• Yassmin Abdel-Magied has been awarded the Young Voltaire Award by Liberty Victoria. (SBS )Source: SBS
The host of SBS's 'The Truth About Racism' explains why she feels a responsibility to try to make the world a better place, regardless of how tough that can be.
Alyssa Braithwaite

28 Feb 2017 - 3:52 PM  UPDATED 1 Mar 2017 - 2:35 PM

Yassmin Abdel-Magied knows first hand what a thorny issue racism is. 

The mechanical engineer and 2015 Queensland Young Australian of the Year was appointed to the Council for Multicultural Australia in 2011, is currently a member on the board of the Council for Australian-Arab Relations, and advocates for the empowerment of those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

So when she got the chance to investigate the science behind racism, as a presenter and participant in the SBS documentary The Truth About Racism, she jumped right in.

"People have a lot of opinions and it can be quite an emotional issue, and so an opportunity to be kind of be like, here is what the science says our brain is doing, and also here is a solution to it, was really attractive," Abdel-Magied tells SBS.

"It was really interesting, and really fascinating. It made me quite optimistic towards the end, because it gave me a couple of tools to use in my own day to day interactions and the talks that I do with people around how we can tackle a societal issue like racism.

"The experience is very much around how we as individuals can go about tackling racism, identifying it happening, understanding that we all have biased views and that we all can do something about that. So it was quite empowering I thought."

Look, every once in a while I think, 'oh, do I really want to be doing this?' But then I sort of think, 'well if I don't, who will'?

The Truth About Racism is part of SBS's Face Up To Racism week or programming, which explores, expands and challenges Australia's understanding of racism and prejudice.

It's a timely discussion to be having, says Abdel-Magied, not just in Australia but globally.

"I think it's an important one for the world to have right now," she says.

"If you look at our politics around the world there is no doubt that they're increasingly ... along the lines of 'us' and 'them'. And I think it's so important for us to step away from the very vitriolic, divisive, hate-filled rhetoric that is all around us.

"Let's not say this is the default, let's not say this is automatic, let's not say this is the best we can do. We can do better."

Abdel-Magied found herself in the centre of storm of controversy earlier this month after she and independent Senator for Tasmania, Jacqui Lambie, got into a heated exchange on the ABC's Q&A program over Sharia law. 

On the program she said she thought of Islam as a feminist religion, and blamed misogynist and homophobic policies in Islamic countries on culture and politics, rather than religion.

A Change.org petition called for the ABC to fire the presenter, and several News Corp columnists took aim at the 25-year-old.

The furore is not something Abdel-Magied wants to comment on.

But she says she won't stop speaking out and being an advocate for equality.

"Look, every once in a while I think, 'oh, do I really want to be doing this?'," she says.

"But then I sort of think, 'well if I don't, who will?' Because if we all wait for somebody else to do it, sometimes it just doesn't get done.

"I do feel quite a significant responsibility simply because I feel like I've been given a lot of opportunities. I've been pretty blessed to be born in Sudan and then to come to Australia, to have the education that perhaps I do, to know there are ways to create change, so I think the question for me is always, how do I pay it forward? How do I leave this world a better place than the one I came to?"

The 25-year-old calls herself a realist, and says "there's a hell of a lot of work that needs to be done" before equality is achieved, but adds that everyone can play a part in dealing with racism. 

"We are not living in a world where human lives are treated equally. Not yet anyway," she says.

"I think what often happens is that people get overwhelmed by the difficulties in the world and how overwhelming the issues are and so on. And it's about stepping back from that a little bit and saying 'hey, yeah ok that's really big. I don't have to deal with all the big stuff, let me just focus on the world around me, and it's a lot more manageable'. And if we all do that, then you get collective change." 


The Truth About Racism airs Wednesday 1 March at 8.30pm.

The documentary is part of 'Face Up To Racism' week, featuring three documentaries on SBS challenging preconceptions around race and prejudice, including 'Is Australia Racist' and 'Date My Race'. 

Face Up To Racism Week starts on 26 February on SBS | #FU2Racism

Watch all the documentaries online after they air on SBS On DemandWatch 'Is Australia Racist?' now below. 

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