Not Racist, But…
The phrase 'I'm not racist, but...' can act as a red flag, warning that what is about to follow will reveal the speaker's underlying prejudices. So why is the phrase being used increasingly frequently – and do those who use it recognise they turn themselves into objects of ridicule? Connor Tomas O'Brien explores the shifting language of bigotry.
Google is an intelligent engine designed to synthesise all human knowledge, but sometimes it can parrot back our prejudices. Google autocomplete, for example, speeds up search by pre-empting what a user might be looking for, but by returning previous search queries sourced from an anonymised mass of users, can amplify private bigotry.
If you begin typing ‘I’m not racist, but’ into Google’s search bar, the search engine’s system sometimes acts strangely. Occasionally, it hangs on ‘I’m not racist, but I hate black people’ as a default suggestion, before the autocomplete repopulates in a fraction of a second with Demetri Martin’s comedic non sequitur ‘I’m not racist, but you look great today’. On other occasions, it suggests searches like ‘am not racist but am separatist’, ‘not racist but proud to be white’, ‘i'm not racist but i don't like interracial’, or ‘not racist but culturalist’. The algorithm, fated – without some tweaking – to endlessly repeat popular search queries, becomes the inadvertent mouthpiece of those who seek to assure themselves their prejudices are valid.
The Anita Heiss poem ‘I’m Not Racist, But’, written in 2002, predates the introduction of Google autocomplete by two years, but it’s structurally identical – a list of supposed justifications for racist behaviour that work to complete the sentence:
I'm not racist but...
Why can't I climb Ayres Rock?
Why don't they get jobs like everyone else?
Did you hear the one about?
Why are Aborigines so angry?
Why don't they just get over it - the past is the past?
Why do I have to say sorry for something I didn't do?
I'm not racist but...
They're all drunks?
They don't wash?
The kids roam the streets at night?
They look dangerous!!!
I'm not racist but...
I wouldn't pick one up in my cab
I wouldn't want my daughter to marry one
I wouldn't rent my flat to one
I wouldn't employ one
I'm not racist because...
I played football with one once
I worked with one once
I use the word Koori
I let them sit next to me on the bus
I walked over the Harbour Bridge
I signed a hand
I gave money to one begging on the street
I'm not racist...
I'm simply privileged by being white
I'm just speaking from a position of power
I'm just observing the obvious
I'm not racist,
I'm just following the lead of my prime minister!
Google’s autocomplete algorithm now recreates Heiss’s work every day.
I’m not racist, but...
It’s possible to track back decades and centuries to find early examples of those attempting to cloak racist arguments in the thinnest veneers of ‘not racist, but’ political correctness. A 1914 issue of Queensland’s The Northern Miner, for example, features an article about South Africa’s Indian problem’:
‘The difficulty at present is mainly economic, not racial,’ the anonymous journalist writes, before warning of an ‘influx to South Africa of people other than [whites] of the highest social and political efficiency’.
In a 1969 letter to the editor published in the Canberra Times, meanwhile, the writer – one S.J. Mayne of Curtin – offers a multi-paragraph ‘not racist, but’:
We have only to consider how we reacted to seeing that old lady from Japan casting blossoms upon the waters of Sydney Harbour where her son died long ago to know that in our heart of hearts we are not racist monsters. The students from Asia and Africa whom we see among us are genuinely welcome here, we are glad to see them and would welcome them into our homes. And yet we know that if 1,000 students became 100,000 migrants…
No matter where you search – newspapers, books, search terms – the phrase ‘not racist, but’ only seems to increase in frequency over time. Why? In one sense, it seems reflective of how bigotry shifts: as outright racism is recognised as despicable, those who hold xenophobic opinions are forced to lean heavily on confusing constructions in which racist views are expressed at the same time as racism itself is repudiated. As Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane has suggested, those who continue to make use of ‘not racist, but’ phrasing often recast racism such that subtle expressions of prejudice, or jokes at the expense of other racial groups, are not recognised as strictly ‘racist’ at all. When ‘real racism’ is reduced to only incorporate easily condemnable expressions of violence or abuse – nonsensical expletive-laden rants on public transport, or fatal altercations between groups of different racial backgrounds – it becomes possible for individuals to view their own prejudices as comparatively trivial.
Of course, the relationship between race, ethnicity, culture, nationality and religion is fraught, and the slippages between the terms often provide an opening for individuals to present racial bigotry as cultural critique. When another’s race, for example, is separated from their expression of racial identity, a whole slew of ‘not racist, but’ arguments make themselves available. When columnist Andrew Bolt suggested that footballer Adam Goodes was ‘not booed because of his “race” [but] because of what he does’ – including an ‘inflammatory, race-loaded’ Aboriginal war dance – ‘race’ was conceptualised so tightly as to exclude both culture and behavior. Similarly, when Pauline Hanson recently argued that ‘I’m not a racist – criticism is not racism’, the definition of ‘racist’ was narrowed to seemingly exclude all speech not directly inciting racially-motivated violence.
When ‘not racist, but’ is wielded, then, a lot seems to be going on: a speaker might construct an exaggerated model of a xenophobe, then distance themselves from the distorted caricature they have created; or limit ‘racism’ to expressions of violence or senseless abuse; or redefine ‘race’ to separate it from culture or identity. Because ‘racist’ connotes irrational prejudice, it makes sense that so many racist opinions, now, are expressed by those adamant that they are not racially bigoted.
Bigotry is easy to find on the web, but because those who express intolerant views often do so obliquely, certain phrases act as red flags. When deployed unironically, phrases like ‘I’m not racist, but’, ‘I’m not homophobic’, and ‘I don’t hate women’ can often quickly reveal the underlying prejudices of otherwise unknowable commenters. In attempting to assert themselves as one thing (not racist, not homophobic, not sexist), commenters who reach for ‘but-heads’ often reveal themselves as the opposite.
Because it is trivially easy to search the web for every instance of an ‘I’m not racist, but’, Google readily offers up hundreds of thousands of examples of users attempting to justify their prejudices publicly. On sites like Yo, Is This Racist?, Tumblr blogs like notracistbut.com and Twitter accounts like @YesYoureRacist, galleries of the most egregious ‘not racist, but’ arguments are collated and presented in galleries. Elsewhere, the #notracistbut hashtag allows anyone to contribute to parodies in which the phrases are reappropriated and rendered manifestly ridiculous. Often, these kinds of memes offer an effective rebuttal to poorly thought-out arguments: a Cyanide and Happiness cartoon featuring a pimply, hairy hindquarters – the ‘I’m Not Racist Butt’ – opens itself up to being pasted into conversation threads whenever an injudicious ‘I’m not racist, but’ appears. It’s difficult to continue a line of argument in full force when you’ve been revealed as an ass.
On video-sharing sites like Vine, meanwhile, #notracistbut is a tag in which racist arguments and stereotypes are neatly deconstructed and rendered nonsensical in six-second loops.
‘Not to be racist or anything, but I love goat cheese,’ starts Vine user Not Even Emily in a clip that has already looped over eight million times .
‘That’s not even racist,’ she replies, playing a baffled friend.
‘Well,’ uhhmmily says, snapping. ‘I said I wasn’t being racist.’
The clip repeats, over and over.
‘Not to be racist’ is not far from ‘I’m not racist, but’, though it is far enough for Google’s autocomplete to throw up a different spread of suggestions entirely. Underneath ‘Not to be racist but Asians’, Google autosuggests something else: ‘I love goat cheese,’ it tries.