Race to the Bottom

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There’s nothing more likely to put racism front and centre as an issue than a well respected and senior footballer being referred to as an “ape” not once but twice in a week.

And on the back of the much celebrated Indigenous Round of the AFL.

Here’s the thing. Eddie McGuire says he’s not a racist. And that young girl’s mother thinks the response was an overreaction.

This is precisely the problem.

Let’s leave the teenager out of it, shall we. What she said was shocking and appalling and unacceptable. But I’ve seen her apology letter and while she’s not likely to be writing any dissertations on the pitfalls of racial vilification anytime soon I’m pretty confident that she’s been shamed into never referring to anyone as an ape again.

So that leaves us with Eddie McGuire. A man who certainly should know better and by his own admission made an unthinkable gaff trying to make a (honestly? unthinkable) joke.

He says he misspoke, that it wasn’t what he meant, or even what he was thinking.

And I can sympathise with him.

I’ve said things I didn’t mean, when trying to navigate my way around certain issues.

The other day I accidentally referred to homosexuality as a “lifestyle”. It’s a phrase I would normally tsk tsk and sit in judgment of in that context, but I was trying to make a point and struggling to find my words and there it was.

Sidenote: I blame my children for this – ever since my pregnancies my ability to recall approximately half of my vocab has vanished. I digress.

If McGuire says it wasn’t what he meant or even what he was thinking who am I to try and supplant some latent racism lying dormant in his mind.

But here’s the thing. We make these mistakes because we see the difference. Because we are different. And because we just don’t get it.

We don’t necessarily need to apologise for that, but we do have to acknowledge it.

I can’t help the fact that I am an upper middle class white heterosexual woman with all the privilege that comes along with that.

Admitting that is awkward and uncomfortable, but I need to sit with it, to sit with some awareness of that privilege.

And I need to acknowledge that my advantage is not without cost.

I get a free pass in life because of something that is completely arbitrary and random. Other people get a kick in the guts.

So when Eddie McGuire says he had a brain fade and it doesn’t reveal any hidden malice toward minorities that may well be true.

But when he says he not a racist I say this.

Mr McGuire you may not be a racist in the sense that you have never wished anyone ill simply because of the colour of their skin. You may not be an overt, blatant racist. But if you are unable to acknowledge the privilege your white skin brings you, if you are not able to admit that your position has a cost, if you are not able to concede that to get where you are would be virtually impossible for your minority counterpart then you are some kind of racist.

And maybe the worst kind.

Because in a society where overt racism is becoming less and less acceptable (and not before time) it is the passive racism that counts.

You can’t get away with calling someone an ape – disturbing as it is that anyone would want to do this in the first place. But you can still get away with earning more, living longer, being better educated and being able to make your way in the world not only unhindered but indeed vastly advantaged.

If you are white and even more so if you are wealthy and male you are unburdened by comparison to your minority counterparts. Life is easier. We need to acknowledge that.

While those of us who benefit from this privilege are unable to admit it’s costs, equality will remain unattainable.

While Australia continues to refute the fact that it is a racist nation, continues to shield itself from the ugly, uncomfortable truth, nothing will change.

While we continue to wrap ourselves up in the pleasantry that we are a multicutural nation, the racist truth lies swept under the carpet.

And in continuing to engage in a public debate around racism that calls for people to be less sensitive and less offended we continue to engage in a race to the bottom of the issue.

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