I of course knew that as soon as I opened this question, I’d get several replies saying “no we’re not”.
White Anglo-Celtic Australians (and these days, White Non-Anglo-Celtic Australians) are not the people to ask this.
No, we don’t burn crosses in our yards. Yes, we did give Aboriginal Australians the vote, and we even gave them an apology for the Stolen Generations (although that had to wait for a change of government). No, you don’t see *lots* of brown people being beaten up. And yes, Australia has made an honest stab at embracing multiculturalism socially, and seems to have taken it to heart more seriously than many other places (although that again depends on how the culture wars are currently going).
But of course there’s racism in this country. It’s at its most virulent still with Aboriginal Australians, who have had a long history of paternalism, segregation, and othering. It’s at its most sensationalised with African Australians, who are the latest in the merry-go-round of underprivileged refugee children in street gangs. It’s at its most shameful with the out-of-sight out-of-mind warehousing and demonising of refugees, mainly from the Middle East.
It’s at its most understated, I guess, with Asians. The Yellow Peril phobia was killed off officially in the 70s, with the end of the White Australia Policy; it was alive in the 90s, when our local white nationalists warned against the influx of Asians; the same white nationalists are now warning against Muslims taking over the country. But it’s still there.
The South and East Asian Australians I stay in touch with from high school have spoken to me of the “bamboo ceiling”: you can only get to a certain point of social or professional advancement before you notice opportunities close down. They have remarked that the only time you’ll see an Asian face on TV is Masterchef: Reality TV in general is far more representative of the population than TV drama is.
That’s not explaining Why, of course, just noting that it’s there. Why?
As Peter Foran’s answer said, all countries have racist people. The more countries have ethnic (or racial) minorities, with a clear notion of one ethnicity being “normal” or “dominant”, the more expressions of racism you will find. African-Americans will recognise that the North was just as capable of racism as the South; the North just used to have fewer black people, so there was less opportunity for friction.
Now, of the racisms of Australia, Aboriginal Australians were dehumanised in colonial policy, and then segregated, and are now disproportionately underprivileged, and often ghettoised. Most (urban) white people never met any, and there were old prejudices that simply weren’t being redressed through exposure.
The other racisms are explained more straightforwardly as unfamiliarity and majority/minority relations. I don’t know that Australia was more prone to racism than any country with a significant influx of migration. But there are some different circumstances, which explain why Australia has done racism differently to the US:
- The US has always had Blacks as the bottom of the heap to look down on. Australian Aboriginals, like American Indians, had neither the numbers nor the extent of contact with whites to serve in that role; so it was whatever the newest minority coming in was. That went from the Irish (who really were the target of prejudice in Australia for an exceedingly long time), then the Chinese, then the Southern Europeans and Lebanese, then the Vietnamese, then in different ways the Indians and the East Africans.
- As noted elsewhere, Australians are blunt and proud of being blunt—they define themselves, after all, as the opposite of the English. (Which blinds them to how similar to the English they really are.) That means they rib you in ways that get misconstrued for racism; that also means that when they are being racist, they don’t particularly care to hide it.
- Australia really has had a massive influx of heterogeneous peoples for a very long time. The dominant Anglo culture has not felt threatened until relatively recently (and as in the US, it’s not all the dominant culture that feels threatened, just the culturally/economically aggrieved portion). But it has had to confront the challenge of different cultures coexisting for generations, and it has struggled with it, both before and after assimilation was the norm of the land. And I do agree with other posters that it has done a lot better than many—certainly better than what Europe is doing now.