The most compelling moments you will see in the upcoming SBS documentary Is Australia Racist? is not the abuse from members of the public, but the conduct of those in authority.
Using hidden cameras is always a tricky area. Television, notably SBS documentaries, is using it more and more under the guise of exposing our ugly side (ABC will do the same soon with Bullied). In public places, where your privacy is less, camera crews can get away with more, even to the point of no consent. Some people may be alarmed to learn that what they uttered on a city street one day is now primetime entertainment…
Is Australia Racist? draws upon a Western Sydney University survey on racism and puts it into practice with “provocative” experiments. Volunteers go under cover, sometimes into volatile situations, to capture footage of abuse and discrimination.
Make no mistake, they capture some pretty offensive stuff.
And why wouldn’t they when you send a woman in a hijab into a Reclaim Australia rally? It’s not the most extreme footage here but the vision, along with the dubious actions, is concerning.
There are lots of statistics interspersed throughout this doco: 77% of Muslim women have experienced racism (religion is now also part of racism, they explain), 20% of Australians believe an African presence increases crime, 1 in 5 Australians have experience racism in the last 12 months.
“Are we a multicultural success story or is Australia racist?” asks Ray Martin. “Racism is this festering sore….and the only way you can fix these is to shed a light on them.”
Amongst the hidden cam scenarios, is an African Australian who holds a sign about ending racism in front of sports fans at the MCG; actors hurl abuse at a woman at the local bus stop to see who else will stick up for her; an Indigenous man uses a hacksaw to unchain a bike outside a shopping centre.
How will members of the public behave?
To be blunt, these are the kinds of TV crew stunts that current affairs shows have been criticised for. Is it really any more palatable because it has a more worthy mission fronted by Ray Martin, flying business class from city to city? Or is it all TV entrapment?
There is also next to no exploration of racism within other ethnic groups, with vision dominated by white Anglo-Saxons vs the rest.
Thankfully it’s not all doom and gloom.
Some balance comes when the doco shows acceptance too, sometimes where it is least expected. There may be hope for us yet.
The most disturbing images occur when police confront the woman at the Reclaim Australia rally, and when WA transit police react to an Indigenous man taking a hacksaw to a chained bike.
There was also a very insightful look at how media language shapes public perceptions. Known as “Framing” this sees people watching contrasting fictional news reports of asylum seekers arriving by boat. One used negative language, the other was positive… their responses were amazing.
The doco screens as part of a Racism-themed week on SBS and I hope it adds value to the conversation rather than merely poking a stick at the topic. Lesser docos such as Living with the Enemy, Kebab Kings and even parts of Struggle Street, have strayed into grey -dare I say ‘sensationalist’- areas at SBS.
It’s easy to shove hidden camera in front of a racist to elicit volatile vision. It’s much harder to have considered discussion and even harder still to get people to watch it.
SBS poses the question, but does it provide the answer? Sort of.
Is Australia Racist? airs 8:30pm Sunday on SBS.