Friday, April 7, 2017
“When I go to Bankstown, it’s not uncommon for a group of Lebanese-looking boys to start yelling racist abuse at me, calling me things like “dirty white trash” and worse.”
I believe this story: I grew up near the area and I’ve seen it happen. It’s even happened to me, except they tend to focus on my being Chinese.
But is it racist?
Well, the person is being discriminated against, and the discrimination is on the grounds of the person being Caucasian; in a simple, almost antiquated sense, I can see how one might arrive at that conclusion.
But the meaning of “racism” has evolved over the last 30 years. Since the failed case of Prior v QUT and the very public stoush that is occurring around section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, I think people have come to understand that it takes more than a mouthy one-off slight that’s thrown in the heat of the moment to qualify as racism. It needs to be more than just hurt feelings. It needs to be a sustained pattern of behaviour. And for me, that falls very much in line with the idea that racism is informed by years, if not generations of disadvantage and systemic abuse.
In the case of a bunch of mouthy teens at Bankstown, one could say it would be very easy for that Caucasian person to simply leave, go home, or even go to any other suburb where they aren’t likely to face that kind of abuse (which, let’s face it, is the vast majority of places in Sydney).
Could someone like me do same thing, though? Could those Bankstown teens? I am Chinese. They are Lebanese. That’s how we appear. And almost everywhere we go in Australia, we are at risk of being racially abused. The risk is ever-present. It does not stop for weekends or public holidays. It’s there every day. It is there in nearly every suburb. That is what it means to be part of a statistical minority. That is our lived experience.
Recently, a reader shared with me his lived experience as a Caucasian person:
“I sometimes feel that if I went for particular jobs, I wouldn’t get them specifically because I am a middle aged white bloke. That may not be the reality of things, but it is certainly how I feel. At work, there are workshops for differing parts of the workforce such as Afro-Caribbean, LGBT, Muslims or groups of just women. [But if you’re] Christian, white and heterosexual? Do it on your own and in your own time, old son!”
These experiences are real and valid. But where do they fit in the wider discussion about racism?
My first observation is that, as a “middle aged white bloke”, he is part of a broader and statistically dominant cultural demographic that carries many associated generalisations (such as being part of the ‘privileged white majority’ you so often hear about) that don’t necessarily match his lived experiences.
It is in much the same way I know that my lived experience of having a decent command of spoken English doesn’t conform with the accent that is generally associated with many Chinese people.
Would it be acceptable for either of us to expect what’s generally accepted about our respective broader demographic groups to be informed by, or in some way conform with, our lived experiences? I think that’s where a lot of people diverge.
Some people believe their experience must surely be everyone else’s experience. Others believe they must be the exception to the norm. There’s no way to know for sure without first talking and sense-checking with other people, but even that is happening less and less. I blame the internet for that.
I’ve lost count of the ways the internet and social media encourage people to self-validate, to preach to the converted, and to brook no dissent. They urge people to believe that they are the centre of the world, and that their experience is the world’s experience. We’re taught to normalise the exceptions that make us and our experiences different. Is it any great surprise that we should confuse our lived experiences with the narratives that define our broader demographic groups?
And to bring things back to the question at hand, where does that leave the notion of “reverse racism”? Can our “middle aged white bloke” from earlier be said to have been the victim of racism in the workforce?
At one level, I’d point out that the help being given to people of other cultures (the help that is being withheld from him) is so given because they generally don’t have a voice or a platform on which to stand up and speak for themselves. I’d suggest that he isn’t being discriminated against on the basis of race; he just doesn’t qualify for the help.
On the other hand, he nevertheless needs help. His needs might be financial, or they could be related to education, training, or employment. The disadvantage he is trying to overcome are based on these things – not, I’d suggest, his race.
I’m not fond of the tit-for-tat arguments that result in statements like “you’re a racist for calling me racist”. I think, ultimately, if you choose to wear that flag, to identify yourself as having been a victim of racism or some other kind of discrimination, you have to ask yourself what the source of your disadvantage is.
About today’s photo: would a Caucasian person ever experience racism in Chinatown? I’d like to say no… but I can only speak for myself.