Push From Australian State Government And Victorian Youth Activists Against Racism

In July, the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC) teamed up with the Victorian Local Government Multicultural Issues Network (VLGMIN) to launch a pilot of a new community reporting tool that will allow culturally and linguistically diverse groups to report incidences of racism and discrimination. The community reporting tool is part of a broader initiative, ‘Reducing Racism’, that works to educate Victoria’s diverse communities on their rights, and how to exercise them if they feel they are the targets of racism or discrimination. In particular, the initiative focuses on African and Muslim communities after consultations with these communities revealed specific spikes in racism, as well as barriers preventing these communities from accessing help. Under the initiative, the Commission has released a suite of videos featuring young African Victorians, including Titan Debirioun, a hip-hop artist and activist who uses his music, podcast and voice to advocate against racism; Mawa Sannoh, an International Relations Masters student aspiring to tackle racism from a policy level, and Barry Berih a Youth Worker at Moonee Valley City Council, and community leader providing support services to those who experience racism or discrimination.

The launch of the reporting tool comes at a time when African and Muslim communities have experienced an increased amount of negative attention from the media, politicians, and consequently the community. Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner, Kristen Hilton, indicated that over the last two years there has been a 70 per cent rise in the number of complaints received by the commission, “Those complaints figures are actually pretty low when you compare them to the conversations we have with communities that are affected by racism. We’ve heard from African and Muslim communities that they would like to share their experiences with racism.”

On the Commission’s website, Mawa recalled her experience of racism began when she first arrived in Australia as a young child. “My first encounter with racism was when we went into the [primary school] playground, that same day when we arrived at school, the kids that we met in the playground, they were so racist at us. I had a big afro—I loved it, but they laughed at that. When the kids in the playground start laughing at you, and start looking at you like you’re from a completely different planet, and start calling you monkeys and gorilla it becomes really frustrating.”

Recently, Australia has accepted a significant number of refugees from conflicts in the Horn of Africa, and the Middle East. The 2016-2017 Census indicated that Melbourne experienced the largest population growth of all capital cities, with overseas migration accounting for 64.1 per cent of the population increase. Migration affords Melbourne and greater Victoria a wave of diverse values, norms, ideas, knowledge, cuisines, relationships, business partnerships and many more benefits. However, very recent trends indicate not everyone shares this view.

Race complaints made to Victoria’s Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission rose by nearly 90% between 2017-2018, while the VEOHRC states it is likely African and Muslim communities are underreporting racism. In December 2018, the Guardian released data from Victoria’s Federation of Community Legal Centres that indicated there was a 50% surge in the number of people seeking help for racist hate crimes during 2018. As well as hate crimes, subtle forms of racism are a prominent experience reported by African and Muslim communities in Victoria. The inability to secure employment unless individuals Anglicized their names and CVs were major complaints made to the commission, while an inability for consumers to seek goods or services because of the way they looked was another significant complaint.

What is contributing to this issue is a discussion of complexity. However, there is a belief that negative media portrayals and the inclusion of African and Muslim communities in security debates orchestrated for political gain have not contributed to healthy racial attitudes in Australia. Research conducted by the OnePath Network, a Muslim production studio based in Sydney, Monash University, the Centre for Multicultural Youth, and the University of Melbourne reveals an unsettling representation of Muslim and African communities in the media. After a year-long study conducted by OnePath Network tracking how five of the biggest newspapers reported on Islam in 2017, the network found that 2891 articles featured the words ‘Islamic’ or ‘Muslim’ alongside words like ‘violence’, ‘extremism’, ‘terrorism’ or ‘radicalism’, with 152 news stories on Muslims featuring on front pages. A report, ‘Don’t drag me into this’, published by Monash University, the Centre for Multicultural Youth, and The University of Melbourne, detailing experiences of South Sudanese Australians growing up in Victoria revealed an overwhelming majority of participants felt that inaccurate and exaggerated reporting of the Apex gang and the Moomba ‘riot’, as well as continued reports of gang violence, intensified racial abuse and discrimination experienced by young South Sudanese Australians.

Australian politicians have not shied away from using the vilification of Muslim, and African Australians as a tool to win votes in debates surrounding local and national security. In January 2018, Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton, stated Victorians were “scared to go out to restaurants” because of “African gang violence”; comments which were supported by then Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, on July 2018 as he commented in a press conference, “There are Sudanese gangs in Melbourne. It is an issue”. These comments were made in the lead up to the 2018 Victorian State elections and leant support to the opposition leader, Matthew Guy, and liberal candidate for Keysborough, Darrel Taylor, who distributed brochures detailing liberals’ plan to “Stop Gangs Hunting in Packs”. Australian politicians notorious for touting negative comments surrounding the Muslim community are SenatorvFraser Anning, Senator and leader of the One Nation Party, Pauline Hanson, Former Australian Senator Jacqui Lambie, and MP George Christensen. Fraser Anning quoted saying, “I believe that the reason for ending all further Muslim immigration are both compelling and self-evident”, while Jacqui Lambie went as far as saying, “Anyone that supports Sharia law in this country should be deported”.

