Po-Tien Goh

Racism: The word we can’t wrap our minds around

In this country, we have a problem with racism. To be precise, we fear the word more than we do the act itself.  

 

 

Australia has always had a problem with the “r” word. I first encountered this when I confided in a primary school friend that a group of bullies was calling me names like Ching Chong, spitting at my feet or prank calling my house and speaking in a “Chinese” accent. I said they were being “racist”. My friend responded that she believed “people who call other people racists are the ‘real’ racists”.

I didn’t talk to her about the bullying again.

This was in the era before John Howard’s “political correctness”, where Pauline Hanson’s maiden speech about being swamped by Asians was yet to be formed. But there it was, this reluctance, this refusal to label anything racist. The fear of the word was worse than the actual act of racism itself.

Australia has a history of racism—our history of engagement with First Nations, our genocide, our killing fields, refusal to admit the past, our historical amnesia and our continued denial of systemic abuse and segregation that persists to this day.

Like all trauma, it needs truth to heal. Yet our social refusal to use it borders on the fanatical.

The defence of “political correctness” is invoked. You can label an entire group of people and it shall never be defined as racist. Perhaps “controversial” or “divisive” but it’s been the mandate of traditional mainstream media to avoid the “r” word at all costs.

Labelling an entire group of people as evil, lazy, stupid or gangs is literally the definition of racism, but we barely condemn it.

Instead, actual card-carrying racists are invited onto morning shows. Profiles of them are broadcast on evening television. Neo-Nazis like Blaire Cottrell get a positive PR spin as a righteous concerned citizen. No critical questions. Hanson gets paid to be on a morning show, to comment on the Paris attacks, as if there aren’t better-informed experts to deal with the situation. Alan Jones gets to say the “n” word on national radio, but god forbid we use the “r” word to actually identify that behaviour.

Neo-Nazi salutes at St Kilda are “free speech”. And when Yumi Stynes told Kerri Anne “you’re sounding a bit racist” her words were booed by the audience.

In our media landscape, it is a worse social offence to call out a bigoted view than to actually have a bigoted view.

And as recently as last Sunday, 60 Minutes did a segment on Hanson and Latham, pitching them as the quirky odd couple, to sync in with Channel Nine’s Married at First Sight’s popularity spike. The ads show Liz Hayes amiably bantering with Hanson and Latham about their “honeymoon” period. Oh lol, look at these 2, aren’t they cute? These aren’t bigots or racists, they are affable knock-abouts, can’t wait to see what their combined forces can do for One Nation and Australia.

An aunt…a friend’s friend…a colleague…they’re good people who love their dogs and parents, and partner and kids, but that social conditioning, that normalising of bigotry, of repeating the lie over and over, can be there.

This is how our mainstream media treat those with racist views, those with bigoted mandates, the toxic bullies. They give them air time. They give them a large public relations segment that any charity, brand or cause would pay through the nose for.

We normalise bigotry.

We teach our kids that bullying is wrong, but on TV, we exalt them, we give them unquestioning fame.

We criticise Trump, but we have tiki torches burning in our own backyard.

I went to Harlem last year. The United States is more robust with its ability to use the “r” word. There is no hiding. They have nothing to lose with Black Lives Matter and the constant horror of mass shootings. And unlike Australia, they have also had to suffer an organisation dedicated to racism. They have the KKK. Australia did not. We had randomly organised genocides of indigenous people, which we are just beginning to acknowledge, but there was no group to pin these acts on. Just the random packs of men who decided one day, to wipe out men, women and children. So it was easy to deny any historical racism.

There is no such façade in the US. The KKK, as vile as it is, clearly defines racism, hate speech and white supremacy. There is no “political correctness” to hide behind, there is no “free speech” to defend. For all that it is, it allows Americans, and the world, to label it clearly as a hate group, with racist views. They get to use the “r” word, no questions asked.

In Australia, our past has had the luxury to languish in the narrative of colonial troubles, of trying to make ends meet, with no mention of First People’s rebellion, genocide or massacres mired in racism like Lambing Flats.

We abhor the use of the “r” word even if it is apt.

With Christchurch, a new awareness has been born.  I think I heard the “r” word used more times on mainstream television in one night than in a decade. It’s being used.

The fact that ScoMo actually called it a “terrorist” attack brought palpable relief.

The fact that terrorist called himself a “racist” takes away the burden of proving it.

People of colour have always had the burden of proof when it comes to racial attacks. I’ve had so many encounters wherein explaining what’s happened, the responses have been, “are you sure he/she meant it that way?”, “were they joking? They must have been joking”, “oh you’re being too sensitive, it was a joke, they didn’t mean it”, “you should just toughen up, there are going to be people out there that don’t like you”, “Well, you are Asian, they just think you’re one of those Asians”, “oh, it’s just x, you know what they’re like”, “oh, they’ve just had a couple of drinks, they didn’t mean it, they’ll apologise tomorrow”.

