. How do any of us know for what reason our elders went to war? During the Great War - my English-born grand-father enlisted around the…

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    1. Neil James

      Executive Director, Australia Defence Association

      In reply to Jim KABLE

      There is always a danger of over-simplification or ideological bias when modern Australians discuss Australia's strategic situation preceding and during both World Wars - and indeed later conflicts such as Korea, Confrontation and Vietnam.

      But even greater obstacles to objectivity, usually unconsciously, are the historiographical process traps of "presentism", the "condescension of posterity" and "short-termism".

      Presentism involves projecting the often quite different attitudes and assumptions…

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  9. Neil James

    Executive Director, Australia Defence Association

    Most Australians would rightly condemn racist views expressed in public and privately.

    But moral and intellectual consistency, and objectivity, are important as subliminal biases are pervasive, especially whgere facts and contexts are forgotten or deliberately omitted.

    For example, the caption to one of the photos in Amelia's article is "Public manifestations in Australia of racism and xenophobia reached its zenith with the 2005 Cronulla race riots."

    But is this true? Is it the whole picture…

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  10. Neil James

    Executive Director, Australia Defence Association

    On the subject of Anzac Day, the ADA view is that this is a day to commemorate the sacrifices in war made by current and past generations of Australian military personnel and their families. Sacrifices so the Australia of today is secure, free, prosperous and even complacent or ignorant to some extent about the nature and scale of such sacrifices,

    This is also surely why Anzac Day involves such broad community participation - and across age, gender, socio-economic and ethnic groups.

    It is…

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    1. Stephen Ralph

      carer

      In reply to Neil James

      this is almost the default australia day where everyday australians pay tribute to those who fought (and died) in our wars....

      a chance to humbly say thanks for freedoms we may take for granted and for sacrifices made.

      it is not in many ways a day for pomp and ceremony, but for families to pay homage to our forebears.

      there but for the grace of the gods........

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  11. Pat Moore

    gardener

    "Che Gorilla" (and hail to the spirit of the real Che')

    John Perry and others carefully explained to you that Zionism is a political ideology, not a race of people. It is a nationalist political movement of which incidentally German writer GW Sebald observed, arose at the same time and place in pre-WWI Germany as National Socialism. Educated people, including Jews themselves, do not confuse it with Jewishness and being critical of it is not being anti-Semitic.

    You are angrily and hysterically…

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