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How Sam Kerr sparked a national conversation on racism

 

There is something troubling about the logic that is being deployed to justify the remark by Matildas soccer star Sam Kerr to a UK police officer, in what seems to have been a drunken outburst. Kerr has admitted to referring to the police officer as a ‘stupid white cop’; the prosecutors allege she called him a ‘stupid white bastard’. Kerr has been charged with a racially aggravated offence, which carries a maximum penalty of two years in jail. [What proceeds in this article is not aimed to ostracise Kerr, who clearly had a bad night, but to break open the arguments in the public debate].

What is troubling is not so much the quality of the arguments being used to exonerate Kerr – which highlight important aspects of historical racial discrimination. Rather, it is that these arguments lack a basic human sense of the incident involving Kerr: how would any of us feel about being identified by and abused with reference to our supposed race or colour, especially when we are just doing our jobs? It would hurt and offend our sense of ourselves as a person with fundamental dignity and a unique personality. Is this sense of hurt justifiable?

Kerr’s alleged comment has divided opinion as to whether it even constitutes racism. For many, the initial dismay after the allegation came to light has turned to support for Kerr and  efforts to reject the alleged racially motivated element to her words. Politicians, journalists, lawyers, sports stars and even Football Australia have given statements in support of Kerr.

The most prominent example was former Socceroo Craig Foster who, after initially criticising Kerr, made a surprising about-face to support her. He had first responded by saying that ‘interpersonal racism against a white person … is still racism’. But days later he issued an apology to Kerr, saying that, ‘like many, I mistakenly thought that comments that referenced any colour and were discriminatory, demeaning or hostile were a form of racism’. He went on to say that he was ‘very pleased to be able to learn’ that racism ‘can only be perpetrated against a marginalised person or group, which anti-racism frameworks are specifically designed to protect’.

According to this understanding, racism that seeks to be ‘neutral’ runs the risk of concealing other forms of injustice, including the aftereffects of historical injustice leading ethnic minorities to still suffer disadvantages in terms of health and wellbeing. This is core to the argument against ‘reverse’ or ‘anti-white’ racism; that it strips racism of its context and history and loses sight of the ‘structural’ nature of racism. Professor of Cultural and Social Analysis at Western Sydney University Alana Lentin describes racism as ‘the backbone of racial capitalist systems such as colonialism, slavery and imperialism’.

The implication of structural views of racism, as Yascha Mounk points out in The Identity Trap, is that it’s impossible for a member of a historically marginalised group to be racist towards a historically dominant group. In a 2016 Vice article, Manisha Krishnan writes, ‘It is literally impossible to be racist to a white person.’ This is because structural racism removes agency and responsibility for one’s own beliefs or behaviours. Instead, such beliefs and behaviours are determined by larger structures in which those in power are responsible for the oppression of minorities through the perpetuation of racist categories.

There exists, then, a question as to whether the kind of structural racism described above should supersede a universal, neutral sense of racism (of the kind that is enshrined in law). Two major implications of adopting an attitude of structural racism should become apparent.

 

'To only use racial categories in this way neglects how prejudice operates, regardless of majority or minority status. Prejudice fundamentally feeds off insecure personal and group identities.'

 

The first implication is that fundamental human dignity, equality and relationality become subject to abstract structural analysis (a point to which I shall return below). The second is that personal responsibility and agency are superseded by a kind of racially-informed structuralism.

In everyday life, there is, of course, an interplay between personal freedom and social, political, economic and legal contexts and structures. Yet, would we want to abrogate any sense of personal responsibility for what seems to be a racist attitude in favour of a binary, structural narrative of oppressors and oppressed? There is no question that such oppression has existed, and it has a legacy today, but this kind of racial structuralism often seems to border on Manichaeism.

Moreover, focusing exclusively on structural racism, ‘a very clumsy term’ according to professor of linguistics at Colombia University John McWhorter, doesn’t do the work in combating existing inequities. ‘Considering inequities as some abstract version of bigotry doesn’t help people who need help.’

