Bus taunts that sparked Australian racism debate

Jeremy Fernandez
Image caption Jeremy Fernandez said support from the public after the bus incident had moved him

Jeremy Fernandez could easily be the face of the new Australia, a poster-boy of immigrant success.

Born in Malaysia, of southern Indian heritage, he came here with his family 22 years ago, aged 13, and is now an up-and-coming presenter on the ABC news channel, News 24. He is one of the national broadcaster's rising stars.

This past week, however, in a classic case of a newsman himself making headlines, he has been the focus of a national conversation about Australian racism, having been the victim of the kind of ugly racist incident that usually goes unreported.

Mr Fernandez was riding on a bus through inner Sydney, when a small girl started pinching and flicking his two-year-old daughter.

To offer protection from what he thought was some pretty harmless child's play, he put his arm around his daughter, but still the girl persisted and then started flicking him. "That was my arm," he told the child, at which point her mother let racist rip.

"She began hurling abuse and accused me of reaching behind our seats and touching her daughter," he recalled afterwards. "Of course, I had not done anything of the sort."

Then came the racist onslaught, which he described as "the longest 15 minutes of my life". His two-year-old daughter heard every single word of the rant, which culminated in foul-mouthed abuse.

Alighting from the bus, he described to the driver what had happened. "It's your fault, mate," responded the driver. "You could have moved."

In the week that Americans celebrated the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of the great heroines of the struggle for black equality, Mr Fernandez described it as his very own "Rosa Parks moment". After dropping off his daughter at daycare, he cried.

'Touched a nerve'

Jeremy Fernandez shared the episode with his followers on Twitter, and it soon went viral.

"Anyone who says racism is dying is well and truly mistaken," he wrote, as part of a series of tweets. "It's a sad thing when a coloured man in 2013 has to show his kid how to hold their nerve in the face of racist taunts." The conversation had started.

"Most people don't talk about this stuff," says Fernandez. "That's why I think it touched a nerve. I honestly thought it would generate a bit of discussion for a couple of hours. I had no idea it would take off." Since last Friday, he has been contacted by about 6000 people.

Racism has been part of the Australian story since the moment of white settlement in 1788. During the Gold Rush of the late 19th Century, fears that an overwhelmingly white nation could be overrun by non-whites bordered on the paranoid.

The White Australia policy, which restricted non-white immigration and which survived until the early 1970s, became in 1901 one of the first legislative acts of the new Australian parliament. The modern-day Australian story, however, is one of multicultural success.

Just after World War II, over 90% of the 7.5 million Australians were of Anglo-Celtic stock. Since then, the population has tripled, with close to 45% of the population having at least one parent born in a foreign country. Now over 260 languages are spoken in Australia, and the country is made up of people with 270 different ancestries.

Image caption Tensions between different groups erupted into riots in Cronulla, Sydney, in December 2005

Few countries have experienced such massive and rapid demographic change with such little violent backlash and rancour. Part of the reason why the Cronulla riot in 2005 was so jolting, for example, was because these kinds of racist eruptions were so exceptional.

The rise in the mid-1990s of Pauline Hanson and her One Nation party also cuts both ways. Revelling in her notoriety, the Queensland fish and chip shop owner came to personify Australian intolerance. Yet Hansonism proved a short-lived phenomenon, and its one-time figurehead is now a figure of fun.

Today, there is no Australian equivalent of the British National Party. Nor is there an equivalent of the National Front, the English Defence League or other European far-right groups.

Racial abuse and insensitivity, however, is widespread, which goes some way towards explaining why the country is often cast as a "redneck nation" - not least by Australians themselves. The tabloid and political hysteria surrounding the asylum seeker issue has echoes of a past in which a predominantly white nation felt insecure in a predominantly non-white region.

The comedian Barry Humphries, better known perhaps as Dame Edna Everage, struck a chord when he noted: "Xenophobia is love of Australia."

Success story

But in an important new book, "Don't Go Back to Where You Came From: why Multiculturalism Works," the academic Tim Soutphommasane argues that Australia now rivals Canada as the world's most successful multicultural country.

There has never been "a numerically significant underclass of immigrants," he notes. Australia is one of the few OECD nations where the children of immigrants "constitute a higher proportion of people in highly skilled occupations than the children of natives".

Residential segregation is not a is not a problem. Interracial marriage rates, a key indicator of ethnic integration, are high. By the third generation, a majority of Australians of non-English-speaking background marry partners with a different ethnic heritage.

Mr Soutphommasane bemoans the under-representation of immigrants in boardrooms, senior management, the military and parliament, which boasts just three lawmakers from non-European backgrounds, and highlights the problem of workplace discrimination.

As an immigrant himself - his parents were refugees from Laos - he has also been the victim of abuse and vilification, which he describes vividly in his book. Nonetheless, he argues: "Australia has done multiculturalism well."

"Episodes like Jeremy's happen every day," he says, "but they're not wholly representative of Australian society."

"It's important to resist the temptation for reflexive self-flagellation on racism," he adds. "We tend to think of ourselves as the worst in the world, and we're not. We can some sometimes ignore the big picture, although these cases underscore the fragility of our achievement."

Jeremy Fernandez agrees that "Australia is not a racist country", but that these kind of ugly episodes are dispiriting. "Even if it is once a month," he says, "that's a lifetime of it happening 12 times a year."

Still, the huge public response, online and in person, has heartened him. "It's overwhelmingly been message of goodwill," he says. "That needs to speak as loudly as the incident itself."