On the ‘we’re all racist’ deepity

‘Really, we’re all racist.’

The claim comes up in the wake of every public conversation about racism, often (and frustratingly) put forward by those who regard themselves not only as progressives but as radicals. One can see why: it’s an assertion covered with a shiny ‘Lefter than thou’ patina, ideal for the knee-jerk contrarianism that sees scoring points off liberals as the zenith of political militancy.

‘Ah,’ you can say, ‘you think you’re pretty right-on opposing Eddie  McGuire – but actually you’re just as bad as he is.’

The ‘everyone’s a racist’ line perfectly illustrates Daniel Dennett’s notion of the ‘deepity’, a term he defines like this:

On one reading, [a deepity] is manifestly false, but it would be earth-shaking if it were true; on the other reading, it is true but trivial. The unwary listener picks up the glimmer of truth from the second reading, and the devastating importance from the first reading, and thinks, Wow! That’s a deepity.

Yes, it’s true (but trivial) that the mysteries of the human psyche remain largely unfathomable and our unconscious throws up, from time to time, disturbing prejudices, including about those of different ethnic backgrounds. Yet to conclude we’re all racist on the basis that bigoted assumptions might occasionally cross our minds is about as sensible as asserting we’re all murderers because we once daydreamed about bumping off our high-school teachers.

As soon as you think about the ‘we’re all racist’ deepity, its falsity becomes manifest. Quite evidently, we don’t all call Aboriginal football players apes, nor do we go on commercial radio to compare them to King Kong. Those incidents provoked such a backlash precisely because most people now find such behaviour abhorrent. And that’s a good thing. Not so very long ago, matters were quite different.

Like most ultra left arguments, the ‘everyone’s a racist’ cry isn’t simply wrong, it’s also right-wing. It identifies racism with attitudes rather than structures in a very traditonially conservative way. For the Left, racism doesn’t stem from individual ignorance or personal prejudice but from a particular history (the dispossession of Aboriginal Australia, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, etc) and a particular way of organising contemporary society (the division of the world into competing nation states; an economic system that pits individual workers against each other in a scramble for jobs, places at university and other scarce opportunities).

Locating racism in social structures rather than character flaws matters, since there are obvious consequences for what we do about in response. If we’re all racist, well, the key task then becomes psychological, an inward turn, where we rummage around in our own heads (and the heads of others) so as to root out bad thoughts and attitudes. If, on the other hand, we acknowledge the social basis of racism, we can instead mobilise against the policies, practices and structures that generate it, connecting, for instance, the prevalence of anti-Aboriginal bigotry with bipartisan support for an Intervention in the Northern Territory explicitly based upon overt racial paternalism.

A political rather than psychological understanding of racism also allows us to put the McGuire incident in some sort of perspective. McGuire’s not just some character down the pub caught out inadvertently using a non-PC term. He’s a wealthy entrepreneur, a key sporting administrator and one of the highest profile media figures in the country. His ‘King Kong’ remark deserves all the attention it has received, not because we should care about the state of his soul or the deep structures of his mind, but because if someone in his position can get away with racial invective, there will be consequences all down the line. Likewise, if public pressure forces McGuire to walk tearily back from casual bigotry, people all over Australia will take note: if Eddie had to pull his head in, others racists can also be defeated.

In other words, there’s a potential to use this moment to foster broader struggles on all kinds of fronts. But that means rejecting the ‘we’re all racists’ deepity. Yes, there’s plenty of bigots in Australia – but there’s an abundance of anti-racists, too. And you can and should choose the side on which you stand.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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  1. Nice piece, Jeff. I do wonder why you call this argument “ultra-left”? Have some ultra-left people been making it? It strikes me as simply a liberal position (and hence I have heard it as part of identity politics arguments in the past).

    1. I agree with Tad – there is nothing ultra-left about this position. Because of its obsessive reliance on individual guilt and exculpation if anything it’s ultra-liberal! Good piece regardless.

      My problem with the McGuire shitfight, however, is that such spectacles tend to distract people from the structural causes of racism. He has now tearfully apologised, and will (rightly) have this as a blight on his “media career” forever, but it’s just the same old cycle – in the end, it will lead to us patting ourselves on the back, feeling it demonstrates how far we’ve come (even as we continue to lock up Aboriginal people and put refugees in camps, etc).

