Thinking About 'Racism' at 2 in the Morning

I woke up wide awake at 2 am, and can't get back to sleep because it's so terribly quiet. Even with the windows open, I could hear absolutely nothing--not a car, a cricket, nor a gecko. This is in sharp contrast to the usual chirping and squawking one hears all day from the many birds around our place. I guess even those obnoxious crows have to sleep sometime.

Well, it seems to be a good time to write about the following story of the firing of an Aussie television news journalist, which my American readers may find interesting as a cultural contrast. It appeared in the The Australian last week:
Nine to Challenge Spiteri Claim
April 16, 2008

THE Nine Network will ask a judge to throw out a breach of contract case brought by reporter Christine Spiteri.

In the Federal Court in Sydney today, Justice Richard Edmonds set Nine's application down for hearing on May 23.

Ms Spiteri, 40, is seeking damages of more than $500,000 under the Trade Practices Act after she was told her contract with the network would expire in March this year.

In her statement of claim, she says she was racially and sexually discriminated against.

She alleged Nine's news director John Westacott told her: "You should work for SBS, you certainly have the name for it."

She also alleged Mr Westacott told female j
ournalists "to make it in this industry, you gotta have f***ability. To make it in this game, women have to be f***able".
The basis for the claim of sexual discrimination should be obvious from the last paragraph. In fact, this article is consistent with a string of stories about the Nine television network that has established a consistent pattern of sexism, especially in the newsroom. But notice that this lawsuit also includes a charge of 'racism,' which is supposed to be supported by the alleged quote from the news director that Spiteri should work for SBS, a public television channel that includes the rebroadcasts of news programs from around the world. When I first read this quote, I thought I was missing something. Why should the suggestion that someone work for a more multi-cultural network connote underlying racism?
Finding this picture of Spiteri didn't help answer the question. Her ethnic background appears to have a European origin, just like that of her former news director, John Westacott. And, according to a Google search, Christine's surname is shared by a few significant people from Malta, so I am assuming that her ancestors immigrated to Australia from Malta or Italy. So, I was still left wondering why this could be considered a case of racism.

I think the answer to this question lies in two ways (among many others) that Australia differs from the United States. First, many Australians consider their country to be culturally "diverse" as a result of the many non-British immigrants who ended up coming here in the latter part of the 20th century. For at least 100 years Australian immigration was comprised of a high proportion of immigrants from Britain and Ireland. In fact, an official Australian government program ran from the 1950s through the 1970s that encouraged Brits to immigrate to Australia for just 10 pounds--the rest of the cost was subsidised by the Australian government. As I understand it, Australians were greatly concerned after WWII that they desperately needed to increase their population to avoid a future threat of invasion from their Asian neighbours. During this same period, however, many other Europeans, particularly from Greece and Italy, also came to this country, under the guise of a "White-only" Australia policy, which also had atrocious consequences for the indigenous population. This all changed in the 1970s when the Australian government finally began to allow greater emigration from Asian countries. It is primarily this mix of Greeks, Italians, and Asians that I think people are referring to when they speak of Australia's diversity. Consistent with this, the suggestion that Christine Spiteri should work for the SBS probably reflected the perception of a descendant of British immigrants (Westacott) that Spiteri is a descendant of Italian (or Maltese) immigrants.

In addition, the charge of "racism" here reflects a different use of the word than I am accustomed to in the United States. I remember reading not too long ago a story in the Australian press about British People Against Racial Discrimination. It sounds like this would be a group concerned about promoting better interracial relations, doesn't it? Well, it turns out that BPARD were only concerned about a specific issue--banning a Toohey's beer commercial that depicted British people as whinging (complaining), warm-beer-drinking, wimps. A member of this group was even quoted as saying that the ad constituted a "racial slur" against the British by Australians. Although that example borders on the ridiculous, I am left thinking that any instance of prejudice involving a person based on their ethnicity or nationality can be called "racism" in Australia. Thus, the term isn't limited to just instances of expressed antipathy based on a person's "race," as it would be in the United States. And that also probably explains why Spiteri considered her news director's SBS comment to be racist.

I'll have to keep all of this in mind the next time an Aussie makes fun of my love of Reese's peanut butter cups. Now it's time to go back to sleep...