It is time that I explicitly state my views on racism. The issue which I consider goes right to the heart of dealing with racism in Australia is political correctness, which is ironic because political correctness is perhaps the most often stated justification by racists for the need to express their beliefs.
The racists’ argument infers that it is entirely natural for humans to be suspicious of others who are different, and that turns to anger and resentment when a “higher society” – of intellectual “elites” – enforces a moral political correctness upon all people to behave in a polite manner contrary to this nature. The racists blame this political correctness for causing a bottling up of emotion so that when it comes out in anger, whether from a bald-headed aggressive youth or in the quivering voice of an Ipswich fish and chips shop owner, it is all the fault of those in this “higher society” who impinged on their freedom of speech not through law but through societal pressure.
There is even an element of honour in openly expressing their dislike of minorities, from the racists’ perspective, in that it is morally preferable to behave consistently with their real values rather than to pretend to have the other “politically correct” values. They consider themselves more “authentic“.
Everybody who lived through the emergence of Pauline Hanson knows that her supporters frequently stated that she was just saying what everybody thought. Then living in conservative northern Queensland, I heard it often and I will never forget who were the members of my large extended family who proudly and defiantly told me, with my Asian-Australian wife at my side, how they were Pauline Hanson supporters.
The irony around political correctness and racism is that, while it most certainly is a major factor, the racists are actually benefitting or being aided from it.
Racists are given a great deal of leeway in their comments and actions because others are timid and reluctant to call them out for what they are for fear of being offensive themselves.
This makes virtually everybody in society afraid of discussing racism and what constitutes racist beliefs and actions. It is impolite to even discuss it in company.
This is perhaps the most serious impediment to defeating the scourge as it is obvious that no problem can ever be truly addressed if there are only ever vague and obtuse references to the issues.
I have a particularly personal but pertinent anecdote to highlight this point.
Last year I received a call from my youngest son’s School Principal informing me that my son had stood up to another student by calmly responding to racist comments that the student made. When I discussed the incident with my son he confirmed it was the student who I knew, from previous incidents, was frequently in disciplinary trouble. The comments made were about Asians and coronavirus, but were not specifically directed at my son. I allowed my son to slowly discuss all of the events and how he felt. Eventually it became clear that this student had made racist comments before, and my son had relayed that as a part of his recount to the senior teacher who had addressed the problem first before informing the Principal.
The real issue became apparent when I asked my son how that senior teacher dealt with it, and how that made him feel. My son felt that the teacher down-played the actions and comments of the student, and that made him feel foolish for objecting to what was said so much so that he felt it was pointless, if not distressing, to stand up to this behaviour.
The next day I rang the Principal and informed him of how this senior teacher had reacted. My son was a School Captain so was highly regarded by the school and worked frequently with the Principal. The Principal defended his staff member, which on the one hand is understandable, but what he said was poignant: he said that it is a fine line for teachers to tread with beliefs taught at home, and so they usually try to steer clear of the issue.
I informed him that the upshot of the interaction was that my son felt foolish for what was in fact very honourable actions, and that my son needed and deserved positive reinforcement from the school at least privately if not publicly. The other student and their class cohorts also received those weak messages about respecting diversity publicly. The Principal undertook to speak with my son to clarify that message, but never did. My son did, however, receive the leadership award for his cohort which was perhaps a veiled hat-tip to his honourable actions then and through the year. However, avoidance or obtuse acknowledgement is less than satisfactory.
Now in writing this I know that racists will suggest that it is not up to anybody to say who acted honourably in this specific situation.
Therein lies the problem with political correctness over racism – it is clear-cut in Australian society – racism is wrong and standing up against racism most definitely is honourable and should be praised by all.
That is not up for debate and anybody who suggests it is debatable is not being respectful of broad contemporary Australian society.
That political leaders are weak on this message is what breeds timidity – or “political correctness” – on spelling out what is racism in the broad context of Australian society.
This reluctance to explicitly call somebody racist in many ways emboldens racists because they revel in timidity, like all bullies.
Take, for instance, Trump and his allies. I cannot recall any high-profile journalist or commentator calling Trump a racist, and it was not until late in the Presidential campaign when Biden did. There is also a timidity in calling others around Trump racists.
