Whenever there is a racist incident we hear people talk about the need for more education. And, to be fair, a lot of racism does stem from a lack of education, but that is only true for those who soak up the racist rhetoric in Australian media and politics, not those who create and exploit that racism in the first place, Luke Pearson says.
Luke Pearson

22 Feb 2017 - 1:18 PM  UPDATED 27 Jul 2017 - 6:58 PM

We talk about racism in the 21st Century as an anomaly, a throwback to the outdated ideas of yesteryear that for some unknown reason still manage to linger in the hearts and minds of too many, otherwise lovely, white Australians.

We talk about how racism impacts on our health, how it limits education and employment opportunities, and we talk a lot about how it feels to be on the receiving end of it. We still try to get people to develop empathy and we still ask, “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” as though Shakespeare wasn’t making that exact point about racism back sometime around the 1590s. Personally, I am sick of being asked to rip the band-aid off every time to show that I bleed blood as red as anyone else.

What we don’t talk about, however, is that racism drives profits and power. Not just the One Nation type of political power either, but all of it. Major political parties tread lightly on these issues and although some may provide lovely sound bites about multiculturalism or 'progress', they still too often support racist policies, from the NT Intervention through to watering down the Native Title Act or the Racial Discrimination Act.

The reality is that racism has always been a useful and effective tool for power, profit, and control.

I read somewhere, many years ago, that ‘Europeans didn’t become slave traders because they were racist. They became racists because they were slave traders’. The argument being that in order to sustain such a brutally horrific, but highly profitable, practice as slavery while also being able to maintain a self-image of being ‘good Christians’ it was necessary to dehumanize and demonise those who were being enslaved. This led to ‘scientific’ arguments of black people being less evolved and not really human, and Biblical arguments of black people being the ‘sons of Ham’ and as such cursed by God, in need of punishment for perceived sins, and thereby justifying their exploitation, murder, and enslavement.

The history of racism is too often explored through the lens of it being a lack of education, empathy, or understanding. Instead, it should be looked at as a highly effective and complex tool for the acquisition of land, exploitation of resources, sourcing free or cheap labour, and as a convenient scapegoat to avoid blame for those in power.

There is not a lot of racism that exists today that doesn’t in some way still serve one or more of the above stated  needs, and no amount of feel-good anti-racism education for those who use racism to gain power and/or make profit is going to change this.

When we look at racism in this light we no longer feel compelled to say ‘I can’t believe this is still happening in 2017!’, because we understand that racism is not just a throwback to outdated scientific beliefs of social Darwinism, and we also understand that human and civil rights are not on a slow but steady incline towards greater understanding and inevitable equality.

Racism has not reduced or disappeared over the years on this; it has simply become more elusive; more sophisticated. Overt racism may have slowed down for a few decades after the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, and it must be acknowledged that significant wins have since enshrined in law; particularly concerning segregation and other exclusionary practices and policies. However, the strategically made argument that these policies represented not just a decrease in racism but that it actually went too far and created ‘reverse racism’ ensured that the shift in racism was limited to the shift from overt to covert, and not in its actual dismantling. This process has actively blurred the social understanding of what constitutes racism to the point that there are those who argue that any acknowledgement of race constitutes racism, particularly when it involves using the word 'white' in any context whatsoever.

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The only purpose the colour-blind racism theory serves is making conversations about racism impossible. Racism gets reduced to merely being prejudice, and the role of societal power and privilege is completely ignored. Any argument, no matter how shallow, is used to claim that racism doesn't exist; is not a factor in a given incident; or only exists because people keep mentioning it. If that does not suffice then finding any Aboriginal person who will agree that racism doesn't exist is used to argue against all those who think it does (this strategy works for climate change against 97% of the scientific community, so it isn't too surprising to see how effective it can be on issues of racism).

The shift from overt to covert racism meant that the statistics that once demonstrated without question the impacts of racism are once again being used to justify it. Incarceration rates, child removal rates, unemployment rates and other statistics that highlight the impacts and consequences of discrimination and inequality are now more commonly used to justify an unspoken but clearly hinted at belief in innate criminality, a lack of paternal and maternal instincts, and moral and cultural deficits.

The catch cry of ‘We need to keep Australia white’ was replaced with ‘We need to protect our way of life’. The slavery of Aboriginal people in Australia has been replaced with ‘work for the dole’ and prison labour. The displacement of Aboriginal people on reserves and missions for land grabs has been replaced with closing remote communities because of ‘lifestyle choices’, the forcing of remote Aboriginal communities onto long term leases, and the constant watering down of native title rights. These changes are only in branding not in substance, and certainly not in impact and effect. The end result is always the same; dispossession, disempowerment, regulation, and control.

Overt racism still exists of course, and has become increasingly popular in politics over the past few years. Asians are apparently 'swamping' again, this time along with Muslims as well. Asylum seekers have all become illegal immigrants. Any mention of difference or diversity or inequality is now labelled 'divisive'. And it is now acceptable again to argue that all non-white Australians need to assimilate.

Despite this, the national dialogue about racism in Australia still ignores this and is too often limited to ‘casual racism’, and education aimed at building empathy is all too often the only solution that we are interested in putting forward at a national level. The goal of anti-racism is aimed at making white people feel good and alleviating themselves of any sense of responsibility or culpability rather than looking at how we dismantle the systems that perpetuate racism as the status quo. Even that seemingly lofty goal would still be insufficient. We cannot simply dismantle existing systems, we must replace them with new ones that empower Indigenous people within them and do what Malcolm Turnbull has become very fond of saying but refuses to actually do - systems that do things with us and not to us, and that are driven by Indigenous people ourselves. And just for the record, no... having an Indigenous friend or partner isn't 'reconciliation in action'.

Acknowledging white privilege is not the same thing as giving it up, or fighting against it.

And whenever we encounter racism we are expected to calmly and rationally explain why it is racist, and provide solutions that do not require anything more than a superficial change or acknowledgement to fix it.

As long as this remains, we can rest assured that the systems in place that maintain racism and inequality will remain unchallenged, and our grandchildren will one day say to each other, “Wow, I can’t believe racism is still a thing in 2077!”

Acknowledging white privilege is not the same thing as giving it up, or fighting against it.

Racism is not simply borne of ignorance, and no amount of walking across bridges or photos of a white hand shaking a black hand will make it less appealing to those who exploit it for profit and power.

There is definitely a role in education for reducing the symptoms of racism, but I don't think it will be enough to ever address its root causes.

I don’t know how (or if) we can eradicate racism, but I hope recognising racism as more than just misguided attitudes, hurt feelings, and the purported mental health status of political correctness might be a good start.


In My Own Words tells the story of a remote community teaching adults to read and write. Part of NITV & SBS' #YouAreHere series on Sundays, 23 July - 13 August, 8.30pm on NITV Ch. 34

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