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The debate we should be having

I learn more about privilege from what I get wrong about misogyny than from what I get right about racism – Teju Cole

After reading Mia Freedman’s piece about Delta Goodrem’s ‘blackface incident’ (not sure what else to call it) a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t help but find myself agreeing. ‘Yes,’ I thought, ‘we are getting over outraged over the symbols of bigotry, and in doing so diverting our attention away from the real fights we need to have. And really, how offensive could that photo be?’

I’m glad I didn’t express my views at the time. As I watched the debate go on, I started to see that as a white man, I had not realised the impact of blackface. I did not know enough of its history and how offensive it truly was.

And then it clicked. The people trying to downplay the situation were the same sorts of people I would get angry at (as a queer man) when they tried to downplay Julia Gillard calling Christopher Pyne a ‘mincing poodle’ because ‘we know she’s not homophobic’. They’re the same ones who tell me to calm down if I get annoyed when I’m called ‘princess’ – because it’s ‘just a joke’.

In doing so, I learned a lot more about privilege, and more from what I got wrong about racism than from what I get right about queerphobia.

Freedman got herself into some hot water again yesterday when she tweeted in support of Eddie McGuire:

Eddie has an outstanding reputation for supporting equality and indigenous AFL players. His apology is sincere.

This time around I’m struggling to see the outrage. What McGuire said was clearly racist and he deserved to be torn a new one for it, but I think it is fair enough to say ‘he’s learnt his lesson, let’s be done with it’.

After all, hasn’t McGuire now learned about privilege from what he got wrong about racism?

In reaction to Freedman’s first piece, Sunili Govinnage argued that ‘Freedman didn’t encourage a conversation Australia very desperately needs to have. She ended it.’ Govinnage continued, saying that it ‘would be a good start if, for once, we can have a discussion about racism that doesn’t finish with a white-Australian proclaiming that we don’t need to have one.’

I couldn’t agree more. We need to have a bigger debate about privilege and bigotry in Australia. But for me, an important part of this would be how we can encourage people to learn from their mistakes about bigotry, and become part of a movement that challenges it. But I don’t think this is the debate we’re having.

The only way I can really describe much of our debate about bigotry at the moment is ‘outrage’: a thirteen-year-old girl sparks national outrage after calling Adam Goodes an ape. Stephanie Rice was hammered when she tweeted ‘Suck on that faggots’ after the Australian rugby union team beat the South Africans a while ago. Online sensation Destroy the Joint regularly takes to Twitter to publicly shame those who make sexist comments on their feed.

We are outraged at bigotry and we are willing to show it.

I’m not trying to play the ‘poor white boy’ here who believes that queers, women and blacks have now taken all the power and it’s white men who are now oppressed: that’s clearly not the case! But I don’t think this world of outrage is how we build a strong movement against bigotry – or help people ‘learn from their mistakes’ about misogyny, racism or queerphobia.

When I think about identity politics, or the collective fight against bigotry, I cannot help but think of it in a structural way. Our societies are built for white, straight, wealthy men, and we are all sucked into this hierarchy. This means that while individual instances of queerphobia, racism, and misogyny are clearly bad, they are part of a broader structural problem in society, which prompts the question – how do we challenge bigotry on a day-to-day basis as well as on a societal level?

I think the solution is to engage in a collective fight against bigotry, while also being willing to (respectfully) challenge it daily, and as part of a collective movement. And herein lies my problem. In this world of outrage, we’ve decided to focus on that second element, and in an aggressive way. Challenging bigotry has shifted from ‘Hey, that’s racist, you need to think about that’ to ‘You’re a racist fuck, the scum of the earth and because of [racist statement] you are now dead to me’. Delta Goodrem and Mia Freedman’s feeds were both full of it, and McGuire received a lot of it too.

And I understand why! Bigotry is awful, but I just don’t think this approach works. Instead of engaging with the structures and effectively challenging large-scale bigotry, we are creating a world in which those who say the wrong thing at the wrong time get eviscerated for it, and then completely locked out. In the meantime, the real structural bigotry often gets ignored.

While giving it to Alan Jones (rightfully) for his comments against Julia Gillard late last year, campaigns on issues such as access to abortion and freedom from violence struggle to get traction. Yet, in all of this debate around racism, the report from last Friday that showed that increasing numbers of Indigenous people are being both imprisoned and dying in custody seems to have been largely ignored.

