‘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.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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