I’m Not Racist, But…Forty Years of the Racial Discrimination Act | Tim Soutphommasane | NewSouth Books
Is Australia a racist country? Tim Soutphommasane, Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner, opens with this question in his book I’m Not Racist, But…Forty Years of the Racial Discrimination Act.
While this question may provoke an emotional reaction because it supports a lived experience, or defensiveness because it challenges the moral character of the Australian identity, it is this kind of singular question that implies racism is a simple conversation. It isn’t. Rather, it is a contentious, uncomfortable topic filled with taboos.
Any conversation about racism in Australia needs to stem from an appreciation for the history of race in Australia, including the implementation and implications of Australia’s first national human rights legislation: the Racial Discrimination Act 1975. Soutphommasane details this history in the book and commends the Act as being “a landmark achievement that punctuated the dismantling of the White Australia policy and the inception of Australian racial equality”.
Unfortunately there is still a legacy of racism in Australian society. Soutphommasane highlights this by analysing the considerations of the ‘freedom of speech’, and examining casual racism, empathy, privilege and civility.
He makes it clear that it is what we do and don’t do that defines us as a society; encouraging us to understand racism more wholly, and thus providing a better framework to respond to discrimination and prejudice.
Further adding to the strength of the book is the inclusion of personal reflections by some of Australia’s most influential social commentators: Maxine Beneba Clarke, Bindi Cole Chocka, Benjamin Law, Alice Pung and Christos Tsiolkas.
But as Beneba Clarke says in her reflection on casual racism: “Racism may be a fearful thing to tackle, but our silence is what allows that fearful thing to propagate”.
It is through these reflections that complex lived perspectives are shared, like Law’s essay that talks about identity: “Just because we should treat each other with equal respect doesn’t mean everyone’s the same…I don’t mind being identified as Chinese – it’s accurate, for starters – as long as you see me as more than that”.
While praise is accorded for Soutphommasane’s articulation and insight, there is one thing that marginally offsets the strength of the book—his use of the term ‘should’. Psychologically speaking, use of the word ‘should’ can lead to feelings of disempowerment and reinforces the negative. Soutphommasane’s fallback on ‘should’ in his recommendations and arguments directly conflicts with the overarching stance he adopts in the book, which is the belief and encouragement of our society to strive to be at its best.
Sadly, there is still far to go before racism no longer exists in Australia. “The law can only ever do so much, unless there is also an honest recognition from society about racism,” Soutphommasane argues. But as Beneba Clarke says in her reflection on casual racism: “Racism may be a fearful thing to tackle, but our silence is what allows that fearful thing to propagate”. Her essay was republished from Right Now’s essay series, in a piece titled ‘No Singular Revelation’.
Australians will get an opportunity to exercise their voice in the constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples at referendum, which is the book’s closing call for action.
“Without a change, It seems difficult to see how a society could be serious about equal citizenship and the rejection of racial discrimination,” Soutphommasane says.
The referendum date is yet to be announced, however Opposition Leader Bill Shorten last week proposed that the referendum date should fall on the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum on 27 May 2017. Last week also saw The State of Reconciliation In Australia report released by Reconciliation Australia, which is the first of its kind since 2000 and highlights what has been achieved and recommendations on how we can progress.
Racism and its surrounding issues can be confronting and overwhelming but it is books like I’m Not Racist, But…Forty Years of the Racial Discrimination Act that help make it easier. It is a comprehensive look at racism in Australia and the role of legislation in shaping our society’s response to discrimination, but most importantly, it empowers the reader with the vocabulary and understanding to intellectually engage with the complex topic of racism. And an empowered society is where real change happens.
Samantha Jones is a communications professional, writer and performer, with a passion for arts and human rights. She tweets @typesamantha.