As a student going through high school in the 1990s in Sydney’s Western suburbs, I’d hear pretty much every day someone from a racial minority accuse another student of being a racist. Quite often the student making the accusation was half-joking, but even then children knew that the term was a powerful weapon, even if most of the time is was pretty clumsily used.
The clumsiest uses of the term are on occasions when criticism or ridicule of a culture or religion is confused with criticism or ridicule of a race. The most common example is when critics of Islam and mass Islamic immigration are derided as racist, as though Islam is a race rather than a religion.
This confusion is now in full flight as media commentators denounce sentiments expressed in a viral video of a young man at schoolies week in Surfers Paradise ridiculing Indigenous culture as primitive. The main story is that the Gold Coast Young LNP chairman Barclay McGain was filmed grinning at these comments as they were being made. Here are the comments:
I mean we’ve got to stop celebrating a culture that couldn’t even invent the bloody wheel for God’s sake. We’ve got to start enjoying and living in Western culture.
Insensitive and non-PC? – Yes, for sure. Racist? – No. Here’s why.
Look closely. Nothing at all has been said about race, a physical characteristic. When we talk about race we are referring to physiology: skin colour, bone structure, etc. Furthermore, nothing has been said linking the allegedly primitive nature of Indigenous culture to race. The young man didn’t say that their culture was primitive because of their race. One might call the statement culturalist but, strictly speaking, it was not racist.
Someone might say that the view expressed is typical among real racists, that is, among people who really do think that Aboriginal Australians are racially inferior. They’ll also say that much that historically has driven the description of Indigenous culture as primitive was based on genuinely racist reasons: Indigenous Australians being earlier and therefore more primitive humans on the evolutionary timeline. Ok, but that still doesn’t make this young man a racist. It’s like saying that because someone is against laissez-faire capitalism that she, therefore, must be a Marxist. Not at all, she may be implacably opposed to Marxism and advocate traditional Catholic social theory or a form of conservatism that sees laissez-faire capitalism as corrosive of traditional institutions and practices. Just because two people agree on one thing doesn’t mean that they both base that shared belief on the same shared justification.
Let’s run with the logic of racism for a second. Let’s say that disparaging Indigenous culture as primitive is racist. Does this then mean that disparaging Western civilisation as oppressive and destructive is also racist? Were the critics of the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation being racist against whites? No? Why? Why is bagging out one culture deemed racist but bagging out another not? If it’s not racist to bag out Western civilisation as oppressive and destructive then why is it racist to bag out Indigenous culture?
Again, I’m not saying that bagging out Indigenous culture is nice or even true, I’m just saying that it isn’t necessarily racist. And when we start calling such sentiments racist then we run into all kinds of problems as I’ve just shown.
But there’s another problem. Again, let’s say that bagging out Indigenous culture is racist. Doesn’t this then commit us to a kind of cultural relativism? In order to avoid racism, we can’t critique any culture, and must even say that all cultures are equal? For if we say that some cultures are better than others, or even that some cultures have some negative traits – human sacrifice, oppression, destruction, ignorance, superstition – then isn’t that the same as attributing these traits to the races that practise these cultures?
It’s all pretty silly and the best thing to do is to use the term “racist” sparingly and precisely. The Young LNPers who posted this video can be accused of insensitivity and naiveté – their enemies, present and future, will use this against them – but not of racism. Racism is a word which denotes a terrible practice among all humans of any and every race, and we owe it to those who have suffered because of it to use the word precisely so that it’s power to condemn and convict is not diminished by overuse.
Stephen Chavura teaches history and politics at Campion College, Sydney. Follow him on Twitter at @ChavuraStephen.
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