  2. This most helpful analysis of the nature of racism and its roots in social structures and inequality puts me in mind of a discussion I had with my husband last night about the Eddie Maguire drama. My husband reminded me that years ago this sort of racism tended to come out most casually in private spaces, like pubs and people’s lounge rooms, and particularly among the ‘blokes’. He told me of an expression people used to refer to any white male who came out in support of indigenous people as a ‘gin jockey’, a reference not only to indigenous people but women in particular. To me this highlights the multilayered qualities of some racist slurs that can allude to more than one layer of inequality. I agree racism has its roots in the social order and as well the social order has an affect on individual psyches.

  3. couple things here.

    like many ‘leftist’ Australians at the time, I had misgivings about the intervention. But it was not up to me to decide if these actions could be deemed racist, because I am not Indigenous. Only an Indigenous community can determine whether an action taken upon them is in fact racist.

    Even for me to sit comfortably in my Anglo-leftist armchair and point to the Howard Government as being racist is inherently racist . The best I can do is say such a thing is “problematic”, and listen to those who are actually impacted by such a policy to determine if it is racist.

    As for Eddie, I think the reason he found himself so abashed by the remarks was precisely that he had thought himself incapable of being racist. This complacency means, comfortable as we are working within a multicultural society, the fall-back of the privileged position becomes “well I know I’m not racist, so I can say whatever I like”.

    Until we make a bad joke and someone is offended, this is fine. But again, it’s not up to privilege to determine what offends. Whether this manifests overtly or covertly does not matter, and no amount of hand-wringing or navel gazing will change that we are *taught* about concepts of ‘other’, ‘foreign’, ‘smash-the-poms’ from an early age. This is the institutionalised racism you refer to in the article, we are all subject to it, and must unlearn it on a near daily basis.

    No-one is immune. And if you think you’re incapable of making a racist remark… well, how would you even know?

  4. Excellent post Jeff. Have to agree with Tad though that the “we’re all racists” line rings liberal alarm bells in my mind.

    As for scoring points off them, well, it sure is fun though!

    1. i don’t think liberalism and ultra leftism are counterposed, though. A great deal of ultraleftism is just liberalism with moralism heaped on top. Think of that description of terrorists as ‘liberals with guns’.

      1. Liberalism and ultra-leftism are not necessarily counterposed, but neither are they reducible to each other. I just think it’s important to recall that liberal individualism is one of the key ideological outlooks in capitalist society because it has a material basis in equal exchange in the marketplace. This has probably become a cruder phenomenon in the neoliberal era where the state has declared its role as redefining the “general interest” as much more narrowly all about the defence of private interests.

        This is the spectacle we’ve just witnessed: Private individual with racist attitude says bad thing, hurts another private individual’s identity, offers apology so that (implicit) contractual relationship is restored on an equal footing. While I totally support all those taking on McGuire and forcing his backdown, all it does is restore formal equality and not substantive equality. Hopefully your article goes a little way to helping people think about the substantive.

        1. Well I gather one of the people doing this was Helen Razer (I didn’t know this, I am blocked). She identifies as left but I don’t see her approach as particularly left wing.

          1. Just went and checked. Razer is arguing a few things (and not entirely coherently) on her FB page. She is telling people to check their own racism before attacking McGuire, but this seems to be about calling out their hypocrisy on refugees, the NT intervention, etc. (i.e. kind of like “you think Eddie’s racist for his comments, you support border protection”). But as usual she’s a loose cannon.

            I think where she gets it wrong is in effectively dismissing the tension between formal and substantive equality, to focus on the latter as the only “real” field of struggle. But, as you know, I have some sympathy for criticism of those sections of the Left who see the struggle for formal equality (i.e. a kind of quest for the perfection of the neoliberal order) as an end in itself. And perhaps more so criticism of those who do agree that it needs to be connected to struggles for substantive equality but then never actually try to make that connection except in an abstract propaganda sense — and this connected with the expectation that one day one of these struggles will simply automatically spill over into something better.

