The Politics of Naming Racism

In Australia, we seem to do a fine job of evading conversations on racism. John Howard put on a brilliant performance for the cameras in 2005 when he declared that the ‘Cronulla Riots’ were not race based attacks. And, of course, denial makes something true, so stop the madness!

No wait, Howard wanted to stop the boats, Mia Freedman wants to stop the madness.

As the story goes The Voice judge, Delta Goodrem, retweeted a photo of four young men pretending to be the four celebrity judges on the talent show The Voice. As part of the charade one of the young men had his face painted black, pretending to be Seal. Delta retweeted the photo with a caption that said (amongst other things) ‘Hilarious’. I understand that she has since deleted the tweet and apologized for causing offence but not before a number of people (Fear of a Brown Planet’s Aamer Rahman and Nazeem Hussain amongst them) pulled her up on her inappropriate comment.

Additionally there have been numerous cries pertaining to Delta’s innocence on the matter. She was ‘unintentionally racist’ we’re told.

Mia Freedman decided to weigh in on the debate by asking everyone to stop the Delta-is-racist ‘madness’ and calling comedian Aamer Rahman, The Boy Who Cried Racism. She went on to ascertain that those who were offended by it were ‘batshit crazy’.

I’m not equating Freedman’s response to the Delta saga to that of Howard at the time of Cronulla, but I am pointing to a trend of White Australians telling people (who are clearly offended) when and how something should be labeled ‘racist’.

I’ve alluded to my childhood on a number of occasions on this blog. I have very fond memories of my childhood, but often the things I experience as an adult allow me to make sense of the things I was so confused about as a little girl. For example, I can still clearly recount the first time I encountered overt racism at the age of 6 or 7 – an instance not experienced but observed – and what a sad moment that was.

It’s hard to describe how you feel when you’re being treated differently based on arbitrary differences- skin colour, eye colour, what you wear, what you don’t- things that actually have little bearing on how decent a human being you really are. But I can tell you that as a child bearing witness to the downright disrespect experienced by your mother or grandmother because of those arbitrary differences is heartbreaking.

There’s nothing you can do to alleviate the humiliation that comes with overt discrimination. And when that discrimination is subtle, or implied, the frustration lies in naming it. Only once it’s named can you deal with the implications of discrimination. Denying that something is racist because someone who was never intended to be on the receiving end of the racism anyhow (as in the case of both Howard and Freedman) does not allow those feelings of frustrations or hurt or humiliation to be dealt with.

And so I’m reminded of an occurrence from my adolescence this time.

Back when year 12 muck up photos were all the rage (do they still have those?) we were encouraged (by our peers) to put some serious thought into them. After some thoughtful deliberation my friend Shivon and I went as Men in Black and we even had a purple blow up alien to accompany our suave black suits and black shades (I’m proud of our former selves on so many levels for this choice of attire). Another boy in my grade, being of Palestinian descent, wore a Palestinian Keffiyah, which, if you’re unfamiliar with what that is, looks like this;


You’ll notice it’s become quite the fashion statement recently, but despite its hipster commodification, it still has cultural significance.

Another student went as an Aboriginal Australian- not any particular Aboriginal Australian just an Aboriginal Australian- painting every visible part of his body in black paint. And like this we all posed for the photo.

As the photographer stood before us he noticed the boy wearing the Keffiyah around his neck and covering his face, everything but his eyes- the way many Arabs wear it to be protected from sandstorms. The photographer refused to continue photographing until the boy removed the Keffiyah. His reasoning was that his form of dress was offensive.

To whom exactly was it offensive?

Apparently the photographer himself, and more broadly, ‘us’.‘Us’ as Australians, ‘us’ as Westerners. To the photographer and to the teachers at the scene, the Keffiyah was a symbol of terrorism.

Without going into semiotics in any real depth, the Keffiyah (amongst other signs) has come to signify, and can now be used as short hand for, terrorism. An idea repeatedly perpetuated through popular culture.

The student in the Keffiyah lost his battle (momentarily) and was ordered to step out of the photograph after he repeatedly refused to remove it.

A teacher explained to me after the incident that if he’d been wearing a plain scarf, like mine (how they are similar is not really clear to me but that’s a conversation for another time), it wouldn’t have been such a big issue. Well isn’t that comforting?

But what of the young man in Blackface? What of the man who consciously decided not to wear something that symbolized his own culture, but to emulate someone, in this case, anyone, from an Aboriginal culture?

Nobody blinked, nobody stumbled, nobody thought hey maybe this is wrong? Maybe THIS is offensive. Why? Because there weren’t any Aboriginal people in our grade (that we knew of) and very few (I can only think of one) at our school.

Because dressing up in Black Face is not offensive to ‘us’. It’s offensive to ‘them’ and they’re not around so to hell with respect and basic human decency.

But to be offended by the wearing of a Keffiyah by a man of Palestinian heritage because we are misinformed enough to see it as a symbol of terrorism (against ‘us’), rather than as a piece of cultural dress, well that’s fine because it affects us. And does the world not revolve around the thoughts, feelings and experiences of White Australians?

The history of Blackface comes from a refusal to use actual people of colour in popular culture and instead asking those with white skin to play these roles, which often served to humiliate and belittle African Americans (at least initially before it spread to the UK and elsewhere). See here for a brief history of Blackface in Australia. So in essence it’s a way of talking about African Americans (or Aboriginal Australians) and perpetuating stereotypes about African American culture without having to engage with African Americans.

Now the argument Freedman cites is that these young men didn’t mean that at all, they were just having a laugh. Would you dress up as a soldier in Nazi Germany for a laugh and tweet it to your followers, followed by ‘Hilarious!’ No. Why? Because we are familiar with the history of the holocaust. What we are NOT familiar with, is how Blackface was used for over 100 years to reproduce inaccurate ideas about African American cultures.

And why don’t we know this? Because we’ve never thought it important to learn. Because histories that don’t affect ‘us’ aren’t given as much weight.

While nobody can deny that we’re all entitled to our own opinions on the issue (any issue really), those who are at the top of the social hierarchy do NOT have the right to dictate what it is that minority or historically marginalised communities should or should not find offensive. More importantly they cannot continue to place themselves at the centre of the race debate assuming that they are the only ones ‘objective’ enough to mediate such a sensitive topic.

Being called up on racism is not an invitation to offer a defense- it is a chance to apologise and a massive wakeup call to your own ignorance, a chance to learn, not a call to reproduce a dismissive mentality- one we already have plenty of.