I really don’t like the idea of writing what I’m going to write next. But I can’t see a way around it. I’m tired and angry, and I need to untangle these emotions in the most blunt way possible, or I’ll just end up screaming into the abyss for the next 12 hours.
As a white person, I am deeply disturbed, pissed off and, yes, offended by the Liberal government’s proposed amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act.
Today, Australia celebrated Harmony Day with the news that the Turnbull government had confirmed its intention to remove ‘offend’ and ‘insult’ from section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Instead, it will be replaced with ‘harass’. I'm not across the legal semantics, but to me that sounds like a word that relies more on the intent of the attacker than the impact on the victim, and carries the implication that you have do it quite vigorously. Advocates, Indigenous groups, community leaders and Racial Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane have made their opposition clear, saying it will weaken protections and send a 'dangerous message' that hate speech is now welcome in our society. You know, like singing happy birthday and being a bit suspicious of Halal foods and hating Anthony from Married at First Sight for being an abuser and hating Melissa George for being abused. Just something we do.
Most of the commentary about the issue has been galvanised around the case of the now infamous (or legendary, depending on your particular position on the racist dickhead-o-meter) QUT students, against whom a complaint was made invoking the Act. Very little mainstream commentary has focused on the voices of those 18C’s opponents want to insult and offend. I have seen very few interviews with people of colour, whom the law is about, whom it is supposed to protect, in the mainstream media, and far too many pandering discussions with racist nationalists like Corey Bernardi, Pauline Hanson, and James Paterson (who closely resembles a piece of floating, flaccid sea-junk most days, except when he comes to life talking about the excesses of multiculturalism and the joy of untrammelled ‘free speech’, whatever that means).
That’s why I am so reluctant to comment on this issue. Because while it upsets and disturbs me, I just don’t know first-hand what the sting of racist speech feels like. I cannot imagine the utter betrayal of my own elected representatives lobbying for the right to offend and insult me on the basis of my race. I don’t believe anyone who hasn't felt the impact of overt and ingrained, under-the-surface racism is properly equipped to discuss it, let alone make laws concerning it. I don't believe the term 'backlash' properly encapsulates the response of people of colour to this bill. The proper word is 'refusal'.
But while I don't know what it feels like to be on the receiving end, I do know what it feels like to have the ‘right’ to be racist offered to me, as if on a silver platter. Most white Australians do, I think. It feels like being made to swallow something particularly bitter, something rotten to the core.
It feels like the phrase 'everyday Australians' being used to describe you, instead of 'minority group'. It feels like the sly expectation of compliance from the mouth of a passenger spouting racist insults on the tram, as if you're on their side. It feels like a shop assistant serving you ahead of an Indigenous person, even though they were in line first. It feels like overhearing racist remarks and trying to give a supportive smile to the victim, but being too cowardly to challenge the perpetrator. Though I wish this was not the case, I have been too cowardly on more than one occasion, and partly this has to do with a culture that applauds people for ‘fitting in’ more than it discourages those voices who strive violently to push others out.
It feels like an arts website I subscribe to publishing a glowing obituary for a man behind a string of racist and homophobic caricatures. He was lauded as having a ‘sharp pen’ and being ‘divisive’. In Australia, it seems there’s nothing more ‘controversial’ than an old white bigot with a gigantic media platform.
Anyone who believes we don't need the protections afforded by 18C in its current form is lying, or wilfully oblivious. I watch the 18C debate with a sick, twisting feeling in my stomach, but without the unique pain of victimhood. But I also watch it with an awareness of history and language, and the ways this unnecessary 'debate' is being had at its expense too- becoming bent and twisted towards an agenda totally naked in its cruelty.
Today on the morning news, Corey Bernardi was asked what, exactly, he wanted to say that he couldn’t say right now, with 18C protecting people from intentional insults and offensive language. In what ways was he so constrained?
‘Well Virginia, I want to say exactly what those QUT students said on their Facebook page [after they had been told they couldn’t use a computer room reserved for Indigenous students]. I want to say ‘QUT is fighting apartheid with apartheid’.
Even though my expectations of Corey Bernardi saying something idiotic and bigoted every time he opens his mouth is pretty much the same as my hunch that Malcolm Turnbull will be staring hollow-eyed and grave into the bathroom mirror for just a few more seconds than usual tonight (i.e a 100% certainty), I was perplexed. And a little bit stunned.
I don’t know if Corey genuinely did just want to admonish QUT for its attempt to furnish Indigenous students with study equipment.
I don’t know if he meant to tacitly admit that Australia does have apartheid-like, racially-motivated and divisive policies and always has. Or that Australia was founded on the notion that whiteness was so superior that it had to try to eclipse even the existence of Aboriginal people, first conceptually and then physically, and then alternately after that.
I don’t know (though this is doubtful) if he wanted to say that apartheid existed in Australia and should not continue to exist. Or if it should.
I don’t know if he actually felt that that one sentence, built from a pile of historical inaccuracy, thoughtless white privilege and factual nonsense, and university politics and toneless, casual social media slander was worth the demonstrated harm to millions of Australians.
All I know is that it really, really fucking sounded like it.
And I’m pretty surprised that Donald Trump ranks as the world’s number one racist. We’ve gone way past coded nationalist slogans here. They’re not even dog-whistling anymore.