  5. Yes this is good – what an excellent quote from Dennett.

    It also reminded me of this section of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink. Whatever you think of Gladwell, this is is an interesting set of data on race and how it is perceived. So while we might all be a little bit racist, this is not a natural state and overcoming the problem involves changing the world around us.

    I think it comes through more often via terms like privilege, to be honest. (Which like Tad says, is a term used by liberals in my experience.) There is something to be said for acknowledging privilege on one level, but it’s hardly the main game and imports debilitating identity politics into the discussion.

    1. Lizzie, I agree about not taking Gladwell to seriously but he has moments where his selective use of statistics end up illustrating something deeper.

      I think Gladwell gets it right on tipping points when it comes to school funding and racism – he describes situtations where after so many white, middle class parents have opted out of public schooling because they can afford to we can them experience very rapidly a kind of white flight – something we are getting very close to with the racial and class segreation between public/private schools in Australia. If we have policies that result in public schools being left under-resourced but still with a disproportionate load of students that are ‘expensive’ to teach coupled with the rhetoric of ‘choice’ and effectively a voucher system this is what will sadly and with dire consequences result.
      The policy itself is what is really racist/classist even though there may be some racism and calss discrimination behind the parent’s individual choice about removing their child from the public system.
      So yes, Jeff puts his finger on what’s wrong with the introspection – it looks in a place where we can be stuck unpacking our own racism (something we should each do) but with no clear analysis or response to how policies and structures make us act in racist ways. Tipping points!!

    2. What do you mean you don’t mean to condone catholicism Liz? It’s like you’re talking about a child’s behaviour that you need to scold, and not tolerate in future. As far as I can see that blog is a very thoughtful take on all sorts of things. While it may be upfront about its Catholicism (and I am somewhat Catholic in a very demoralised left wing way), I think it’s the kind of honest and intelligent writing that actually in my opinion enriches the whole public sphere and pluralist public discussion.

  6. It’s interesting though how Mr McGuire sought a personal political explanation for his own non-racism immediately after his racial insult (citing how he has represented non-racism all his life), yet also attempted to dismiss the insult by putting his part of the dialogue with his co-host down to a slip of the tongue, which, if it was such, exposed repressed racism (as well as many other isms) evident in his days of hosting The Footy Show.

    Obviously not all Australians are racists, but on that sort of psychological reading is Australia comprised of more or less racists and ismists, or is that a deepity too?

  7. Jeff, this is a very similar argument to something I’m writing at the moment.

    Just as an aside, one curious little contradiction in all of this is something I heard McGuire himself say during an interview last year. It was after an incident where he confronted a racist opposition fan who was abusing Andy Krakouer. It was something along the lines of: “It’s not surprising this sort of thing happens when you’ve got governments locking up refugees”.

  8. He said it again Robert – well, something similar about how politicians should stop sending back boats on Footy 360. (Second video down http://www.heraldsun.com.au/sport/afl/collingwood-star-harry-obrien-says-he-lives-with-discrimination-every-day/story-fni5f6hd-1226653035604) I think he has good intentions generally that come closer to matching the rhetoric, more so than someone like Andrew Forrest, say. But that makes sense because the football industry relies on recruiting Aboriginal and TSI people to play, mining relies on crushing them. That’s not to excuse Eddie’s comments, they look even more stupid and lazy, in fact.

  9. I’m sorry, this will be unpopular, but I don’t think what Eddie said was said with any racist thought at all. He was saying that Goodes oughta cash in on what happened. He was not saying that Goodes was like King Kong or making a comment about his Aboriginal heritage. Goodes was rightfully offended at the insensitive remark, making light of a serious situation. But it wasn’t in my view a racist remark.
    This has brought about a fantastic conversation much needed in the mainstream community about ‘soft racism’ and belittling people who complain about racism (all the people who are saying Goodes should harden up etc). But I think we need to recognise this for what it is, a media frenzy that will get one of the mainstream representatives, one of the ‘yobbo’ element if you like, who stands up for equality fired or sidelined and just adds to a defeatist point of view such as that of ‘we are all racist really’, the problem is too big, let’s just forget it, in the longer term. It just silences one of the few voices in that segment of the community that belongs to a person who tries to be a good person and tries to stand up for what he believes in.

