First published on 14 Jun 2012. Updated on 14 Jun 2012.
In new ABC2 series Dumb, Drunk and Racist, journalist Joe Hildebrand takes four Indians on a road trip across Australia to test the widely held view in their homeland that Aussies are indeed those three things – a view many picked up listening to us rant down the line in call centres. Among the tourists are newsreader Gurmeet, call-centre worker Mahima, law student Amer and teacher Radhika, who never sends her students Australia-way for their overseas travels. With Joe in the lead, they visit our tourist sites – hello Opera House! – as well as those sites whose recent stories we might want to keep hidden – hello Cronulla! Hildebrand told Time Out that the journey was as much a learning curve for him as it was for the tourists.
A quick note: this interview contains some pretty colourful language, so if you're squeamish... look away.
So Joe, what do you say when an Indian call centre calls you?
I don’t get phone calls from anyone, ever. I don’t even have a landline at home, I don’t listen to my voice messages. It’s a terrible situation, obviously, for a journalist to be in. Occasionally, I’ll get an outsourced one from Westpac but I turn it around on them and hope that I catch them in the middle of dinner. I’ll call back and say, "I had no idea what I was calling for."
You’re not on the receiving end of these calls – but you did listen to a lot of tape of phone calls between call centres and Australians when you went to India. Easy listening?
We heard the most amazing audio. The guys who work there had started keeping all the abusive responses they got and there is some fresh, fresh, fresh stuff there. It would make your grandmother’s eyes water. I think it might be one in ten [who are abusive] or whatever, hypothetically speaking. But I suppose when one in ten people you speak to calls you “a fucking curry munching cunt” or says “get fucked and back to your own country” – that would hit a nerve after a while.
Were the call centre workers desensitised to it at all?
They kind of were. I was surprised at the good humour and context they took it in. If that had happened to me I would have been trying to track down where those people lived, if you know what I mean. But basically these guys, they’d say, “Well, you know, sometimes they do not trust us because they do not know where we are calling from and sometimes it is not convenient for them and so…” They try to find excuses to what, to you or I or any reasonable person, is just the most horrible, horrible kind of behaviour.
Did the level of vitriol surprise you?
A little bit, I have to say. I’ve seen a fair bit of stuff. I grew up in a very rough-and-tumble kind of place, Dandenong, just outside of Melbourne – it’s a poor place, it’s really socio-economically challenged... Q&A were there a while ago to demonstrate just how much of a shit hole it was. So that’s where I grew up. I’ve certainly seen plenty of stuff as a journo and I’ve been known to swear like a sailor myself. I’m no shrinking violet when it comes to people having forthright views. I get plenty of abuse myself all the time, sometimes even racial, like “you fucking dirty Jew” or whatever. But this was just high-octane, up-to-eleven, you know – “I’m going to fucking drop a bomb on you”, that was another one that we heard. And it was all completely race-based. It wasn’t just “Fuck off: I’m trying to have my dinner.” It was like “Fuck off, you dirty fucking curry muncher."
In the show you encounter people with those views who are basically saying it to this group of four Indians right in their face. Or they’re just spouting ignorance. You’re kind of the neutral host, but didn’t you just want to step in and argue back at times?
I think, to be honest, someone who has already formed views that are as extreme as some of the ones that we encountered, you’re never really going to talk sense into them. You’re never going to argue them into a position. I’m talking people who think all immigration should be banned immediately, full stop. Those are not moderate people. Even what they say publicly is far, far tamer than what I know these people say behind closed doors or internet chat rooms – me and a couple of my sources have been able to hack into [chat rooms] and I’ve written about it from time to time. I think that the approach with those guys – the same thing with a lot of Pauline Hanson supporters from ten years ago – is just to sort of illuminate them. Just go “alright well have your say”. You put it out to the world and the vast majority of people, who are tolerant and decent, will see something as vicious and cruel as some of the things these people were saying – with the really nasty sort of facial expressions that go with it – and it will speak for itself.
One of the most interesting moments from the first two episodes is when you show footage of the Cronulla Riots to the group – while you’re at Cronulla Beach. The law student, Amer, has to step away from the camera because he’s so overcome with emotion. Were you surprised by that?
I had no idea. He was certainly one of the most worldly and sophisticated and thoughtful of the group. He had no misgivings whatsoever, he just wanted to jump in headlong, wasn’t scared of anything, thought the best of Australians, thought we were all fine. He’s one of those people who wants to think the best about everyone. And then you see some of those things… To be honest, I had sort of forgotten. [Rewatching the footage] I was sort of surprised at how much it affected me when I saw some of those really violent, vicious kinds of attacks and that mindless mob mentality where you just know that anyone could have been killed in a heartbeat before anyone stopped to draw breath. I guess when I saw how bad they were and then I noticed Amer had wandered off and was choked up and was crying, I thought, “Fuck – no wonder.”
The show is about the Indians and how their perspectives of Australia changes, or otherwise. But did yours?
It’s impossible to know, as a white bloke like me, if Australia’s a racist country. But I was amazed at some of the stuff that just came out of nowhere, completely unscripted, off-the-street – just because we were filming a show with four people with dark skin. A lot of it was just really full-on. I’m not just talking funny looks. I’m talking all-out, unprovoked verbal abuse just from people who happened to walk past. At one point we were just walking around and someone called out, “Go back to where you came from.”
The show also takes part in India – well, a little. Tell us about standing on the streets of Delhi with your “Talk to a dumb, drunk, racist” sign.
It was my first time in India and we set up the scene and instantly there’s a circle of people around, all coming up and all very curious. And India is very polite. So if Indians didn’t have good English or very much English at all, if you asked them a question they would just sort of smile and nod their head. So you had people who were very articulate and people saying, “Yeah, Australians are a bunch of racist assholes” or answering the question very seriously. But there were some who, if you said, “Do you think Australians are dumb, drunk and racist?”, they’d sort of smile and say “nice to meet you.” So that was nice.
Back in Australia, was there an element of shame in showing the dark side of the country? Was there this sense of not wanting to do this because it is painting your country in a bad way?
There was a lot of that. [Back during the Cronulla Riots] I was really ashamed and sort of hated those people. Even when we were there showing it to the guys, I just was thinking, “How dare you?” There are plenty of dodgy things that white Australians, Europeans, have done to Australia since the First Fleet rocked up – but I thought at least we could have done without this, you know? At least we could have done without dickheads running around with flags around their necks and smashing bottles on people. I can’t stand political correctness and I hate the idea of all this terribly neutral language, or if you ever criticise anyone who is not a white Anglo-Saxon protestant in some way you’re racist. I suppose that’s what makes me angry. Because when there’s something like [Cronulla] happening, it’s still very hard to go up and say, “Well that’s bullshit, we’re not a racist country." Someone could say, “Oh yeah? Well what about the riots?” or “What about the stolen generation?” That sort of extreme stuff drags down everybody.
Dumb, Drunk & Racist airs Wednesdays on ABC2 at 9.30pm from Wed Jun 20