We're too polite to be racist

May 24, 2013

It’s been a busy week for discussions of racism. Delta Goodrem re-tweeted a photo of a fan in blackface and was criticised for being racist, Mia Freedman defended her and asked us all to save the word racist for something really important, and we had the blackface discussion all over again.

Delta apologised for any offense she may have caused, and somehow we ended up in a quagmire of good manners. How did racism become an issue of politeness? What grabbed us all so hard about another blackface scandal?

If you were looking at the recent blackface incidents in this country from your home planet in another galaxy, you’d be forgiven for thinking that racism was an issue that falls somewhere between the annoying and the unfair.

Something in the realm of not inviting your whole class to your birthday party and stealing a tram seat from a pregnant woman. Not so much an act of discrimination as a failure of etiquette.

When it comes to racism, we seem to be suffering from an overwhelming obsession with politeness. So when Delta Goodrem does a proper racist thing, sending out a picture of a fan dressed in blackface in some kind of tragically ignorant racist parody of singer and Voice judge Seal, her response is not an apology or a defense, or god forbid a trip to the library, but a plea that she didn’t mean to offend.

Translation: I’m sorry if I was rude. I don’t want to be rude and hurt people, that’s not what nice people do and I’m a nice person. So I’m apologising for my rudeness. Sorry if I offended you.

It’s like she’s entered another country — which in a way she has — and not knowing the rules, has accidentally stepped on a few toes. In response to being told she was being racist — in other words for being a part of the machine of daily and pervasive discrimination and exclusion of people of colour — she apologises to any individuals who may have misunderstood her intentions.

Like a lot of us, she wanted to skip the shame involved in facing her own racism, and instead retreated to the safer territory of good intentions.

But blackface isn’t impolite, it’s plain and simple racist. It calls up a whole history of exploitation, stereotyping and marginalisation of black people. There’s no hyperlink here because there’s an entire library of work on the subject. There is very little in this library about how to act like a non-racist in polite society, but there is a lot about the history of oppression.

Meshel Laurie wrote passionately about this recently in response to Mia Freedman’s cry that we were overusing the word racist and diluting its power. If you check it out, don’t forget to read the comments. There you’ll find a running theme of the burden of so-called political correctness. Most of the negative comments can be distilled into one line: You’re making me feel bad and I don’t want to so shut up with your rules already.

It’s the ultimate crazy-making reversal many of us feel tempted to perform when we’re asked to feel some healthy shame. We send the blame back to the person who pointed out our bad behaviour and tell them they’re being cruel and unusual. We focus on this idea that there are rules and that they’re unfair to us and we skirt around the issue that what we’ve done has caused harm. It’s not that big a deal man, I didn’t mean it.

It’s not speaking out against racism that’s diluting its power, it’s mistaking racism for a simple lack of courtesy that’s hurting the cause of real change. Because racism has been hijacked as just another form of rudeness, there’s a hue and cry for the freedom to be racist to avoid the constraints of being asked to be so outrageously polite. Because of course politeness doesn’t have a great track record in the freedom Olympics.

Authentic expressions of a need for inclusion and accurate representation by people who were marginalised have now been co-opted into a kind of social rulebook that leaves out history. We may know we are not supposed to say crip, cow, towelhead, homo or retard anymore, but we’ve forgotten why.

This leaves us free to apologise for accidentally offending someone rather than for being racist, sexist, homophobic or discriminatory. We can just say sorry if we hurt anyone’s feelings — really, sincerely we are, we had no intention — and then change absolutely nothing in our lives or in our understanding of other people.

The objectives of so-called political correctness have been hijacked in the last 15 years by the minstrels of politeness. Somehow racism has been turned into an accident that we apologise for rather than an issue of power and privilege that requires righting and restitution.

This is part of how we routinely avoid shame. We substitute acting right for living well. We try to bypass the hard bits of the learning and we go for a veneer of understanding.

This is because real learning is hard. It hurts. If you’ve ever really learned anything of value then you’ve felt some shame along the way.

You’ve probably hit stuff learning to drive or fallen over skateboarding or embarrassed yourself learning to have sex. And if you’re white, you’ve benefited from racism. If you’ve had your consciousness raised in any way, you’ll know that shame is not an optional ingredient in the process.

So it’s no wonder we’ve got our eyes glued to this conversation. It’s a hot one and there are no safe places on the sidelines. And politeness is the last refuge for those of us too scared to be asked the hard questions.

[This article was first published at New Matilda.]

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