Australia: Will the hateful army who bullied Yassmin Abdel-Magied come after Australia’s diverse new parliamentarians?

Remains to be seen:

If the euphoria and back-patting over the federal election results are anything to go by, 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 are about to enter public life. They have been widely celebrated as a sign that the country is getting multiculturalism right.

I am sceptical of these good vibes. History teaches us to be worried about how they 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 criticise Australian racism

Australia’s tall poppy syndrome goes into overdrive when it comes to people who aren’t white and have the audacity to criticise 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 soaring success. Goodes had been Australian of the Year, and Abdel-Magied had a string of high-profile engagements including a television program on the 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 gloating “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 naturalised 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 in which 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 neighbourhood 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 be a positive influence on the lives of members of his community.

Still, their treatment creates a chilling effect. They are not alone of course. There is ongoing racial abuse 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 bad, but each time I have appeared on Q+A the memory of Abdel-Magied’s treatment has loomed large. Indeed, before my first appearance I was warned they shouldn’t “Yassmin me”. Each time, I worried about appearing too strident lest I spark a frenzy based on a comment I didn’t see coming.

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 that has a track record of bullying Black people with a public profile. As Yumi Stynes found out, it can be easier to minimise and ignore racism, even when it is staring you in the face live on television. The consequences of calling it out, or even observing it, can be catastrophic.

This sort of 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 the ABC and the worst instincts of their audiences.

To be sure, the record numbers 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 the age of nine, represents “modern Australia, for now and the future”. The paper is right.

Unfortunately it is also the case that 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 itself to become a site of inspiration too, we will all need to 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.

  • Sisonke Msimang is a Guardian Australia columnist and the author of Always Another Country: A Memoir of Exile and Home (2017) and The Resurrection of Winnie Mandela (2018)

Source: Will the hateful army who bullied Yassmin Abdel-Magied come after Australia’s diverse new parliamentarians?

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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