Sex is to pregnancy what racism is to genocide

10 Comments

Stone wall featuring 'Racism' graffiti slogan

This week was a funny time to learn that last year police officers in the Melbourne western suburb of Sunshine printed and distributed 50 racist stubby holders. Rather, it wasn't funny at all, especially if you are an Australian who has been mistreated by a police officer because of the colour of your skin, or if you care whether police officers are held to any kind of ethical standards.

The stubby holder in question shows a cartoon image of a mudfish, which references a racist slight for East Africans in the area. It is a slur on the 'bottom feeder' species that is eaten in Sudan and elsewhere. The baby blue foam cup says 'SUNSHINE POLICE: Whoever says Sunshine brings happiness has never worked here.' While an inquiry has been launched, the officers responsible remain in their jobs. 

And commentators keep telling us that racism is benign in Australia.

The past fortnight's events have kept race high on the public agenda. Everyone is talking. Can a 13-year-old be racist? (Yes.) Is what Eddie McGuire said racist? (Yes.) Does a culture of racism actually have an impact on how racialised people in Australia — people who are from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, or simply don't look white — get to live? (Ask someone who knows.)

When something occurs in the symbolic realm in Australia — say, the Opposition Leader appears to condone his female opponent being labelled a 'witch' and 'bitch', or a child calls an Aboriginal athlete a primate — we are offended. And we feel good about being offended, because it means we're better than the brutes.

What comes next is the analysis which says it's not all as bad as it looks. Columnists say things like, 'That's not racist; you should see what they do to Muslims in Burma!' Or, 'Haven't you read the Macquarie Dictionary lately? That's not what a catalogue of dead words says 'misogyny' is!'

Joe Hildebrand's column last week characteristically makes light of Australia's racism problem, stating that in some countries, 'racism leads to oppression, torture and genocide. In Melbourne its effect is to turn everybody into dribbling idiots.' It also leads to oppression and violence, allegedly perpetrated by police officers, in Sunshine, for example. But we won't talk about that.

Being white, I don't know much about racism. The way I look and talk is in line with a dominant social group, and there are innumerate ways that I benefit from that. But knowing I'll never be an expert in racism doesn't prohibit me from seeing the poverty of our national conversation about it.

Our wilful ignorance and concurrent silence around the lived impacts of racism allows for acts of violence by authority figures — in this particular case police officers — to be met with impunity. It is that simple.

Racial violence by the police — for which there is a great deal of evidence and testimony collected by legal professionals and organisations — is too terrifying to be editorialised about. If some police have engaged in racial violence, and most accounts of violence have been met with impunity, what does this mean for our belief in our basic institutions? In public discourse, it is easier to downsize the impact of racist language and get on with it.

Like many women, I've experienced violence because of my gender, an experience which makes it very clear that the symbolic realm — that of language and subtle gestures of power — is inextricable from the material realm — that of brute force and humiliation. The fear instilled in women when they are verbally abused is predicated on the reality of physical abuse. One requires the other.

One of my lecturers used to say that sex leads to pregnancy, and racism leads to genocide. Which is to say that genocide, like pregnancy, can be more or less avoided with careful management, but the surging undercurrent of violence is always at the heart of a racist culture.

This claim sounds rather drastic, but history supports it. Almost everywhere that there exists a belief in a racialised hierarchy, there has been racial violence to assert it. In Sunshine, the stubby holder represents a belief in a racial hierarchy, and long-standing allegations of racialised violence by police officers reveals the outcome of this belief.

Most of the time, when people use racist language their intention is not to wage genocide on racialised groups. But the cultural provenance of racism, and its contemporary outcomes, means that racist language is inextricable from racial violence. The outrage is not that we are 'dribbling idiots' for talking about race, but that we are too cowardly to name its implications in our own suburbs.


Ellena Savage headshotEllena Savage is a Eureka Street columnist, arts editor at The Lifted Brow and politics editor at SPOOK Magazine. She has written about literature, feminism, and political culture for publications including Overland, Australian Book Review, Right Now, Arena, and Farrago, which she co-edited in 2010. Her 2012 essay 'A Man Like Luai' won the Tharunka Non-fiction prize. She tweets as @RarrSavage.

