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Where Is the R-Line?

21 Jun 2012

Four beers into the barbeque and the host is waxing lyrical. He launches into to a joke about a certain ethnic group and their driving ability. It’s vaguely amusing and there is no one around from said group to offend.

He gathers up some steam, he’s run out of punch-lines but starts making his views known on the cleanliness and dress habits of another demographic. There is a surly edge to the comments, but, again, everyone who is listening falls outside the group he is mouthing off at.

Next day at work you see him chipping away at the Indian colleague in the staffroom, nothing too threatening, just a cajoling that could be dismissed as harmless banter until you saw the look on the guy’s face.

Here’s the challenge – at what point has your mate crossed the R-line into racism – and once its been crossed, what should you do?

Over the past few months, I have been watching people talk about their attitudes to racism, specifically whities living in suburbs close to significant ethnic populations, places like the south-west of Sydney and Melbourne’s northern suburbs

This hasn’t been a process of casual eaves-dropping, I’m paid to run focus groups, where a group of punters are invited to sit around a table, eat pizza and tell it like they sit..

My challenge was to get a handle on how people we refer to as ‘bystanders’ respond to racism – not people who have overt racist attitudes, but those of us who see ourselves as tolerant and supportive of a diverse society ie: the bulk of the Australian population.

So where is the R-line? Most of us think it’s a fair way over their horizon,

Talk about migration and the starting point for most Australians is that diversity is a good thing – it starts with food – but it seeps into the idea of richer cultural life for everyone. We’re not racist, but …

Beyond the local takeaway, we don’t see race as being part of their day to day life, it’s no big deal. But without even thinking about it we will describe our neighbourhoods as being made of ‘Aussies’ and others – a sign that under the surface we are not as colour-blind as it may seem.

We are not racist but certain issues hit a raw nerve. Take the annual story that

Muslims want to ban Christmas. Everyone seems to have hear about it and it unleashes strong views about the impact new arrivals are having on our culture. In this context, if they want to stop us celebrating our customs, then its clear things break both ways. (The fact that only people who seem to be promoting the idea of banning Christmas run alternative Montesori schools with a Muslim population of zero, is an inconvenient truth we won’t go into here.)

Likewise, when we see groups of ethnic people speaking among themselves in a language other than English we see it as intrusive and imposing – ‘they could be talking about us’ is a common refrain.

In all these little ways there is a sense of suspicion about things we don’t quite understand – not a hostility, more a tightening of our collective neck muscles as we work out where we stand with these people who seem different to us.

Where we have personal dealings with people from different backgrounds we are overwhelmingly positive, we joke with our diverse workmates – and we see the ability to crack jokes about each other as a sign of our cohesiveness rather than our difference.

But we also acknowledge there’s an R-line that exists where things stop being funny and someone is starting to feel demeaned or threatened or something worse.

The tough thing when you are in the majority is knowing when that line has been crossed; you can’t know what something else is thinking, let alone feeling.

And when we do see that line being crossed, it’s hard to know what to do.

Most people in our  groups like to think that they would step in when they thought someone they knew was being harassed by words or inappropriate jokes.

But here the bigger problem emerges. We just don’t quite know what to say. Do we jump into a situation at work or on the street and inflame it, or make us a target? Or do we pull the loudmouth aside for a quiet word and risk being called PC or worse.

It’s as if we have good intentions to step up but lack the tools to deal with the issue. And instead we sit back in silence, a little unsettled and embarrassed, and the person dishing out the unkind words takes it as approval.

Watching these groups got me thinking about the Cronulla riots from a few years back in a way that I don’t think has had an airing before.

What if the people involved never intended things to go that far? What if it was a case of a few loudmouths who took other people’s silence as support? What if no one knew how to step in and diffuse the situation? What if a whole community lost control because they just didn’t have the tools to calm things down?

A few young women from the Shire participated in the groups: they were horrified and confused about their national image, embodied in this statement ‘well its racist to think everyone from the Shire is a racist”.

On one level she is probably right but she is missing something – the element of power that means that those in the majority, by definition, don’t have to worry about being singled out and diminished.

After a couple of decades of celebrating diversity, most Australians would hate to consider themselves racists, most of us have friends, neighbours and workmates from different backgrounds.

Yet in many ways we still send out the sign that we are the owners of an exclusive club, we will let you in if you behave yourselves, but that means acting on our terms and if you do something that doesn’t meet our standards we can always show you the door.

It seems to me that only thing we have to fear from naming ‘racism’ wherever we see it and being prepared to speak up, respectfully, when we confront it, is a society where everyone feels better about themselves.

As one participant in the groups said on the way out: “It’s about looking at the world from someone else’s shoes and making sure you would be happy with how things are if you were there.” Atticus Finch would be proud.

–Peter Lewis