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Race, ethnicity, prejudice: white Australia policy Essay

This paper is divided into two parts. In the first part the concepts or race, ethnicity, prejudice and racism are defined and how they are connected is discussed. Part 2 of the paper looks at the ‘White Australia’ policy and why it was introduced. The impact of such a racist immigration history on contemporary Australia is also discussed in terms of attitudes and behaviours of the population.

Following is a brief discussion on how successive government policies and non-government organisations have tried to deal with and eradicate racism and discrimination against minority groups in Australia since the ‘White Australia’ policy was abolished in the 1940’s. Lastly, the tensions that remain today in multicultural Australia are explored. Part 1 What is race? During the late 18th and early 19th centuries it was thought that humans could be divided into different groups according to their biological makeup,

or alternatively, their race. The term ‘race’ focused more on common features that were shared among a single species, rather than placing emphasis on the characteristics which divide us (Cohen & Kennedy, 2007; Giddens, 2001). The emerging theories of race were used to justify the rising social order as England along with other European nations became imperial powers. It was thought that there were three main race categories, white, black and yellow, with the white race being the superior race (Giddens, 2001).

Today, sociologists reject the idea of racial hierarchy amongst humankind and propose that ‘race’ is “a social construct related to the ways that people and cultures interpret, and react to, minor physical differences” (Van Krieken, Habibis, Smith, Hutchins, Haralambos & Holborn, 2006, p. 264). The idea of significant biological differences has been debunked in contemporary sociology and the notion replaced with the emergence of ethnicity. What is ethnicity?

The idea of ‘race’ is a social construct based on innate physical differences, while ‘ethnicity’ is purely social in meaning based on less obvious differences such as social markers of culture, language, religion, style of dress and nationality (Giddens, 2001; Cohen & Kennedy, 2007; Van Krieken et al, 2010; Matsumoto & Juang, 2004). In other words, it looks at how one group of people are distinguishable from another based on differences that are learned. In practice, ethnic labels almost always apply to minority groups within a society.

This is problematic in the sense that it poses a risk of separation between ‘us’ and ‘them’ (Giddens, 2001; Van Krieken et al, 2010). Another problem is that ethnic groupings are often too generic. In Australia, for example, we might speak of a Muslim ethnic group or the Muslim community. ‘Muslim’, therefore, becomes one category which in fact holds a number of subgroups itself which does not get acknowledged. Another issue arising from ethnic grouping is that labels are usually given to the minority, when in fact, we are all ethnic regardless of if we belong to an ethnic minority or majority.

What is prejudice? Prejudice “refers to opinions or attitudes held by members of one groups towards another” (Giddens, 2001, p. 250). These opinions and attitudes are usually based on preconceived views based on stereotypes rather than evidence and are hard to change even when presented with evidence stating otherwise (McConnochie, Hollinsworth & Pettman, 1988). Prejudice is based on internal beliefs and when those beliefs lead to a particular behaviour as a result it turns into discrimination.

For example, if people are denied the same opportunities, such as gaining employment, based on their skin colour, their ethnicity or disability as a result of prejudice, prejudice becomes discrimination. What is racism? When we speak of race, ethnicity and prejudice we are intrinsically linking racism as well. Racism is prejudice taken another step further. In contrast to prejudice, racism is based on perceived cultural superiority, which is itself based on perceived genetic superiority (McConnochie et al, 1988). There are two forms of racism: individual and institutional.

Individual racism involves one-on-one scenarios where racist attitudes are expressed based on a particular individuals belief towards another. For example, one person might be of the opinion that all Aboriginal’s are dirty, and therefore, be racist to an Aboriginal when they are walking down the street, at school or work. Institutional racism on the other hand is far broader in context and more complex. It refers to the ways in which racism has infiltrated into social institutions which govern, discriminate and oppress various groups within that society based on their race (McConnochie et al, 1988).

These institutions within our societies, such as schools and healthcare services, use racism in a systematic manner which favours one group over all the others. Although racism as a notion is the same for both individual and institutional purposes, the consequences of the two are vastly different. Sociologists have argued that in the recent years racism has shifted from excluding groups on a biological basis, to more of a cultural basis of difference (Giddens, 2001; Van Krieken et al, 2010). In this new wave of racism there are clearly underlying political dimensions.

Part 2 The White Australia Policy (1880’s – 1940’s) Australia as we know it today is a result of careful political planning and construction to create a particular kind of society. From early European settlers until the late 19th century Australia had an open immigration policy (Cope, Castles & Kalantzis, 1991). Everyone was welcome and encouraged to come as populating the land was the primary concern. However, immigration legislation changed as unemployment rates started rising and fears of over population from the Chinese was ignited.

As a result, the White Australia policy was introduced in 1980 and lasted through to early 1940’s (Van Krieken et al, 2010; Jupp, 2002). Economic and cultural reasons were the main reasons for introducing the White Australia policy (Windschuttle, 2005). Social cohesion was a real concern at the time and it was believed that solidarity could not be maintained with so many ‘inferior’ races populating the nation. It was believed that, in accordance to Darwin’s theory of evolution, the fittest race will survive and the weakest would be eliminated accordingly.

These were the main underlying rationales for keeping Australia as ‘pure’ as possible. Impact of Australia’s Immigration history on the attitudes and behaviours of contemporary Australians As contemporary Australia becomes more diverse, racist attitudes embedded from immigration history and previous policies can still be felt. Expression of racism through attitudes and behaviours has taken on new form. Contemporary expressions of racism tend to be focused on national identity and nationhood rather than genetic superiority, and tend to also be fuelled by the popular media.

