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Why 'white' isn't a racist slur

  • 13 July 2017


Language operates and affects people in profoundly different ways, bestowing power upon minorities through their reclamation of words that were otherwise used to demean them, or deployed effectively to typecast and dehumanise.

I hung out with a group of Indian-Australians while I was a first-year university student who called themselves 'curries', but the unspoken camaraderie and deep sense of pride that ensued from this self-identification stood in stark contrast to that time I was called a 'fucking curry' by a passing car full of white people.

It is commonly understood why Indian-Australians are able to call themselves 'curries', while white people and, to a certain extent, other minorities are not — the desire to subvert the narrative and a shared understanding of the nuanced ways in which one can be an Indian-Australian allows this cultural group to reclaim the word without further entrenching negative stereotypes.

Yet you often hear from white people, even the seemingly progressive ones, that they can't be called 'white' because that too is racist language. This reflects a flawed assumption that societal structures advantage and disadvantage people in the exact same way, and that we operate on a level playing field.

To be white is to not face the same tangible repercussions that come with being a person of colour in Australia. White people aren't asked 'what's the deal with white people?' and 'are they all the same?' by one of Australia's most renowned breakfast radio hosts. White celebrities aren't told to 'leave the country' or called 'un-Australian' when they dare question the hypocrisy of certain national celebrations.

White people have never had their skin colour co-opted in the spirit of a Halloween costume, harking back to a deeply corrosive history of whiteface minstrelsy, and had their ensuing outrage demonised as 'batshit crazy' by a multimillion dollar media mogul.

White people don't suffer material disadvantages by virtue of being white, which extend to resume-based discrimination in the labour market, prejudice in the criminal justice system, education apartheid, disproportionately high incarceration rates and lower life expectancies.

Of course, whiteness often intersects with womanhood, lower socioeconomic status, queerness and disability, so it would be a misnomer to paint the realities of all white people with a broad brushstroke. But the identifier 'white', in and of itself, can't be considered derogatory within a framework that serves to protect and further the interests of white people at its every juncture.


"Racism doesn't occur when one person says something