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Why we don’t really interrogate our racism

May 31, 2013

A whole lot of noise and three days as the whole sorry name calling affair involving a 13 year old girl and Eddie McGuire unfolded,  I was told over the weekend by some media outlets that the issue had adequately been covered and we’d all  moved on. While I’ve read a few insightful pieces, most of the quick responses missed the point entirely. And in doing so, inadvertently reaffirmed the racism.

This is post is something I wrote in response to the responses over the weekend – in frustration and after eating lots of dark chocolate.

So dear reader, if you have an attention-span that is longer than some in the media and you’re interested in a deeper interrogation of Australia’s racism – one that moves beyond incidents – then please read on.

(And because it was written with a wider audience in mind, if you like it then I’d really appreciate if you shared it far & wide).

Racism is about more than name calling.

Racism is about more than name calling.

Every time a racist incident like the brain malfunction Eddie McGuire claimed he was experiencing last week stirs debate, we are provided with an opportunity, no matter how brief, to start a conversation about race and racism.

Sadly, we’ve had quite a few racist ‘incidents’ of late gain the ire of the media and the twitterati. From veteran rugby league presenter David Morrow’s racist remarks inadvertently caught on air to Delta Goodrem finding someone dressed up in blackface ‘hilarious’. Just a few weeks ago, Media Watch put the spotlight on Alan Jones, a repeat offender of so many vile things, this time calling him on his persistent and offensive use of the term ‘nigger in the woodpile’.

You’d think by now we’d be getting this conversation well and truly started and figuring out the actions as a society we can take. Sadly not.

In each case we were right to be outraged. And to call out such racist attitudes as unacceptable. But so often we miss the point, get lost in our own introspection and ‘sharing’ of our experiences. Some noise and the moment passes, we move on not much wiser about why what happened just happened and nothing really changes.

Take for example this series of quite unhelpful questions that is often asked: Was that really racist? Are we a racist country? Aren’t other countries more racist? Some even leap to the defense of the pilloried saying it was all just a laugh, lighten up. None of these responses allow for a sophisticated debate, one that might help us figure out how to make Australia just that little bit less racist.

The remarks of wealthy entrepreneur McGuire seem to have spurred a different kind of public introspection: individual soul searching. Helen Razor responds by declaring we are all racist. To her credit she does incriminate herself in this. If one can look past her abrasive style there are a few points to be found: notably the limitations of responses ostensibly written for what she describes as ‘a white bourgeois liberal audience’. But there’s something I found a little off with her self-loathing assessment.

How helpful is this admission that we are indeed all racists? Jeff Sparrow described such a declaration as a ‘deepity’: a statement precariously balancing between what may be true but trivial and what may be false but earth-shattering if true. (Yes, a little confusing but you can find youtube videos of Daniel Dennet explaining this concept). It leaves us nowhere really, just confused in what we think we’ve just realised.

And take this two page spread in Fairfax on Friday, where five prominent people who’ve all come from ‘somewhere else’ were assembled to share their experiences of racism in Australia. From Kamahl telling of how he internalised the racism he experienced to Claudia Chan Shaw on how her ‘mixed race’ confuses people. Benjamin Law even admits to his own racism:

‘We are all capable of thinking and saying racist things. I don’t absolve myself of this either. I have been guilty of racist thoughts and speech myself.’

Some deeper introspection from all of us could be useful. But must we all partake in some public self-flagellation and sharing of our deepest, darkest racist thoughts in order to learn from all this? Should we really be locating the problem squarely with the individual? If so, it leaves very little we can do about it except feel ashamed.

Now, I’ve copped a fair bit of racism myself as an Arab Australian. And so have many people close to me. I will refrain, however, from taking this as an opportunity to share with you a litany of personal stories of the racism I have been subjected to and how I’ve somehow managed to ‘rise above it all’ to become a productive member of society who also happens to make a delicious tabouli. One, I wouldn’t know where to start. Two, it bores and tires me. It is not my raison d’être to educate White People™ in the finer art and etiquette of race.

What I am interested in, however, is all of us having a constructive conversation about where all this racism comes from. We won’t get very far in eradicating our racist thoughts and actions if we don’t consider this. More importantly, we need to consider how racism manifests itself in that place we call the ‘real world’ if we hope to change it. In our lived experiences of this particular variety of inequality, racism is not a character flaw, it is instituionalised and covert – there is no offensive slogan one can simply point to and then stop using.

While Eddie McGuire may have had to hang his head in shame, Debra Jopson in The Global Mail asks who will apologise for Australia’s covert racism? The is the kind of racism not so easily called out but found in the technocratic solutions disguising a brutal and racist intervention happening to Indigenous communities right now in the Northern Territory. Policies that have required our government to send in the military and suspend parts of the Ant-Discrimination Act in order to roll it out. Policies that take away the capacity of local communities to address their own problems and put control in the hands of bureaucrats and large external organisations, what Northern Territory Aboriginal activist Olga Havnen described as having “had profound psychological impacts on our people.”

Yet for close to six years these racist policies have gone unnoticed.

Dr_Tad (@Dr_Tad): JUST SO YOU UNDERSTAND: The first rule of mainstream anti-racism is “Don’t mention the NT Intervention”.

Sadly, racism is also entrenched in our education system, politely disguised by the rhetoric of ‘choice’ in a market-based system. A disturbing picture of segregation along class and racial lines has emerged as a result. Across Sydney, for example, 52% of public school students are from language backgrounds other than English. This is compared to 22% in independent schools and 37% in Catholic schools. The more elite the school the higher the concentration of Anglo-students, as revealed by a cursory look on the MySchools website.

We should be alarmed by this. Schooling is the one experience that we all tend to share so the implications for social cohesion and poverty over the long term are dire. Rich and predominantly white parents are increasingly exercising their ‘choice’ by opting out of an under-funded public education system and sending their children to private schools with manicured lawns. We should not then be surprised that such cloistered educational experiences produce adults with little understanding and empathy for those outside their class or racial group. This might be where the racism begins.

So the story isn’t really about Eddie, if he is indeed a racist or whether he keeps his job. It is about something much deeper in our society – policies and the resulting material realities many of the responses don’t address.

Beyond the hurtful name calling, as a country we have been avoiding these difficult and complex matters. Let’s start calling out all forms of racism. And then let’s ask a better question: how can we change it?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. June 4, 2013 3:05 pm

    My nephew gave your article “a good read’ status on Facebook. So here I am having a good read. I am disappointed that said nephew is not here putting a like next to your post.

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