The underlying issue of racism in Australia has been a pervasive feature of national political life ever since the invasion of the First Fleet in 1788.
It was used as an ideological justification for the dispossession of indigenous Australians.
In 1975, the Racial Discrimination Act was implemented in order to enable all Australians, regardless of their racial and cultural background, to enjoy equal rights and to prohibit discriminative behaviour based on racial hatred.
However, as the Challenging Racism Project has shown, although Australians perceive themselves as tolerant and culturally accepting, racially discriminative behaviour and ideas are still very prevalent within today’s society.
The Challenging Racism Project was released on February 23 after 12 years of in-depth study and inclusive surveys of over 12,500 Australians. It focuses on national and state level attitudes toward racism, experiences of racism and cross-cultural contact.
It showed that racist attitudes are associated with age and non-tertiary education. To a slightly lesser extent, it was associated with those who do not speak a language other than English, the Australia-born, and with males.
The results of the study reflect varied, and at times, clashing ideas. For example, while 86.8% of participants believe that it is a good idea for society to be made up of people from different cultures, an alarming 41.4% believe that there are certain cultural groups that do not fit into Australian society.
It also revealed that racist attitudes are uneven across the country.
The highest level of acceptance towards cultural diversity was noted within the ACT, where 94.3% of participants were positive about society being made up of different cultures.
The lowest level of acceptance towards cultural diversity was found within NSW, where 45.4% of participants had a very narrow view on which cultural groups belong in Australia.
Alarmingly, 53.7% of NSW participants also held anti-Muslim ideas and felt that Muslims were an “out group” within Australian society.
Jacqueline Nelson, a researcher for the Challenging Racism Project said in an interview: “Lots of evidence had been collected that suggested that while there is broad support for cultural diversity in Australia, there remain underlying problems that must be recognised and addressed.”
Alongside the 84.4% of participants who acknowledge the existence of racial prejudice in Australia, 85.6% believe that something needs to be done in order to fight this issue.
Experiences of racism most commonly took the form of racist insults, disrespectful treatment or mistrusting someone simply because of their ethnic background.
These experiences occurred mostly at shops or restaurants, within the workplace, in education or at sporting or public events.
The highest levels of experienced racism were found within the Northern Territory. Overall, 47.5% of participants had experienced racist insults and 13.7% also claimed to have been racially discriminated against by the police.
Cross-cultural contact is an absolute necessity in challenging racism. Without it, people not only lack a sense of understanding and appreciation towards other cultures, but often buy into the false stereotypes, stigmas and close-mindedness that our society has created.
The project found that 78.1% of Australians claim to feel secure when interacting with people of different ethnic backgrounds.
However, concern at the idea of cross-cultural marriage was strongest in NSW where 12.9% of participants opposed it. The lowest level of concern was found within the ACT, where only 3.9% felt it was a bad idea.
The Challenging Racism Project also outlined a list of 23 practical initiatives and strategies which local governments and individuals could adopt in order to tackle cultural prejudice and discrimination.
“This project advocates for local level action that is appropriate to particular local circumstances,” said Nelson.
“We have suggestions for types of anti-racism that are appropriate for different regions on our website. But government action is also required. We need a national anti-racism strategy that will provide much-needed political leadership on anti-racism."
Some of the initiatives illustrated on the website included: celebrations of cultural diversity, highlighting contradictions and inconsistencies in false beliefs, prejudices and values and addressing racism structurally and institutionally.
In an interview on 2SER radio, lead researcher in the project Kevin Dunn, said that racism “is a very serious issue. We know racism has profound morbid affects. It affects our economy ... it affects people's wellbeing and we know that it is socially disruptive.”
There are no positives when it comes to racism. It is the job of our government, and more importantly society at large, to put an end towards this negative, harmful and discriminative behaviour.