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Targeted: Rebecca Kay has experienced abuse and threats since converting to Islam. Photo: Dean Sewell

It is being harassed on public transport, constantly being asked, ''Where are you from?'' when you've lived here most of your life, not getting a job interview because of your Middle Eastern-sounding name, or missing out on a rental property because of your skin colour.

This is how racism looks in Australia today - and it is becoming increasingly prevalent.

The latest Mapping Social Cohesion survey by the Scanlon Foundation found 19 per cent of Australians were discriminated against because of their skin colour, ethnic origin or religious beliefs last year - up from 12 per cent in 2012. It was the highest level since the survey began in 2007.

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"Being Jewish is a big part of my life, and I am proud of it": Rabbi Dovid Slavin. Photo: Anthony Johnson

Experts attribute the rise in everyday racism to economic uncertainty, events like the surge in asylum seeker boat arrivals and the current political leadership that wants to weaken parts of the Racial Discrimination Act.

The government has sought to water down the act after conservative commentator Andrew Bolt was found to have broken the law in an article about ''fair-skinned Aboriginals''.

When Attorney-General George Brandis defended the proposed changes by declaring in Parliament that ''people do have a right to be a bigot, you know'' he gave the 30 per cent of Australians who feel uncomfortable with cultural diversity tacit approval to air their prejudices. His powerful assertion cut through the legalistic debate about scrapping section 18C of the act, which makes it illegal to offend or intimidate someone because of their race, colour, or national or ethnic origin.

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Says Sikhs are still suffering discrimination in some workplaces: Bawa Singh Jagdev. Photo: Britta Campion

''Those off-the-cuff comments are more damaging than changing the legislation,'' says Monash University professor Andrew Markus, who tracks changing attitudes to immigrants and asylum seekers. ''The minutiae of the legislation is for the courts but the way the issues are discussed in public can be of immense significance.''

Deakin University's Yin Paradies says that although the Racial Discrimination Act has not not done much to stop racism, weakening it ''creates a kind of climate where people start to think it's OK to be racist''.

Writing for Fairfax Media, social commentator Waleed Aly has called the proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act ''the whitest piece of legislation'' he had ever seen because it would judge whether something was racial vilification ''by the standards of an ordinary reasonable member of the Australian community, not by the standards of any particular group within the Australian community''.

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"There is a perception in Australia that every black person is a refugee": Oliver Maboreke. Photo: Kate Geraghty

In other words, the standards of the privileged majority, not the affected minority, will determine whether something is racist. Aly's argument struck a nerve on social media, getting 25,000 Facebook recommendations.

Fifteen years ago, immigrants said the best thing about Australia was its welcoming and hospitable people. In 2013, immigrants ranked that last out of 10 attributes, with lifestyle now topping the list.

Migrants say the worst things about Australia are the high taxes, cost of living, and the racism and discrimination.

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"I don't want to stop being Chinese. It is who I am, it's part of my heritage": Joy Chan. Photo: Kate Geraghty

Certain groups are bigger racial targets than others: the Social Cohesion survey found more than 40 per cent of people from Asian countries suffered from racism last year, with Malaysians the most affected, followed by Indians and Sri Lankans. Australians are most likely to be prejudiced against people of Middle Eastern background. Yet, given Australia has the largest immigration program per capita in the world with one of the most diverse cultural mixes, Markus says it is to Australia's credit that we do not have more ethnic tensions.

''We've done very well with a very difficult and challenging task,'' he says.

 

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"It really cut to the bone - I didn't get into university because I was Aboriginal": Gawaian Bodkin-Andrews. Photo: Lidia Nikonova

GAWAIAN BODKIN-ANDREWS

D'harawal people

Gawaian Bodkin-Andrews says, tongue-in-cheek, that he is an ''Andrew Bolt white Aboriginal person''. While he looks fair-skinned, his parents identify as being from the D'harawal nation south-west of Sydney.

Bodkin-Andrews, 36, was brought up to be proud of his indigenous heritage, which has sometimes caused problems for him.

''When native title came out, kids came up and said, 'I wouldn't want you living next to me','' Bodkin-Andrews recalls. ''I think because of my age, I was more dismissive of it; my parents had taught me racism was the problem of the other race.''

The reaction to Bodkin-Andrews' Aboriginality became more problematic for him when he reached university. ''I gave my first ever presentation in sociology about the Appin massacre of the D'harawal people and the discussion turned to how did I get into uni,'' he says. ''It really cut to the bone - I didn't get into university because I was Aboriginal. I went off the rails a bit; I got quite frustrated and I turned my back.''

Bodkin-Andrews says that because he does not look obviously Aboriginal he has been attacked by non-Aborigines and Aborigines alike. ''I'm lucky enough to escape the more blatant forms of racism, but I've been attacked for not being Aboriginal enough,'' he says.

''Also, when you're not obviously Aboriginal, we witness racism a lot more frequently - snide comments about the alleged benefits Aboriginals get, and racist jokes. Sometimes I lose my hat, sometimes I try to be a bit more respectful.''

Bodkin-Andrews believes racism will always be an issue that must be fought.

