The Museum of Freedom and Tolerance aims to publish occasional thought pieces to stimulate important conversations on human rights, race, inclusion, belonging and diversity by change-makers and commentators working in the field around Australia. This thought piece is contributed by our CEO, Shaheen Hughes. 

Shaheen Hughes is the CEO of the Museum of Freedom and Tolerance,  and a passionate advocate of diversity, inclusion and social justice.

Shaheen was born in Bombay and raised in multiple countries and on a ship in the Indian Ocean. She studied English Literature and Art History at the University of Leeds and has a Master of Arts in International Communications. Shaheen also founded Spice Mama, a multi-dimensional culinary storytelling project.

The views expressed in this thought piece are personal, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Museum of Freedom and Tolerance. 


In the latest of what now seems to be an all too regular roll call of race-based incidents in Australia, Blacked-Eyed Peas singer has accused a Qantas air hostess of being a #RacistFlightattendant in response to her aggressive behaviour towards him during a recent flight to Sydney.

While the ABC’s Australia Talks survey of more than 55,000 people last week revealed that 75 per cent of people believe there is too much racism in Australia, I am far from the first person to observe that in this country accusing someone of racist behaviour is considered many times worse than racism itself. Hence it was little surprise when on cue, Qantas publicly signalled its willingness to assist the flight attendant in question take defamation action against should he not retract his accusation.

The fragility surrounding any accusation of racism in Australia, from the highest level of corporate Australia to the grassroots, makes any honest conversation on the subject nearly impossible for its victims. It’s tiring work, listening to the indignation reverberate through the social media feeds of mainstream media outlets around the country. We are not racist! In the case of, it is clear from a wide selection of comments that appeared on the WA Today Facebook page this week in reference to the story that many, many people believe that when someone calls out racism, they are merely playing the “old race card”again.

“Good on you Qantas”, said one person, “the good thing is that hopefully he won’t be flying with you again! We don’t need disruptive, ignorant people on our flights!” Another commented that they were “so tired of the race card being used whenever people who feel entitled are called out for their arrogant behaviour,” another, “bloody race card so sick of it”, and yet another by saying “What a dickhead. It’s amazing how the race card is always played when people don’t get their way or are treated just like everyone else. Get over yourself.”

Apparently, “whoever cries racism first is the racist. We all know that”, with another commenter saying that “sometimes I feel that black folks have started playing this racist card way to often these days…they just don’t want to hear no as an answer from anyone especially from white folks.” Many agreed with the sentiment that “I feel that this R word gets thrown around too much these days”and commended Qantas for taking a stand (“Good onya Qantas”).

How on earth has it become so totally acceptable to voice such views? They hurt, these comments hurt, if you feel someone has been racist towards you it hurts, and it doesn’t just hurt the victim, it hurts the perpetrator too.

And it’s not just happening on social media, disrespectful language and discriminatory attitudes have become normalised in so many of our shared civic spaces, in our shopping centres, in our petrol stations, in our sports fields, in our schools, in our media, in our cities and in the bush.

According to Australia Talks, I am among 55 per cent of Australians who think that people should not be allowed to say something in public that discriminates against minority groups — Australians who predominantly are women, live in the inner-city and have non-European ancestry (yep, that’s me). A further third of Australians, however, disagree with this statement.

The survey also found that 70 per cent of respondents say they have not personally experienced discrimination, and only 30 per cent think that people are discriminated against on basis of religion.

These numbers are at odds with the findings of a new report by Charles Sturt University documenting hundreds of alleged incidents of Islamophobia, the majority occurring against women wearing headscarves in public places like shopping centres and schools and on public transport, often in environments where children were exposed to the attacks.

While this report makes grim reading enough in its description of the vindictiveness of these crimes, federal Labor member for Cowan Dr Anne Aly made the point on this week’s Q and A that the true extent of racism in Australia was often misunderstood due to its covert and structural nature.

This is because the racism people of colour face is not always overt and often insouciant. It’s the casual violence inherent in the erasure of our voices, the lack of diverse faces in our civic environments, in our media, on morning television, in our organisations and on our boards, a lack of visibility that renders us ‘other’ in the face of whiteness, white stories, white ideas, white jokes, white reading tastes, white music references.

