Racism: what even are you? Dr Jason King

Last Tuesday I wandered into my local barber shop for a trim.  As I entered there was an empty chair so I sat down and gave my usual request to Nick, the barber.  It is a small shop, only two chairs, in a neighbourhood of largely white, conservative professionals and retired wheat farmers.

In the seat alongside me there was a well-healed chap of about seventy.  He was espousing his thoughts on the recent “Black Lives Matter” demonstrations in the US of America.  As he spoke footage of the uglier scenes of the recent week were flashing across the CNN news feed on the small television that entertains the waiting hirsute.

Towards the end of this chap’s trim he said: “We are much better in Australia, we never had slavery or the sort of stuff you see over there…  There aren’t any Australians alive today who ever went through that history, we can all just move on.”

How did I respond?  There was about a minute in which a silence grew between us.  I knew that I should offer my opinion.  An opinion born from my experience and friendships with many of the very people whom he had whitewashed out of his consciousness.  But no.  I let it slide.

Now, I would like to think that I was merely being polite.  After all, there is not much to be gained by starting a debate in a barber shop with a man who has most likely not changed his mind since the first Bush was president.  This is partly true.  I do tend to be a bit of an introvert in public… but that is not the real reason.

I do not really understand racism.  Sure, I know the history and the undeniable impacts on our society.  However, I do not know what it is to be on ‘the other side’.  I have no lived experience of racism [aside from a few momentary discomforts when travelling in Africa: read Namibian Didge Lessons].  As such I cannot speak from my own experience.  It is disingenuous for me to be offended or outraged by the casual racism that we see in everyday interactions in this country and others.  This does not excuse or justify my silence.

I am in a fortunate position, people listen to me because of the colour of my skin, gender and the chance of my birthplace.   It is my duty to exercise this power in order to try and right the wrongs that our forebears have perpetuated through millennia.  Whenever I have an opportunity to speak to an audience I consciously include a message about the health inequality that Aboriginal Australians endure.  But that is big picture stuff. In a way that is easy.

To generate change in my own community I need to be prepared to speak up in all of those ‘little moments’.  That may mean entering these microscopic pitch battles in barber shops.  Our silence is deafening.  We cannot “let it slide” any longer.

What I need is words.  A pragmatic, premeditated plan to confront racism in my community – either online or in the supermarket queue.  I am a shy man by nature.  Confrontation and base-argumentation are not the way to create change within the minds of our misguided majority.  We need to open their eyes, to engage and allow that most human of traits – empathy – to work its magic.  Humans rarely hate when they know.  Racism is born of ignorance and unfamiliarity.  Only when we have seen and heard the experiences and voices of our Aboriginal people can we start to change.

What is it to be an Aboriginal person in 2020?  That I cannot tell you, that I can only share with you.

The following piece is written by Dr Jason King.  Jason is a Yued Noongar GP (just north of the Perth in WA).  He currently works in Yarrabah, Far North Queensland.   Jason and I both entered the University of Western Australia Medical School in 1994.  We both arrived as part of “affirmative action” intake policy.  I just made the cut as I was a farm boy from the bush;  Jason as an Indigenous student.  Our journeys through the next ten years were very different but we both ended up practicing together in Broome for a few years.

So please read his thoughts and meditate upon them.  Start planning how you will enact change in your circle.  Do not be offended or outraged. Become an implement for change. Thankyou Jason for allowing me to share your words.

Now over to Jason…


What even are you?

“Don’t you dare touch that statue, that’s our history, our culture, our identity!”

“What? Stolen Generations, Frontier massacres, Destruction of Country? I didn’t’ do anything, that’s ancient history, why are you banging on about it all the time? Why don’t you let it go?”

“I read the news today, oh boy.

Rio [Tinto] blew up 15000 years of history”

What is racism? Is it pointing out differences between ethnocultural groups? Is it parodying those differences for laughs? Is “White Chicks”… racism or just offensive?

Here’s the thing… Racism is not just “offense”. That term is too easily hand waved as weak or derided by the “toughen up snowflake” alt-right crowd and it does not even begin to accurately describe what happens to the victim. Being offended might put you off your day, but racism can put you off for life. Racism damages the victim physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually and socially. Racism causes harm, very real harm. Racism punches down the societal power gradient. It keeps the minority in their place, it places a ceiling on their lives, it confines expectations, it ridicules and belittles, it taunts and it wounds. It perpetuates oppression, mistreatment and inequality. A person being offended by “White Chicks” does not lie on a bed of oppression, dispossession, mistreatment by the larger portion of society. A child watching “White Chicks” doesn’t look at the world around themselves and see that the portrayal depicted reflects a reality that confines their achievements to a set of low-ball expectations, limit their potential to something that fits some outdated view of ethnic superiority. The world around a child or adult “offended” by “White Chicks” does not reduce their chances of success or lead to poorer outcomes in life.

Racism does.

Racism is a weapon, used to injure the victim, used to reassure the perpetrator that their position in the world is assured, safe as it was when the Endeavour rolled down the East Coast and Cook with his outstretched hand declared the lands the possession of the Crown and Governor Burke made the proclamation of “Terra Nullius”, racism was the weapon by which that was achieved. It was racism whereby children were stolen from their mothers, fathers, grandfathers and social structures were systematically dismantled and degraded leaving generations of grandparents, fathers, mothers and children to pick up the pieces. It was racism that lead to the enslavement of those children unto the hands of pastoralists to be “house servants”, “jackeroos”, “station hands” and “wet nurses” for white children. It was the weapon of racism that stole South Sea Islanders via blackbirding and lead to the drowning of Indigenous pearlers because they were less than human, expendable chattels, replaceable stock.

Racism is the insidious cancer inside you that makes you feel safe and superior and assuages your fear of the other.

Racism is the fear handed down from father to son, mother to daughter, grandparent to grandchild through overt statements or sly, joking comments

“He’s a flog” says grandad as he sits with little Billy watching the footy with a raised eyebrow. “Did you know they all get free university?”

Racism is a disease that has infested generations of Australians. A disease passed down to children by the very people who are supposed protect them from damage and create citizens who make the world better…

For me, this resonates with my experience as a kid growing up in white Australia.
I have learned a lot in the years since then, mostly through spending time in Aboriginal communities and getting to know people.
So here is how I will approach my next barbershop racist:
Politely disagree.  Explain that racism is not a “thing of the past” but still very real in every town in Australia.
I will tell an anecdote about friends who have suffered or been disadvantaged by racist thinking or systems.  I will use names.
Instead of arguing that “there was indeed slavery”, I would ask them to explain how they arrived at that conclusion.  Ignorance is easy to upend.
As Jason says: “Racism is a disease” our role is to immunise, one individual at a time.



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