White people need to stop shrugging off racism as 'not our problem'

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Dallas shooting: Obama denies US divided

President Obama urges Americans not to see the country as being riven into opposing groups, seeking to soothe raw emotions after a "painful" week of deadly shootings.

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If you're a white Australian following news out of America this past week, you'll have been confronted with more of the horrifying reality of institutionalised racism. The killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, two black men both fatally shot by police officers within a day of each other, have prompted another wave of #BlackLivesMatter protests across the US.

In response to this, the asinine rebuttal of "#AllLivesMatter" has reared its head again, wielded by people who simply refuse to acknowledge reality and their own ongoing privilege. This is sadly to be expected. Experience suggests that all too many white people respond to clear examples of institutionalised and systemic racism with 'whataboutery' and victim blaming.

I have seen a despicable amount of comments this week suggesting Sterling in particular 'had it coming' and 'should have shown more respect', two phrases so soaked in racist ideology that it's hard to believe people could still be thinking them in 2016 let alone saying them.

Protesters hold their fists in the air as they march during a Black Lives Matter demonstration in New York.

Protesters hold their fists in the air as they march during a Black Lives Matter demonstration in New York. Photo: AP

Insisting that "All Lives Matter" when confronted with the raw testimony of harm done to black lives in particular isn't a call for greater humanity for everybody - it's a way for white people to double down on white supremacy and ignore the clear and obvious ways in which we benefit from and perpetuate discrimination.


Alicia Garza is one of the three queer, black female founders of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. In 2014, she wrote this about the All Lives Matter derailment: "When we deploy 'All Lives Matter' as to correct an intervention specifically created to address anti-blackness, we lose the ways in which the state apparatus has built a program of genocide and repression mostly on the backs of Black people—beginning with the theft of millions of people for free labor—and then adapted it to control, murder, and profit off of other communities of color and immigrant communities. We perpetuate a level of White supremacist domination by reproducing a tired trope that we are all the same, rather than acknowledging that non-Black oppressed people in this country are both impacted by racism and domination, and simultaneously, BENEFIT from anti-black racism."

I have nothing to add to Garza's already succinct definition of this difference and nor is it my place to do so. As a white person, I thought about how to approach this without co-opting space that should be taken by the voices of those with a direct experience of this racism. I also wondered if my voice was 'needed' at all. White people's voices are too dominant overall, and assuming some kind of authority on the awareness of racism is a fault made by too many of us (including myself). But times like this are also exhausting and crushing for the people who live in this oppression, and expecting them to always carry the burden of education is unreasonable.

So with this piece, while imperfectly navigating that line, I would like to call on other white Australians to examine their role in perpetuating racism.

The festering sore of institutionalised racism is not confined to America, and neither is the body count. In Australia, Aboriginal people face significant and comprehensive racism and systemic discrimination, resulting in (among other things) much higher levels of incarceration and deaths in custody (listen here to Martin Hodgson discuss this and read Kelly Briggs here), lower mortality rates and, for Aboriginal women especially, higher rates of sexual violence. In fact, Aboriginal women are 80 times more likely to be hospitalised as a result of intimate partner violence and, as Celeste Liddle outlined last year, account for a disproportionate number of women killed. Briggs' work shows how decades of dehumanising, racist policies cause ongoing trauma and fear in Aboriginal mothers today, with women like her still fearing the legacy of the Stolen Generations will see her children taken away.

This is a country in which a powerful white male commentator with a conviction for race discrimination can be invited to a prestigious festival to explore his 'Dangerous Ideas', as if providing platforms to such people is provocative and courageous. (See Nakkiah Lui's work highlighting this.)

Despite this reality, we suffer the same denial of racism here that exists in a country like the US. Derailment tactics are part and parcel of activism, particularly now that social media has given everyone a voice. Think about the howling retaliation offered by white people whenever photographs of racist 'costuming' emerge. These are just jokes! It's not that serious! Get over it! How else are you meant to dress up like Kanye?! Meanwhile, make a gentle observation that white people are especially ignorant about what constitutes racism and watch as all hell breaks loose.

Remember the ridiculous outrage on display in the Daily Telegraph (and subsequently on talkback radio and morning television) over news that the University of NSW was 'teaching' its students (the truthful fact) that Australia had been invaded rather than discovered? What about the less overt but equally as telling trend of assembling all-white panels to contemplate issues of racism and, specifically, what is and isn't racist?

The fact that white people even need this constant hand holding and basic education about our own privilege is just more evidence of the position we occupy in the hierarchy of power. It's not dissimilar to the boring repetition of "Not All Men" whenever attempts to discuss gender inequality arise - of course 'not all men', but certainly enough men to make the issues of gendered violence, discrimination and abuse prominent and ongoing.

What's really being said with the insistence that 'All Lives Matter' and 'Not All White People' is "Your discussions about racism make me uncomfortable, and instead of using that discomfort to radically challenge my own thinking I shall instead insist that it's your own 'victim mentality' that's the real problem and indeed the real oppressing force."

Fellow white people - just stop it already. We do not have to be heard on everything, and we certainly do not have to be placated on anything to do with racism or the suffering that accompanies it. It isn't the job of people harmed by white supremacy to explain this to us, nor do they have to acknowledge our already respected humanity in order to speak about the marginalisation of their own. As Jesse Williams said in his BET acceptance speech, "The burden of the brutalised is not to comfort the bystander."

We live in a system that not only privileges us but that furnishes us with white supremacy. We get to consider ourselves the default and everyone else the 'other', because we benefit from the structures of racial inequality that the world has been built on both figuratively and literally. We don't get to just say, 'Well, I'm not racist,' and walk away. We need to accept our complicity in the system and become active members in destroying it.