The R word, fifteen years on

Back in 2004, I wrote that

There is only one real instance of political correctness in Australia today and that is that you are never, ever allowed to call anyone a racist. It’s OK to say that Adolf Hitler was a racist, and that apartheid was racist, but the idea that any actual Australian could be a racist is utterly taboo.

Of course, the same was true in the US. But after two and a half years of an openly racist Trump Presidency in the US, the taboo seems finally to be open to challenge. Opinion writers and individual Democratic politicians have been calling out Trump’s racism for some time, but news reports have stuck with lame euphemisms like “racially charged”, or saying that “critics have called it racist”

In the wake of the House resolution condemning Trump latest racist tweets, the ground may have shifted, at least a little. Quite a few news organizations have used the R-word, in their own voice, to describe Trump’s “go back to where you came from” tweets, and others have tiptoed towards the line.

Most notably. CNN political reports are now referring to Trump’s “racist jabs” in matter-of-fact terms, noting that Trump sees them as politically advantageous and discussing the implications for the 2020 campaign. (Hat tip: Daniel Quiggin). 

There’s still quite a few steps to go before the taboo is ended. Even moving from “Trump’s racist tweets” to “Trump’s racism” will take a fair bit of courage. And so far only CNN has used the word routinely. The NY Times hasn’t even got past “widely seen as racist.” . (For that matter, it’s still calling Trump’s lies “falsehoods” to avoid feeding ” the mistaken notion that we’re taking political sides.”

This isn’t just a matter of rhetoric. It’s difficult to do any kind of political analysis clearly if one of the main political tendencies can’t be named. Trump’s re-election hopes depend to a large extent on motivating racist Republicans to vote and on peeling off the remaining racists from the Democratic Party. Try to make this obvious point without using the R word and you end up with obfuscation or worse, such as the use of”working class” as code for racism.  

61 thoughts on “The R word, fifteen years on

  1. If most Palestinian children who die, die with a bullet through the brain, and their head was just in an Israeli cross-hair, what is your conclusion from this? If you are going to play hypotheticals all night, try that one on for size.

    Does it mean that the Israeli solider cannot shoot straight for example?

  2. The reason why Goodes was booed but the other 70 Aboriginal players aren’t booed is obvious. He was the one player who took a very public stand against racism after he was called an ‘ape’. Thousands of casual racists, who are fine with Aboriginal players so long as they keep quiet and don’t accuse anyone of being a racist, objected to this one particular ‘uppity black’ challenging their own casual racism in such a dramatic manner. The booing was quite clearly racially-charged.

  3. ” I’ve lived in Australia for 20 years, now longer than anywhere else. Yet most people I meet outside work will ask me “Where are you from?” Some will insist that I give them an answer even after I try to signal that I don’t wish to do so (and if asked insist that my accent is ‘interesting’ and that they ‘can’t place it’). ”
    Wait, you actually are an immigrant with an accent that shows it and still complain about that question? Oh come on. Its a pretty standard question even when one speaks ones mother language with the wrong local accent just about everywhere in the world….

  4. Hix, he’s letting us know he’s sick of it and maybe we should try to come up with it something else. I have to admit, I’ve done it myself, but only when I thought someone had a Dutch accent so I could avoid them. (There are only two things in this world I can’t stand. People who are intolerant of other people’s cultures, and the Dutch.)

  5. “Wait, you actually are an immigrant with an accent that shows it and still complain about that question? ”

    YES (and I explained that HAVING to answer the question during the first conversation makes me feel ‘a foreigner’ a person who can never BELONG anywhere, not to mention the rudeness of those who ask).

    What exactly are you ‘saying/implying’ with your question? I am puzzled.

    I should stop there.

    Some of us are not `fortunate’ enough to feel that they ‘belong’, or that they are from somewhere else (take a person who say is born to a Malaysian immigrant muslim mother and a 7th generation australian father – as is the case of one of today’s australian artists and who is constantly made to question his ‘belonging’ by “pretty standard behaviour” of his fellow australians).

    I can understand that you can’t understand. Since your asking is more painful for me, than your non asking is for you, just accept that you have no RIGHT to ask me. Unless your aim is to unsettle me. And since you insist, I can only conclude that you do not care about how I feel. Are you being recist? Or simply cruel? Or thinking that this is your country so you can do as you please and as a foreigner I have to please you? Or you can’t see things from someone else’s perspective?

