Media blamed for “damage” to African-Australians

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Samantha McCombe explores the impact of stereotypes in media coverage on crimes attributed to "African gangs".

A Victoria Police staffer who works with the African-Australian community says police are determined to help repair the “reputational damage” caused by media coverage.

Mr Bruce Colcott said that the media’s negative representation of the African-Australian community has caused division in the public.

“It’s become a them-and-us situation,” said Mr Colcott, project officer for the Priority Communities Division, set up in 2014 to change the way the police deal with the most vulnerable members of society.

Mr Colcott said that the stigma surrounding the African-Australian community pains and alienates its members, as the media too often reports negative behaviours, ignoring the positives.

“I see people sitting at computers studying to be doctors and lawyers… people who will help us in the future,” said Mr Colcott. “You don’t get to see this in the media.”

People need to “put themselves in the other person’s position”, Mr Colcott said, to comprehend the impact this negative attention has on self-esteem.

“This negative stereotyping makes people think they need to validate their existence,” Mr Colcott said. “The community wouldn’t understand, they just think [they’re] crooks.”

Mr Colcott said that he is “in a privileged position to articulate… people’s sensitivities around [the stereotyping of Africans]”, because he works closely with members from the community.

Bruce Colcott outside police headquarters. Photo: Samantha McCombe

The African-Australian community has been subjected to stereotyping due to a small portion of the community being involved in the violent incidents across Melbourne.

At a press conference in January, Victorian Chief Police Commissioner Graham Ashton has reportedly said that media outlets misrepresent African gangs by failing to acknowledge the issues motivating their behaviour.

Victoria Police earlier this year set up a task-force with African-Australian leaders to tackle youth crime. At the time, Mr Ashton reportedly said while there was “street gang behaviour”, there were no “structured, organised gangs” of African-Australian youths and youth crime was not limited to a particular ethnic group.

Twenty five year-old Agot, who arrived in Australia with her family from South Sudan when she was 10, said that the negative stereotyping of African-Australians has been aggravated by the media.

A commercial law graduate, Agot said that it can be difficult as an African-Australian to tell if something is occurring because of the stigma. “I know people finding it more difficult to get children in school, or boys getting work placements… you start to question it,” Agot said.

Agot, who asked that her surname not be used in this report, said that the media coverage of the issue had caused division within the African-Australian community which rejected perceived gang behaviour.

“There’s an othering,” Agot said. “People want to distance themselves rather than tackle the issue of generalising a whole group.”

Agot also said that she believed the term “gang”  wasn’t appropriate, and that the labelling “has a lot to do with one thing, skin tone”.

Agot said that people judge African-Australians by their appearance and immediately associate them with gangs.

“This will change with people having more contact with African-Australians. Over time that happens, it’s what we’ve accepted as the process,” Agot said.

Agot. Photo: Samantha McCombe

Meanwhile, a nurse who arrived in Australia  from Zimbabwe on New Year’s Day 2008, said some Australians fear Africans because the media leads them to suspect them of being gang members.

“People generalise Africans. They paint us with the same brush,” Muza Makore said of the response to media coverage of crimes allegedly committed by Sudanese youth.

“Africa is a continent, not a country,” Mr Makore said. It was wrong to typecast all Africans.

Phanual Mponda, a veterinarian in Hawthorn also from Zimbabwe, agreed that Africans are incorrectly labelled.

“The media have never responded positively to people of colour. It is a world-wide phenomenon,” Mr Mponda said.

Mr Mponda said that the media reported on Africans as though they can be “lumped into one category” even though, the continent was diverse.

Mr Mponda encouraged people to travel and said that it is the best way to break down stereotypes and become culturally aware.

Both Mr Makore and Mr Mponda said that they have not experienced any direct racism during their time in Australia, and that despite the stereotypes applied to Africans, they did not regret their decision to migrate.

“Aussies get a bad rap about being racist,” Mr Mponda said. “I cannot say I have encountered any direct racism. I feel at home.”