Shopping Cart


The Debate over the Racial Discrimination Act: An Opportunity to Speak Freely against Racism

Monday, 4 August 2014  | Jacob Sarkodee

There is nothing to be cherished about speech that offends, insults, or humiliates on the basis of the colour of one’s skin or ethnic background. I know this personally. Over the years I have had comments about my ‘negroid’ facial features at a wedding reception, been called a ‘black c$%t’ at my local soccer match by an opposition player, and had fellow guests at a bed-in-breakfast in South Africa make hurtful and insulting comments on my ‘inter-racial marriage’ (and later, a fumbling apology that only entrenched their bigotry).

I have always considered my cultural and ethnic background as something that enriches, rather than diminishes, me as an Australian. For the most part, many aspects of Australian culture celebrate this cultural and ethnic diversity. However, too often it is also exposed to seemingly random racist outbursts. Recent high profile cases of racism on public transport have struck a chord with many regarding what they find to be a daily experience.

For millions of Australians who identify as part of an ethnic minority, proposed changes by the federal Government to the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (the ‘Act’) does little to reassure them that life can be lived free from the effects of racism. The Attorney General’s proposed changes centre on one section of the Act, 18C, namely:

It is “unlawful for a person to do an act…[that] is reasonably likely…to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people…and the act is done because of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin of the other person or of some or all of the people in the group.”

The rationale for this is an attempt to defend the right to ‘free speech’. In particular it is a response to the successful Federal Court prosecution of columnist Andrew Bolt who was found to have engaged in racial vilification. Senator Brandis stated in parliament that,

“…never again in Australia will we have a situation in which a person may be taken to court for expressing a political opinion…The problem with section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, as it is currently worded, is that it goes about the problem of dealing with racial vilification in the wrong way. What it seeks to do is to deal with the problem of racial vilification by political censorship.”

He added:

“People do have a right to be bigots…In a free country; people do have rights to say things that other people find offensive, insulting or bigoted.”

I suspect that every Australian who has experienced discrimination or humiliation on the basis of his or her racial and ethnic background will have winced (or worse) at Brandis’ defence of the changes.

I certainly did.

Having experienced debilitating comments about my own identity and character on the basis of my west African heritage, it is difficult to understand how these changes will further the Government’s ‘freedom agenda’ without equally diminishing basic human rights.

Under Article 2 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, Australia is obliged to “amend, rescind or nullify any laws and regulations which have the effect of creating or perpetuating racial discrimination wherever it exists.” I see little in the proposed changes to the Act that would promote the intent of the Convention – namely, to reduce any policy environment that perpetuates racism. Malaise over racism is not to be dismissed lightly.

In the last 5 years racism has reportedly been on the increase. Unsurprisingly the public outcry (including by 50 local councils) against the changes has been vocal and widespread. This is not just because people do not want to feel merely ‘offended’. Research has indicated that there are links between racism (particularly, ‘internalised racism’) and detrimental health outcomes for children. A recent survey found that out of 264 primary and secondary schools students across seven schools in Victoria, “22.5 per cent reported experiencing at least one form of racism every day”. There is evidence that such a prevalence of racism across the community will result “in reduced opportunities to access the societal resources required for health”.

Evidence has emerged showing that there is a reduced likelihood of securing a job for ethnic minorities who have exactly the same qualifications as those from more established ethnic backgrounds. A 2009 anti-discrimination audit that involved sending fictional resumes to thousands of employers found “economically and statistically significant differences in callback rates, suggesting that ethnic minority candidates would need to apply for more jobs in order to receive the same number of interviews.”

There is a responsibility on all Australians, whether politicians or school children, to make every effort to ensure that both the act and the environment that perpetuates racism ‘stops with me’. Protecting the human right to free speech should not come at the expense of growing a culture of bigotry in Australia. With every human right comes the responsibility upon another to uphold the human rights of their neighbours.

It is this responsibility that provides an opportunity for Christians to speak out against any changes that might add to racially divisive undercurrents in the community. The parable of the Good Samaritan calls Christians towards love, mercy and justice for the ‘other’ – including if the ‘other’ has a different ethnic or racial background.

Let us all respond to the accomplishment of Christ’s cross that brought down the walls of hostility between two ethnic groups (Jew and Gentile), by taking the opportunity to work and speak out against racism with the knowledge that in Jesus, we have “one new humanity” (Ephesians 2:14-15).

Jacob Sarkodee
Lives in Ascot Vale, Melbourne.

This article was also published on the IsaiahOne website.

Got something to add?

  • Your Comment


Online Resources

subscribe to engage.mail

follow us

Latest Articles