Anti-racism and anti-discrimination laws were established with an intention to protect groups of people who were marginalised precisely by functioning neutrally and universally. Everyone was subject to the same laws and expectations, including and especially those who had historically perpetuated forms of discrimination. This meant that that who were historically discriminated against were affirmed in their equality. The vast majority of Australians (like most British) affirm strongly the dignity and equality of each person, regardless of race. Those who condemn Kerr’s alleged comment would argue that if the law protects some against discrimination and not others, it would go against these principles and the goal of equal protection. Discrimination law would, then, become the instrument of the powerful or most persuasive in public debate.

But more fundamental (and dangerous) than this, such racial identifications go against basic human decency and relationality. How does or would any of us feel to be identified by the colour of our skin or perceived race rather than by our character, actions or self-identified community?

Fundamentally, race is a categorisation that is not based in fact. It is a construction that historically has been, and continues to be, used to discriminate. Whenever it is used, it evokes discrimination of attitude and action based on a false labelling of others.

When racial categorisations are used, regardless of type, we purposely disregard who a person is and their legitimate social or legal actions and role. When such categorisations are justified — as Craig Foster and others such as Jacqueline Maley have done — we risk legitimising categories and labels over the people themselves. ‘White’ becomes synonymous with ‘stupid’, oppressive, powerful, bad – and so the right to disregard, objectify and insult white people is justified and promoted. A battle for power and ascendency emerges that stokes social divisions.

In the end, racial patterns and prejudice work in the same divisive way regardless of the types of categories used and by whom – because they serve to ‘other’ and objectify people. They disregard the fundamental humanity and uniqueness of each person. Limiting racism to structural analysis overlooks the person as a person. It allows people to be treated according to a category. Labelling people primarily according to a category — whether as black or white, Semitic or Aryan, capitalist or worker — allows us to ignore their fundamental humanity and manipulate them.

It enables us to treat others abstractly, rather than personally. Abstraction leads to stereotypes and the attribution of false characteristics or crimes to particular groups. We then risk treating others according to the categories we have constructed, which justifies blame, discrimination or oppression. By contrast, treating another as a unique person leads to a relationship with that person that sees them on their own terms and in their context.

This is why the definition of racism used by Foster and others that limit it to groups historically discriminated against (e.g., Indigenous peoples, African-Americans) is insufficient. To only use racial categories in this way neglects how prejudice operates, regardless of majority or minority status. Prejudice fundamentally feeds off insecure personal and group identities.

In arguing for a universal and neutral application of anti-racist definitions, I am not seeking to make an ideological argument for a certain type of liberalism. Rather, I am seeking to affirm a fundamental view of the human person as person. This kind of personalism is necessary for a healthy society built on relationships of respect and on respect for personal and communal self-determination.

I am also not denying the historical discrimination that people of colour have experienced and continue to experience. Nor do I wish to scapegoat Sam Kerr for being a ‘racist’. She has made an error and should be given the chance to apologise.

Opposing racial discrimination of every kind does not mean neglecting or denying forms of racism against more marginalised and vulnerable groups. In fact, vigilance against any racial categorisation is necessary.

Opposing certain forms of racism and not others fundamentally misunderstands the destructive nature of racism and distances us from its antidote. Racism is not simply about devastating power imbalances — it is about prejudice that dehumanises. Racism can only truly be dismantled when we regard each person as unique and precious, with inviolable dignity and worthy of respect and relationship. When we see the other in this way, we recognise them as a human being capable of feelings and desiring to be respected, just as we are. To do otherwise is to disregard the humanity of the other. 

Every person, of course, belongs to groups, communities and institutions. But none of us should be labelled, stereotyped or categorised in any way that undermines our status as a unique and precious person — which, it is worthwhile remembering, has most powerfully been justified with reference to the religious understanding that each and every one of us has been created and is wholly loved by God.

 

 

 


Joel Hodge is a lecturer in theology at the Australian Catholic University. 