Graffiti image from Shutterstock


Topic tags: Ellena Savage, The Savage Mind, police violence, multiculturalism, racism

 

 

submit a comment

Existing comments

Excellent article. It bothers me greatly that we do not go to far more trouble to educate ourselves about the pre-history of the holocaust and of similar events.
Jim Jones | 07 June 2013


"Being white, I don't know much about racism. The way I look and talk is in line with a dominant social group, and there are innumerate ways that I benefit from that. But knowing I'll never be an expert in racism doesn't prohibit me from seeing the poverty of our national conversation about it." I think, as an intelligent woman ("woman" for specific reasons you mention in your article) and liberal, educated member of the majority group in society ( Because culture is really "made" by the majority in any society. White Australians: Whitlam and Fraser were responsible for having Aboriginals included in the census - thereby being rightly recognised as part of this country - and demolishing the last vestiges of "White Australia".) you have every right to speak on this matter. In fact, Ellena, I think the intelligent, educated person in the street is often a lot better at enunciating such problems than so-called "experts" (often laden down with a PhD in sociology and speaking a cliche-ridden language incomprehensible to the average person).
Edward F | 07 June 2013


"sex leads to pregnancy, and racism leads to genocide. Which is to say that genocide, like pregnancy, can be more or less avoided with careful management, but the surging undercurrent of violence is always at the heart of a racist culture." The 'careful management' and 'surging undercurrent of violence' is the stuff of the human condition, they both need sacrifice and redemption, the stuff of Jesus Christ.
Fr Mick Mac Andrew | 07 June 2013


Racism and violence, like all other evils, flourish in any godless society.
john frawley | 07 June 2013


'Racism and violence, like all other evils, flourish in any godless society'? Like God-fearing Catholic Spain after the Moors were driven out? Like Calvinist Switzerland? Like the God-fearing former confederate states after reconstruction? Pull the other leg, John.
Ginger Meggs | 07 June 2013


Ellena, I'm with you. I don't know a lot about racism, from the receiving end. But I've been blessed with attending a (very small) Primary School that at had Aboriginal students (2) making up more than 10% student body, and a Secondary School that gave Australia 2 Aboriginal leaders. I was also blessed to learn from my, and neighbourly Aboriginal, parents, that appearances are only skin deep. I'm with Dallas Scott - let's honour people. And Anthony Dillon makes no bones about it too - focusing on one aspect of humanity and implicitly denying the rest is divisive. In respect to the 'joke' at VicPol Sunshine, let's be generous and call it stupid ignorance. In respect to police profiling, how can they not? I've suffered it, it hurts, but it does not destroy. Unless I fail to move on, by keeping resentment alive in my heart. Sex CAN lead to pregnancy, anger CAN lead to murder, racism CAN lead to genocide. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was the right race, but he was eliminated too. I suggest most commentators have got it wrong. We need to talk about classes of people, not races. Another look at The Beatitudes will illustrate the point.
MichCook | 07 June 2013


John Frawley, both racism and genocide can flourish in a "godly" society. Your Southern American Klansman could and would consider himself godly as a paid -up Baptist, Methodist or Presbyterian ( the Klan frowns on Catholicism and Judaism), as would the Russian Orthodox pogromists in pre-1917 Holy Russia. A ( secular) Jewish friend of mine whose parnets ( only just) survived the Holocaust once commented that Catolic Poles drank in anti-Semitism with their mothers' milk. The proponents of apartheid in South Africa were almost to a man ( and woman) staunch Calvinists. In our day in Israel, it is the religious Right who who would like to see all Palestinians ( Moslem and Christian alike) driven out of Israel. Go read the Old Testament and see what those Godly Jews would have done to their ( Gentile) enemies' infants, given half a chance. Godliness be damned.
Name | 07 June 2013


Interesting Mick and John, Ellena, who wrote this excellent article, is not particularly religious in the formal sense from what I've read of her previous writing. The architects and upholders of apartheid were devout Christians in their own lights whereas many, not all, opponents of that regime were not religious.
Edward F | 07 June 2013


'Innumerate' means 'Lacking basic mathematical skills'. The author should have used the word 'innumerable'.
David B | 11 June 2013


"'Innumerate' means 'Lacking basic mathematical skills'. The author should have used the word 'innumerable'." A slip of the typing finger, I suspect, David, rather than linguistic ignorance judging by Ellena's previous articles.
Edward F | 12 June 2013


We've updated our privacy policy.

Click to review