You're probably more racist than you think


Last week SMH journalist Mark Sawyer decided that racism no longer exists in Australia. It’s just that nowadays, people make “stupid comments.” Setting aside the fact that it is perfectly possible to be both stupid and racist, only someone who hasn’t personally experienced it has the privilege to claim racism doesn’t exist.

And yet, the internet is littered with the opinions of white (usually male) writers keen to put an end to all this faux “racism” controversy. For the entire history of the western world, white voices have dominated every conversation. But when it comes to matters of race, it is vital that white people start talking a little less and listening a little more.

People of colour (POC) are more than capable of identifying when we have been targeted for our racial identity, and we are very well versed in the myriad ways racism is excused in today’s supposedly “equal” society.  Here are just six of the common tricks people use to justify racism, often without even realising what they are doing.



1.  I didn’t mean to offend.

Early this month, Rugby League commentator Warren Ryan resigned from his job at the ABC rather than apologise for using the term “darky”. He claimed an apology would be dishonest since, “There was no offence intended.”

What Ryan either doesn’t understand or is ignoring is that intention isn’t a magic cloak that shields people from the effects of words or actions. “Darky”, like other pejoratives, was historically used to dehumanise black people by exaggerating their difference to the white race. This served to make their oppression more palatable; it’s hard to feel empathy for someone you don’t even regard as human. When using such words, it’s not intention that counts, it’s the effect they have. People targeted by such language are well aware it was designed with the purpose of objectifying them.

Ryan claims, “(T)here is no appeasing those determined to be offended.” See, the funny thing about using language designed to offend people is that it achieves its purpose. A simple, “I’m sorry those words hurt you. I wasn’t thinking of the historical context. I wont use them again,” would have done the trick – and allowed him to keep his job.


2. I can’t be racist! I’m a nice person. 

Because racism was once so explicit, with burning crosses, segregation and the like, we now make the mistake of identifying only overtly hateful and violent behaviour as racist. Since most people don’t think they have anything in common with groups like the KKK, they don’t possibly think they can be construed as racist.

However, in her landmark essay on white privilege, Peggy Mcintosh wrote, “I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.” In other words, racism isn’t only about “hating” other races. It’s about the special status society still affords white people. Consider, for example, job seekers in Australia with an Arab or Chinese name need to submit up to twice as many resumes as those with an Anglo-Saxon name just to score the same number of interviews.

Racism is the ongoing exclusion of POC from the centre of society. While white people may be blithely unaware of this institutionalised discrimination, rest assured that POC are not. And the last thing we need hear as we work to dismantle this racist system is that it doesn’t even exist.


3. Race has nothing to do with it.

This one pops up whenever POC draw attention to their lack of representation in the public sphere. I am, for instance, still getting emails decrying an article I wrote three months ago on Gods of Egypt, in which I criticised the casting of white actors in a film set in a non-white country.  According to these emails, I am the “real racist” because Egyptian gods are mythological and “no one knows what they looked like”. Therefore the casting of white actors has “nothing to do with race” and is about “acting ability.”

It strikes me as rather suspicious that whenever race “isn’t an issue”, and it’s a matter of “merit”, then those with the most merit are almost always white. Were the white supremacists right all along? Are white people really just better at everything than the rest of us?

Conversely, it is also “not about race” whenever white people want to justify depicting POC in demeaning ways. Lily Allen, for example, was livid when black women objected to the way the bodies of black women were hyper-sexualised in her video Hard Out Here. Allen was adamant that she simply chose the “best dancers”.  So the “best” (black) dancers twerked and got their butts slapped as Allen sang about how she doesn’t need to shake her arse because she (unlike these dancers presumably) “has a brain.

In summary, it’s not about race when white people are favoured and it’s not about race when black people are degraded. Sounds fair.


4.  But I love/respect all cultures.

This is the standard response when white people want to justify their appropriation of certain aspects of other cultures. When Katy Perry was criticised for dressing as a Geisha, she responded, “All I was trying to do is just give a very beautiful performance about a place that I have so much love for… and that was exactly where I was coming from, with no other thought besides it.”

Perry gave “no thought” to how her costume would affect the culture she appropriated it from. That is problematic in itself but everyone makes mistakes, it’s how we handle them that counts, right? So when Perry discovered that many Japanese people weren’t impressed with the Geisha act, she immediately ceased wearing it. I jest, of course. She doubled down, and like Warren Ryan claimed her “intention” was more important than the feelings of the very people she claims to have “so much love for.”

The same goes for Dan Snyder, owner of the deplorably named Washington Redskins, who, despite copious amounts of criticism, refuses to change the name of his NFL team. His reason? It “honours” the heritage of Native Americans. Snyder says he will change the name “over his dead body.” Because that’s how you show respect and love for other cultures; by completely ignoring what they have to say. 


5. It’s just a joke! (AKA You’re oppressing my freedom of speech! This is political correctness gone mad!)

See, it’s easy to have a sense of humour when your racial identity isn’t perpetually the butt of such jokes. As I said above, the reasons such jokes existed was to reinforce the inferior status of certain groups. White people cannot possibly understand the harmful nature of racist jokes because the physical characteristics of whites have not been used as the basis for centuries of their oppression.

You can’t just divorce these jokes from their historical content. They were designed to hurt us then and they still hurt us now. As journalist Andrea Ho wrote, “With every joke you remind your mates that this person, me, is different; that I'm not like you. Every joke reinforces a wall between you and your mates, and me. You prevent me from integrating, becoming one of your circle. You exclude.”

