In the past fortnight, two separate stories of racial discrimination in regional Australia have made headlines. In regional New South Wales, a Harvard-trained doctor was asked if she was a prostitute when she went to check into a motel.
And in Queensland, a Palestinian-Christian man said he was constantly racially profiled during the 18 months he lived in Rockhampton for a university teaching job. Experts say there used to be an assumption that there was an urban/country divide in racist attitudes. But does regional Australia have a racism problem that’s different from the major cities?
Racism experience is hyperlocal
Statistically, more cases of racism have occurred in capital cities than regions since 2013, according to an annual report. The Scanlon Foundation’s Mapping Social Cohesion report surveys 1,500 people each year to track public opinion on issues of social cohesion, immigration and population.
The 2018 report found the incidence of discrimination in regional Australia is much the same as in urban Australia. Sixteen per cent of respondents in the regions reported that they had experienced discrimination because of their birthplace compared to 20 per cent of people in capital cities.
Author of the Social Cohesion report, Andrew Markus from Monash University, said the numbers had been consistent since 2013, but that there might be several explanations for the figures.
“In a way it might be counter-intuitive that you’re getting higher levels of discrimination [in capital cities], but I guess the other factor here is that there will be a lot more people of religious, ethnic and cultural diversity living in the cities,” Professor Markus said.
“Over the course of time, [the] experience of discrimination has gone up.
“This is people reporting. It may not actually be that discrimination has changed, but the way people report it has changed.
“Some of the predictors of being accepting of diversity include higher levels of education and younger age groups.
“Obviously you’re going to get more of that in higher proportions in cities than you will in regional or country areas.”
The findings are echoed by Western Sydney University’s Kevin Dunn, who is involved with the university’s Challenging Racism Project, which has been running since 1998.
“We had an assumption many years ago that there would be an urban/rural divide in attitudes, as had been found in historic scholarship,” he said. “We found it not to be the case — that there was as much variation within a city, as there was between the city and the bush.”
He said the reality was that racist attitudes were often based on hyperlocal factors and varied as much within cities as they did around Australia. “What we traced it back to was the different socioeconomics of regions, the different histories of race relations, the recency of migration settlement of a group that hitherto hadn’t been numerous in Australia.”
‘Never any sort of hostility’
Neeta Ferdous is a researcher, mother and member of the Central Queensland Multicultural Association who, with her family, moved to Rockhampton from Bangladesh via Brisbane and New Zealand in 2002.
She said moving to a region, she found people more accepting of difference than in the bigger city because new people had the chance to get to know each other.
“I’ve felt that people are more friendly here, more accepting and more open. “We’ve got lots of friends from the mainstream community — never any sort of hostility.”
Ms Ferdous is an organiser of sorts for other families who have moved to Rockhampton from Bangladesh.
“It’s the tradition of our community to go and introduce ourselves and give them some company and a little bit of support,” she said. “In 2002, we only had five families here and every other day we used to meet, and our children grew up together — they are like cousins.”
In 17 years, not much has changed.
Today she is catching up with three friends: Mabrouka Islam, Holy Dewan and Shajia Frain. They have come from different parts of Bangladesh. Ms Dewan is Buddhist and the rest of the women are Muslim. Their families often gather for Bangladeshi cooking parties and to celebrate traditional holidays.
“It’s actually what we miss at home, so we try to recreate it here in whatever form or whichever way we can,” Ms Dewan said.
‘My name is not Raul’
But not all experiences in regional Australia are so positive.
Ryan Al-Natour has a PhD from the Institute of Culture and Society, Western Sydney University and works on decolonisation projects within tertiary education in New South Wales.
The ABC last month published an extract of his chapter in the book Arab, Australian, Other: Stories on Race and Identity.
Dr Al-Natour told the story of when he moved to Rockhampton for a university teaching role and the racism he experienced as a Palestinian-Christian man living in the city.
He said he was discriminated against while finding a place to live, when he was at work, and while eating at local restaurants.
“Perhaps one of the most memorable instances was when a random white male talked about me — in front of me — to his friends as they walked past,” he wrote. “‘Look at Raul over there!‘ he [the man] yelled as if this was an insult.
“Something within me snapped. I responded with rage. ‘MY NAME IS NOT RAUL!'”
A long way to go, Australia
The Scanlon Foundation report found that Muslim people experienced the most discrimination, with 39 per cent of respondents affected.
That was closely followed by 36 per cent of Hindu respondents.
Professor Dunn said there was still much work to be done all around Australia to challenge racism.
“When people who have very negative views, we know from a theory called Consensus Theory that whenever they think that their views are the consensus of the majority, they are much more likely to turn their attitude into actions.
“It’s important for all the rest of us to continue to marginalise the very negative types of opinions and attitudes and behaviours. “And so that’s leadership, but then … it doesn’t take away the responsibility of ordinary citizens as well.
“We all must take pro-social action, sometimes referred to as bystander action, to speak up and speak out when we see and hear racism.”