Time was when the charge of racism packed a genuine punch, but that was before the word’s meaning was turned on its head by mis-use, over-use and those who insist, in the vile tradition of Nazism and the Klan, that race and ancestry are the key determinants of who and what we are
Back in February, The Australian published a news item detailing how an Aboriginal community leader in the Pitjantjatjarra lands of north-west South Australia was alleged to have called a senior administrator and other staff members “white c***s” and “white pieces of sh**” for not following his orders. One suspects this might not have been a new experience. Indeed, I have even been so described myself on occasions, for example in conversations like:
“Got a cigarette?”
“Sorry mate, I don’t smoke.”
“Racist white c***.”
What you will observe is that the term “racist” being used exactly in the same way as the word “c***”. It no longer has any real meaning, except as an expression of abuse intended to promote offence. If we were to be entirely honest, the practical definition of both words would be something like: ‘A person who stands in the way of what I want.’
These days, the word “racist” appears to be used most commonly in accord with that definition, so most would fail to be offended by having that term flung at them. Incidentally, since most people do not invoke race as the primary and defining attribute of their identities, the term “white” can hardly be considered offensive. On the mining sites where I have worked one meets people of all races, nationalities, religions, and ethnicities, but almost universally people tend to identify themselves by their occupations and professions, not their ancestry.
But offence is very much intended all the same. When “racist” is bandied about there is a clear and obvious attempt to label the target as a monster, some vile species of white supremacist, and one can only wonder why such bids to cause offence generally prompt so little in the way of reaction. So why is it that being labelled a white supremacist — on the face of it, a dreadful accusation — causes so little angst?
When I was a boy a “racist” was a person who believed in the existence of inherent genetic differences, and further, that these differences were highly significant factors in determining intelligence, aptitudes and, most perniciously, the nature and extent of permissible relationships between those of different racial backgrounds. In its most extreme form this belief took flesh in the form of the Nazis’ race laws, which calibrated acceptance in terms of the individual’s generational distance from Jewish and other strains of untermensch ancestry. By contrast, any sane and rational person subscribed then and now to the view that differences between races are superficial and the right to equality and equal treatment are givens. I can cite no official figures or survey results to support my case, but I remain confident in saying that, even during the distant days of my childhood, the absolute bulk of thinking Australians fitted into this fair-minded category, with only a few on the margins having genuinely “racist” beliefs.
Now, fast forward to the present day, when denying that race is a key determinant in a person’s identity is considered to be itself a racist provocation. Somehow, in an inversion of what had been the norm, the “non-racist” is the one who argues there are differences between races, that identity based on race is fundamental to defining social divisions, and that even a small percentage of specific ancestry is of great significance.
The term “racist” is currently being used according to this new definition. Thus, a person who believes, and has always believed, that racial differences are superficial and insignificant can be labelled “racist” and tarred as an alleged upholder of white supremacy and the foul legacy of Nazi philosophy.
At the end of the day, those inclined to use race as the primary attribute of identity are the real promoters of racial differentiation. I suspect their very success in re-defining racism and debasing the currency of that word and its real meaning by over-use and mis-use — turning it on its head, in effect — will be their downfall. After all, who can by offended by a word now stripped entirely of all meaning?