Research shows that “full time racists” (defined as people who express a belief in the superiority of one race over another) comprise 10 per cent of the total population. The statistic that 1 in 10 Australians are openly racist is extremely concerning, but events of recent months have reinforced my belief that casual racism by pockets of the remaining 90 per cent of Australians should be our primary concern.
Racism isn’t always violent – nor does it need to be motivated by hatred or fear. The type of racism most Australians are familiar with (and would possibly be responsible for committing) is casual racism. These so-called racist part-timers aren’t about to get a swastika tattooed on their forehead or vandalise a Mosque, but there is a high probability they would tell a racist joke at a family barbeque because they think it’s a bit of “harmless fun”.
If we’re being honest, we all know someone like that. A friend, colleague or family member who engages in jokes or comments that denigrate another person because of their race. But at the same time, that person would never recognise their behaviour as racist. What is so worrying about casual racism in Australia is that it’s perpetrated by ordinary people: mums and dads, teachers and doctors, workers and students. And the unifying factor of this behaviour is that they all share a genuine belief that their actions are neither racist nor harmful.
This widespread cognitive dissonance between casual racism and being racist is highlighted in the recent groundswell of vitriolic abuse targeted at Indigenous AFL player and Australian of the Year Adam Goodes.
The majority of Australians are not genuinely bad-hearted people. They would not maliciously and deliberately malign a proud Indigenous Australian for the colour of his skin. But some of these same Australians continued to boo and verbally abuse Goodes, despite being aware their actions had taken on racist connotations and were actively hurting others.
The most common argument in their defence is that they weren’t being racist but rather participating in the spirit of the game, targeting Goodes for his character not his race. These defences fall very flat and are revealing of the general tolerance towards casual racism that persists in the psyche of mainstream Australia.
Part of why casually racist attitudes are so prevalent is the lack of basic understanding of what racism is, combined with a failure to appreciate the negative effect racism can have on individuals, communities and society.
An illustration of this is the argument that Goodes should not have been upset about being called an ape because redheads regularly get called ranga’s (abbreviation of Orangutan) and don’t claim racism. The immediate response would be that redheads are not a race, nationality or ethnic grouping. But the core contention here is a perceived discrepancy: anyone can insult white people about their appearance, but that doing the same to an Indigenous person is considered racist.
A useful starting point in unpacking this issue is a definition of racism. In Australia, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (1998) defines racism as:
an ideology that gives expression to myths about other racial and ethnic groups, that devalues and renders inferior those groups, that reflects and is perpetuated by deeply rooted historical, social, cultural and power inequalities in society.
To continue with the earlier example, redheads are not a disenfranchised group. Indigenous people, on the other hand, have a documented and extensive history of being on the receiving end of efforts to dehumanise and subjugate them, including through ridicule and abuse that compare them to animals of all varieties, such as apes.
As the definition above outlines, racism does not exist in a vacuum. It is given meaning and power through the society in which it operates. In the same way that swear words are considered rude and offensive because of their social and historical context, so too are certain racially-charged terms when applied to particular groups.
It would be naive to believe our words do not have far-reaching effects beyond the initial setting in which they are spoken. Even what many see as innocuous casually racist comments can play their part in exacerbating the gap in education, literacy and health standards between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane gives advice to challenge those who engage in casual racism. He notes it’s not an easy task to hold a mirror up to someone’s behaviour, but ultimately social progress isn’t meant to be easy.
So treat society like our backyard, where racism is a weed. To remove some of the larger, more established weeds such as violent race-hate crimes, we may need professional expertise and far-reaching legislation. But it is within the ability – and should be the responsibility – of everyone to pluck the smaller weeds of casual racism before they have a chance to take root or spread. Because if we don’t, we’ll find very soon that weeds have overgrown us.
Thomas Alomes is a freelance legal researcher based in Melbourne. Thomas has undertaken several volunteer roles working with Indigenous Australians, in both urban and remote Australia. He tweets @ThomasAlomes.
Feature image: Adam Goodes/Articulous Communications