The violence of this invisibility was etched clearly on the face of Alison Gibson in the same episode of Q and A during which Anne Aly spoke, as she asked why the death of her sister Jessica was not prioritised by a mainstream media that prefers to devote pages and pages to football instead.

The extent of more ‘covert racism’ has also been highlighted in a recent study by the University of Technology Sydney and anti-racism charity All Together Now, which found that more than half of race-related opinion pieces that did make it into the mainstream press were in fact negative in their treatment of race. Nearly all of these negative pieces were written or produced by media commentators with an Anglo or European cultural background, (while more positive pieces had a higher level of non-white authorship).

The report found that Muslim women are most often targeted by negative commentary, with our mainstream newspapers leading the way. Specifically, the report said that 70 per cent of articles used ‘covertly racist’ techniques like “dog whistling, irony and ignoring the history or struggles of a community or group.”

The impact is compounded by the fact that even when a news story manages to be positive, like a recent local Community News story about the Leisurepark Balga swimming pool creating a new female-only swimming session late on a weekend evening, it can attract the ire of its readers. In the midst of the positive commentary on such an inclusive and community-minded decision, a number of commentators insisted on expressing rage and frustration.

“We know which group of women this is aimed at. As all minority of the population (sic). They build large mosques, why not put a pool there so as not to force there (sic) racial thinking on other ratepayers and public.”

“This is blatant discrimination in the 21st century,” said another person, while others commented “I thought we lived in Australia,”… “This picture specially tells me that most women here are Muslim. So another feather in their hijab of dividing in our western culture”… “looks like a muslim pool to me”… “Oh god back to the dark ages we go”, and “Why did they come to this country to have such selfish behaviour?”

Think about these comments in relation to the statistics contained in the Islamophobia report. What chance do the victims of this vitriol have as it escalates into real life settings?

In an era of extreme polarisation we seem to have lost the art, and the grace of creating public spaces in which we can all feel safe in our individual and common humanity.

Public spaces in which racism is acceptable are unequivocally unsafe, for both victims and perpetrators alike. Because imagine the anger you need to expend in the process of toxic expression. As one kind commentator replied to a person who posted four or five horrifying comments in response to the swimming pool story, “geez… imagine being this angry about something that has no effect on you.”

Why are people so angry?

People are angry because they too don’t feel safe. When the world is uncertain, when you’re worried about your basic needs being met, about having a job, and a house, you have a much greater tendency to turn against the ‘other’, those who don’t look like you, who you believe may be further threatening your safety, taking your job. The victims of racism do not feel safe, but racists similarly betray a lack of safety in their environment.

It’s long past time to come to the table to have a more nuanced conversation about overt, covert and structural racism and its complex causes and effects, and to recognise that instead of turning our anger and frustration at each other, we need to turn it against the system in which racist practices are so deeply embedded.

Our settler-colonial, capitalist, patriarchal society is benefitting fewer and fewer of us and coming together to rework the power structures that exacerbate inequality, our justice, health, education and social security systems is a much healthier use of our anger.

The consequences of continuing down the pathway we seem to be on, of a fracturing, polarised, angry society which protects its own and threatens others, as seen through history, are too great. Fascism is not a good idea.

White Australians cannot technically suffer racism. You may suffer many other forms of oppression because let’s face it, the ledger of inequality in this country is growing daily, but being treated according to the colour of your skin, accent, religion or dress — the visceral hurt of such arbitrary distinction of your humanity, is never going to be a lived experience for you.

You need to trust people of colour when we say that certain kinds of behaviours are racist, instead of telling us what is or isn’t so. You need to actively listen to what people of colour are telling you about their experiences in this country with casual and systemic racism alike, and respond with empathy, kindness, a willingness to see humanity in our differences and to engage in both positive social and systemic change based on the values we all share and the safe lifestyle we all want.

Many Australians have arrived in this place already, with two-thirds of people telling Australia Talks for example that we should do more to address indigenous disadvantage. Forty-three per cent of people believe that we should change the date of Australia Day. An overwhelming majority of Australians think we should have more respect for each other.

Following the incident, the Black-Eyed Peas went on to endear their Sydney audience by expressing solidarity with Aboriginal Australians, calling on this country to “show greater compassion for other minority groups,” as they played their hit song, ‘Where is the love?’. We need more than love to bring us together as a more peaceful and cohesive society, but it’s not a bad place to start.