04/11/2015 5:34 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:50 PM AEST

Moving The Margins To The Middle

A mature national conversation about racism in Australia is predicated on the successful negotiation of an alternative middle narrative. In order to do this, we as a nation must confront some discomfiting truths.

Asanka Brendon Ratnayake via Getty Images
Protestors holding 'Stop racism now' placards stand in front of Flinders Street station during a rally protesting against the forced closure of Aboriginal Communities in Australia

In 1989 I was in year 10, and as most Melbourne kids do at some point, I was waiting for a mate under the clocks at Flinders Street Station. It's a Melbourne teen's rite of passage. As I stood waiting I saw a group of older teens and young men -- heads shaved, wearing polo shirts, bomber jackets and rolled-up jeans with Doc Martins.


Seemingly the only brown kid in the city that day, anxiety rapidly overtook me. I could feel my heart thumping in my chest, and hear blood pumping in my ears. I could feel myself literally and figuratively shrink, stepping slowly backwards against the wall, into the shadows, hoping they hadn't seen me.

But it was too late. One skinhead had spotted me and pulled on the shirt of an older guy. This guy was terrifying to look at -- shaved head, stocky, with visible tattoos and leaning on crutches. He looked up at me, slowly raised one of his crutches and pointed it directly at me. His entire gang turned to look at me.

'Oh fuck,' I said silently to myself, awash with panic as they started to move towards me.

Just then, my mate rolled through the ticket wickets oblivious to the scene he'd just stumbled into. I gathered myself quickly and hurriedly walked away, down the steps, and tore off towards the Russell Street cinemas.

This was not the only run-in with far right ideologues I would have in the coming few years, but it was perhaps my narrowest escape.

I recently saw an interview with Dr Jamal Rifi, Australian Father of the Year. He was asked for a response to a rally planned by hard right groups to commemorate the Cronulla Riots.

There are two things I want to say about this. The first is: right person. The second: wrong issue. You can't argue a rational moderate case against a hard right position. There is no capacity for reaching useful common ground between centre and hard right.

The hard right can't be negotiated with -- they've dug their heels in and aren't budging. I say, let them duke it out in the margins with the equally hard left, while the real conversation is played out through constructive public discourse somewhere in the centre -- where the majority of us sit.

Racism in Australia is complex. It's not as simple as believing that if we're not shouting at people on public transport to go back to where they came from, we're not racist. We shouldn't let ourselves be thereby convinced that we are somehow now off the hook.

Solely defining racism in terms relative to easily condemnable actions allows us to collectively turn our gaze to the hard right and shake our heads at them in admonishment; take the example of Uncle Jack Charles being refused a cab after being named Victorian Senior of the Year.

The danger is that if we fail to acknowledge the impacts of less visceral and obvious acts of racism, we will become complicit in rendering them acceptable.

Mark Latham's recent comments about the use of the word 'negro' are a case in point. This is not a point of order about the relativities of political correctness, this is a fundamental issue of human dignity. Latham's comments -- which appear more consistent with the hard right -- are further complicated in the context that those most affected and best placed to provide insight into the issue from their own lived experience, were not even given a seat at the table.

Without being able to hear those voices, the discussion is largely academic.

A mature national conversation about racism in Australia is predicated on the successful negotiation of an alternative middle narrative. In order to do this, we as a nation must confront some discomfiting truths.

Stan Grant, broadcaster, recently provided insight into the public discourse following Adam Goodes' appointment as brand ambassador for David Jones. In describing some of the positive comments -- he said, 'That we [Indigenous Australians] feel so grateful to those who see our common and basic humanity, that it takes that for us to be proud to be Australian, tells us only how far we still have to go.'

Understanding this kind of complexity is a useful starting premise if we are to truly have a meaningful conversation about racism.

I believe that we, as Australians, are poised at a critical pivot in negotiating an alternative middle narrative about racism in Australia. Racism is supported by structural power and cultural authority -- and there are few greater powers in determining our collective or individual cultural identities than the capacity to tell our own stories. Denying that capacity to one group of Australians over another, can lead to racism being further institutionalised and socially embedded -- and the consequences of that are marginalisation, disenfranchisement, and cultural isolation.

I've seen the brutal face of racism in Australia first hand -- not many would argue in favour of it -- but the debate does not comfortably lie somewhere slightly left of far right. The way forward is not to directly engage the hard right on racism, but to offer an alternative middle narrative.

We are approaching 10 years since the Cronulla Riots, and some among us remain intent on division. They, along with their supporters, will one day find themselves on the wrong side of history.

And I believe that if we are prepared to engage in a more sophisticated conversation about racism in contemporary Australia, that day might come sooner rather than later.