Are we ready to rise up against racism in Australia?

25 March 2019
Why we still struggle to address racial discrimination and how to get past this problem
Political philosopher Tim Soutphommasane and journalist Osman Faruqi had a timely conversation about hate and race politics in Australia, to mark the UN International Day for Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
Professor Tim Soutphommsane, photo by Bill Green

Pictured: Professor Tim Soutphommsane at Sydney Ideas event 'On hate and race politics'. Photo by Bill Green

“Talking about racism isn’t divisive. Responding to it isn’t divisive. Perpetrating it is divisive," said Tim Soutphommasane, the former Race Discrimination Commissioner and now Professor of Practice at the University of Sydney.

In an extensive conversation with Faruqi at a Sydney Ideas event, Professor Soutphommasane called for an end to a false equivalence in public discourse between racism and anti-racism. Observing the challenges in calling out racism, he said there is a tendency among Australians to view race issues as being primarily about “harmony”, as opposed to the task of dealing with discrimination.

“We struggle to name racism, even when the rest of the world is talking about it, even when there is permission to talk about racial discrimination,” said Professor Soutphommasane.  

The rise of a new hate

In his latest book, On Hate, Professor Soutphommasane charts the troubling rise of nationalist populism.

He argues the events of the year 2018 represented a new normalisation of hate and racism, culminating in Government senators voting in support of Pauline Hanson’s infamous “It’s ok to be white” motion in the Senate (support later retracted).

That motion in November 2018 followed the maiden speech of Queensland senator Fraser Anning, who called for a “final solution” to Australia’s immigration problem.

“In the space of just two months, we went from consensus in condemning racism and bigotry to then an endorsement. That was pretty instructive,” said Professor Soutphommasane.

What can be done?

Professor Soutphommasane pointed to the need for a reset of our political response to racism and far-right extremism, following the recent terror attack in Christchurch.

This could include, he argued, new government funding of a national anti-racism campaign, a strengthening of hate speech laws, and a resolution to end race politics.

It's essential that as a society we renew our commitment to anti-racism and equality. If we don't get this right, what we end up with is ugliness and violence,” he said.

According to him, the media also has a responsibility to scrutinise extremist ideas, rather than providing far-right advocates with a soft platform.

“It's very clear that far right elements internationally are becoming more sophisticated at concealing or disguising their ideas and doctrines so that they appear benign and reasonable.”

Learn more and get involved

Two months into his return to academia, Professor Soutphommasane says he will continue to be a voice in public debates about human rights and race.

During the next twelve months, as part of his role as the University’s first Professor of Practice, he will deliver a series of public lectures on leadership in human rights and democratic politics.

He will also work with the Business School to institute an executive education program on cultural diversity and leadership, and collaborate with Sydney Policy Lab to hold an anti-racism advocacy workshop for civil society leaders.

According to Professor Soutphommasane, “The University plays an important role in leading and shaping so many of our public debates – this naturally includes on matters of race and cultural diversity.”

Listen to the conversation in full on the Sydney Ideas podcast, available on SoundCloudApple Podcasts and wherever you listen.

The podcast was recorded at ‘On hate and race politics’ on Thursday 21 March, 2019. This was a Sydney Ideas event co-presented with Sydney Policy Lab and School of Political and Social Sciences.

Lead image and photography by Bill Green.

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