Suppose the euphoria and back-patting over the federal election results are anything to go by. In that case, Australia is a vastly different country from the one Yassmin Abdel-Magied left five years ago.
A new cohort of confident, competent, successful, and ethnically diverse parliamentarians is about to enter public life. They have been widely celebrated as a sign that the country is getting multiculturalism right.
I am skeptical of these good vibes. History teaches us to be worried about how we will be treated over the next few years.
If recent history is anything to go by, at least some of them will be in for a rough ride. The ones most likely to attract negative attention will be those who are unlucky enough to have the deadly combination of confidence and “difference” due to wearing a hijab, having dark skin, or non-Anglo features.
Australia’s tall poppy syndrome goes into overdrive when it comes to people who aren’t white and have the audacity to criticize Australian racism.
Australia’s tall poppy syndrome goes into overdrive when it comes to people who aren’t white and have the audacity to criticize Australian racism. Lest we forget, two years before Abdel-Magied was relentlessly abused and trolled for a six-word Facebook post that sought to remind Australians of the plight of people affected by war and living in horrendous conditions at Manus and Nauru, Adam Goodes was subjected to appalling, career-ending bullying by footy fans in stadia across Australia.
Like Abdel-Magied, Goodes’ “mistake” was that he was both brilliant and uncompromising in his rejection of racism.
For both personalities, public vilification followed the soaring success. Goodes had been Australian of the Year, and Abdel-Magied had a string of high-profile engagements, including a television program on ABC.
And yet, as Ketan Joshi has calculated, in the year following the Anzac Day post, over 200,000 words were written about her in the Australian media, with 97% of those words appearing in News Corp.
The pile-on included Peter Dutton, who, from the lofty height of his position as immigration minister, welcomed her sacking by boasting, “One down, many to go,” and called for more ABC journalists to be fired.
Imagine that? How is it fair dinkum for a 26-year-old naturalized Australian citizen who posted on her personal Facebook account to be personally targeted by the minister for immigration?
The pile-on fuelled by wealthy and unhinged News Corp presenters created an environment where Abdel-Magied endured real-life attacks. A pig’s head was dumped at the Islamic primary school she attended, and posters were put up in a Sydney neighborhood by a white nationalist group that racially stereotyped Abdel-Magied and journalist Waleed Aly – another overachieving brown migrant who has been the subject of sustained abuse.
Thankfully, the campaign to silence Abdel-Magied has not worked, just as the efforts to silence Goodes have not killed his spirit nor dimmed his capacity to influence the lives of members of his community positively.
A giant mural of Adam Goodes in Sydney in June 2020. Photograph: Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images
Still, their treatment creates a chilling effect. They are not alone, of course. Ongoing racial abuse is hurled at other footy players, and racist commentary follows virtually every appearance of high-profile African Australian Nyadol Nyuon. Greens senator Mehreen Faruqi wrote in the Guardian last year that she has been called “a maggot, a cockroach, a whore, and a cow”.
I haven’t copped it as badly, but each time I have appeared on Q+A, the memory of Abdel-Magied’s treatment has loomed large. Each time, I worried about appearing too strident lest I spark a frenzy based on a comment I didn’t see coming. Indeed, before my first appearance, I was warned they shouldn’t “Yassmin me”.
While nerves are part of the deal when you appear on television, being afraid to speak your mind is not. Being overly concerned about making factual observations about racism and sexism is a function of living in a society with a track record of bullying Black people with a public profile—the consequences of calling it out or observing it can be catastrophic. As Yumi Stynes found out, it can be easier to minimize and ignore racism, even when it stares you in the face live on television.
This silencing has the cumulative effect of diminishing the quality of the national conversation about racism. We should be able to have honest, mature discussions about racism. Instead, we are held hostage by the thin-skinned bullies at News Corp, the lily-livered bosses at ABC, and the worst instincts of their audiences.
The record number of public representatives voted into office from non-European backgrounds is a cause for celebration. In a proud editorial, the West Australian noted that WA Labor senator Fatima Payman, who came to Australia as a refugee at nine, represents “modern Australia, for now, and the future”. The paper is right.
Western Australian Labor senator Fatima Payman. Photograph: Richard Wainwright/AAP
Unfortunately, if Payman dares to point out systemic race-based obstacles that prevent the success of people from her communities, the army of hateful people who bullied Abdel-Magied will almost certainly come after her.
Diversity in parliament isn’t just about new faces; it’s also about accepting hard truths. The class of 2022 is inspiring because, against all odds, its members have made it into politics.
But if Australians want parliament to become a site of inspiration, too, we must move beyond the good stories and learn how to celebrate those who refuse to sugarcoat the truth.
If Abdel-Magied’s assured refusal to hang her head in shame for being herself teaches us anything, it is that there is no expiry date on the truth.