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Is Australia racist? Not in my experience

The 'lucky country' has its fair share of race issues, but no more than anywhere else.
Last modified: 25 Aug 2013 22:27
Australia's reputation is undeserved [Getty]

One of the most common questions I am asked as an Australian abroad is, “why is your country so racist?” I answer by acknowledging that Australia has some race-based problems but no more than any other country.

In fact I often tell people I’ve seen far less racism and cultural disharmony at home than I have abroad, particularly in various parts of Asia.

Growing up and working in Australia, I can count on one hand the number of raw racist comments I have been subjected to.

The follow-up questions often focus on my Indian family, my upbringing in Australia, and how we’ve fared living in the land of plenty for the past 25 years. So, this is how I describe my island home and my family’s very "Aussie" existence.

My family held itself to one interesting house rule during my childhood: To raise me as an Australian first and as an Indian second. This does not mean that Indian culture and the Hindu and Sikh faiths did not play an integral role in my upbringing. Quite the contrary; they were essential. But this outlook focused on making sure that I found and felt comfortable with my place in Australia, a country my family migrated to in the 1980s and a community they committed to being a part of for the rest of their lives.

My Mum and my grandmother are big footy (Australian Football League) fans. When I was growing up we’d regularly go to Gurudwara (a Sikh place of worship) on Sunday morning and race home to watch the afternoon match on television. Depending on how well "their teams" are doing, the women in my family will avidly watch most games of the season. Cricket poses an interesting allegiance issue.

My Mum still has a soft spot for the Indian cricket team but my 86-year-old Punjabi grandmother will almost always back Australia. Ask her why and she says, “Well, where do we live? Here or there?”

Childhood idyll 

Growing up my family marked Diwali and Christmas equally. This was for my benefit and that of my cousins. It was about giving us the opportunity to learn about the culture and traditions that connect us to India but also to immerse us in the ones that tie us to Australia. From a very young age, I spent hours on tennis courts with students from all over Brisbane, I was a part of ethnically diverse debating teams, and I participated in Australia Day celebrations and the Catholic traditions of my primary school and high school, all the while speaking Hindi at home and English at school.

The friendships I have formed in Australia over the years also remind me of the very multicultural community I come from, and as a result, the wealth of formative cultural experiences I have experienced over the years. A few weeks ago I caught up with four of my closest high school friends whose families all have roots in different parts of the world: England, Italy and the Philippines.

To our year 12 ball, I wore a gown made from a beautifully embellished sari. In many ways this was a defining moment of the hybrid cultural existence that I have, over the years, come to accept and admire as perfectly normal.  

This collection of experiences in no way discounts or ignores the challenges Australia faces when it comes to dealing with racism. But my upbringing and my “migrant” family’s way of life are not unlike hundreds of thousands of households across the country.

In suburbs, cities and small towns families, children and communities are forging their own unique "Aussie" way of life: One that not only embraces cultural diversity but also promotes it, sometimes in the smallest and most personal of ways.