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Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner Dr Tim Soutphommasane, discusses the need for greater education in the fight against racial discrimination
‘Our instincts may be to seek punishment or humiliation for the perpetrators of racism but our ends are better served by exhibiting some generosity to people because our society can only reduce racism if its members are educated, and they genuinely commit to values of equality and acceptance’.
Speaking to Indian Link on the eve of Harmony Day 2016, Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner Dr Tim Soutphommasane has stressed the need to promote education and awareness of racial discrimination as an important tool in continuing the fight against racial discrimination in Australia.
Halfway into his first term as Commissioner, Dr Soutphommasane has been faced with significant challenges in the form of incidents of racism and government policy that have dominated Australia’s social discourse and commentary.
Dr Soutphommasane refers to a “very challenging environment today for our race relations”, citing in particular the federal government’s recently abandoned attempts to repeal the protection against racial vilification set out in section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, the campaign of booing directed towards Sydney Swans stalwart Adam Goodes, and the protests targeting Muslim communities across Australia.
To Dr Soutphommasane, the challenging milieu of this year’s Harmony Day merits more than a simple celebration of cultural diversity, despite the theme (“Our diversity is our strength”). “It is good of course that we celebrate our cultural diversity,” says Dr Soutphommasane.
“However, we also need to start challenging conversations about race and discrimination. We can’t be a successful multicultural society unless we are also prepared to combat prejudice and intolerance. I would like to see that as part of any conversation that we have, which is a lot harder than reflecting on our triumph as a multicultural society. We hope to start conversations around the country about what everyone can do to stand up against racism.”
One of the difficult conversations of particular relevance to which Dr Soutphommasane alludes is without doubt the volatile situation in the Middle East, which has formed the background against which many Australians understand Islam and Muslims. “Our domestic debates can never be divorced from international events,” says Dr Soutphommasane.
“Anxiety and fear about national security have obviously heightened since what happened on September 11, 2001 and have intensified in light of events in the Middle East. Conflicts in Syria and Iraq have seen a massive displacement of people in the region and has contributed to an increased flow of refugees to the west.”
Dr Soutphommasane refers to the murder of police accountant Curtis Cheng in Parramatta, and the radicalisation and subsequent attacks against police officers carried out by Melbourne teenager Numan Haider as two examples of extremism which have, in combination with international events, led to significant misinterpretations of the Islamic faith as being “incompatible” with Australia’s liberal democracy.
However, Dr Soutphommasane warned against judging the Australian Muslim community by the “extremism of a few”, and reiterated his belief that Australia was, on the whole, an extraordinary success story for multiculturalism. Dr Soutphommasane rubbishes the views held by some people that Australia is an inherently racist country. Despite acknowledging that racism exists in Australia, he cautions against judging each and every incident of racism as representative of Australian society.
“You’re going to have racism in every country – racism exists everywhere. If we were to suggest that Australia is inherently or essentially racist, it’s difficult then to make sense of how multicultural Australia is today. It’s difficult to make sense of how we’ve had a peaceful society that has welcomed more than seven million migrants since the end of the Second World War,” says Dr Soutphommasane. “For me the very success of our multicultural society suggests that it makes little sense to regard Australia as some inherently racist country.”
The bamboo ceiling
Another difficult conversation on Dr Soutphommasane’s agenda is the so-called “bamboo ceiling” in Australian society, pursuant to which ethnic minorities – in particular, those of Asian descent – are underrepresented in positions of leadership. To Dr Soutphommasane, there is no dichotomy between patriotism and multiculturalism; approaching patriotism as a concept of “improving your country”, rather than “flag-waving, aggressive nationalism that aims to exclude others. Dr Soutphommasane believes that it is critical for Australia’s multicultural society to be reflected in its institutions and public life.
However, Dr Soutphommasane asserts that there is a role to be played by migrant communities and those of migrant backgrounds to ensure that such a goal is achieved. “Currently we see an underrepresentation of cultural diversity in positions of leadership in our society- in business, in politics, and elsewhere. Leadership should be something that young Australians of diverse backgrounds should aspire to. But it does require parents and communities to encourage their children and their young people to think very consciously about their responsibilities and how they can contribute to Australia”.
Multiculturalism in the media
In that respect, Dr Soutphommasane noted the importance of seeing Australia’s multiculturalism reflected on television screens and radios. “It is encouraging though to see shows such as Family Law and Here Come the Habibs making it onto Australian television screens. Australian media is one realm where we simply don’t see enough diverse faces or hear enough diverse voices. I hope that programs like these are just signs of things to come in the future.”
“The more stories that get told on TV, the richer our understanding of Australian society will be. And media and diversity is certainly one realm that communities should take an interest in and communities should also consider taking steps to encourage their members to take part in Australian media and also to try and break down some of the barriers that currently exist.”
The Race Discrimination Commissioner
Dr Soutphommasane’s own rise to a prominent position of leadership came with its own challenges. Born in France, Dr Soutphommasane’s parents fled communist Laos, and he grew up in south-western Sydney at a time during which Pauline Hanson was dominating politics. Asked about how he balances the need to be objective in his position despite his own experiences and views on racism, Dr Soutphommasane is pragmatic. “My purpose in this job is a very simple one – it’s to combat racism in all its forms and to promote better understanding and harmony in our society,” he says.
“My agenda is a very clear one, so when racism does occur, I will speak out against it and I will encourage others to do the same. But how we speak out against racism also matters. We need to ensure that people are taken with us, we need to persuade people of the urgency of the issue and we need to prioritise education over punishment.”
Speaking about his time as Commissioner, Dr Soutphommasane cites the communities he has been involved with as the most rewarding experience. “I always take great heart and encouragement from knowing that there are so many good people who dedicate their time and energy to building a better Australia. I’ve visited Aboriginal communities, I speak to Indian communities, Chinese communities, Jewish communities, Muslim and Arab communities, to name a few. Every community has the same aspiration – it’s to receive a fair go and it’s to ensure that the next generation of these communities can claim their place as equals in Australian society.”
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