Things are not as simple as they first seem. When you think of racism, chances are you conjure images of skinheads, not institutions at the heart of our society. When you think of the head of an extreme-right movement in Australia, you probably don’t think of someone whose parents are Italian and Aboriginal, and whose wife is Vietnamese. Two sessions at WORD Christchurch and Christchurch Arts Festival’s Shifting Points of View series, Why I am no Longer Talking to White People About Race and Depends what you mean by Extremist, explored some of the complex currents expressing themselves through racism and in extremist movements in Australia.
‘Whiteness is a powerful ideology, which you can you see more clearly when it hasn’t been working for you.’ Reni Eddo-Lodge, at just 28 years of age, presented her fresh articulations of racism and white privilege in conversation with playwright Victor Rodgers, when they discussed her book Why I Am No Longer Talking to White People About Race.
The book stemmed from a blog post she had written ‘out of fatigue’ from her experiences in leftists and activist circles, where she was labelled as divisive for questioning the groups’ discomfort with addressing racism. Finding it very difficult to have conversations with people who were unwilling to acknowledge that racism still existed, and that it benefited them, she wrote a book to have the conversation in her own terms.
While the extremist edge to racism is highly visible, other parts of the dominant white ideology – ‘a political project of hundreds of years’ – have less of a profile. We don’t talk about it nearly as much; we are less critical of it. Reni is an astute diagnostician: structural racism is supported by bastions of silencing, wilful oversights and the fact that conversations about race have been led by those who haven’t been affected by it (at least not in a negative way). Reni underlined that it is critical to talk about how racism manifests and how it is justified, because otherwise we fall into complacency. She explained to Rodger that she wanted to include context, history and how race shapes power in her book to respond to this.
Applying her journalistic skills, Reni showed how racial biases are embedded into society’s structures to the benefit of white people. She used data from government resources, which clearly evidenced that black students were much less likely to get into the top schools and more likely to be marked lower at school (these same students received higher grades when marked by independent moderators who did not know them). People with Afro-Caribbean or Asian names were much less likely to be called in for an interview even if their CV showed the same the qualifications and experience.
In a great example of silencing, she talked about omitting parts of history – how UK school students were taught about US civil rights, but nothing about British civil rights or the slave trade. And an example of who was leading the discussions: the Brixton Riots were generally understood to involve two equally weighted sides, but there was ‘no understanding of the daily slights that led to this, why one community felt over policed’. The Metropolitan Police, after an inquiry into the handling of a 19-year-old case where an 18-year-old black teenager was killed, recently found that the police force displayed institutional racism, through their practices of unthinking marginalisation and stereotypes.
The way we talk about race in wider culture has been led by white racial identity. The white ideology is held up as ‘objective’. Reni spoke of writers to illustrate her point. ‘White people don’t have to think about representing other white people’, whereas a black writer, for example, is seen as speaking on behalf of the half of the community. This, Reni points out, is a silly generalisation, an assumption that black culture is something ‘homogenous, as if we went away to some black persons’ conference and decided these were the talking points’. She refuses the label of ‘a representative’, not only because she has no constituency, but also because ‘it strips away individuality’.
The goal is a meritocracy, but for white people to talk about it now (a particularly favoured trope of conservative politicians), is to assume that it exists. Comments such as ‘You don’t work hard enough’ are wilful misunderstandings because it is not a level playing field. Words such as diversity can be troublesome, because the validity of the word depends so much on who’s setting the agenda: ‘I am often on the menu but never at the table’.
It will be an incremental, long slog on the path to change, she warns, but we need to be vigilant and critical of racism, or else we will continue to unwittingly reproduce it.
Australian satirist John Safran with Te Radar
Sunday 10 September, 1pm
The complexities, layers and sub-groups in extremist movements in Australia were up for discussion on Sunday, as Te Radar spoke to satirist John Safran about his book Depends What You Mean by Extremist.
It all began at a far-right protest that Safran turned up at in Melbourne. Expecting skinheads, he was surprised to find the protest to be quite a multicultural example of ‘anti-multicultural protest’. John spotted a Sri Lankan evangelical priest up on a ute with a white nationalist, addressing the crowds. These strange bed-fellows were ‘providing each other moral cover’ in their shared anti-Islam sentiment: one could claim his evangelical messages were not so ‘out there’ as they were being received at this rally; the other could claim he wasn’t racist. These complexities and ironies instantly piqued John’s creative instinct.
He started an investigation into the world of extremists and fringe elements in Australia: the far right, ISIS supporters and the hard left. He started writing about them in the eighteen months pre-Trump and pre-Brexit, and he found that over the course of that time ‘the world started to meet up with fringe groups’.
He had entered a complex world, which he compared to gum stuck in the carpet, gathering fluff, hair and dust – impossible to pick apart. There were many layers to the extremist groups and a bizarre, incongruous mix of messages and agendas to suit purposes. The far right appropriated feminist arguments to promote their anti-Islam agenda; the hard-left leveraged anti-bullying of Muslim messages to bring traction to their own agenda, which was ‘to pull the rug out from society’. There was the Muslim fundamentalist who was also a Monty Python and MAD fan. And then there was an unsettling movement of ideas. Claims from the far-right that atheism was the true Islamophobia eventually turned up and were repeated in leftist circles.
The extreme ideologies held by these groups were bleeding into public discourse and being repackaged into the mainstream, under waving Ausssie flags and calls for the right to freedom of speech: ‘Aren’t you sick of political correctness?’ These groups have successfully paved the way for what John calls Pauline Hanson’s second coming. He had the chance to talk her a few weeks ago, and the conversation aptly illustrated the absurdity of these strange times in which we find ourselves. You couldn’t write it.
John questioned her about being aligned with Asian groups against Islam, in what was a complete about face. When she denied this (in spite of extensive television coverage of her anti-Asian immigration views), Safran asked her how the public could be sure she wouldn’t do another turn around. She replied ‘You will never see me in a burka’. A promise, Safran drily noted, one would have thought would have been easy to keep.
Attended and Reviewed on behalf of Booksellers NZ by Emma Johnson
Why I am no longer talking to white people about race
by Reni Eddo-Lodge
Published by Bloomsbury
Depends what you mean by extremist
by John Safran
Published by Hamish Hamilton Ltd