I am a person of Aboriginal descent, and I have a strong personal view on section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Apparently my ability to claim Aboriginality lends me a degree of legitimacy to air my views on this matter. Whether or not my views make much sense is immaterial; many Aboriginal commentators are consistently incoherent yet still make the newspapers. Now that I have the floor, I shall go off on a rambling tangent before delivering my opinion on 18C — because I can get away with that sort of thing, you see.
Recently I was a guest speaker at an event where I delivered my standard critique of the entitlements and concessions made exclusively available to Aboriginal people in the interests of ‘closing the gap’. Afterwards, a rather huffy Aboriginal audience member pointed out that I had only been given such an opportunity to speak because I was Aboriginal — meaning that if I were ‘white’, nobody would be quite so interested in what I had to say, therefore I was a beneficiary of the very privilege I was criticising. I readily agreed that the situation was indeed absurd, given that there were non-Aboriginal people in the audience who could have expressed the same views in a more eloquent and entertaining fashion than I.
Of course, if I did not possess the magical Aboriginal genes, my opinions on Aboriginal politics would probably not have found an audience outside of my own living room. But we may as well grumble that Miranda Kerr only gets to be a model because she’s thin and pretty; if she were dumpy and plain, nobody would be interested in paying her lots of money to put clothes on and take them off again. Then again, you don’t hear Miranda Kerr complaining about the absurd value that is placed on feminine beauty in the marketplace, whereas I complain a lot about the absurd value that is placed on an author’s Aboriginality in political debate, in the arts and in the media. So perhaps that does make me a hypocrite, after all.
I am presently getting around this ethical dilemma by only doing stuff for free, although I will happily accept a feed when I turn up to speak at an event. If this article is published, I might get paid for it. If so, I have an idea for what I’d like to do with the money. I’ll spend it on one of those genealogical DNA tests, and then we can talk about how ‘Aboriginal’ I really am.
Since I should make best use of my unearned Aboriginal privileges while I still have them, let us return to my feelings about the Racial Discrimination Act. Heck, why should I settle for merely ‘expressing my feelings’? I’m Aboriginal — I can make demands! I hereby demand freedom from protection from this thing we call ‘racial vilification’. I do not wish to be protected from the opinions of others. I demand the right to hear the views that other people may wish to express about me. I want this because I do not see how forcing others to shield their true opinion is of any benefit to me. Rather, it infantilises me by suggesting that I cannot handle the ugliness of life. Silencing or concealing the ugliness also exposes me to unnecessary risk, since if all others were free to express their views openly, I could at least make more informed choices about whom to associate with and whom to avoid. I also believe that ugliness and nastiness should be freely expressed, because it is good for us.
The proposed revisions to the Racial Discrimination Act entail the removal of restrictions against speech that may cause others to experience ‘offence’ or ‘insult’ on the basis of their race. The proposal has caused much consternation amongst Compassionate and Concerned Australians (they know who they are), with many fretting that certain vulnerable ‘races’ among us will be crushed by the avalanche of mean sentiments that only the RDA in its present form holds back. While Aboriginal people are portrayed as particularly vulnerable, I have yet to hear any of the vocal Aboriginal critics of the proposed revisions nominate themselves as an example of a person too emotionally fragile to cope with racial vilification, and thus in need of protection. Rather, our Aboriginal commentators are compassionate and concerned for the wellbeing of Some Other Aboriginal People, whoever the hell they are supposed to be.
In the interests of finding out whether I am one of these Other Aboriginal People my protectors are so worried about, I went online to seek out some nasty, offensive, insulting, racist commentary. Being inherently lazy, I settled on the most readily available site: a ‘Downunder’ discussion forum hosted by a US-based white-pride organisation called Stormfront. The tone and content of the discussions were immediately familiar; Aboriginal discussion forums are similarly steeped in grumbling resentment and an obsession with genealogy and cultural authenticity. Although a lot of the content was batty, there were some interesting attempts to grapple with a range of political and personal dilemmas arising from the ‘white pride’ ideology.
It seems that most Stormfront members would regard someone like me as an abomination, because they believe ‘racial mixing’ is bad practice, and the Aboriginal ‘race’ is one that is particularly repellent. Obviously this is a view that I cannot agree with, since I don’t believe myself to be any worse than anybody else, and I know that ‘race’ is not a real, tangible thing anyway. Some of the very angry commentary left me feeling temporarily queasy, but that was the extent of the negative emotional impact. It was simply a bunch of people expressing their opinions and personal preferences.
We are social creatures. We figure out our worldviews by talking about our ideas with others. We need to be free to talk together about the things we love and the things we hate, in order to work out what is important to us. Some people, for example, love the idea of ‘racial purity’, and they should be free to talk openly about it, so that others can engage with the idea and consider how they feel about it. Senator George Brandis recently got in trouble for saying that ‘people have a right to be bigots’, yet this is absolutely true. People have a right to decide for themselves how they feel about the idea of ‘race’ and racism. In order to do that, they need to be free to exchange ideas about these matters, and this includes the freedom to say whatever they like — however ugly — about people like me.
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Kerryn Pholi is a former Aboriginal bureaucrat and social worker
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