Once again, the concern appears to be on social cohesion and the belief that minority groups place the cohesion and national identity at risk, showing remnants of the White Australia policy. Inherent racist beliefs and attitudes expressed today are targeted towards minority groups who potentially are the most disadvantaged. Measures taken by the government to address this disadvantage is seen as an unfair privileged treatment at the expense of the majority. Examples of this include opposition towards action policies promoting Indigenous Australians into certain jobs and provision of English language support to newcomers.

Attempts at eradicating racism and discrimination against minority groups and individuals since the end of the White Australia policy Assimilation lasted from the 1940’s until the mid 1960’s. This new policy adopted the assumptions from the White Australia policy on preserving the society as homogenous in order to keep cohesion and harmoniousness. It meant that immigrants should absorb themselves into mainstream culture as quickly as possible and become as ‘Australian’ as possible (Van Krieken et al, 2010; Cope et al, 1991).

Government policies were put into place for English language lessons, which were at the centre of the policy, along with services to help migrants find employment and help them out with housing upon their arrival (Van Krieken et al, 2010). In other words, the main emphasis of the assimilation policy was to make ‘them’ look like ‘us’ as much and as quickly as possible. Integration followed on from assimilation and lasted from the mid 1960’s to the early 1970’s. The expectations of the assimilation policy and the evident reality were rather different and as a result the integration approach appeared.

The government shifted focus from making ‘them’ like ‘us’ to educating the Australian public to accept and welcome the new changes and the need to change attitudes to be less fearful and negative to more tolerant. With new policies developed at the time, overall differences were welcomed and encouraged into the public domain. By the early to mid 1970’s multiculturalism was introduced as an attempt to ease some of the tensions and anxieties and started the shift from British focused immigration.

The Racial Discrimination Act was introduced in 1975 and racism was officially legislated against. Under the new RDA it became against the law to discriminate in areas such as housing, employment and provision of services. By the 1980’s, multiculturalism was being redefined, and the emphasis of the concept was equity across the board for all individuals in Australia irrespective of their background (Van Krieken et al, 2010). Multiculturalism was a concept encompassing the need for unity, inclusion, tolerance, acceptance and equality.

What tensions remain today in multicultural Australia? Despite the push by the government for all residents to identify as an Australian and work together to develop a national identity, whilst providing equal opportunities and access across the board, it hasn’t been an easy journey to date. At the core of the issue of Australia as a multicultural nation is national identity. Defining what it means to be ‘Australian’ has been problematic over the years and has usually reflected political movements.

Remnants of White Australia policy can still, however, be felt in today’s society as they are expressed through traditional racist attitudes and beliefs and are sometimes the cause of racial attacks, segregation and anxiety of minority groups. Moreover, tension exists on a number of other issues including the feeling of displacement for migrants of non-English-speaking background who after some time do not identify with the Australian national identity nor with their mother-land (Jupp, 2002). They face a number of adjustment issues as well such as struggling to gain employment.

Other issues still relevant in multicultural Australia include limited inclusion of Indigenous issues within the policies, tension in relation to Asian immigration, the extent to which different value and belief systems are accepted and allowed for, the uncertainty of the role and nature of ethnic and minority groups within the broader mainstream society, the correlation of class, gender and ethnicity, the conflict between inclusion and tolerance and the currently hot debated issue on asylum seekers (Jupp, 2002; Van Krieken et al, 2010).

In conclusion, whilst multiculturalism has certainly been a step forward and progressive thus far in unifying all Australian citizens as one there is still a long way to go before the ideal is achieved. More research is needed in areas that affect minority groups and the daily issues they are faced with based on their gender, age and ethnicity. The findings need to be considered and used when in writing new policies for the nation.

While there is no easy answer to any of the issues Australia is faced with today, a new form of multiculturalism with an even bigger focus on unity, respect and mindfulness is needed in progressing forward. Refrences Cope, B. , Castles, S. , & Kalantzis, M. (1991). Historical overview of the assumptions about the relationship between immigration and social cohesion. In Immigration, ethnic conflict and social cohesion (Ch. 2, pp. 3 – 19). Centre for Multicultural Studies, University of Wollongong, Canberra: AGPS.

Cohen, R. & Kennedy, P. (2007). Social Inequalities: Gender, Race and Class. In Global Sociology. (2nd edition, Ch 6, pp 157 – 162). Giddens, A. (2001). Race, Ethnicity and Migration. In Sociology. (4th edition, Ch 9, pp 244 – 277). Cambridge: Polity Press. Jupp, J. (2002). From White Australia to Woomera: The Story of Australian Immigration. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. McConnochie, K. , Hollinsworth, D. , & Pettman, J. (1988). Race and racism in Australia. Wentworth Falls, NSW: Macleay Press. Matsumoto, D.

& Juang, L. (2004) Culture and psychology (3rd ed. ). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Van Krieken, R. , Habibis, D. , Smith, P. , Hutchins, B. , Haralambos, M. , & Holborn, M. (Eds. ). (2006). Sociology. Themes and Perspectives. (3rd ed. ). Frenchs Forest: Pearson Longman. Van Krieken, R. et al (2010). Identities: Indigenous, National, Ethnic and Racial. In Sociology. (4th edition, Ch 8, pp 256 – 282). Sydney: Pearson. Windschuttle. K. (2005). The White Australia policy. Sydney Papers, 17(3-4), 129-134.

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