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In the war on racism, the migrant-born are forever left behind

As long as we deny the reflection of the demography of the Australian nation in all our instruments then we will continue to deny the long overdue conversation in this country about racism and the ways forward

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Lonsdale Street's Greek Precinct, Melbourne.

13 April 2017

More than one quarter of Australia's population is comprised of migrants; Australians who were born overseas. In discussions on the war on racism, migrants and the Australian-born children of migrants do get a mention in public discourses but it's such a token mention, it is surface-level stuff. In terms of outcomes, that is, in the offering of a seat at the table in the highest public offices, in the power-sharing of this nation, there is barely a presence. It's a sea of white privilege everywhere. The demography of this nation is not reflected in our boardrooms and parliaments.

Rightly, the First Peoples (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders) of this continent, at long last, thanks predominately to affirmative actions, are getting a look-in within the boardrooms, and an increasing presence in the parliaments. This does not mean that the social reforms needed for the significant proportion of First Peoples living below the poverty line will be achieved, but it does mean at least many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are catapulting their way out of the abominable racism that tortured them for generations. It means that they have the potential to face off with the oppressor, reducing the oppressor's venom.

There will continue third-world-akin poverty for a significant proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, long after our generation's bones are dusted into the earth. In the war on racism, migrant Australians have respected the onus for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social reforms, to end the outrageous inequalities and inequities. But it is now time that this polycultural nation culminates as multicultural. Australia is not multicultural. It is polycultural: home to people from just about every nation, and to cultures which are without a sovereign homeland. But though many of these culturally and language diverse peoples have never been victimised to the same level as our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander brothers and sisters, racism haunts and impacts with destructive force.

No nation that peddles a dominant culture is free from racism. In a polycultural nation, the non-dominant cultures are oppressed. When we truly wish to understand one another only then will we learn from one another and come together – only then will we integrate and live alongside, instead of apart. Multicultural signifies intertwined and integrated whereas polycultural signifies many but not necessarily intertwined and integrated. As long as the dominant culture peddles its axioms and refuses to share power then racism will be exploited. Anger and hate will spread perniciously as Australia in modernity is a firmament of testaments to the racism, anger and hate.

Nearly 90 per cent of our federal parliamentarians are representatives of white privilege – borne of it and who have experienced little outside of it. If the political machinery of this nation were to reflect the demography of this nation in our federal parliaments then the turnaround would ensure two-thirds of our parliamentarians are of Australians of a parent born overseas and who spoke a language other than English. The domination by white privilege in our federal parliament is also reflected in the highest offices and boardrooms of this nation. In the last couple of years the boardrooms I have visited right across the nation have had, yes, 'an' Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander but otherwise comprised nearly 100 per cent of white privilege.

What aches are my personal experiences with the life-and-death spaces I am involved in; suicide prevention and postvention. Migrants account for more than one quarter of this nation's suicide toll. Migrants also account for one in three of the nation's homeless. The historical narrative of migrant success stories hid the extensive narrative of failed efforts, the litany of broken lives. Migrant suicides contributed to the nation's high suicide rate in the early 1960s. The Australian suicide rate peaked in 1963. But migrant suicides are again on the increase. At this time I am effectively the only individual in the nation writing about migrant suicides and of the suicides of Australian-born children of migrants. I am the only individual disaggregating to within migrant populations. Migrant suicides are not discussed. They are lost in translation. They need to be discussed if we are to save lives and where lives have been lost to reach families so we can grieve together, that they are supported. Recently, I delivered a keynote speech and a couple of other presentations at the Australian Postvention Conference and I begged that we leave no-one behind.

Sadly, the boards of the major suicide prevention and postvention organisations have no migrant representation. This includes worthy organisations such as Lifeline and Black Dog and so on. Beyond Blue's board does include Dr Mukesh Haikerwal, who was born in India. But it's not the norm across the space. On the majority of the various government boards and at the National Mental Health Commission level there are no migrant voices. There certainly needs to be. I know that as usual following my writing about this, that steps will be taken to find someone of a migrant background to fill a seat and 'tick the box'.

I am someone who gets around this country, has a momentary glimpse into some of the nation's boardrooms and think tanks, who for the time being glimpses into the political machinery of the nation, but all around me I see white privilege, a sea of white privilege. The war on racism will never be won as long as the demography of the nation fails to be reflected.

As long as we deny the reflection of the demography of the Australian nation in all our instruments then we will continue to deny the long overdue conversation in this country about racism and the ways forward. Instead we soaked up the Cronulla riots and we soak up Islamophobia, every imaginable xenophobia, and the degeneration into misoxeny. This generation has had to cope with eruptions of hatred but the relationships will break down further in the generations of our children and their children. Hatred differs from anger. It was hatred, as opposed to anger, that led to the violence in Cronulla. Instead of intimate relationships with one another in a multicultural nation we will be increasingly siloed into a tension-filled polycultural nation.

There is a distinguishing between fear and hatred – between xenophobia and misoxeny. The degeneration to misoxeny can translate to a generation being incapable of recovery from misoxeny and the duration of the hatred may extend to the ensuing generation. Hatred is pervasive and overwhelms people, obscures right- and reasonable-mindedness. There arises intense feelings when people feel intensely threatened, on both sides of the divide, and the hatred builds. As human beings we can be traumatised by what they feel threatens us. The psychological wounds can become unforgettable, unforgivable for the generation at hand. Let us not blame Pauline Hanson for contemporary racism, for the xenophobia and misoxeny. Pauline represents the voices of many of the xenophobic and misoxenists. The Cronulla riots occurred while Pauline Hanson was out of political office.

White privilege may not be able to manage the racism, the xenophobia, the misoxeny, but then it may serve the selfish interests of white privilege by retaining its dominance in which racism thrives. Preventing the rise of racism requires white privilege to balance the sharing of power, to contextualise it and put an end to the power imbalances, an end to the structural and institutional racisms that deny the demography of this nation its reflection in the boardrooms, think tanks, and parliaments.

In our spheres of influence, we can urge the ways forward; at the Australian Postvention Conference I called for the boards and advisory groups in the suicide prevention and postvention spaces to bring the many together. There are newly arrived migrants at elevated risk to aberrant behaviour, to suicide. So too of the children of migrants and tragically of the migrant parents who are burying their Australian-born children. I have written widely on these tragedies and of the migrant silence; a silence because white Australia is not listening. I have sat with hundreds of families across the nation who have lost a family member to suicide; migrant families, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, of every imaginable Australian background and every family has poured out its heart. We need to ensure they are heard in the boardrooms of the peak bodies, in the think tanks. When we leave any population group, cultural group, LGBTQI, any categorical group behind such as the homeless, the impoverished, the incarcerated, the sexually abused then we discriminate and, yes, it translates toxically, the grief internalises and the damage hits hard.

* Gerry Georgatos is a suicide prevention and prison reform researcher and advocate with the non-tertiary Institute of Social Justice and Human Rights. He is a member of national projects to further develop suicide prevention, and wellbeing and education programs in prisons. He is also a prolific writer in the understanding of racism and on the ways forward from racism.

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