Shattering stereotypes – or endorsing them?

Reading Time: 6 minutes

The TV show Dumb, drunk and racist reveals some surprisingly honest home truths about the many facets of ‘real’ Australia, writes PAWAN LUTHRA

It’s been pretty quiet in the past eighteen months or so on the “Indian students’ issue” that brought diplomatic relations to a head between India and Australia. Safety measures have been put in place; awareness has increased among the students themselves; rogue agents have been fleshed out who were taking advantage of the system. And while student numbers may have dwindled, what’s increased is the number of state premiers and federal ministers leading massive trade delegations to India to win back the lost dollar.

So if things are finally beginning to look cordial again, who’s the dumb, drunk, racist who’s raking all the muck up again?

Er, that would have to be Joe Hildebrand, journalist. In fact, that is how he regularly introduces himself to us, ie, once a week, at the start of his TV show called, strangely, just that – Dumb, Drunk and Racist.

The ABC2 series, in which Hildebrand takes a bunch of Indians around the country to decide for themselves whether Australians are ‘dumb, drunk and racist’, has been a surprise hit. (In fact, such a hit that Hildebrand has not stopped beaming ever since that appearance on Q&A the week his show opened).

Of course if you ask him, as I do, he’ll tell you the show is a success because of the “exceptionally handsome and charming host”. Perhaps he could have taken his shirt off in the Bondi beach scenes…? Pat comes the reply, “We would definitely have been moved up to ABC1 then. Who knows, we could have gone mainstream!”

But seriously, Hildebrand agrees that the success of the show is not only that it helps shatter stereotypes for one audience, but equally, that it strikes a few home-truths for another.

“It is a pretty polarising issue really,” he observes. “On the one side we have a group of people, typically the self hating inner city type, who are convinced that Australians are dumb, drunk and racist; on the other hand, we have those who challenge this assertion and are outraged that this can even be suggested! Somewhere in between, is the vast majority who are open to looking at this topic and then forming their own views”.

It all started with a news report months ago.

“An American journalist who had worked in an Indian call centre reported that the operators were trained to be aware that Australians are dumb, drunk and racist. That triggered the initial research by the TV production company Cordell Jigsaw, the team behind SBS TV’s Go Back To Where You Came From, to research this idea. They tested the theory and then decided to go for it. They invited me to host, and off we went”.

Joe seems a natural fit for the program. As the Opinion editor for News, Joe has never been backward in coming forward with his views on issues which may have more of a slant to the right than to the left.

How did they pick their “guests”?

“We struck it good with the four guests from India, really. We had to find people who thought Australia was a dangerous and hostile place to visit, and so it was a bit of a challenge to get them on the plane, as they were worried about their own safety in Australia, but we were able to convince them. Their families were more nervous actually. I am glad to announce that we have got them back safe and sound to India”.

Radhika, Mahima, Gurmeet and Amer head off to various parts of Australia in Joe’s social experiment. They meet White nationalist protesters at Villawood, confused burqa-bashing artists in Sydney’s Newtown district, hijab-wearing African immigrants in western Sydney, Cronulla lifeguards who fought for peace in the midst of riots, an Aboriginal elder in Moree, B&S revelers as well as community-minded mums in Mt. Isa, cattle auctioneers in rural Queensland, a hen’s night party at the Gold Coast, a Pakistani taxi driver, a same sex couple, hostile Aboriginal women, and a host of other interesting people that shape their views on the people of this country and the issues that affect them.

They also meet Indian student Saurabh Sharma, the CCTV footage of whose brutal bashing in a Melbourne train was played incessantly on India’s television screens, sparking outrage across the country.

Of the four, only one, Radhika, had been here before. An educational counsellor, she was here looking to send her daughter to an Australian university, but encountered such racism that she decided to send her to the US instead, and now guides other students away. Amer, a law student, also considered Australia but chose to study at home in India. Mahima, a call-centre worker, frequently encounters racist abuse at work from Australians. Gurmeet, a TV news reader comes with his own set views on Australians.

“They met for the first time in Delhi,” Joe reveals. “But once the cameras were rolling, they all became very close. In fact, it became like a Big Brother House. They have all have struck a chord with the viewers. Amer is quite popular; and a lot of guys find Radhika very foxy”.

Their own personalities unfold well in the show. Radhika shines through as someone with a lot of sensitivity; Gurmeet as someone who really wants to change societies; Amir as probably the one who would fit in best given his party-loving nature, and Mahima as one with wide-eyed innocence. All different, each has clever insights into the people and society here.

They ask meaningful questions and seem to want to genuinely understand, which is more than we can say for the bunch of Indian journalists who were brought out here by the Australian government at the height of the students’ crisis. (Their reports back home failed to enlighten, let alone alleviate anxiety for concerned families).

Mahima is terrified to learn she has to take a train-ride along the same route and at the same time as when Saurabh was attacked (her facial expression suggests it will probably be like the 1947 train that rolled into Delhi station from Lahore carrying nothing but Hindu corpses), but soon she is happy to try her first beer.

Gurmeet is politically aware, but watch his inability to comprehend why a same-sex relationship should seem normal.

Amer loves Sydney Harbour and the fast food outlets and in Melbourne, ‘the most dangerous city in the world for Indians’, wants to walk on the streets at 2 am.

Radhika feels a spiritual connection at Uluru and weeps as an Aboriginal elder describes the Myall Creek Massacre of 1838.

“It was a life changing experience for them all,” Joe reveals. “They were genuinely surprised at what they experienced: at times they were upset and traumatised, other times they were thrilled and screaming with laughter. They were terrified and enthralled, it was an amazing journey for them.”

Equally, it turned out be an eye-opener for him, too.

“I’m sorry to say it turned out quite differently to what we had expected,” he admits. “I had hoped we would be disproving (the stereotype). But I was genuinely surprised at the ambient racism on the streets of Sydney and Melbourne. The ugly stuff surprised me as people popped out of nowhere with statements of ‘White pride’ or ‘Go back to where you came from’ in an open and aggressive manner. The surprising thing was how often and how unprovoked these statements were… they made me very uncomfortable”.

He continues, “While on one hand there will be lovely people telling the Indians about how wonderful Australia was, some asshole will shout out something nasty and abusive. That just hurt me and made me ashamed. Especially as I had just come back from India and seen the terrible poverty and extremes over there, and realised how lucky we have it here”.

So, does Joe Hildebrand, well known for his thought provoking pieces in The Daily Telegraph, believe that Australians are dumb, drunk and racist?

“I don’t think we are dumb,” he replies quite decisively. “But we’re probably pretty drunk, and a few of us are quite racist. There are always a few racists in any country but in a country like Australia we need to have a stronger standard to adhere to. We don’t have a war or religious conflicts or even much political extremism; we are an incredibly wealthy country with a strong moral and religious compass and a sophisticated liberal democracy, so I don’t see why we shouldn’t be a more tolerant and welcoming place”.

Would he like to reverse the concept and take a bunch of Aussies to India and shatter their stereotypes?

“Well, I’m thinking along the lines of a show called Smart, Sophisticated and Tolerant, actually….” he laughs in conclusion.

Tune into Indian Link Radio to listen to a repeat of Pawan Luthra’s full interview with Joe Hildebrand, Sunday 8 July, 5.00pm. Download app…

What's On