Racism, bigotry and debate, Australian-style

4 June 2013

Dr Tim Soutphommasane
Having a mature public conversation about racism is hard work, writes Dr Tim Soutphommasane.

There is a very Australian way to have a racism controversy. Whenever bigotry, prejudice or discrimination is revealed on the national stage, all of us can agree: Yes, it's horrible and we would never dream of endorsing it. We can all say, hand on heart, that racism is abhorrent and warrants our condemnation.

But then, once this solemn affirmation is made, there emerges a contest of outrage. Someone will say that the episode is evidence of some essential racist character in Australian society. In turn, someone will counter that Australians aren't nearly as racist as others.

Before long, the denial begins. What caused the controversy in the first place wasn't really racism. No, that term should be reserved for only the worst categories of hate and violence.

And how dare you call someone racist, when that is the worst judgment you can make of another person's character. If there's anything offensive, it is that someone could even contemplate charging a fellow Australian with racism - that most irredeemable sin. The implication is that a real Aussie doesn't cry racism; sometimes you've just got to harden up and cop bad behaviour on the chin, however hurtful.

So it has been with Adam Goodes this past week or so. For most of us, the dignified manner in which Goodes responded to a racial slur by a 13-year-old girl at the MCG was admirable. We can only imagine the further injury dealt by Eddie McGuire's subsequent King Kong gaffe - a spectacular case of accidental, if not casual, racism.

Yet, for many others, Goodes has been the culprit in pointing out the girl who called him ape in the first place. He has been the instigator of a witch-hunt against an innocent teenager. The real victim might not have been Goodes, after all - or so the argument runs.

Predictably, the columnist and commentator Andrew Bolt has led the charge.

According to Bolt, a so-called New Racism has been at fault. Apparently, the AFL's indigenous round "is a fashionably racist event that encourages people to divide the world into a white 'us' and an Aboriginal 'them'." It has encouraged people "to see in Goodes the black victim, rather than a 34-year-old sports star taking outsized offence at the rudeness of a girl". As for Eddie McGuire, his error was evidence of nothing remotely close to racism - it was just silly behaviour.

It takes a certain chutzpah to go down this path. But we shouldn't tolerate such perverse denial of racial bigotry. Nor should we accept the distortion of racism that accompanies it.

There are several dimensions to far-right-wing spin about racism, which must be dispelled. First, there's the frequent refrain that something can be considered racism only if it involves some belief in the hierarchy of races - a biological racism - and some suitably despicable behaviour. The suggestion is that you couldn't be racist unless you believed in preserving the superior purity of your race or placed burning crosses on lawns.

In its modern expression, racism is more subtle than this. You don't need to wait until someone in Ku Klux Klan robes screams in your face that you belong to an inferior race before you are justified in calling it out. When we talk about racism, more often than not we're talking about prejudice born of stereotypes rehearsed about someone's skin colour or ancestral background.

Second, there's the nonsense that politically correct sensitivities about race stifle public debate. It's nonsense because the worst form of censorship comes from the opposite direction. Nothing shuts down debate more than the idea that any allegation of racism must involve a moral charge against each and every Australian. That it must mean we are saying there's something fundamentally rotten about the Australian character.

In his new book The Lucky Culture, Nick Cater of The Australian mounts an argument along these lines. He suggests that while we may say that someone is racially prejudiced, we should refrain from calling someone a racist. Whereas the former involves "accusations of frailty or ignorance", the latter involves "condemnations of moral character".

A strange logic is at work here. Do we go to the trouble of making such fine distinctions between hooligan behaviour and hooligans? Or between criminal behaviour and criminals? Why must we take such extraordinary care to avoid offending those who engage in racist behaviour? This is a grotesque form of self-censorship, if ever there was one.

Finally, there's the casting of all complaints about racism as being solely concerned with hurt feelings. Well, they're not. Mere offence may be a subjective thing, but humiliation can be judged in objective terms. This is what is ultimately destructive with racism. Those who have been on the receiving end of it will tell you the damage goes to one's dignity and self-respect.

It's for this reason that a focus on motive can miss the point. You don't need to be malicious for something to have a racist effect. Accidental or casual racism still amounts to racism.

Having a mature public conversation about all this is hard work. One perennial pitfall is that we lapse into our usual cringing vanity. Many of us hasten to believe that the rest of the world is watching on and judging us harshly. We like to think we are much worse than we actually are. Too often, we overcompensate by reassuring ourselves that we are tolerant, that the hard work of achieving civility is over.

Any complacency is dangerous, however. It can have the effect of undoing past gains, of giving licence to prejudice. Whatever its source, racism is a learnt behaviour. There remains the important, unending task to educate younger Australians about why it's intolerable. As the Goodes-McGuire case shows, this applies equally to older Australians and to many who should really know better.

Dr Tim Soutphommasane is a political philosopher at the @timsout

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