  10. Thanks for another engaging and thoughtful piece, Jeff. That concept of the ‘deepity’ has got me reflecting on almost every axiom in my arguing repertoire: it’s going to be hard for a pompous young fogey to escape the charge.

    Perhaps the more so because I don’t see its application in the way you have used it here. If we are all racist (which, I note, is a logical corollary of several of the comments purporting to agree with your article), then that is just the way we all are — so maybe being an inherently racist person, which means having racist thoughts (you call this the ‘psychological’ approach), is not really the ethical issue that matters.

    For ‘we’re all racist’ to mean anything of any use, the ethical issue that matters is not whether one has one’s inner racisms to wrestle with, but rather what one does about them. I may feel the urge to say something disrespectful to my interlocutor, but this (‘humanist’?) ethics requires that I suppress any urge so destructive and channel it into doing something that advances her or his dignity and rights.

    Like all kinds of ideology, ethics are inherently social concerns. They are necessarily answerable to the structures of social power and capital that you were talking about. That still means what a TV figurehead has prominence as a test for broader social values, but it also means we should look out for our own capacities to make the same errors.

  11. It seems to me that Razer is plainly wrong this time around. Discrimination is real (not sympbolic) and causes real pain and suffering. Goodes was, from all reports, hurt by the racism he’s experienced this past week. Calling out racism in those circumstances is important (and arguably obligatory). This point has been made here before, but there is no such thing as a neat separation between the symbolic and the material when discrimination is involved.

    In another context, Sarah Schulman has argued for the need to call out homophobia when it is encountered, and has advocated intervention to counter familial homophobia (I highly recommend her book The Ties That Bind for anyone interested.) She has said in an interview with Curve magazinse:

    You discuss homophobia as a cultural idea. How could a person apply that to her own life?

    Well, the first thing is that the person has to know that I know that they are a real human being and their life matters. And the second is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with homosexuality and nothing right with heterosexuality. They are equal, normal human variants. Anything that creates homosexuality as inferior is pathological, is untrue and has negative consequences on people and on society. If your family is victimizing you or harassing you through shunning, exclusion, diminishment, you need to know that it’s not your personal problem. It’s not because of you, it’s not because of your family. It’s because you live in a culture that allows that to go on without any reaction.

    Now, if people can take in those two things, then we come to the ‘what do we do?’ I think that if many families knew that other people think that that behavior is anti-social, then they might mitigate that in some way. Right now there’s no force in the culture telling them that homophobia is the problem. Most forces in the culture are telling them that homosexuality is the problem. But if we can make it clear to them that homophobia is the problem, they have an option to change their behavior. Most gay people’s families don’t even know their friends. They don’t know that they’re loved people who have a context, and a social stature. If their friends told their families how much they loved this person, how valued this person is, how much pain the family is causing this person, maybe the family would think differently. But the message has to come from people they know, people they’re related to, the other straight members of the family, the people they work with, the movies they see and their government.

  12. This is a lovely literary discussion going on here. It’s great that everyone is calling Eddie out on his racism but maybe the entire literary community should turn the mirror back onto themselves. The Australian publishing industry for example, is racist. They have a pre-conceived idea as to what “literature” is and they fly with that. Anything that doesn’t sound English academic is not literary. That is racism. Eddie is just the tip of a very big iceberg. So we can all pat our backs and say “yes, we put Eddie is his place” and write lovely articles supporting the cause but that’s just so we can make ourselves feel better in this politically correct country we live in. It’s all words. Actions speak louder than words. Unless you have experienced racism you don’t know what it feels like. And putting one tv personality in him place doesn’t make it better. Not by a long shot.

    1. Just coz someone rejects your poem, don’t mean they are being racist. Anyway, we live in a country where Greek writers are some of the most influential and successful (e.g. Christos Tsiolkas and П. O.).

      Sounds more like you are railing against The Establishment. Mabbe do like Collective Effort Press and start your own publishing collective.