Instead of doing the groundwork of building a collective, we are spending our time identifying those we think aren’t part of the collective and shaming them for it. If the targets were Tony Abbott, Jim Wallace and the like, I probably wouldn’t have a problem with it. But it’s not – it’s happening both to those who are building the bigoted structures, as well as those who are caught up in them.

We need to be able to have these debates about what constitutes misogyny, racism and queerphobia. At the same time, we need to question whether the debate we are having now is really that effective. When I think about this, I want us all to be able to ask that question, just like Teju Cole: ‘how can we all learn from our mistakes about bigotry?’

The world of outrage fails to do this.

 

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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Simon Copland is a freelance writer, climate and Greens campaigner and masters student from Brisbane. He has an interest in all things politics, but with a particular focus on the direction of left-wing movements. In his spare time he plays rugby union and is a David Bowie fanatic. He is a regular columnist for the Sydney Star Observer, blogs at The Moonbat and tweets at @SimonCopland.

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Comments

  1. This is a very confusing article! (And a little bit bossy, I might add.)

    How is the response to racism in public that has been happening on Twitter, in the Guardian, on Facebook, and inevitably therefore in IRL conversations not “doing the groundwork of building a collective”?, How exactly do these responses overlook the way that social structures racialise and punish on a wide scale? Who is the “we” you are talking about? What should the collective look like?

    (There’s a lot of “should” in here: debate we should be having, collectives we should be building, how we should be enacting our opposition to racism.)

    • I think I agree with you, Polly. While I can’t abide smug white people jumping in to declare their outrage, I think Copland is wrong to assume that outrage is unwarranted, unhelpful or incompatible with a wider systemic critique. Indigenous people and also people of colour in Australia work against racism on many levels, at many fronts. The collective building, the activism on incarceration and deaths in custody – that work is already happening. Copland would do better to support and promote those efforts than to suggest people limit their outrage.

  2. I think the person who wrote this might like to inform themselves. Ignorance (as the young girl who called Adam Goodes an ape, as intuited in Delta Goodrem’s response) is not another way of saying ‘benign’ or ‘innocent’. Far from it. The wilful refusal of Australians to inform themselves in the history of blackface and calling people apes, is itself very very questionable. The vacuum of knowledge gestures to a determined refusal on behalf of white culture to stop being racist. As for the use of the word ‘ape’, this is a straightforward piece which should help the writer put together less embarrassing pieces:

    http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/4722082.html

  3. The reality is we are not naming and shaming isolated individuals not part of the (anti sexist/racist/queer) ‘collective’.We are calling out the mouthpiece: those giving voice to what the larger (racist) counter collective silently thinks. Is it the whispers amongst the ranks, or the loudspeaker over the city that’s more dangerous in the spreading of hate?

  4. I – white, queer, trans – tend to experience the outrage/shaming thing as…imperfect. But not for the reasons you describe.

    Imperfect because it’s exhausting and often isn’t anchored in anything real-world, unlike an activist campaign where you have a community, physical-world things to do, times when it is happening and times when it is not, etc. It’s easy to spend hours getting very upset, writing and responding to one piece of intolerable awful on the internet, only to have another pop up the very next day, until fatigue and numbness sets in, or just plain despair. I have actually started to ask myself what I’m achieving by participating in the usual online routine – mostly it seems to be page views for various corporations and a reinscription of the idea that observing and commenting on celebrity behavior is the best way to participate in society.

    The question isn’t so much “why do we do this” (because really, the alternative – letting various inexcusable behaviors pass unremarked – isn’t acceptable either). What I find myself thinking is “in what ways have the attention economies managed to monetize racism (and misogyny, homophobia, etc)?” Because basically the way things work now, someone saying something racist on the internet – that’s rewarding, as long as it’s within certain celebrity norms and the speaker is already some kind of media star. It doesn’t matter whether they apologize later; it doesn’t matter whether they “mean it”- all that matters is a large public response. Saying something racist is a sure way to generate lots of attention, clicks, ad revenue, etc. I sometimes wonder, actually, if some of these incidents aren’t planned. (By people who are racist at a new level, obviously – a level where you are so racist that you are willing to cynically portray racism in order to make extra money.)

    What is the solution to this? I have no idea, since “ignore it to make it unprofitable” isn’t morally acceptable and results in an even more toxic cultural climate.

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