The man who wants to start a conversation about racism

Sipping a coffee at an outdoor cafe in Cabramatta, Tim Soutphommasane considers how much his old stomping ground has changed in two decades.

Sipping a coffee at an outdoor cafe in Cabramatta, Tim Soutphommasane considers how much his old stomping ground has changed in two decades.

The philosopher, academic, writer and new Race Discrimination Commissioner spent his childhood in Sydney's south-west when things were very different. "We wouldn't have been sitting having a coffee outside, nice and relaxed, back then," he said. "It was a drug capital and hub of Asian crime as it was called in those days. It's come a long way."

Soutphommasane, now 30, moved to Sydney with his parents as a toddler, living in Carramar, Cabramatta West, Canley Vale and Bonnyrigg. He recalled making his way to school as a youth, stepping over syringes and puddles of vomit and regularly being offered drugs in what was Australia's heroin capital. So prevalent was the problem, the train line from Central Station to Cabramatta became known as the "smack express".

The scene today could not be more different. Mothers wheel young children in prams, elderly people go about their shopping and the vicinity around Freedom Plaza and John Street is a buzzing mix of restaurants, cafes and specialty food stores.

"Think of how quickly this place has changed," he said. "Ethnic ghetto one day, tourist destination the next."

The evolution of Cabramatta gives him hope for his new role at the Australian Human Rights Commission, where he has been given the job of addressing racial discrimination in Australia, with his five-year term commencing on Monday.

He points to Cabramatta's famous Freedom Gate (built to represent cultural harmony), quoting one of its inscriptions that urges readers "to be renovative and integrate".

"For me that captures the civic journey of this city and the social contact of multiculturalism," he said.

"On the other side of the gate you see the words liberty and democracy. This is what people who come to Australia are signing up to. They will renovate their cultural ways with the ultimate aim of integrating into Australian society as full and equal citizens.

"Twenty years ago this was a bad land consigned to permanent disadvantage. Now it's a success story. That gives me a lot of confidence and a source of optimism for Australia's journey as a country."

His own path as a first generation migrant is typical in many ways. His parents fled Laos in 1975 following the Communist revolution, spending time in a refugee camp in Thailand before being resettled in France, starting a new life in Montpellier where Soutphommasane was born in 1982. Three years later, they moved to Sydney under the family reunion program (he had an aunt in Sydney) and his parents, who had both been studying medicine in France, found work as registered nurses.

"One thing I remember is just how hard my father worked to get up to speed on his English," he said. "He'd open up The Sydney Morning Herald and he'd have a French to English dictionary by his side so he could build his vocabulary. That's the unseen hard work that goes on behind the journey of immigration."

He also recalls his parents stressing the importance of integrating into their new home. "I still remember the day we became citizens," he said. "My parents were keen to emphasise the importance of becoming an Australian citizen. They said, 'You're an Australian now'. That always stayed with me."

He didn't give the issue of national identity much further thought until he went to the selective Hurlstone Agricultural High School, which he recalls as a sea of white faces. At the same time as he was playing cricket and learning to spot the difference between Hereford and Ayrshire cattle, Pauline Hanson's One Nation party was gaining traction with the public, pushing the perception that Australia was being swamped by Asians.

"There were episodes where I was called names or copped racial slurs," he said. "I was fortunate not to have experienced any physical attacks based on racism. It was low-level racism. In some ways all that formative experience made me think about national identity and multiculturalism for the first time."

But there were other experiences at school that informed his views, in particular an Anzac Day ceremony where a Vietnamese student stated: "We pause today to reflect on the sacrifices made by our forebears so that we can enjoy the Australian way of life."

"It didn't quite make sense because I knew her forebears didn't fight for Australia. My forebears didn't fight for Australia. I know there are many Australians who fought in wars perhaps motivated by a desire to keep my forebears out. It was a challenge for me to make sense of what it meant to be Australian."

It is a topic he has examined extensively in his newspaper columns, Radio National series Mongrel Nation and his three books, The Virtuous Citizen: Patriotism in a Multicultural Society, Don't Go Back To Where You Came From: Why Multiculturalism Works and Reclaiming Patriotism: Nation-Building for Australian Progressives.

A contemplative type with a PhD in political theory from Oxford, Soutphommasane intends to use his five-year term as Race Discrimination Commissioner to encourage others to think similarly deeply about national identity.

"I would like to have a shift in our thinking on racism and racial discrimination," he says. "If you take the long view of how far Australia has come on race relations, we're performing quite well. We don't accept notions of racial hierarchy are acceptable any more. When it comes to public episodes of vilification, there is near universal condemnation of that as well. Where perhaps more needs to be done is on casual racism."

That low-level racism - infamously illustrated by Eddie McGuire's suggestion that Adam Goodes promote the musical King Kong, the week after being labelled an ape by a teenage Collingwood supporter - needs to be tackled head on but he acknowledges that shifting those attitudes is a difficult task and that those who censure racist jokes can themselves become targets.

"People will respond, 'come on, have a bit of a laugh, it was just a joke, I didn't mean it, you're taking yourself too seriously, get off your soap box', and that's certainly an obstacle to having mature conversations about this issue," he says. "I have no illusions about how hard it will be to start having those conversations. That first conversation is always the biggest challenge."

As he sees it, racism not only has the potential to hurt people's feelings and offend them, it undermines society as a whole. "We don't often think about just how harmful racism is," he said. "It's a very civic harm. Belittling someone or making someone feel like they're a second-class citizen detracts from our social cohesion and harmony as a community."

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