      1. Absurd claim, for sure. Yet there is a sort of logic to Ms Dimitriadis’s claim, given the gender inequality argument of late in poetry journals. But to claim the same inequality on the grounds of ethnicity smacks more of ego than inequality in this instance.

    2. Bravio Koraly!!! I’ve had it with ‘left’ racism asserting itself like ‘right’ racism. I work in a high level high pressure environment and any uniting or conscious expression, vernacular, or behaviour is evidently something to do with being a ‘wog’. For the right I am as one HR manager said ‘A typical Greek boy’ – here is a man calling another peer at the age of 50 a boy and as far as typical – I’m not sure what typical is.. and for the left or politically attuned I am again a typical Greek – i.e. too impassioned, sexist, aggressive and so on. The fundamental issue is that all the gatekeepers in the literally and arts world are Anglo, if not in culture most definitely in attitude.

      1. Frank, you’re correct in pointing to literary and arts gatekeepers generally being anglo – it is part of that desperate and frustrated old power block known as the Anglo Irish hegemony – non-Anglo Wog-Orgs had to have Anglo CEOs as happened with SBS for decades. Koraly’s statement is so true: “Unless you have experienced racism you don’t know what it feels like.”

  13. Yes, christos and TT.O as opposed to how many other white writers in this country? And if TT.O is sooo recognised for his achievements, can someone tell me why he hasn’t ever won a literary prize for his work? I dont think he has ever even received funding! By the way my poems have been published so I am not sure where ego fits into this. I have found that since the Eddie thing, a few times where someone from a cultural background has criticised someone from a white background on defending Eddie, or if they are speaking out about racism in general, suddenly the debate becomes personal eg my ego. How interesting! And I have also started my own press last year. Outside The Box Press.

    1. Huge assumptions there about everyone else’s cultural backgrounds. Every poet I know (have ever heard perform or read, practically) cite П. O. as an influence. And fyi, he doesn’t believe in Government funding.

      Congrats on the press. I’ll look out for your writers.

  14. To distinguish between a “white background” and a “cultural background” as Ms Dimitriadis does fails to understand the concept of ethnicity, which means everyone has a cultural background, in preference to race, which makes distinctions between social groups based on meaningless physical differences such as skin colour, hair type, and eye shape etc, and is how racism begins: by using those meaningless physical differences to construct dominant representations of race tied to differences of power between social groups.

  15. “Anyone who has ever rejected my work is a racist.”

    Only if the rejection of work was based on perceived or known physical characteristics and those characteristics were seen to be inferior to those doing the rejecting and so linked to power differences between the social group the person submitting work was seen to represent and the dominant social group doing the rejecting.

        1. At least Maxine has a taste for irony. Koraly, before you get too wound up about the injustices ‘you’ are suffering, it might be worthwhile reading some poets who are doing their thing about alternative identities without all the persecution bullshit: try Adam Aitken, Michelle Cahill, or Ali Alizadeh (to name just a few). Reading other poets is kinda helpful…

          1. And didn’t the Aus council give you $10,000 to go about your stuff? The world can’t be too bad…

            Although, having said that, no one has ever given me $10,000 so it might be really shithouse – I dunno…

  16. Eddie McGuire has been guilty of homophobia – winter Olympics in Canada a few years ago and ice-skating comments about a skater “perceived” to be gay – and racism – the latest issue of the moment. I suspect there have also been some sexist moments.

    There should come a time when those in positions such as McGuire’s need to be held to account for their public utterances which are hurtful and hateful and must not be countenanced.

    But what do the AFL and McGuire’s club and TV station end up with? A few feeble apologias!

    I lived for most of my life in a country where racism was institutionalised by law and life was based on race. This was apartheid South Africa which I left in 1978 for a supposed egalitarian society in Australia.

    But Australia has institutionalised racism to a degree that almost puts racist south Africa and apartheid Israel to shame. After all from 1788 onwards a genocide has been practised and, looking at deaths in custody statistics which have increased since the Royal Commission made recommendations, Australians in public life should actually be more cautious in their public utterances.

    Eddie McGuire should not be let off the hook as everyone has been inclined to do.

    Mannie De Saxe

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