• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

Racism no longer an objective act of oppression but an inherently subjective accusation

Hold up your hands if you are a racist! It is unlikely that many of you would comply, since relatively few of us define ourselves as a racist. A century ago the response to the command would have been very different.

During the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century many prominent individuals boasted about the superiority of the white race. The idea that some races were superior to others was rarely contested. The sense of racial superiority was so powerful that it served as a source of pride throughout Western societies.

Life used to be relatively straightforward when people had no inhibitions about openly and confidently affirming their racial pride. Today, the self-professed racist has been consigned to the margins of public life. Even the “I am not a racist, but ... ” character rejects the charge of racism. Paradoxically, the sharp decline in the advocacy of race pride is paralleled by a massive increase in public accusations of racism.

The absence of any public endorsement for a racist world-view means that accusations of racism are less about what people actually said or did than about their motives. Debates about racism often take the form of a mind game designed to establish whether or not a particular word or act is racially motivated.

Because motives are notoriously difficult to define, the Australian public may never know for sure whether Coalition spokeswoman for citizenship Teresa Gambaro’s recent advice to migrants to wear deodorant was racially motivated. Similarly, how can we judge whether Tasmanian MP Andrew Wilkie’s condemnation of the “racism that eats at the Liberal Party” expressed a profound insight into the psyche of this party or the juvenile behaviour of a playground politician?

To charge someone with racism is a risk-free enterprise. Since motives are complex and difficult to interpret it is simply impossible to prove that an accusation of racism is erroneous.

The meaning of racism has been subtly transformed into a psychological problem. The redefinition of racism from an act of conscious oppression to a problem of the mind was boosted by the former British High Court Judgente William Macpherson’s 1999 report on institutional racism.

In his definition of institutional racism, Macpherson declared that it “can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racial stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people”. The key word here is “unwitting”: an unconscious response driven by unspecific emotions. The idea that people could be racists unwittingly means that literally anyone could be a racist whether they knew it or not.

In Australia, the concept of unwitting racism has served to expand the potential targets for accusation. Take Tasmania’s Department of Education report “Without Prejudice. Guidelines For Inclusive Language”. After explaining that words are often used to “portray certain groups as inferior or superior to others”, it adds that “sometimes this usage is unwitting and stems from the continued dominance of mainstream culture”.

If racism can be unwitting, who decides whether or not an individual is guilty as charged. Typically, the answer is that it is the accuser. The complexity of psychological motivation was resolved by Macpherson in the following terms: “a racist incident is any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person”.

So what counts is not the act, but how it is perceived. The principle that an offence is in the eyes of the beholder lends the charge of racism a highly subjective character. Such subjective standard of proof lends the accusation of racism automatic credibility. That is why authors of poor arguments frequently seek to clinch their case by indicating that “by the way, he is also a racist”. When Climate Change Minister Greg Combet charged Opposition Leader Tony Abbott with having a racist climate change policy, he showed that he had read his Macpherson.

The charge of racism now provides a resource for discrediting an opponent. So when West Australian Police Commissioner Karl O’Callaghan released crime statistics that showed high levels of involvement by Aboriginal youths he was accused by the head of the Aboriginal Legal Service of inciting racial hatred. Since the making of such accusations carries such little risk, it is likely they will flourish in the years ahead.

There was a time when racism was expressed through the language and acts of racial superiority. Racism expressed the dehumanisation of those deemed inferior. It led to systematic discrimination and oppression and denied people’s basic democratic rights.

The restriction of non-white immigration to Australia - which ended only in the 1970s - was a clear example of racial discrimination. In contrast to former times, racist attitudes and behaviour today voices the resentments of those who fear that Australia has left them behind. Racism no longer speaks the confident language of superiority, but expresses the silent anxiety of those who are lost.

So why is it that at a time when cultural affirmation for racism is at an all-time low the federal government has sought to devote resources to organise a national campaign against it?

Why have Race Discrimination Commissioner Helen Szoke and the Australian Human Rights Commission been charged with developing and implementing a comprehensive anti-racism strategy for Australia? It appears that politicians and opinion leaders feel far more comfortable with promoting anti-racist multiculturalism than with addressing the question of what it means to be Australian.

The institutionalisation of anti-racism and its transformation into a culturally sanctioned etiquette is not simply a harmless exercise in impression management. The promotion of the idea that racism is prevalent and that its unwitting variant is even more widespread has the effect of racialising everyday life. It prompts people to interpret each other’s behaviour and language through the prism of race. Racialisation breeds an intense sensitivity towards cultural difference and inevitably fuels mistrust and suspicion.

The unintended accomplishment of the anti-racist industry is to make it difficult for people from different ethnic backgrounds to trust one another.

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