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!