Is Australia racist? This question comes up from time to time, both in the local commentariat and internationally. It may be prompted by an event in indigenous politics, or by the brutality of off-shore detention for asylum seekers arriving by boat, or by a politician stating a person has the ‘right to be a bigot‘. Sure, these are racist moments, or have the potential to foster racism among some. But it is a different question when someone asks, ‘is Australia racist?’ The problem is that the question itself is racist. It assumes that Australia has a known identity, which is white and derived from Europe. Everyone who does not have such an identity is therefore the other against which ‘Australia’ is opposed – even indigenous people. I am reminded of a German visitor, who opined one evening in a restaurant: ‘we’re the only table of Australians; all the rest are Chinese’. Chances are that more than 90% of those he viewed as ‘Chinese’ were also Australian.
Obviously, this is problematic and indeed incorrect. To begin with, the assertion of a distinct and known identity is voiced by an increasingly vocal minority. The more they assert such an identity, the more clearly is it under question. The reality is that Australia is in the middle of a long debate concerning identity. With the demographic and geopolitical changes of the last 60 years, people argue whether to hold onto a faded colonial heritage or whether we need to come to terms with the reality of being a country in between the Pacific and South-East Asia. The latter is as much a cultural and economic fact, as it is a geographical one. The last election in 2013 was a good symbol of this, with a Chinese speaking Labor leader (Kevin Rudd) firmly focused on Asia, and an English immigrant keen to kiss the queen of England’s hand (Tony Abbott).
Other indicators of this search for a new identity may be found in the responses of many visitors. I find that visitors who come here for the first time tend to have a certain preconception that is blown out of the water when they get here. Europeans are thrown since the expected codes from home are reconfigured and indeed absent. The increasing number of first-time visitors from Asia whom I encounter keep saying to me that Australia is nothing like they expected (i.e. Western and European). Perhaps it is telling that even the BBC lists Australia under its Asian section.