With the possible exception of members of overt White Supremacist groups it is rare to find anyone who proudly, or even reluctantly, admits they are racist or have committed an act of racism.
Andrew Bolt, according to himself, was actually defending ‘real Aborigines’ when he racially vilified a group of Indigenous people.
Tony Abbott believed himself to be the most not racist Prime Minister in Australia’s history, so much so that he declared himself the Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs. This was despite making countless racist and inflammatory comments about Aboriginal peoples and cultures.
And just as Bill Leak has defended himself against claims of racism for his latest racist cartoon, I’m sure he has similar arguments explaining how his racist cartoons against Aboriginal people were actually sticking up for Aboriginal people, despite the obvious denigration of culture with captions like ‘Rape’s out, bashing’s out – this could set our culture back by 2000 years!”. This, I’m sure he would argue, he felt was necessary to highlight the harsh realities of violence and abuse… or how his audience agree that it’s not racist, or how Free Speech would be dead if he didn’t publish it.
Many people have long pointed out the distinction between intent and interpretation in identifying racism, as well as discussing an awareness of relying on racial stereotypes, including dehumanising depictions, within ‘comedy’, but apparently Bill Leak considers himself to be above these considerations due to his own evaluations of his motivations. Never mind that many people who are the subjects by his cartoons consider them to be racist, ‘they just don’t get the joke’. They also apparently don’t understand that he was actually sticking up for them.
These arguments rarely acknowledge the thoughts and opinions of the subjects of racism, but try to frame it, as Senator David Leyjonhelm did on Twitter, as being about which camp of white people are the ‘good guys’ and which ones are the ‘real racists’. The Senator stated that Bill Leak’s cartoon was “so appropriate” and then chastised the “wealthy elites” who “care nothing for the poor and their access to affordable energy”.
This is how white Australia is most comfortable with the discussion of racism, as a debate between white people about which camp are the ‘real racists’. We see it in every public debate in which racism plays a factor, from Indigenous Affairs, to refugees, to Islam. Truth be told there are usually strong elements of racism on both sides of the debate (some stronger than others of course), and often neither group has a firm understanding of what does and what does not constitute racism. Both groups look to any non-white person they can find to back up their argument, and work to reassure themselves and their supporters of how caring they are, and that the other camp are the cause of all evil in the world.
Much of this is played out in the public eye, and is treated at the emotional and intellectual of a high school debate, up to and including the all too regular inclusion of using dictionary definitions as the cornerstone of one’s argument. (A recent article I wrote on this site shows that dictionaries do not have the greatest understanding of what does and what does not constitute racism).
Other common arguments include ‘This is political correctness gone mad’; ‘but I didn’t intend it to be racist so it isn’t”, ‘here’s a non-white person who says that it is or isn’t racist, so nerr’; ‘you’re racist for calling me racist’; and my own personal favourite ‘because Free Speech’. The last one is particularly amusing as it rare to hear any media outlet refer to Free Speech for anything other than a defence of racism, as though that is its sole function. It also ignores societal norms and standards, and internal editorial processes. This is why, despite such a strong commitment to Free Speech, you rarely see swearing, racial slurs, critical commentary on whiteness, or any other number of topics; because they don’t adhere to what White Australia is comfortable with, or what the owners of these bastions of Free Speech dictate.
As public conversations on specific acts of racism are reduced to morality pissing contests between ‘left’ and ‘right’ it is understandable to see people rally the troops and prepare for battle rather than have honest and open discussions and reflections, show humility and humanity, offer real apologises instead of fauxpologies, or demonstrate any empathy for the perspective of those who experience racism and are adversely impacted by it.
In this space, no one really exists other than white people within the left and the right, and everyone else just become shields or ammunition. We are the cannon fodder of Australian politics – useful only for feel good photo ops or political scapegoats, our issues are measured on their ability to help score points against the other side and/or score brownie points by stirring emotions of pity or hatred as the situation dictates, sometimes both at the same time.
White Australia is far more concerned about being called racist than it is about actually being racist. Far more interested in being able to claim the moral high ground of being able to call other people racist than about reducing the racism that exists on institutional and personal levels.
Acts of racism, and those affected by them, are treated as pawns in this endless game of ‘I’m not racist, you are!’ that is played among white people while racism itself continues unfettered.
We need to look beyond the hype around individual acts of racist cartoons and articles and see the systemic impacts of racism within media. This is reflected not just in the content, but in the hiring practices of organisations, in their Style Guides, in the education of journalists in schools and at universities, and in the influences placed on media from government and from their audiences.
That said, Bill Leak’s cartoons are still very racist… but so are a lot of articles in the Australian, so are a lot of articles in a lot of other papers, and so is the lack of diversity in many newsrooms.
So, if the conversation about Mr Leak doesn’t lead to a reflection of those other issues then we will just get angry for a few days, media orgs will use it get more hits and sell more papers, and then we will start it up again next time someone publishes something racist, and presumably not get any close to actually addressing racism in our media, or in our country.
Luke Pearson is a Gamilaroi man, and is the founder and CEO of IndigenousX.