On the possibility of being racist


I’ve only really watched one of Chris Lilley’s shows, and it happened to be 2011’s Angry Boys. When I watched it, I felt a bit awkward about European-Australian comic Lilley portraying Japanese and African-American characters. I wondered how much Aboriginal people may have had a say in how their characters were portrayed. (During the show one of the Aboriginal actors ended up visiting our house because he had a cousin staying with us.) At the time I don’t remember hearing anyone asking these questions, and I appreciated that through the show Lilley seemed to be getting people to consider what might be going on behind what seemed to be a crisis of masculinity in our global society.

More recently, however, Lilley’s 2014 show Jonah from Tonga received a clear critique from Australia’s Tongan community. The problem was that ‘Jonah’ – a European man impersonating a stereotype of Tongan youth – had become the most recognisable public face of the Tongan community in Australia. It seems quite unfair for a member of the European majority to have power over how a relatively small cultural group is portrayed in the media. More recently the same show was axed by Māori Television in Aotearoa/New Zealand, by request from the Tongan community. It would be hard to imagine that Chris Lilley is still unaware that people feel he’s being racist by pretending to be a person of colour.

Last weekend Lilley was back in the public arena for the wrong reason. Just after a major protest related to the death of Elijah Doughty, Lilley tweeted a video clip from Angry Boys which seemed to be referring to Doughty’s death. Elijah Doughty was an Aboriginal boy who was run over by a European man in Kalgoorlie. It appears that the driver intended to run Doughty over, but he has been cleared of murder and manslaughter. In this context Lilley’s song ‘Squashed N***a’, about a black kid being run over, seemed like a pretty clear and dispicable reference to Doughty’s death. In response to the outcry about the video, Lilley deleted the tweet, then deleted his account. Later on he restored his account and posted an apology saying that he hadn’t meant to be racist.

I’ve dsaid this before, but we need to remember that we can’t be the only judges of whether we’ve been racist. If someone from another racial or cultural group suggests that we’ve been racist, we need to listen whether or not we’ve intended to be racist. If our words or behaviour are having a harmful impact on other cultural or racial groups we need to listen to that and change our behaviour. If Chris Lilley returns to television, I’ll be interested to see what he does. But Lilley’s disaster doesn’t let the rest of us off the hook. We need to be ready to listen when someone suggests that we’ve been racist.

Why we need to be listening to bigots

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There has been a lot of talk this year about whether we should be listening to bigots. My hunch has been that we do need to listen to bigots, but I don’t mean that we should be guided by bigotry or that we shouldn’t challenge bigotry.

On the global stage this year the two major events that seem to have indicated that bigotry is back in vogue have been the Brexit vote in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in the US. While things haven’t been so dramatic in Australia, I think the strongest indicator of a similar pattern has been the election of Pauline Hanson back to the senate. When I was a kid growing up in one of the most culturally diverse areas of Melbourne she was rallying support by opposing Asian migrants, whereas this time around she’s chosen Muslims as her scapegoat.

A couple of days after the election I was on a tram with a middle-aged European woman who was smugly announcing to her fellow passengers (mostly Asian) that she’d voted for Pauline Hanson and that she was so pleased she was back in parliament representing the ‘real’ Australia. I’d like to say that I spoke up to her, but I have to admit that all I did was glare at her, and I’m embarrassed to say that was all I did. (Admittedly there was another European woman sitting next to her who engaged her in conversation, which stopped her announcing to the whole tram.)

I had a similar experience not long after, where another European man started talking directly to me, saying, ‘It’s spot the Aussie in here, isn’t it?!’ (Again, almost everyone on the tram was Asian.) I’m guessing he presumed that because I was European as well I would share his views about who qualifies as ‘Aussie’. I asked him to explain what he meant, as though I didn’t understand, and basically said it was hard to tell because we all come from so many different places, and that most of us aren’t ‘real’ Aussies. I ended up telling him my grandfather was brown (we think now that he had South-Asian heritage) and that he shouldn’t presume he knew he was talking to. He shut up after that. I said goodbye to him when I got off at my stop.

I tell those two stories not because I think they say much about how we listen, because listening isn’t what I was trying to do in either of those situations. But I tell them to demonstrate that I don’t think we should be putting up with bigotry and that I do think we need to challenge it.

These are some reasons why I think we do need to listen to bigots. I’m keen to hear if others disagree with these reasons or find them problematic or dangerous. I’m also keen to hear reasons why we shouldn’t listen to bigots, because I could be entirely wrong.

We need to listen to bigots because we’re all bigots
My sense is that we all struggle with prejudice. Many of us have become aware and convicted of this and so we are trying not to act on our prejudice. It can be easy to think that this means we don’t still have prejudices to deal with. We might also be acting on other forms of prejudice we haven’t recognised. (For example, we might have been convicted of our racial and class prejudice, but still hold prejudices about sexuality or religion.) If we argue that we shouldn’t listen to bigots, does that mean that if others recognise prejudice in us, they shouldn’t listen to us?

Because we have some joint responsibility for our group’s behaviour
If members of my cultural, religious or ideological group are victimising others, I might consider it part of my responsibility to engage my fellows on their treatment of others in order to confront their behaviour. (If I don’t recognise this as my responsibility, I think I’d be passing the buck to the folks they are victimising – hardly fair.) Listening to their perspectives may help indicate the best ways to confront the damaging behaviour.

Because we need to be able to convince others of our own perspective
if we believe we’ve got a more enlightened perspective and practise, we should be doing what we can to bring others on board with us. We need to know what our opponents think and believe and practise so that we can work out how to argue against them. We need to be able to do this so that we can win over folks who are undecided, and maybe even win over some of our opponents.

So what do you think? Have I convinced you, or are you convinced there are things I should give some more thought?