Sunshine in Melbourne’s west has seen all manner of refugees in the past half century. The current mix includes a significant proportion of men, women and children from African nations. Many of these people will have suffered extreme abuse and seen horrors most people of Australian heritage would struggle to imagine. They have turned to the western world in search of respite and a better life, a chance to live and raise their families away from the strife of their own homelands.
I’ll bet none of the refugees who enter the Australian community expected to have to deal with aspersions cast upon their character based upon little more than their heritage. Australia presents itself as a cultural utopia where each person is held in equal regard and given the same opportunities to work, live in peace and be protected from racial abuse. I wonder how disappointed these refugees become when they learn that’s not the case, but more importantly, how they feel when they find that some of the main perpetrators are none other than the police staffing the Sunshine Police Station in Melbourne.
By now you’ve most likely all seen the stubby holders designed by the staff at Sunshine. Doubtless, you’ve read what is printed on either side, a reference to mudfish and inability to provide a date of birth. Derogatory, racist language combined with the suggestion that African’s are liars for providing no date of birth both point to a stereotype embedded in the culture at Sunshine Police Station that is highly offensive; one wonders how much further that culture extends.
Unfortunately, this attitude is not a solitary problem. Four years ago, I spent a weekend in a bed & breakfast in one of Australia’s iconic wine regions with an indigenous companion. One of the proprietors was a former police officer, who made a number of comments about his days working in the force in rural locations and how he managed his indigenous detainees. To say this former officer, who under other circumstances may have seemed a perfectly lovely man, applied a different measure of law enforcement to his indigenous clients would not be an exaggeration. It was all the more worrisome, because his wife concurred with the perceptions and actions expressed by her husband. This couple were not unaware that one of their guests was indigenous, but seemed to see no problem in expressing a view in which a black man would be locked in a cell to “dry out” overnight whilst a carcass was hanging in the same cell, in fact it amused them.
The words we choose are reflective of our thought processes. Worse yet, alcohol creates no new thoughts – and the derogatory phrases on the Sunshine Police stubby holders demonstrates the genuine contempt on the part of the local constabulary for the people they are supposed to be assisting.
Just a few months ago, Victoria Police settled a case out of court in which several of their members had been involved in racial attacks on African refugees in Flemington just 11 km east of Sunshine, between 2005 and 2009. And whilst the Victoria Police supposedly dealt with those involved and reviewed cultural training within the force, it appears that the measures did not go far enough.
Just six weeks ago, a woman wearing a lanyard now known to be freely available with the word “justice” emblazoned along its length, directed a tirade of racist abuse at a Korean traveler. Having realized some of the inventions that Maxwell Smart employed are no longer so improbable, the camera phone proved to be this woman’s undoing as her attack was filmed and provided to police. The woman, not a Department of Justice employee as first believed, has now been charged “… with using obscene language in a public place and with behaving in a riotous manner in a public place.” Insistent that she is not racist because her child is of Cook Islander Samoan heritage, she seems to be completely of the opinion that just because you come from one minority group you cannot be racist toward another. It appears no charges relating to race hate under the racial Discrimination Act have been made against her and Australia once again ignores the harsh truth – racism is rife and the police are refusing to deal with the issue. The stubby holders at Sunshine and the case in Flemington show that the problem is not simply a matter of a few individuals, but a culture that needs to be weeded out.
Racist attitudes within the police are not the exclusive purvey of one jurisdiction. Look across the entire country and you will find examples of the same elsewhere. Doomadgee in Queensland, taser victims in Western Australia, the former Commissioner for ACT Revenue in Canberra, Kwementyaye Ryder in the Northern Territory …
If we are to address racism in Australia, we must start with the obvious expressions of marginalization – the derogatory comments made in public, the slip-ups on radio, the drawings and printed matter that belie a thought process that indicate a sense of superiority on the part of the person making the declaration. As I stated to a friend recently in relation to Adam Goodes incidents, to refer to a person as a primate brings back echoes of the days when Australia’s Aborigines were considered to be less than human, part of the flora and fauna. When a person lives an entire life being referred to in reference not to their character, but rather their appearance, we dehumanize them. When we refer to a person as some form of animal, we dehumanize them. When we express an opinion of stereotypical dislike that has no rational basis, we are demonstrating a bias that lessens our own public persona and reveals the true nature of ourselves.
The old adage, start as you mean to continue cannot be taken too lightly. And whilst many will argue that you cannot change behaviour through verbal expression of opinion, it’s a good place to start. Being conscious of our thoughts before we speak and framing out words with the listener in mind is crucial to building harmonious and cohesive communities. Being other-focused should be a core role of the police in any jurisdiction. If the police start out with outward expressions of derision and marginalization, one can only expect that similar behaviour will follow.
I hope the disgust expressed by Premier Denis Napthine and Chief Commissioner Ken Lay are the impetus for the change that is needed in at least this one jurisdiction of Australian law enforcement. Hot on the heals of Reconciliation Week in which racial abuses against indigenous Australians have been highlighted, to find that the another section of the community is being viewed through the blinkers of white Australia shows just how far our community and constabulary have to go in building a true democracy.