Main image: Sam Kerr. (Cameron Spencer / Getty Images)

Topic tags: Joel Hodge, Sam Kerr, Racism, Inequality

 

 

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Existing comments

Your position is spot on, Joel. If an incident can be described as racist only after being processed by a complex, highly abstract theoretical algorithm, we completely lose the nitty-gritty, interpersonal, human dimension of racism which involves the denigration of a person on the basis of their skin colour. We all, regardless of race, sympathise with Shylock: "If you prick us, do we not bleed?" Structural levels of racism exist and must be combatted but the theoretical construct of racism can too easily take leave of its grounding and be used to confect instances of racism or deny them.


Stephen Price | 29 March 2024  

Hodge's view sits admirably within the framework of a personalist Christian ethos. However, alternative moral explanations avail themselves from the social analyses of Jesuit theologians, like Boff, Sobrino and Segundo. These favour an historical perspective, drawn mainly from the postcolonial and poststructural theological reflections of those who have served in places where race and class have played an important part in understanding oppression.
Kerr, like me, is Anglo-Indian, from a culturally hybrid past that positioned our forbears as privileged cultural subalterns of British power in India, where Anglo-Indians have, since independence, been disavowed of such archaic role-playing. This 'shift' offers a plausible explanation for the offence taken by the exchange between Kerr and the arresting policeman.
We live, contrary to Hodge's understanding, in a world of postmodern complexity in which the prism of culture, more than colour, offers sounder explanations for why some things go wrong. Often denied access to glittering prizes, Anglo-Indians excelled in sporting (and military) prowess, which is Kerr's unquestionable forte. This has fueled her meteoric rise to the hall of Australian excellence, which privileges sporting achievement over all else. Perchance Kerr, like other sportspersons, needs reminding that sporting prowess does not entitle one to privileged treatment.


Michael Furtado | 29 March 2024  

I am reminded somewhat of Martin Luther King’s famous words about “not being judged by the colour of our skin but by the content of our character”. We are making progress but it is halting and tortuous, especially to those at the bottom of the pyramid of power. Perhaps we shouldn’t burden Sam Kerr with our endless analysis until arguments are brought before a court and the matter settled. I will say that our expectations of significant sporting heroes (as Sam is) tend towards the exaggerated and possibly we can acknowledge their flawed humanity as well as their brilliance in a particular field. This may allow us to see their struggles as well as their triumphs.


Pam | 30 March 2024  

Samantha Kerr is not just a sportsperson, but a brand, very valuable to both herself, the teams she plays for and her sponsors. If she was to lose her credibility, they would all suffer financially and I guess, in the last analysis, professional sport is about money and bags of it. From the facts, it appears Kerr was drunk and disorderly at the reported incident. What she actually said to the policeman is a matter in contention. It is an interesting question: 'Can a person of colour racially insult someone who is white?' Here I would think the circumstances and intent are very important. Unfortunately, there has been such a pile up of support for Kerr from ultracrepidarians that it is impossible for anyone who disagrees with them to say a word. How sad.


Edward Fido | 30 March 2024  

Excellent article. The only thing I would add is that we shouldn't be policing every word people say. The context is that Kerr was, well, not feeling well, and blurted out a remark that, if anything, made her look silly. We can just let those go through to the keeper - not that important, play on.


Russell | 02 April 2024  

Joel Hodge outlines a very clear argument regarding racism and the news regarding Sam Kerr. His conclusion nevertheless seems to me to ignore the shocking imbalance in modern society between the haves and the have nots. To say we are all human, on the face of it appears only too obvious. However, we, at least in Australia, live in a racist society that really means while we all are 'human' we do not all live 'human lives' of dignity and freedom. In this sense I feel it is not racist for, for example, a first nations person to call a white person a 'white person'. They, it seems to me are only stating the blindingly obvious, that this white person, in stark contrast to the 'others' is actually, regardless of exceptions, living a privileged life.


Tom Michael Kingston | 02 April 2024  

If Samantha Kerr hadn't imbibed this 'racism' nonsense in her sober hours, she wouldn't have blurted out the supposed 'counter-racism' that she did. It's not what you say after you've become drunk, it's what you've thought before you've become drunk.


s martin | 03 April 2024  

So I'm presuming I should now seek reparations as a victim of racism for being called 'Ranga' during childhood and more recently?


Aurelius | 03 April 2024  

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