While actions have been taken by the VEOHRC, a movement of inspiring young activists tackling racism is surfacing. Titan Debirioun’s advocacy is a noble example of this. Titan began making hip-hop music in 2009, using music as a platform to express the struggles he had experienced. In addition to making music, Titan, in collaboration with Ciang Ajeic, Ater Makur, Daniel Mac and Faysal Farah, launched Foldatv, a multimedia platform geared towards the youth, and set to broadcast news and seasonal shows focused primarily from the perspective of South Sudanese Melbournians. Under Foldatv, the collaboration began broadcasting Mooshversations, a podcast where the five members discuss core issues that are affecting the South Sudanese community, as well as put spotlight on great things being done by the youth and the black community. The launch of Foldatv and Mooshversations are part of what Titan sees as a significant barrier to South Sudanese Melbournians expressing their stories and opinions.

“We realize we don’t really have a voice. Every time we wanted to say something or every time something happened on the news or in the community, we had to go to another person’s platform, and they controlled what we said—they controlled our voice. So we’re like, ‘Ok, let’s make a podcast and let’s just start talking about what we want to talk about, let’s phrase our podcast so that can be our voice, so we don’t have to go to a different person’s platform.”

Other young activists using music as a platform to address racism and discrimination in Victoria include Yung Baddie, KROWN, MLBRN, and many more.

In recognizing the efforts of the VEOHRC, and inspiring youth activists, there are also actions that can be taken by the wider Australian populace to address and minimize racism and discrimination in the community. Recommendations from the ‘Don’t drag me into this’ report target the actions of policymakers, the media industry, policy departments, local governments, educational institutions, academics, and individuals who are third-party witnesses to racism.

Policymakers should recognize the costs afforded to racial groups who are used as campaign tools, and ensure they withhold from the use of this campaign strategy in the future. Instead of implementing strategies such as these, policymakers must work to include people from culturally and linguistically diverse communities in debates, discussions, and decision-making processes that will directly affect them.

The media industry must play a large role in overcoming attitudes of racism and discrimination in the community. Journalists, editors and producers must adhere to the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) Journalist Code of Ethics that stipulate journalists must ‘not place unnecessary emphasis on personal characteristics, including race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, sexual orientation, family relationships, religious belief, or physical or intellectual disability’. A more recent set of guidelines put in place for ethical crime reporting, the ‘Police Accountability Project’, must also be adhered to by the media industry, while greater access to information on how culturally and linguistically diverse communities can lodge a complaint should they feel the media has breached its code of ethics should be advocated by the Australian Communication and Media Authority (ACMA). Complaints regarding controversial racial reporting can be made to the MEAA website.

The ‘Don’t drag me into this report’ also details that racial profiling by law enforcement agencies is a significant issue in Melbourne. The report suggests evaluating the training of Victorian police offers to better educate them on racial profiling and cultural sensitivity in order to prevent instances of police harassment on the basis of race.

As identified by Mawa in her interview with the VEOHRC, unhealthy racial attitudes can begin from a very young age. The ‘Don’t drag me into this’ report recognizes that intervention is crucial within schools to prevent these attitudes from developing at an early age. They recommend academic investigation and surveillance into how racism and discrimination operate within schools, and ways to address this. An academic investigation into how media narratives and political dynamics have affected culturally and linguistically diverse communities are also recommended by the report.

Finally, the action of individuals in their everyday lives against racism and discrimination, as well as third-party reporting to the VEOHRC by those who witness racist behaviour and attitudes are strongly recommended not only by the report but also by the young activists involved in the VEOHRC’s campaign. Addressing and holding people accountable to racist or discriminatory speech or behaviour, attempting to educate these people on why these beliefs and behaviours are wrong, as well as how these behaviours affect those they are targeting is considered one of the most important things individuals can do to create a better future for all.

Each of the youth involved in the VEOHRC’s campaign shared an emphasis on the importance of education and speaking out against racism.

Barry hopes “the wider community comes together. Things are changing but not that quick. Racism for me, for my understanding, it’s an ongoing process. I think we need to learn it first—education, and training as well. Don’t go back with the old history of it as well.”

Mawa believes, “People are going to be racist, and sometimes it’s because they don’t understand how it makes you feel. It’s about educating those people, and educating the community that these things have an impact.”

Each of these sentiments were mirrored by Titan who stated, “To go to the Australia that we all kind of like want, that I want at least—I don’t know if everyone wants that—but a multicultural society that’s like people working together right, start allowing other people in your space, people that aren’t like you, even if it’s uncomfortable at the start, because you never know. Give people chances. Step out of your comfort zone and meet more people, see more culture. There’s definitely hope. I don’t people to think that [there isn’t], because they try to tell you there’s no hope. I like Australia we’re heading towards, it’s more comfortable.”

Katherine Everest