There is nothing that seems to divide Australia quite so much as race. Whether it be a debate about refugees, the treatment of aboriginal Australians or the effect of multiculturalism on our society, race is the one topic guaranteed to invoke a range of opinions.
Last year, SBS’ Go Back To Where You Came From sparked plenty of debate about the tone of the never-ending asylum seeker debate in this country. This year, ABC2’s Dumb, Drunk and Racist is set to send talkback radio into meltdown.
The show sees journalist Joe Hildebrand taking four intrepid Indians – a call centre worker, a newsreader, a student and an education consultant – across Australia, to experience the best – and worst – we have to offer.
The idea, Hildebrand says, came as a result of a Mother Jones article that revealed Indian call centre workers had a manual that warned them Australians were dumb, drunk and racist.
“It was picked up and run with here and it caused a bit of a stir,” he says. “It got me thinking, so we thought let’s put this issue to the test, let’s find out firstly if Indians really think that of us, and secondly, are they right?”
Hildebrand says the plan was to show that aside from a small minority, Australians were good people. But he admits it didn’t pan out exactly as hoped.
“We took them all over the country, showed them what we hoped would be the full spectrum of of Australian life,” he says. “City, country, black, white, the whole bit.
“We hoped at the end, they’d say, ‘Actually, you’re all fine, pretty good bunch of guys’, but it didn’t quite turn out like that … we actually came across a lot of people who were, for want of a better term, dumb, drunk and racist.
“Although sometimes it’s two out of three, let’s be fair.”
One of those people was Sergio, a man the group stumbled upon when visiting Newtown, a south-western Sydney suburb with a high number of overseas-born residents. He proudly displays a mural which says “SAY NO TO BURQAS”, and in the first episode is shown having a heated debate with Joe, the four Indians and a Muslim man passing by offended by the painting.
“He’s obviously deliberately setting out to provoke a reaction,” Hildebrand says. “People should be allowed to say anything, but the beauty of free speech is it often exposes the speaker for being a bit of an idiot.”
As the series goes on, viewers will see Sergio is one of many Australians who hold racist views. Hildebrand says he expected some of the attitudes, but was surprised by “how overt and common it was”.
“I thought we would see people who would say things like, ‘Oh, I’m not quite sure about all these Muslims moving in or these asylum seekers or Chinese people buying up all the houses,” he says. “You can have a conversation about that.
“But I guess I stupidly assumed that people would have these little prejudices and be a bit embarrassed to admit them. What amazed me was the openness with which people would just hurl abuse and say obviously nasty or racist things.
“There doesn’t seem to be any shame attached to it for some people, I would have thought more people would be worried about being branded racist.”
In the second episode, the Indians are shown footage of the 2005 Cronulla riots – one of the ugliest displays of mass bigotry in Australia’s history. Even influential radio broadcasters such as 2GB’s Alan Jones endorsed the dark events that took place. Amer, the 21-year-old student, is reduced to tears watching the footage, appalled, and quite rightly likens the mob to animals.
But, just as all hope seems lost, Hildebrand takes the group to meet Stuart, a Cronulla local who was deeply ashamed by the riots. On the day, he and a few friends went to a nearby kebab shop in a heartwarming display of solidarity.
Hildebrand says people like Stuart are more representative of Australians than those with extreme right-wing views.
“I think the overwhelming majority of Australians are decent, kind, passionate and tolerant people who have embraced this incredibly diverse, multicultural society that we live in,” he says.
“Racism sounds ugly when it’s vocalised at its most extreme and hopefully instead of marginalising people from other races it’ll marginalise the racists and that sense of shame will return. Most Australians know racism and racist abuse is just not on.”
So what is the best way to go about fixing the attitudes some Australians hold? Hildebrand says there needs to be a national discussion, free of racial abuse and stereotyping.
“There’s a genuine debate that can and should be had,” he says. “I don’t believe Tony Abbott is racist and I don’t believe Julia Gillard is racist. I think the problem is you need to have a debate about important and life-threatening issues like asylum seekers without it being corrupted and polluted.”