    NOTE in front of the law, we are the same, so I get to have a say! You need to listen.

    A lot of things that were “pretty standard” have had to be changed and many more will be change when we realise that they are ‘wrong’.
    Standard does not mean right!

  6. I am the Anonymous above

    I do understand the ‘curiosity’ and must admit that I have asked the question once recently.
    I am not sure why I did (maybe I thought I’d try and be like those who ask, or more likely I was trully intrigued for once), given how I feel about this.
    I actually saw the person’s disappointment when I asked and felt mortified. That was the first and last time I asked. If they wish to share they will, without me having to ask.

  7. @hix
    Am I an australian in your opinion or an immigrant? If I am treated as an immigrant australian then it seems (would be easy to conclude) that I am not ‘fully’ an australian, that I ‘miss’ something, that I cannot ‘trully’ be like you. But this implies so many other things that are to my disanvantage and gives you the right to easily ‘dismiss’ me, to dismiss my ability to contribute to a discussion as a ‘true’ australian which I obviously am not in your eyes.
    This may be of benefit to the ‘true’ australian, generous enough to let me ‘in’, but also keen to let me know my place. It is not of benefit to me.

    And you will say that you “don’t really mean any of this with your question”.

    I can’t know your intentions so we have to base our behaviour on something that we all know and something that does not disadvantage anyone.

  8. It was made abundantly clear to me early in my school years that it didn’t matter what colour you were, where you were born, or where your parents came from — if you didn’t like cricket you weren’t a real Australian. So I’m not a real Australian and my suddenly becoming ineligible to stand for Federal Parliament just feels like the law catching up to this fact.

  9. Toni Morrison’s 1993 address is scripture for the modern era.

    “Her answer can be taken to mean: If it is dead, you have either found it that way or you have killed it. If it is alive, you can still kill it,” Morrison explained. “Whether it is to stay alive, it is your decision. Whatever the case, it is your responsibility.”

    “For Morrison, the “bird” was language, and she warned that everyone is culpable for the precarity of language in civil society. “When language dies, out of carelessness, disuse, indifference and absence of esteem, or killed by fiat,” she continued, “not only she herself, but all users and makers are accountable for its demise.” Through this address, Morrison slyly swiped at the national discourse at the time, which focused on how language should be used to define social, cultural, and political realities.

    “University quads nationwide became a proxy war forconservative ideologues who believed language to be static and rejected its new elasticity, decrying that political correctness was tantamount to oppression. “Ironically, on the 200th anniversary of our Bill of Rights, we find free speech under assault throughout the United States, including on some college campuses.

    “In March, the Associated Press updated its stylebook, instructing newsrooms on how to avoid ambiguous descriptions such as “racially charged” and “racially motivated,” which often stymie the public’s understanding of racism and its tangible effects. Still, many mainstream news organizations continue to rely on the convenience of inventive euphemism, dampening the impact that more direct language could have in framing the administration’s racist cruelty.

    “Morrison’s words back then seem prophetic:
    “Oppressive language does more thanrepresent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. Whether it is obscuring state language or the faux-language of mindless media; whether it is the proud but calcified language of the academy or the commodity driven language of science; whether it is the malign language oflaw-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement ofminorities, hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek—it must be rejected, altered and exposed.

    “Still, Morrison’s speech repudiated the idea that language uttered by those with good or clear intent would inoculate minorities against the rants of despots or demagogues, ignorant, thoughtless people who espouse racist ideas. “There will be more of the language of surveillance disguised as research,”

  10. How To Be an Antiracist
    By Ibram X. Kendi

    “This latest from the National Book Award-winning author is no guidebook to getting woke… Rather, it is a combination of memoir and extension of Kendi’s towering Stamped From the Beginning (2016) that leads readers through a taxonomy of racist thought to anti-racist action… Never wavering…Kendi methodically examines racism through numerous lenses: power, biology, ethnicity, body, culture, and so forth… This unsparing honesty helps readers, both white and people of color, navigate this difficult intellectual territory. Not an easy read but an essential one” (Kirkus (Starred Review)) ”

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