The Issue of Intent: the rise of unacknowledged racism

Can ignorance really be used a defence against charges of racism? In the wake of recent controversies, Kemal Atlay explores the phenomenon of 'unintentional racism'.

Australia is a paradox. As a nation that’s made multiculturalism work, however precariously, for decades, it’s the envy of some European countries still struggling to accommodate their growing immigrant populations. It’s also, fundamentally, a nation unable to come to terms with its own black history.

This inability to reconcile past and present – and to nurture policies to keep multiculturalism properly course-corrected – manifests differently over time. In eras when the flames of overt racism are fanned, it expresses itself in Stolen Generations and race riots. At other times, Australian racism is expressed more furtively – reflected, now by the growing insistence in some quarters that racism should be excused if the act was not consciously intended to offend. ‘I didn’t mean to be racist,’ has become the immediate defence for many offenders.

Intentional or not, acts of racism do not occur within a vacuum. But instead of acknowledging the hurtful and divisive nature of racist behaviour and using it to educate ourselves and strengthen our multicultural identity, there is a growing insistence that racism should be excused if the act was borne out of ignorance, as opposed to outright hatred. The excuse of ‘intent’ is now so widespread that it pervades almost every facet of Australian public life.

Intentional or not, acts of racism do not occur within a vacuum. But instead of acknowledging the hurtful and divisive nature of racist behaviour and using it to educate ourselves and strengthen our multicultural identity, there is a growing insistence that racism should be excused if the act was borne out of ignorance, as opposed to outright hatred.

Last year, Sydney Swans player Adam Goodes was forced to take time away from the game after rounds of relentless booing by match-goers. The animosity shown towards Goodes, which had been building since a 2013 incident when he had called out a 13-year-old girl for ignorantly racist behaviour, reached its climax during the Indigenous Round when Goodes performed an Indigenous war dance. In the following rounds, when the booing intensified, fans and certain commentators refused to back down. They argued that the jeers weren’t because Goodes was Indigenous but because he had behaved ‘like a pillock’. It was clear, though, that fans were nowhere near as vocal about the on-field behavior of other players. It was clear, too, as Stan Granted noted, that Goodes’ pain was shared by many Indigenous Australians.

Nakkiah Lui, Indigenous writer-actor and star of ABC’s Black Comedy, delivered a speech last year in which she spoke about the nature of white privilege, and how works to allow the excuse of intent to endure. White privilege, Lui argued, controls the terms of debate, and dictates what forms of outrage are permissible – and what are not. Now, there are concerted efforts to shut down outrage over racism by muddying the waters with the word ‘intent’.

Ignorance and the excuse of intent is deployed in a manner that suggests the perpetrator could not possibly comprehend what people of colour might consider racist. The argument seems to be, ‘Why bother learning about the experiences of people of colour when they are just going to get offended anyway?’ – leading, naturally, to hollow non-apologies that direct fault with those who are offended, and away from the offender themselves.

As an annual event, Australia Day serves to illuminate how slowly progress is really being made on racial issues. As increasingly nuanced conversations percolate around January 26th and the symbolic significance of changing the date or name of Australia Day, or adopting a new national flag, others actively cloak themselves in the excuse of ‘intent’ to argue that their celebration of white invasion should not be interpreted as offensive.

Recently, a fresh incident – involving Alice Kunek, star of the Australian Opals basketball team, posting photographs of herself in blackface – has exposed the logical fallacies of the ‘intent’ argument. In a series of tweets, Kunek was called out by her teammate, Liz Cambage, who blasted Kunek’s behaviour as ‘disgusting’. Cambage, whose father is Nigerian, said she had ‘been dealing with [this] behavior since we were kids’, and was ‘shocked and disturbed to see this behaviour’. Although Kunek issued a swift apology, she claimed ignorance and expected the public to believe that she could not be racist when she had not intended to be.

On the ABC’s The Drum, Senator Jacqui Lambie said, ‘I really don’t believe that Australians are becoming this precious’. On 3AW, Neil Mitchell said ‘it wasn’t generic blackface’ and claimed that Cambage was overreacting. Countless white voices joined them to air their grievances in public.

However, when BuzzFeed Australia’s Indigenous affairs reporter Allan Clarke, who also happens to be an Indigenous Australian, appeared on Channel Ten’s The Project to discuss the issue of blackface, things were put into perspective. ‘It’s a grotesque caricature of slaves,’ said Clarke. ‘That’s how it originally started and it’s evolved into a way of demeaning a race of people. In Australia, Aboriginal people feel offended by it.’

When Steve Price jumped in to tell Clarke he was ‘overreacting’, Clarke replied that we should ‘let the people of colour define what’s racist, let them define what’s offensive to them’. In support, co-host Waleed Aly pointed out, ‘there’s a difference between whether she was being racist, as in she was intending to be racist, and the idea that that practice is a racist practice.’

Ignorance is not a defence, and excusing racist acts based on this misguided notion of intent achieves nothing other than further entrenching racism. White Australians need to start actively engaging with people of colour in order to learn about their subjective experiences. Only then can we actually stop being a paradox.

Portrait of Kemal Atlay

Kemal Atlay is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist who enjoys writing about science and waging war against Sydney-siders

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