Trump often even goaded others to go ahead and call him a racist, which nobody did, also a frequent tactic of bullies.
It would seem that the strongest language those acting in a professional capacity use is to suggest that somebody has made comments with xenophobic undertones or that they are in some way associated with xenophobic elements. This is displaying timid political correctness at two levels – it dissociates the acts from that person and who they are or what they stand for, and the term “xenophobe” is a more timid term than “racist”.
The threshold for calling somebody racist is incredibly high.
Just imagine yourself saying the words, “you are racist”. Immediately you will recognise these as very strong words.
Most people have an aversion to hurting or insulting others, and will usually err on the side of caution rather than risking being overly harsh or judgmental.
What has become apparent to me over the years is that the unscrupulous most often commit wrong against others by using the goodness and trust at the core of human beings, whether it be a criminal who waits for an unsuspecting victim to open a door to them or stops their vehicle to help them, or cons who scam victims into providing personal details over the phone, through the internet or directly.
In the same way aggressive racists capitalise on and exploit our timidity in avoiding calling out exactly what and who they are.
This timidity in addressing racism must be counteracted from the earliest moments that children enter broader society and certainly within the education system. Racism is misguided thinking that must be corrected like any other misguided or anti-social behaviour that is addressed within schools by childhood education professionals. Unfortunately, the observations of my children again suggest this is not the case in Australia.
Now I do not want to be, nor do I wish to appear to be – there’s that political correctness again – overcritical of my sons’ primary school, but this anecdote really does bear repeating.
Both of my sons were taught by an elderly, cantankerous supply teacher who actually used the racist version of Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe, which obviously incorporates the “N” word, in her classes.
Here, I would not be authentic, myself, if I did not make a serious confession. This racist version was actually the only version that I knew from my childhood, and one day when I heard my children saying “Tigger” my initial impulse was to correct them, which of course brought on a conversation with my wife. I had never said this rhyme again since my early childhood, and so I had never thought about what the words actually meant. My initial reaction was to think that that is so shocking that we children would be taught this, and say it so openly in front of everybody – teachers, parents and other adults – that there had to be another meaning for the “N” word. As I sat there and thought about it with my wife, the realisation washed over me – especially as I thought of the context in which the words are said – that in deed it was an extremely racist rhyme. There is no other meaning for the “N” word and it is undeniably racist. It is incredible to think now that we children of the 70s in northern Queensland would recite that rhyme, made even more despicable since we grew up with many indigenous children who were our friends and team mates.
So I have to admit that I can understand a certain level of ignorance can exist. But once an adult says the words, even in their own mind, within a very brief period it should be entirely clear how utterly inappropriate it is. That any teacher in Australia would recite that rhyme to children in the 21st century is almost beyond belief.
It shows that in Australia the education system must not take anything for granted when it comes to racism, and that rigorous diversity and inclusion programs for all of their staff as well as in the curricula which is taught to children must be implemented as a matter of urgency.
This is absolutely critical as there is a growing awareness of the importance of educating role models on diversity and inclusion as an intervention to racism culminating in radicalisation .
Research conducted prior to the COVID-19 pandemic showed that 1 in 3 Australian Australian school students were the victim of discrimination.
East Asian students reported the highest rate of insults or name calling on the basis of their background at 44%, while 30% of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Island students surveyed reported having students spit, push or hit them on the basis of their race.
Among Anglo-Celtic students 15% said they had been insulted on the basis of their background, while 6% reported being subject to violence.
The report was compiled as part of the Speak Out Against Racism program, which is developing a program to encourage students and staff to address racism in schools.
“We need high-quality, whole-of-school programs – built on evidence and which are tested – that act to directly prevent and appropriately respond to racial discrimination and racism when it happens,” Priest said.
To be entirely honest, I believe this timidity goes even further in that it seems that very many Australians are reluctant to express open support for diversity and multiculturalism in their day to day activities such as on social media. For instance my experience is that few will show open support for underprivileged minorities, or for the poor in developing countries, or for refugees experiencing difficult circumstances.