Moreover, if your idea of oppression is having to behave like a half-decent human being then it really might be time to reassess your outlook on life.


6. This whole list is just reverse racism against white people!



  • This whole list is just reverse racism against white people! Nope.

    Actually you have made sweeping generalisations about one racial group, on the basis all "white" people are one big, homogeneous, ignorant group (you will find there are lots of smaller subgorups of "white" - your term).......fairly sure that is "racism"

    Date and time
    June 16, 2014, 9:14AM
    • Given Ruby didn't actually say 'all white people' are like this, you'd be wrong.

      Date and time
      June 16, 2014, 10:47AM
    • "This whole list is just reverse racism against white people! Nope."

      There is no such thing as 'reverse' racism.

      Any time you make sweeping generalisations about any group of people based purely on their race or skin colour without supporting objective facts, you are being racist. It doesn't matter if that race is the majority in that particular nation/culture/region or not.

      Other than that, I agree.

      This article also seems to confuse 'race' and 'culture'. I suppose it's convenient to do so when making the argument, but culture is a human creation and totally malleable, whereas race is not.

      "White people cannot possibly understand the harmful nature of racist jokes because the physical characteristics of whites have not been used as the basis for centuries of their oppression."

      I'm sure anyone of Jewish descent would disagree. Or do they not count as 'white' people?

      As a side note: I'm offended at being called a 'white person' in the context of this article just as someone would be to be called 'darky'.

      Believe it or not, I reserve the right as a person to be offended when someone chooses to ignore my personal identity and history and lump me into a homogenous mass based purely on the color of my skin, so I can be conveniently stereotyped without needing supporting facts.

      Date and time
      June 16, 2014, 10:54AM
    • So true...and these articles tend to find fertile soil in a peaceful country like Australia where we actually do get along. Would like to see the author shouting about fairness, equality, respect, oppression etc in Iraq today, or Afghanistan.

      Date and time
      June 16, 2014, 10:58AM
    • Agree Casterndog. Definition of racism per Oxford: "The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race". Author describes White as a race, eg "exaggerating their difference to the white race". Therefore beyond dispute this article is savagely racist against White people.

      This article is deeply, deeply offensive. It is racist and should not have been published.

      There is racism between all sorts of ethnic / racial groups, eg between Chinese and Japanese (due to WW2 atrocities) and between Palestinians and Israelis. There is no evidence that White people are more racist than any other group. There are just more white people in Australia, so if 5% of all people are racist then in Australia there will be numerically more white people than others.

      Date and time
      June 16, 2014, 10:59AM
    • @DM

      Interesting you should point out the anti-semitism issue. I feel partially qualified to discuss this as a person of Jewish ancestry (though not a believer). Yes, at times I have been utterly shocked and appalled at some of the things I've heard people say about Jews... the general level of hatred and slander online, for example, is atrocious, and it's all too common to see legitimate criticism of Israel and Zionism parleyed into overtly racist and intolerant comments about Jews in general.

      On the other hand, the nasty comments and racism are rarely directed at me personally. Partially, no doubt, because it's harder to identify a person as Jewish just by looking at them (I often am assumed to be e.g. "Mediterranean" rather than Jewish). So I don't think it's the same as being, for example, of Middle Eastern or Asian origin, where racists can identify you at a glance and start hurling abuse based on the colour of your skin. There are also fewer go-to racist buzzwords. I've heard "kike" from time to time, but not as commonly as I'd hear words like "chink" or "towel head" or "monkey" thrown around. Basically, whether it's debatable that Jewish people are "white", many of us look white and can "pass" as Anglo/white in daily life.

      What you find with Jewish people is that there can be a reticence to identify yourself as of Jewish faith or origin, because there's some fear that certain people will respond in a negative or racist way. This isn't quite on the same level as fearing you'll be abused by racists on the train.

      But I do appreciate your point and think this is a discussion worth having.

      Red Pony
      Date and time
      June 16, 2014, 12:52PM
    • With regard to point four 'But I love/respect all cultures' - what about the reverse of that argument. What if I 'prefer' one culture over another for a range of reasons ie I disagree how some cultures treat women, particularly with regard to their rights. To me, that is a completely legitimate view and should not be labelled racist (accepting we are talking cultures here rather than race, but I am addressing the author's own words). If that point is legitimate then it opens up the discussion much more broadly in terms of racism in Australia, and elsewhere.

      Date and time
      June 16, 2014, 1:12PM
  • I take all of your comments on board, but worry that in a "multicultural" society like ours it might not have improved your article to have highlighted the attitudes of more than just "white people", such as myself and maybe turned the spotlight onto your own ethnicity and and their attitudes to others?

    I'm continually concerned at the racism I see between people of Japanese descent and those of Korean, zionist jews and Palestinians, Chinese and malayans, to name but a few.

    Racism is not just a sign of continued oppression, but of nationhood perceived superiority and seemingly present in all of us, and self important articles don't assist in overturning thousand of years of blinkered attitudes.

    Date and time
    June 16, 2014, 9:21AM
    • There's no such thing as reverse racism. Just racism. But white people can be victims of racism and to suggest otherwise is simply wrong.

      Date and time
      June 16, 2014, 9:24AM
      • You are missing the point completely, Shane.
        No one is denying that a white person may on occasion be subject to something as mild as verbal taunting, yet a white person, in a predominately white society will never have to worry about handing in a CV, and not getting the job, even though they were better qualified whilst a POC gets the job.
        These are things that POC persons face most days living in a predominately white society.

        Date and time
        June 16, 2014, 12:35PM

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