Jarni Blakkarly reviews “I’m Not Racist But…” by Tim Soutphommasane
by Tim Soutphommasane
New South Books
Reviewed by JARNI BLAKKARLY
Discussion about race and racism has been forcing its confrontational self into Australia’s mainstream public sphere quite a bit lately. It has been so visible and tangible that it’s becoming increasingly difficult for those who would rather not discuss it to ignore the topic entirely. Adam Goodes has brought it to prime-time Footy. Low-quality videos filmed on the smartphones on public transport have brought to YouTube. A bunch of burly men with neo-Nazi tattoos violently shouting on the streets about Muslims taking over the country has brought it to our evening news. These are incidents, which most of the righteous chorus of well-meaning voices are willing, even proud, to condemn. However, for many taking the discussion one-step further is where you hit a snag. Tim Soutphommasane’s latest book I’m Not Racist But… addresses those voices.
The book, which has been published to mark the 40th anniversary of Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act (RDA), invites the reader to examine the larger story of race in Australia’s identity. With both broad strokes and fine detail Soutphommasane paints the picture beyond the news-cycle statements of Andrew Bolt and former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, beyond the superficial utterances of condemnation, which tends to consume all the space for cultural dialogue provided to the topic. With a detailed examination ranging from European invasion and the Stolen Generation, White Australia and Reclaim Australia, Soutphommasane walks a line somewhere between history, essay and think-piece.
For the most part it comes off, though there are times it feels slow as it goes through a fair amount of ‘Racism 101’ before moving into more in depth discussion. Soutphommasane leads his target audience towards better understanding the idea of an underpinning systematic racism deeply ingrained in the Australian psyche and existence; he leads slowly and gently. He also seeks to bring a broad church of people into the conversation. For example on topics such as whether Australia’s refugee policies are inherently based on racism, he quotes thinkers who agree and disagree (though he leans towards agreement). Those lost in the book shop searching for Angela Y Davis, Edward Said or Malcolm X, for more radical voices, should definitely keep looking.
‘Is Australia a racist country?’ is the question and the premise on which Soutphommasane begins his musings. It is a question he says many people ask, but is a redundant conversation. Despite starting from a simple place, Soutphommasane does move beyond it and he goes into depth and detail. His unpacking of the social and historical context surrounding the introduction of the legislation of the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA), which is the focus of the book, is particularly fascinating.
The RDA is certainly an interesting focal point, not necessarily because of the protracted and abandoned, political debate that surrounded the proposed changes to section 18C of the act that would have made it legal to “insult” and “offend” on the basis of race, but because the way the RDA has become synonymous with the debate about racism in Australia in a way it had not been prior.
It would be easy for many who are following the deteriorating situation for refugees on Manus Island and Nauru or reading the statistics for Indigenous imprisonment to forget that we even have legislation that criminalises racial discrimination. It would be fair for some to scratch their head about how effective it has been.
In the legal case against Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt that brought about the discussion on 18C, Bolt’s breach resulted in a mandatory apology from the publication. However 18C and the RDA as a whole has become a rallying point for Australia’s multicultural community since it has come under attack from the Liberals. That particular clause has taken on a symbolism far beyond its legal ramifications. It provides a focus point for a broad range of Indigenous and migrant community groups that are finding new powerful ways to fight back and have their voice heard.
As Soutphommasane points out the RDA for seeking to set the national tone politically. ‘Indeed, for most of the period since Federation, Australia displayed features of what Historian George Frederickson calls an ‘overtly racist regime’,’ writes Soutpahommasane.
He argues while it is easy to be cynical and sceptical about how much change has happened to the underlying racism of the Australian national character, the outward disavowal of the ‘overt racist regime’ is a deeply persisting challenge.
He also discuss the practical outcomes brought about from the RDA legally for such situations as anti-discrimination rules in employment and housing.
