This week saw the first (and hopefully last) ‘Ban the Burqa’ day, a disgusting anti-Islamic, hateful and misinformed concept disguised as a push for equality.  It is yet another chapter in Australia’s long tradition of initiation for those who are new to our shores.

Ever since the Chinese emigration to Australia in the 1850’s, every wave of non white immigrants to Australia has had to deal with their own xenophobic initiation.  In the 1850’s many different nationalities came to search for gold in Australia, however it was the Chinese who were singled out and discriminated against.  Laws in New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria included specific charges to Chinese people arriving in the colonies while exempting others; laws which restricted the free overland travel of Chinese people; as well as restricting the number of Chinese passengers ships were permitted to carry.  There were anti-Chinese riots, the worst taking place at the Burrangong goldfields of Lambing Flat, NSW between 1860 and ‘61.  Those racist laws were a pre cursor the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, better known as the White Australia Policy.  This law was used mainly at the time of Federation to halt, or at least slow, Chinese emigration to Australia.

Over the last 150 years or so the Chinese have continued to come to live in Australia and are now generally accepted.  Almost every major town in Australia has a Chinatown or at least plenty of Chinese restaurants.  Victor Chang, Penny Wong, Kylie Kwong, Faustina “Fuzzy” Agolley and Cindy Pan are just a few Australians with Chinese heritage who have made significant contributions to Australia in their respective fields.  Chinese New Year celebrations are attended annually by thousands across the country, and almost every year Australians with Chinese heritage dominate the secondary school and university honours lists.

Following the Second World War, the influx of migrants and refugees to Australia was enormous, much larger than the comparative dribble we receive in the 21st century.  Between 1945 and 1960, 1.6 million people were accepted into Australia, with another 1.3 million in the following decade.  While most were British or Irish, many Italian, Greek, Hungarian, German, Yugoslav, Turkish, Lebanese and others were also accepted.  Of course, coinciding with their settlement into Australia they were also subjected to the xenophobic Australian initiation process.  For decades many of those new Australians and their children had to undergo the pain of being labelled ‘Wogs’ and being bullied because of their cultural differences.  In the late 1980’s after the ‘Wogs’ had ‘proved themselves’ and assimilated into mainstream through food, Australian football and entertainment (Wogs out of work etc) Australia could focus on it’s next target.

Following the wars across South East Asia in the 1970’s Australia accepted many thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian and Burmese refugees.  The obsession with and fear of, the amount of Asians in Australia grew throughout the 1980’s and ‘90’s.  It culminated with Pauline Hanson and her racist One Nation party receiving 8.4% of the National vote in the 1998 federal election.  The anti Asian feeling was also popularised in the 1992 movie Romper Stomper, with Russell Crowe as the leader of a skinhead neo Nazi gang.  It has taken, sadly, many years and yet more groups to divert the bigotry of Australians from Asians.

In the last decade xenophobic and hateful Australians have found new targets for their vitriol, including Indians, Africans (mainly Sudanese) and Muslims from across the Middle East.  Of course, the most famous representation of this xenophobia and hatred was on display for the world to see in the Cronulla riots of 2005.  Since then there have also been attacks against Indian students and the media continue to fuel a fear of ‘Sudanese youth’ and Muslims in general.  Now, we have ‘Ban the Burqa’ day, a veiled attack against Islam in the name of equality.

Welcome to Australia, Cronulla 2005 & Melbourne 2009

What is it about the Australian psyche that is the reason for this xenophobic initiation of new immigrants?

As a white Australian of Irish descent I have always been exposed to mainstream Australian society.  As a child playing Aussie rules football I was well aware that being ‘tough’, being a man and not showing signs of weakness were part of that culture.  To make it as a footballer, one does have to ‘prove’ themselves, to be mentally as well as physically strong.  Has this mentality has seeped into general society, whereby new cultures and people, have to prove themselves ‘worthy’ of their place in the Australian team?

The Island Mentality is another theory.  After almost being invaded by Japan in the Second World War, racists in Australia consistently use terms like invasion, swamping and over run when describing immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers arriving, or attempting to arrive, in Australia.  Despite only one successful invasion of Australia, in 1788, and no plausible threat since 1945 or into the foreseeable future, this mentality continues to fester and simmer just underneath the surface.

As the recent report ‘Challenging Racism’ published by the University of Western Sydney identifies, racism and bigotry are learned attitudes.  Racists, bigots, xenophobes use stereotypes, fear, ignorance, extreme examples and false information to push their points.  The classic modern day example is the discrimination against Muslims because of extreme Islamic groups and clerics.  Whereas most ‘average Mohammed’ Muslims are peaceful, respectful and normal people just like you and I, the extremes are presented as the norm, thereby demonising a whole group.  Another common tactic is using phrases like ‘most Australians think this way’ or ‘most Australians share my view’, etc.  Those people are too afraid to own their opinions and to have the guts to say ‘I think this or that’ or ‘I am racist’, when it may not be a popular view or stance.  By inferring millions of silent supporters they feel safer in expressing their hateful views.  It is not so long ago that the White Australia Policy was ended and the Racial Discrimination Act, Racial Hatred Act and other acts were introduced.  Therefore a hangover of attitudes could be expected, yet not excused.  It takes time to change community attitudes.  For those people who lived in a predominantly white society for so long, they simply pass their prejudices, ignorance and misinformation on to their children and grand children and the cycle continues.  The UWS report also stated that ‘[p]roviding accurate information on cultural groups, behaviours and traditions can be a useful way of dispelling any ‘false beliefs’ that may exist within a community.’  So while we have a history of racist initiation, with the right effort it does not have to be our future.

Hopefully, by the time the next wave of immigrants come to Australia we will have nobody left to hate and instead, we can simply welcome them to this beautiful country, which is only made better by all the different cultures.