Perhaps this is a part of the politicisation of refugees and migration by populists or populist-leaning Governments, especially by the Howard Government in the 2001 Australian Federal election, and then the reluctance by mainstream politicians to speak out against the racism inherent in such positions for fear of disenfranchising racist voters.
Thus a reluctance to show support for other struggling human beings, sometimes in desperate situations, is confused by some as being political.
Is it truly being political identifying these people as being worthy of empathy and help?
Or is it just a lack of courage to show explicit support for these people out of fear of being seen as having views outside the range of popular opinion?
Australia has long had a problem with admitting to our racist past along with our contemporary racism. There is a reluctance in admitting the injustices committed upon indigenous Australians and in the long enforcement of the White Australia Policy. Minorities in contemporary Australia face discrimination and bias in many forms, including in the workplace where research has shown that people with obvious minority names are significantly less likely to be contacted for interviews from submitting job applications.
To get as many interviews as an Anglo applicant with an Anglo-sounding name, an Indigenous person must submit 35 per cent more applications, a Chinese person must submit 68 per cent more applications, an Italian person must submit 12 per cent more applications, and a Middle Eastern person 64 per cent more applications.
Within Australian society, I doubt that there has ever been a poll asking people about how racist they consider themselves – whether overtly racist; or racist within social circles (i.e. making “insider” jokes and snide comments but never expressing those views to others directly or indirectly such as online); or somewhat aware that unconscious biases affect their attitudes, behaviours and decisions; or not at all racist or biased against anybody from another ethnicity.
Now that the reader has likely responded in their own mind on how they might have answered in this hypothetical survey, I am going to challenge that response with personal anecdotes.
My wife and I had two close friends, in different social circles, who were unattached and we thought it might be nice to arrange for them to meet casually. I approached my friend to discretely learn whether there was any interest, only informing them that the person is a great person and is Asian-Australian. Quickly my friend responded that they were not attracted to that “type” of person, and given the only other information they knew was they are friends with us also, it was clear it was because they were of Asian ancestry.
I am guessing that some readers will immediately consider that there likely was some other reason.
It has certainly been my experience that when I do raise the issue of racism and about racist actions displayed, including by somebody other than whom I am speaking with, the initial reaction very often is to deny that the actions were racist or biased.
So let me introduce a “sub-anecdote” where it was more explicit – not all that long ago a friend/acquaintance of my wife actually said to her “I’m not into Asians” when talking about meeting up with women from Apps.
So here is the simple question – can you imagine yourself developing feelings for and/or being attracted to somebody from any ethnic background?
If you cannot answer yes to yourself truthfully, then I suggest that you need to seriously and honestly look at why that is and consider that in the context of how you answered the initial question.
The other anecdote is something that was said to my wife several times as a young adult by friends in Australia. When the issue of her own differences have arisen in discussion, the friends, no doubt trying to express their affection for and connection with her, have said that they do not consider her black or Asian.
Now this statement is a real double-edged sword to somebody from a minority struggling to fit in. On the one hand it says that they are accepted. On the other it says that they have been accepted in the context in which the friend chooses to see them and not as they truly are.
Most people from minorities in Australia will recognise this type of sentiment and that it comes with significant pressure to assimilate or conform to societal views on what it is to be “Australian”.
Now it is true that some may have clumsily attempted to express that all that matters is that my wife is a good person, and that her appearance which confirms her ethnicity is no more significant than her hair colour or height (or lack of it!)
Equally, it is worth pondering how the friend might have responded to, “that’s great because I don’t consider you white or Australian”, and whether that might have offended them or given them pause to consider whether that statement was racist or biased.
There are two things that I know with certainty: we as a nation and as individuals can not hold ourselves to account for our racist beliefs and actions if we are not honest with ourselves, and we can not eliminate racism if we do not lose our political correctness around calling out racism when we see or experience it.
Finally, if the reader is wondering whether I consider my own extended family members who support Pauline Hanson to be racist, you better believe I do, along with others who were “politically correct” enough to not confrontingly tell me of their support for her and for what she stood. I do have to admit, though, that until now I was too politically correct to say so…
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© Copyright Brett Edgerton 2021