Soutphommasane also points out the oxymoron that our constitution continues to allow for separate laws for different races and the conflict between the two documents. He advocates for a removal of the clause which is one of the central arguments in favour of the controversial Indigenous ‘Recognise’ campaign. The highly divisive ‘Recognise’ campaign, which itself has many prominent Indigenous supporters and critics who advocate for a Treaty instead.
He suggests a major differences between the RDA and its American equivalent, the US Civil Rights Act 1964, was the way in which it was achieved. He points to the international sphere and Australia’s signing of the International Convention on the elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination as driving factors of the RDA legislation, not domestic politics.
Whereas in the United States civil rights legislation was enacted as the culmination of a right struggle, the push for Australian racial equality was never accompanied by the emergence of a social movement, at least of the equivalent scale.
He argues this had an ongoing and lasting impacts in the way many Australians perceive race, as something to cringe about and avoid discussing at all costs. While the RDA was the symbolic and legal end to the White Australia policy he says the way in which it was done, coming from Canberra not from the streets, has also provided a barrier to the conceptualisation of a multicultural Australian identity.
The White Australia policy was inaugurated as an official statement of nationhood, but its renouncement was never granted the same moment. It was largely through sheepish embarrassment rather than proud conviction that White Australia was gradually dismantled in the 1950s and the 1970s. Its passing was not marked with any national sense of fanfare or finality…As well, there was no seminal moment for the advent of multiculturalism. The transition from White Australia to its successor national myth, in some senses, remains ongoing.
He also runs through the intense uphill battle in parliament that the legislation faced in the three failed attempts by Gough Whitlam’s first attorney-general, Senator Lionel Murphy. The successful fourth shot by Whitlam’s second attorney-general Kep Enderby was in 1975, the final year of Whitlam’s government. Soutphommasane contends that the history and achievements of the RDA which have long since been ingrained into our society are under-appreciated.
He has a very good point and one only needs look across the Pacific to how things could be much worse in terms of open and overt racial vilification in the name of ‘free-speech’. To America’s constitution which allows the public hate speech today of organisations such as the Klu Klux Klan and others.
Each chapter of the somewhat dry essays of Soutphommasane are broken up with short contributions from a ‘who’s-who’ list of prominent Australian writers. Christos Tsiolkas describes a racially charged scene at a swimming pool steam-room, Maxine Beneba Clarke recounts university anecdotes highlighting White Australians’ denial of casual racism and blindness to micro-aggressions. Alice Pung and Benjamin Law both delve into their up-bringing and Bindi Cole Chocka unpacks her layers of identity.
Soutphommasane’s book comes in the context of the 18C debate and the political scrutiny being applied by the ideological-right of the Liberal party. In part, it can be seen as a call to arms to defend what is an essential underpinning piece of legislation in Australia’s Commonwealth Law.
He is far harsher on the nation than the standard ‘let’s just celebrate multiculturalism’ narrative that is commonly heard from politicians and promoters of local council ‘culturally diverse’ food-based events. However he is also diplomatic and more balanced in his criticisms of the Australian state than those who point to Indigenous imprisonment rates, Border Force and our immigration detention system and argue we live in a state where racial systems of violence are a defining factor for non-white people on the margins.
He brings his optimism about Australian society and its potential to the forefront and marks the importance of how far we have progressed in immigration and multiculturalism since the White Australia policy. He stresses the urgent need to address Indigenous rights and also acknowledge and combat social ‘casual racism’. At times he leans on clichés and dry broad sentiments. ‘While no one law can ever eradicate the social evil of racism – no one law can ever banish hatred, ignorance and arrogance – an instrument such as the Racial Discrimination Act does make us stronger and more united,’ he writes in his conclusion. He notes that the importance of the Act, as well as its uses in society, is a constantly evolving one.
Soutphommasane is staunch and defiant on the need to protect the achievements Australia has made on multiculturalism. He ends on a hopeful note that the ability for increasingly honest and difficult discussion and work will contribute towards the building of what he sees as a better nation.
JARNI BLAKKARLY is a freelance journalist who has done work for Al Jazeera English, Griffith Review and ABC Radio National among others. You can follow him on Twitter @jarniblakkarly.