Saddened and galled. That's how I felt when I read this week's news about Australians' attitudes to racial and cultural minorities, their prejudices against Muslims, Jews, Asians, and, most ludicrously of all, the original inhabitants of this country, the Aboriginal people. I wasn't even consoled by the fact that anti-British, Italian and Christian sentiments across Australia were recorded at less than 10 per cent. With so many different cultures and nationalities being distrusted, who was there left to detest? And who were all these ''Australians'' doing the detesting?
I was so dispirited with the University of Western Sydney's findings on racism that I had to read the results for myself. But when I went to the university's website, an unexpectedly heartening picture emerged.
The findings weren't all bad. In fact, read another way, they could be seen as a tribute to the decency and humanity of Australians.
The university found that ''Australians are largely tolerant people who are accepting and welcoming of other cultures. The survey data indicates that a large majority of Australians are positive about living in a multicultural society. Most Australians feel secure and comfortable with cultural difference''. (My emphases.)
When asked ''is it a good thing for a society to be made up of people from different cultures?'', 86.8 per cent of Australians agreed it was (in Victoria, 89.5 per cent agreed). When asked ''do you feel secure when you are with people of different ethnic backgrounds?'', 78.1 per cent of Australians said they did. (In Victoria, 81.4 per cent responded positively.)
''Racists'', it emerged, were the real minorities in this country: ''about one in 10 Australians have very problematic views on diversity and on ethnic differences. They believe that some races are naturally inferior or superior, and they believe in the need to keep groups separated. These separatists and supremacists are a destructive minority.''
(Interestingly, those most likely to hold racist attitudes tend to be older, non-tertiary educated, do not speak a language other than English, are Australian-born, and male.)
And while one in 10 may still sound like one too many, it seemed to me that these statistics suggested that Australia must surely be one of the least racist countries in the world. I rang Professor Kevin Dunn, one of the chief researchers, and asked him if this was correct. His response was galvanising. He and his team had asked this very question, and comparative studies confirmed that Australia did indeed fare well. In parts of western Europe, three in 10 people were racists, and the figure was higher in parts of eastern Europe. The only place Dunn had found that was less racist than Australia (and then only a little less so), was Canada.
''But that's about it,'' he said. ''I can't find many other places in the world that would outperform Australia on positivity to diversity.''
This is the other side of the racism story, an encouraging, uplifting and crucial side that needs to be broadcast - loudly. It is important that the ''destructive minority'' of racists in Australia realise that they are just that, a deviance from the norm, and that the silent majority of Australians are open-minded and accepting. Significantly, research into racism shows that if people with racist views are made to feel as though their views are ''mainstream'', they are emboldened in their racist behaviour (and, let's be clear, it's not just people of ''Anglo'' backgrounds who may hold racist views). Politicians who insist on denying that racism exists and who pass it off as ''normal'' or even ''patriotic'' to be intolerant, are playing an ugly and dangerous game. Is this ringing any bells?
In the past decade, we have seen some political parties and politicians, and some sections of the media, insidiously bolster the egos of racists and make them feel as though their attitudes were not only acceptable but widely held.
As the University of Western Sydney's research points out: ''Social norms are considerably powerful and can legitimise poor attitudes. There is mounting evidence that telling people that their views were not consensually shared can help reduce prejudice.''
Rather than being a challenge to federal Immigration Minister Chris Bowen's affirmation of Australia's commitment to multiculturalism, the university's findings reinforce his position. Bowen is showing genuine leadership. He and the Gillard government are refusing to pander to people's baser instincts for short-term political gain. And it's about time.
''It's overdue,'' says Dunn. ''For 15 years [multiculturalism] has withered and that's a dangerous place to be in how you manage cultural diversity.''
This does not mean that people should not feel free to express their concerns and anxieties about the customs of certain cultures, and to condemn practices and values that are anathema to a contemporary, secular and democratic Australian society. Indeed, the University of Western Sydney's research emphasises that one way to combat racism is to encourage people to express their differences and fears. But a discussion about multiculturalism - and racism - must not be hijacked by political expediency or the likes of shock jocks and sensationalist scribes who are not at all interested in sincerely debating the issues, but who wish only to fan the flames of hatred and misunderstanding, and who would have us believe that the deviant minority is the majority.We have learnt nothing from the past - but then we have - and then we haven't.
For another interesting article on the level of racism still prevalent in another modern country - Germany - dare I say the Grand-pa-pa of racism........ read THIS article over at Bill In Exile.
I am sickened - but not surprised - somewhat heartened - but still pissed that we have to bring this up again and again ................ which means really - we don't learn.