…but is it racism?

Racism-flagsIn the 21st century, ‘the R word’ gets thrown about decidedly more often than it should.

Ever since the turn of the century – and in the age of the absurdity that is political correctness – the ‘racism’ card is played with increasing frequency, to the point where it now seems that every bad thing that happens is the product of either terrorism or racism; the fact that there’s only ever a very blurred line drawn between the two only compounds the situation.

But racism is just one of an almost endless list of discriminatory behaviours that we see all around us every day. There’s a higher-level phobia at work here, something with more power over the average Australian than mere racism.

Recently I found myself thinking about the oft-discussed ideals of Australia’s perfectly integrated fully functional multicultural society (…guffaw!) and it occurred to me that it’s actually nothing more than a pipe dream that will never be fully realised, just as it’s never been fully realised anywhere else in the world.

I imagine some readers are already beside themselves with the kind of righteous indignation that’s become de rigueur in the social media age, but the statement I just made wasn’t racist. It’s merely an observation of human nature.

First, it’s important to note some key distinctions.

Racism is the distinguishing of a race as either superior or inferior to another race, based on the belief that all members of one or both races possess characteristics, abilities or qualities that are specific to their race. “All Chinese people are really clever”. “All African-Americans are awesome singers”. “All Muslims are extremists and terrorists”. “All Australians descended from the original European invaders are spoilt, lazy and harbour an inexplicable sense of entitlement”. “All New Zealanders enjoy unnatural relations with sheep”. “All Poms are whingers”. Or “coloured people are less intelligent than white people”. While not always derogatory to the subject of the statement, they’re generally baseless, unfounded or unverifiable all the same – and all equally racist.

But many incidents and statements that invariably have the ‘racist’ label slapped on them actually aren’t. Given the thought process that, by definition, must feed into the taking of a racist position, it’s fair to say that much of what’s described as ‘racism’ is actually xenophobia – simply, a prejudice against people just because they come from another country. Xenophobia’s no less toxic than racism, it’s just different – and ‘different’ is very much the key concept here.

The big issue is neither racism, nor xenophobia – it’s simply a fear of difference.

Believe it or not, the term that best applies to a fear of difference is “heterophobia” – but thanks to the popular understanding of the term ‘homophobia’, we might avoid using ‘heterophobia’ in this context. Nonetheless, by and large human beings don’t like difference. They shun otherness and gravitate towards what they know and understand. While there’s a subset of almost every community which openly embraces difference, most human beings enjoy a ‘comfort zone’ in most aspects of their lives and they cling tenaciously to it. It’s an unavoidable fact: people everywhere have always gone out of their way to avoid things they don’t understand.

For millennia, wars have been sparked by an inability or unwillingness on the part of one side to accept that the other side would be able to hold different religious beliefs without negating the ability of both sides to live together harmoniously. The violent and fatal reality of how far extremists are prepared to take their attempts to punish or eliminate religious difference has been all too prevalent the world over since September 11, 2001.

It’s not all about a difference of faith, though. Teenagers struggle through their adolescent years, desperate to conform. So many of them believe – and are encouraged to continue believing – that being different isn’t for the best, that not standing out from the crowd is by far the safest course to chart. Many parents are among the worst offenders for encouraging this way of thinking, sometimes with the best of intentions but generally with little regard for the potential harm they could be doing, or how they may be influencing later behaviours in their offspring.

For centuries discrimination has been waged against all manner of physical, psychological and geographical traits over which human beings have no control whatsoever: the colour of our skin; our gender; our ethnicity; our sexual orientation; our height; our weight; our looks; our mental capacity; our injuries, disfigurements or other incapacities. Virtually anything considered ‘different’ is ripe for avoidance or some other form of discriminatory behaviour.

Much of our avoidance of difference is born of an innate need to seek out others with whom we share similar tastes and interests, through which we form bonds via a mutual understanding of the world in which we live. Sydney is a prime example of how this reality plays out every day across a population of some five million people. Arguably one of Australia’s most ‘multicultural’ cities, Sydney is full-to-overflowing with ethnic ghettos. There are pockets of Greeks and Italians in certain areas, Chinese and Korean folk in others, while Poms and Kiwis are known for settling around the eastern suburbs, specifically Bondi. Are they ‘racist’ for doing so? Could they realistically be accused of xenophobia? They’ve come to a new country that promotes multiculturalism and encourages integration, if not assimilation – so why would they only want to live among “their own kind”, speaking the language they learned as toddlers, eating the food they’ve been accustomed to eating since they were children and living the only culture and values they’ve ever known? How racist!

Well, no, actually it isn’t. It’s not even xenophobic. It’s just human nature. We crave familiarity and the company of others who want, know and understand the same things. Ask any British or Irish backpacker who’s ever travelled to Australia and ended up in share accommodation with hordes of other British and Irish backpackers; ask any Australian 20-something who’s ever travelled overseas how many fellow Australian travellers, Australian bars and other Australian-centric zones they purposefully headed to during their travels. It’s exactly the same thing and it happens all over the world.

Culture is such a complex concept anyway. Some people have a hard time getting to grips with all the nuances of their own culture, so it’s hardly surprising that many people know little or nothing about other cultures; usually what we do learn is superficial at best. Sometimes, as we learn about the differences between other cultures and our own we also make observations. Whether something strikes us as a funny way to do things, a bit strange, weird or simply something that isn’t for us, they’re just observations – it’s not being racist. That would be like suggesting that because your friend likes drinking water but you don’t, you’re somehow being racist towards your friend which, of course, is a ludicrous suggestion. Observing that a feature of another culture isn’t something you’d care to undertake yourself is not being racist in any way.

Some ethnic groups who settled in Australia have held on to some truly xenophobic views of other ethnic groups who also settled in Australia. In many cases these rivalries go back centuries and have been passed down from generation to generation. In other cases, the broad dislike of one nation by another can be traced back to a specific event. For example, in the years – and, indeed, decades – immediately following World War II few Australians had anything positive to say about either the Germans or the Japanese. This wasn’t the result of everyone who felt that way having fought in a war against members of either nation’s armed forces, but more a rendering of the broader social sentiment of the time. In a slightly different way, we’ve repeatedly seen similar responses to the Muslim community since September 11, 2001 and, again, it’s not necessarily been because everyone who reacted that way was directly impacted by whatever ‘Muslims’ were believed to have been the perpetrators of, much less taking a racist position. It’s generally a case of fear spread through misinformation, generalisation and the highlighting of cultural differences which, in most cases, aren’t just misunderstood but utterly irrelevant.

People will always seek familiarity and cultural differences will (hopefully) always exist – as will racists, xenophobes, bigots and extremists. The media needs to take a more responsible, measured approach and concentrate on facts, rather than on airing ill-conceived views and melodrama. At the same time it’s critical that everyone understands and acknowledges that it’s OK not to be familiar with specific aspects of other cultures, that shying away from things we don’t understand is perfectly normal and that neither of these things has anything at all to do with being racist.

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