Cosima Marriner


JOY CHAN

Malaysian-born Chinese

The racism Joy Chan encounters is more on a personal, rather than institutional, level. ''You get random people in the street calling you names like 'chink', 'fish face', all kinds of nasty stuff,'' she says.

Only the other week, when she was leaving the Ivy, someone called out ''there's a fat Buddha walking past''. ''No one laughed but no one else seemed to have a problem with it either,'' Chan says ruefully. Other times people will make comments they think are positive but are actually also racist.

Chan, 35, often hears that she must be smart because she's Chinese. ''It's like you didn't do well at school because you worked hard, but because of how you look,'' she says.

Chan family's moved to Australia when she was in year 1 for better opportunities. They lived in Bowral, where there was only one other Chinese family and people assumed Chan could not speak English. ''It was a huge shock to me, I'd never known that I was different,'' she says.

Thirty years later, Chan still gets asked where she is from. It makes her ''doubly resentful'' because the Chinese do not consider her truly Chinese either because she was born in Malaysia.

''When some of my Chinese friends who haven't integrated experience racism it reinforces that they live here but they're never going to be Australian and they don't want to be,'' she says.

But Chan says she has accepted racism is a part of life. ''Some people are just not going to like you, whether it's your race or your gender,'' she says. ''They're things I can't change about myself. I don't want to stop being Chinese. It is who I am, it's part of my heritage.''

Cosima Marriner

 

OLIVER MABOREKE

Zimbabwean

Oliver Maboreke grew up watching Skippy The Bush Kangaroo in Zimbabwe and fell in love with Australia. He moved here in 2005 when he was offered a scholarship to study a masters in international project planning and development. ''I was so excited coming to Australia I didn't expect to encounter any racism,'' Maboreke says.

But one afternoon on the train to uni some men sitting opposite him starting shouting at him: ''Where do you come from, what are you doing in Australia, you're taking our jobs.'' A lady sitting behind Maboreke told him to move to the next carriage but his harassers followed and started poking him in the back of his head, so he got off two stops early. ''I was angry, I was upset and I was disappointed,'' Maboreke remembers. ''My perception of Australia changed: I started thinking maybe I made a mistake coming here, maybe I should have gone somewhere else.''

Maboreke, 41, believes he has also been overlooked for certain positions because of his background, even though he was more qualified. ''Someone from my background or colour has to work even harder to prove themselves,'' he says.

''There is a perception in Australia that every black person is a refugee, that they've come here to take people's jobs. But everybody comes from somewhere. I'm an Australian citizen now, I contribute to the economy. I don't see myself as a burden to Australia.''

Cosima Marriner

 

REBECCA KAY

Muslim

It happens in the supermarket, in front of her children, in unexpected places like a car park in Newtown and on social media. The bigotry that has been directed at Rebecca Kay has included death threats, being screamed at to leave a shop and being labelled an extremist.

''It has an effect on you and you wonder if people are all looking at you and thinking, 'Is she an extremist?''' she says. ''I don't want an us-and-them mentality but I do feel like I am being watched.''

Kay converted to Islam 10 years ago. She says that she receives a lot of criticism when she reveals that wearing the hijab was her own idea and choice - not her husband's.

She says people could not seem to understand that she might want to wear the scarf.

In public she overcompensates and tries to be on her ''super-dooper best behaviour'' and tries to smile and be friendly to everyone.

''I don't want people to have a bad impression of Muslims,'' Kay says.

But it does prey on her mind, particularly the thought that people are judging her when she goes out.

''It is sad that I feel that I'm not the same as everyone else,'' she says.

Natalie O'Brien


RABBI DOVID SLAVIN

Jewish

With his hat and big beard, Rabbi Slavin says there is no mistaking that he looks very Jewish. That has led to some people shouting derogatory remarks at him on the street as they drive past.

But one person who shouted ''Jew'' from a passing car was met with a big smile. ''Being Jewish is a big part of my life, and I am proud of it,'' says Slavin, who runs Our Big Kitchen in Bondi, a facility that encourages community interaction. ''I looked at him with a big smile and said, 'thank you for reminding me that I am Jewish'. It is something very special.''

Slavin says it is important to fight bigotry on several fronts, and people who behave wrongly and cruelly need to be stopped.

''There are people in this country who could be better educated but, as a whole, they are pretty good,'' he says.

But he says no one should allow themselves to be victims either, and meeting bigotry, or people who want to get angry, with a smile is a good way to diffuse the situation.

Natalie O'Brien


BAWA SINGH JAGDEV

Sikh

Wearing a turban and a beard has made many Sikhs a target of bigotry and racism, says Bawa Singh Jagdev. But the secretary of the Sikh Council of Australia says that much of this is due to people not understanding what the turban represents.

Jagdev says when he was in the education system as a physics teacher, students did not see him as a person - they saw a turban and were curious to find out who he was and what he was wearing.

Jagdev says Sikhs have been mistaken for the Taliban and Muslims, ''and the community has suffered a lot''.

But he has dealt with the remarks and vilification by explaining that the turban is a cultural tradition for Sikhs and has nothing to do with religion. He tells people that Sikh men do not cut their hair, and the turban is a way of keeping it under control.

Jagdev says Sikhs are still suffering discrimination in some workplaces and there is still more education that needs to be done.

Natalie O'Brien