This land of redemption



The Australian, 26 January 2015


One of the many strange quirks of modern etiquette is that the Race Discrimination Commissioner is one of the few outside the medical profession who can talk about skin colour.

In an Australia Day article on Saturday, Tim Soutphommasane complains that “a certain image of whiteness” pervades Australian culture. The prevalence of white faces in Neighbours and Home and Away shows that “a multicultural Australian identity remains … a work in progress”.

Soutphommasane might have missed the arrival of Korean exchange student Sunny Lee, who moved into Ramsey Street in 2009. Lee didn’t last long, but it will please the commissioner to know that she wasn’t written out because of the colour of her skin but because of the content of her character. Or, rather, lack of content, since this is a soap opera.

It is puzzling that Soutphommasane is bothered about the cast’s biological taxonomy, something he insists elsewhere should not matter. “Being Australian doesn’t mean belonging to a certain race or ethnicity,” he writes. What really matters is “that you call this place home and you are part of our egalitarian, democratic project”. Amen to that.

So why does the commissioner appear to argue for racial quotas? It is one thing to call for cultural diversity but quite another to demand racial discrimination. How else are we to understand the term “whiteness”? Isn’t that the kind of stereotyping from which the commissioner should be shielding us?

To Soutphommasane’s credit, he uses his column in The Age to defend love of country, a virtue not all his readers will share. Unlike many sophisticates, he is proud to call himself a patriotic Australian. So too is Deng Thiak Adut, a former refugee from Sudan, who is undoubtedly one of the blackest people to be invited to give the NSW Australia Day Address.

“The freedoms of this place mean that most of the time, from most people, there is a welcoming hand,” he told an audience in Sydney last week. The faces of the Australian community form “a rich palette”, he said. “White is a colour to which so much can be added.”

Many migrants have done it tough, but few as tough as Adut, who at six was forcibly removed from his home and marched to Ethopia as a child soldier. “I lost the freedom to read and write. I lost the freedom to sing children’s songs. I lost the right to be innocent. I lost the right to be a child,” he said. “I had to wait until I became an Australian citizen to know that I belong.”

Deng’s life story is told in an inspiring 90-second movie on YouTube. It was produced as a commercial for the University of Western Sydney but serves as a powerful advertisement for Australia.

Since the arrival of convict settlers in 1788, Australia has specialised in redemptive migration. It might not be the promised land, but it is a land of promise. Few redemptive migration stories are as harrowing as Adut’s. He was shot in the back at 12 and smuggled out of Sudan, landing in Sydney as an illiterate, penniless, traumatised teenager. His story, as told in the UWS advertisement, subverts the narrative of the infantilised refugee. “At 15 he taught himself to read … a free man he chose to live in his car.” Armed with a degree, he now works as a criminal lawyer.

Adut’s topic was “Freedom from fear”, a freedom that gave him not just shelter but education and the opportunity to succeed. “Australia is a nation where most of us, most of the time, seek to give and receive a ‘fair go’,” he said. “It’s that ‘fair go’ that you see in every new Australian success story. That is the ‘Advance Australia Fair’ in the anthem.”

That migrants are mostly inclined to grasp that opportunity is an empirically grounded fact. A draft Productivity Commission report on the economic impacts of migration published late last year found that unemployment rates for immigrants were roughly similar to those of Australian-born residents. After 15 years in the country, however, migrants are more likely to participate in the workforce than others. Their children are likely to be educational high achievers. Migrants are disproportionally represented in the ranks of Australian billionaires.

Which makes it all the more puzzling that 64 per cent of the audience at an IQ Squared debate in Sydney last October supported the motion “Racism is destroying the Australian dream”. Those who spoke in favour of the motion offered little evidence. Stan Grant’s heartfelt contribution to the debate — a condemnation of claimed historical wrongs to Aboriginal people, and in particular his father — is said to have been viewed more than 700,000 times on YouTube.

With due respect to Grant, however, and not wishing to detract from the importance of his message about rural and remote Aboriginal disadvantage, his own ability to rise above his own working-class background and become an accomplished television reporter surely supports the case for the negative.

That racism exists is beyond doubt, but it is hardly destroying the Australian dream. That case was ably argued at the debate by Herald Sun columnist Rita Panahi, an Iranian, non-Christian migrant who, if she ever appeared in Neighbours, would be classed as non-white.

“The bigotry that threatens the Australian dream isn’t racist attitudes,” said Panahi. “It’s the bigotry of low expectations which refuses to call out abhorrent behaviour because of ‘cultural sensitivity’. It’s the bigotry that seeks to wrap capable people in the cloak of victimhood. It’s the bigotry that sees easily outraged Western feminists turn a blind eye to brutal misogyny in Islamic countries as well as abhorrent practices much closer to home.”

Racism and ethnically driven civil war almost killed Adut’s dream in Sudan, a society that operates under an apartheid system. In Australia, where there is only one class of citizen, asylum seekers can expect more than deliverance. They have a chance to deliver.