The media has a lot to answer for, and I hope that there will be a lot of uncomfortable seats in production boxes in Australia. Sanctioning hate speech has resulted in Christchurch. But it has to start with us.

If you were paying attention to International Women’s Day, you know these responses. If you’ve had a sexist, homophobic, transphobic comment, been a survivor of sexual assault or any type of bullying, you know these responses. It’s the same response.

Harlem educated me on another level of racism. When I told people I was going to stay in Harlem, many were shocked or dubious. They asked if it was safe. I explained that it was, and had been for years. Harlem’s reputation based on race and class is entrenched for many Australians (and Americans, I suspect). To them, it was a gangland, and there was a chance I was going to get mugged and shot. They didn’t even know where they got this idea from, it was just there, present in their world view. Maybe movies, maybe decades of fear, who knows.

As a slight East Asian woman, I’ve travelled to places where I don’t blend in—India, Europe, or non-English speaking—and I stick out. Visually and culturally. This was the same in Harlem. I stuck out. And this is normal for me in most places I travel. I’m okay with that.

But this time, I was aware of fear for the first few days I was there. A fear that was irrational. A fear that was part of social conditioning—insidious and taught. This low-level hum of anxiety that made no sense to me intellectually. I was in a beautiful green neighbourhood with wide open avenues—as wide and as open as the affluent Park Avenue, which joins north, all the way into Harlem. It’s essentially the same road.

I was cognitively aware that I had nothing to fear, but here was this bigoted thought—I’m surrounded by blacks, so of course, I’m going to be robbed. It was an irrational fear borne of bigotry, and I was incensed. This is what social conditioning does. Repeat a lie over and over and over, and you start to believe it. There’s no escaping it. You just have to be aware of it.

After the first day of catching myself, I continued to do what I normally would wherever I travelled. I walked to get my bearings. I walked to buy groceries. I walked between 125th Street and 148th. I walked to Marcus Garvey Park and ate lunch watching the old grandpa chess players and kids in the basketball court.

I walked to the Schomburg Centre and watched a movie about Blaxploitation at the Black Power exhibition. And for the rest of my stay, I was joined by my sister and my white bestie from Queensland (and yes, she stood out, too).

We went to a free play in the park at night, a dance party at the Schomburg and another at the Harlem Studio Museum, talent night at the Apollo theatre. Not once were we threatened, given side eye or intimidated. In fact, we were welcomed. Most people are good people. Everyone wants to be on the side of good. Everyone loves, wants shelter, security, safety. No one wakes up one day and thinks, “I want to be a racist.”


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But here’s the thing, “good” people can have bigoted views. Racism is taught. Harlem showed me that I am not immune.

And neither are the people around us. An aunt can say some nasty things about LGBTQ people. A friend’s friend can say some awful things about women. A colleague can hate on a race. They’re good people who love their dogs and parents, and partner and kids, but that social conditioning, that normalising of bigotry, of repeating the lie over and over, can be there.

Now I’m not saying don’t have free speech. A young jobless man in a rural town with dying industry should absolutely be able to vocalise his fears and worries to his politicians and leaders. The world is changing, and it’s human to fear change. And these questions can be clumsy and angry, but they are valid human questions. We need to hear them. It’s how we answer that matters. We need to engage with compassion and empathy, to allow these questions to be asked and then answer with intelligence. “Immigrants took your jobs” isn’t a real answer, it’s a racist tagline and a good journalist should know this.

The media has a lot to answer for, and I hope that there will be a lot of uncomfortable seats in production boxes in Australia. Sanctioning hate speech has resulted in Christchurch. But it has to start with us.

With my white friends calling things out for what they are. With white gay men challenging their friend or a profile on a dating app when they see something derogatory about Indigenous Australians or Asians or blacks. With East Asians condemning antisemitic or anti-Muslim rhetoric, or homophobic speech.

It starts with us.

It starts with regular Australians like you and me saying to our good friends and colleagues, “hey, that is a little bit racist,” in the same way we would say “hey, that’s a little bit sexist, you might want to have a think about why you said that.”

Bigotry and racism don’t need to directly affect you to be challenged. One day it’s them, the next, it’ll be you.

It is this generation who are not afraid of change, who are unified. They too have nothing to lose. It is this generation who I am hopeful will not shirk from calling things for what they are. It is this generation for whom we should start saying the “r” word, and naming it for what it is. Lest we normalise racism further and fuck up another part of their future.

 

Po-Tien Goh

Po-Tien is an accidental corporate who sometimes travels for work and works to travel. Her favourite cities to explore with locals (so far) are Lhasa, Paris, Tokyo and Varanasi. She can be found wandering through art galleries, hunting in thrift stores, listening to music, reading Walt Whitman and writing at theadventure.com.au

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