Racism and how to lose friends

By Si Qi Wen | 27 Oct 14

Our friendship started in the autumn, in a lonely log cabin in the mountains. In the winter, on the anniversary of his father’s passing, I was there. By the summer our friendship had blossomed and what drew us together was that our political views were diametrically opposed.

By next August, large cracks appeared in our friendship. The thrill that we derived from trying to understand our Otherness, grew worn and tired. One night over a Persian burek, our friendship ended. Weary of tiptoeing around each other’s ideas, he decided to open Pandora’s box. He said that Islam breeds extremism, because it is backward, intolerant, expansionist and insular. All religions have the capacity to breed extremism but none more so than Islam. This insularity oppresses the need and desire for “them” (Muslims) to integrate into our society.

I was angered by his comments, and like the bull that saw a red flag, I charged. Both of us meted out our well-rehearsed arguments. It was like watching two Siamese fighting fish, belligerently fanning our tails in two little bowls, worlds apart. As our dinners got cold, our positions became more entrenched.

In my frustration, I denounced him a racist and walked away.

Racism as a moral issue

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind”. Sitting dumbfounded at having lost a friend, I could not help but ask: are good intentions enough when actions fail?

To borrow from Macbeth, is this a case of “Fair is foul, and foul is fair; Hover through the fog and filthy air?” The shadow of ISIL grows long and in the haze of fear it is easy to forget the real target: terrorists who commit indescribable acts of horror against defenceless people. In this fog of uncertainty, law abiding Australian Muslims have become the unwitting casualties of a war that has not yet truly begun.

We live in complex and troubling times, but the antidote to racism is not simple. We cannot fight racism with intolerance. Race Discrimination Commissioner Dr Tim Soutphommasane has argued that despite the protestations of the Left that racism is a structural issue, and the Right who would rather that we do not use the word racist at all, racism remains a moral issue. This is because “[w]e are interested here not only in what is the right thing to do – but also how it is that we can come to do the right thing”.

“The racism which is hardest to confront is the racism of persons we hold dear.

For how can an unrepentant racist be a good person?”

In confronting racism, what does it mean to do the right thing? In Moral Understandings: A Feminist View of Ethics, Margaret Urban Walker argues that empathy is in itself a moral practice as it requires us to exercise our “human capacities for self-awareness and awareness of others”. She rejects the traditional view of morality as a “compact, propositionally codifiable, impersonally action-guiding code” that offers a “template and interpretive grid for moral inquiry”. The weakness with a hermeneutic approach to moral inquiry which is guided by empathy, is that it runs the risk of empathising with beliefs that are wrong.

Moral limits of empathy when used to justify of racism

The mantra of modernity is a message of love, an omnipotent love that will triumph over all. In walking away from that friendship, I acted out of anger. In labelling him a racist, I committed a strawman fallacy. The racism which is hardest to confront is the racism of persons we hold dear. For how can an unrepentant racist be a good person?

The problem lies in thinking that the two concepts are incompatible. As Gene Denby has observed, it is difficult to have a nuanced debate once the word “racism” is thrown into the equation, for “[w]e argue about the composition of the accused’s soul and the fundamental goodness or badness therein. But those are things we can’t possibly know. And as we litigate that to question, other more meaningful questions become obscured.”

This is a valuable lesson in thinking about racism. It is not to say that we cannot or should not use the word “racist”. Rather, we should not be thinking of moral concepts in dichotomies: Team Australia versus Team Other, anti-racists versus racists. Absolutism begets intolerance and in doing so, we narrow our field of vision and capacity to understand racism in its unannounced banality. We cannot deride racism using the same myopic vision as racism itself.  I should not have cast aside a friend in the way that I did.

The beginning of a friendship

As a child, one of my favourite stories is Aesop’s tale of the frog and the scorpion. Unable to swim, a scorpion asks a frog to carry him across a river. The frog asks, “How do I know you won’t sting me?” The scorpion, replies, “If I do, we will both die”. Midstream, the scorpion stings the frog and in his dying breath, the frog asks, “Why?” The scorpion replies “It is my nature”.

The futility of deeply entrenched racism is reflected in this allegory. My regret is that our friendship had to come to this. When we first met, I said my name was a palindrome. He said that if he could guess my name correctly that this was a sign from the heavens that we were meant to be friends. He did not guess my name correctly. And our friendship never proceeded down the path of long-life friends.

Si Qi Wen is a project officer at the Victorian Law Reform Commission. She was previously the associate to the former Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Graeme Innes AM, at the Australian Human Rights Commission.