In the race to get along, you’ve got to take a stand
Four beers into the barbeque and the host is waxing lyrical. He launches into to a joke about a certain ethnic group and their driving ability. It’s vaguely amusing and there is no one around from said group to offend.
He gathers up some steam, he’s run out of punch-lines but starts making his views known on the cleanliness and dress habits of another demographic. There is a surly edge to the comments but again, everyone who is listening falls outside the group he is mouthing off at.
Next day at work you see him chipping away at the Indian colleague in the staffroom, nothing too threatening, just some cajoling that could be dismissed as harmless banter until you see the look on the guy’s face. So here’s the challenge: At what point has your mate crossed the R-line?
Racism is without doubt the burning issue this week, with the premiere of ABC2’s provocative and controversial series Dumb, Drunk and Racist tonight. The show and the outrage it has caused on both sides have dominated TV current affairs shows and lit up talkback radio switchboards.
So what actually is racism? And if you come across it, what should you do?
Over the past few months, I have been watching people talk about their attitudes to racism, specifically whites living in suburbs close to large ethnic populations. Places like the south-west of Sydney and Melbourne’s north.
This hasn’t been casual eavesdropping. I’m paid to run focus groups, where punters are invited to sit around a table, eat pizza and tell it like they see it.
My challenge was to get a handle on how “bystanders” respond to racism - not people who have racist attitudes, but those of us who see ourselves as tolerant and supportive of a diverse society. In other words, the bulk of the Australian population.
Talk about migration and the starting point for most Australians is that diversity is a good thing. It starts with food but it seeps into the idea of richer cultural life for everyone.
Beyond the local takeaway, we don’t see race as being part of day to day life; it’s no big deal. But without even thinking we will describe our neighbourhoods as being made of “Aussies” and others - a sign that under the surface we are not as colour-blind as it may seem.
Muslims want to ban Christmas. Everyone seems to have hear about it and it unleashes strong views about the impact new arrivals are having on our culture. In this context, if they want to stop us celebrating our customs, then its clear things break both ways. (The fact that only people who seem to be promoting the idea of banning Christmas run alternative Montesori schools with a Muslim population of zero, is an inconvenient truth we won’t go into here.)
Likewise, when we see groups of ethnic people speaking among themselves in a language other than English we see it as intrusive and imposing. “They could be talking about us,” is a common refrain.
In all these little ways there is a sense of suspicion about things we don’t quite understand. Not a hostility, more a tightening of our collective neck muscles as we work out where we stand with these people who seem different to us.
Where we have personal dealings with people from different backgrounds we are overwhelmingly positive, we joke with our diverse workmates and we see the ability to crack jokes about each other as a sign of our cohesiveness rather than our difference. But we also acknowledge there’s an R-line that exists where things stop being funny and someone is starting to feel demeaned or threatened or something worse.
The tough thing when you are in the majority is knowing when that line has been crossed - you can’t know what someone else is thinking, let alone feeling. And when we do see that line being crossed, it’s hard to know what to do.
Most people in our groups like to think that they would step in when they thought someone they knew was being harassed by words or inappropriate jokes. But a bigger problem emerges: We just don’t quite know what to say. Do we jump into a situation at work or on the street and inflame it, or make ourselves a target? Or do we pull the loudmouth aside for a quiet word and risk being called PC or worse?
It’s as if we have good intentions to step up but lack the tools to deal with the issue. And instead we sit back in silence, a little unsettled and embarrassed, and the person dishing out the unkind words takes it as approval.
Watching these groups got me thinking about the Cronulla riots in a way that I don’t think has had an airing before. What if the people involved never intended things to go that far? What if it was a case of a few loudmouths who took other people’s silence as support? What if no one knew how to step in and defuse the situation?
A few young women from the Shire participated in the groups. They were horrified and confused about their image, embodied in the statement: “It’s racist to think everyone from the Shire is a racist.”
On one level they are probably right but they are missing something: Those in the majority, by definition, don’t have to worry about being singled out and diminished.
Most Australians would hate to consider themselves racists. Most of us have friends, neighbours and workmates from different backgrounds. Yet in many ways we still send out the sign that we are the owners of an exclusive club: We will let you in if you behave yourselves, but that means acting on our terms and if you don’t we can always show you the door.
The only thing we have to fear from naming “racism” where we see it and being prepared to speak up when we confront it, is a society where everyone feels better about themselves.
As one participant in the groups said on the way out: “It’s about looking at the world from someone else’s shoes and making sure you would be happy with how things are if you were there.”
And who wouldn’t want to live in a society like that.
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