Max Jeganathan has a dream

60 years on from MLK's "I have a dream" speech, Max Jeganathan reflects on his own experiences of racism, and the "race debate" in Australia.

Racism is real, but when people weaponise it…I get annoyed.

This year marks two important anniversaries that are probably easily forgotten—except for people like me.

60 years ago this week, Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s iconic “I have a dream” speech called on Americans to “lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood … to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.” That moment set a moral benchmark for a modern world.

And around 40 years ago, in a chilling example of the racism Dr King railed against, the “Black July” racial riots in Sri Lanka saw government-sanctioned violence and genocide against Sri Lanka’s minority Tamil population. They fire-bombed my family’s home, burned to ashes everything we owned and tried to kill me and my father. I was 3 months old. It was a chilling example of the racism Dr King railed against. My family and I escaped with our lives and my nappy bag and Australia offered us a second chance.

Thankfully, modern democratic societies have reached a broad moral consensus that racism is bad. However, this has had two problematic side-effects. For some, racism has become a bitter megaphone through which to assign the blame for all social and economic suffering. For others, the race debate is used as an excuse to deny the realities of racial disadvantage.

Both strands of thinking are wrong-headed. And both have contaminated our public conversation about the upcoming Voice referendum.

The call to ‘vote no’ because the Voice would divide us racially smells of inauthenticity. For some who make this argument, it’s the first we’ve heard from them on race-relations. All these years of silence – on the Myall Creek Massacre, the Stolen Generation, the White Australia policy, the Cronulla riots, children overboard – and now, suddenly, they’re anti-racism warriors. Please. In the words of celebrity jurist Judge Judy, “Don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining.” I know racism when I see it, and the Voice isn’t it.

Some time ago, I was out with some friends when a small group of young men directed some racist comments my way. Liam, a (white) friend of mine, stood up for me. He saw his dark-skinned friend experiencing racism in public and he called it out. Because he did, one of the young men punched him in the face. He took the punch that was intended for me.

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?

In a small but important way, Liam modelled something that’s central to my faith – the beauty of helping someone vulnerable when you don’t have to, even when it costs you. Dr King, who shared that faith, made this principle a call to all of us. He said that “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?”

I’ve learned, quite simply, that there are two reasons that people come after you because of your race: to help you or to hurt you. When they try to hurt you, it’s racism. When they try to help – like Liam did – it’s (probably) not. Maybe that’s why recent polling shows that a majority of Australians from a non-English speaking background are supportive of the Voice. It may be a lot of things – good and bad – but they know it’s not racist.

When my 6-year-old son cuts his knee, I put a band-aid on his knee, not on his sisters’ knees. I’m not discriminating against them. I’m just attending to the need in front of me. Supporting people with disability is not discrimination against those without disability. And sending firefighters to fires doesn’t discriminate against those whose houses aren’t on fire.

It’s not immoral to help those in need, regardless of the characteristics that have entrenched that need. Discernment is not discrimination. Dr King’s life work was to eradicate racism, not to stop us helping each other. There are viable reasons to vote ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ in this referendum, but racism is not one of them. Let’s stay focused on the more important question. What are we doing for others?

Max Jeganathan is a Sri-Lankan Tamil Refugee and is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity (CPX).