You Don't Get To Decide If Your Slur Is 'Racist'

06/10/2015 9:03 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST

In 1979, at the age of four, three Grade 5 boys grabbed me from the adventure playground at St. Peter's Primary in the Melbourne suburb of Clayton and dragged me away to the back corner of the ovals, behind a line of trees at the back fence of the school.

I was pinned down, repeatedly punched, and forced to eat grass like an animal. At four years old, I didn't know there was the word for what I had experienced, but it didn't take long for me to recognise the feeling of being systematically targeted because of my race.

My life became a pattern of racial abuse, vilification, violence and humiliation.

Today I am a 41-year-old public servant, husband and proud father of one (soon to be two!), living in Canberra. The son of Indian immigrants, I was born in Melbourne and grew up amidst the legacy of a dismantled White Australia Policy.

Australians have been so conditioned, through two centuries of institutionalisation and socialisation, that racism is a widely accepted part of our nation's cultural DNA. To state this publicly is to be considered un-Australian, politically correct, and thin-skinned. Socially, this makes it next to impossible to call out racism, and why when it is, it's often met with a staged response consisting of denial, defensiveness, rationlisation and a host of other tactics.

This is how the argument goes: Something happens that was allegedly racist. For example, Dawn Fraser's comments about Nick Kyrgios.

Some people are offended and say: "Hey, Dawn Fraser, that was racist."

This is met with the response: "That wasn't racist. I'm not a racist person."

The people offended insist: "No, really, that was racist."

The person then makes an apology, which essentially says: "I'm sorry if anyone was offended by my comments. It was not my intention to offend anyone. I'm not racist."

A dimension to the argument about whether it is racist or not is intentional racism versus unintentional racism. Apologies are often in the form of a lack of intention to commit racism. What these kind of apologies demonstrate are a lack of responsibility, and a huge lack of empathy.

The issue should be about taking responsibility for the impact of the comments. Intention is irrelevant. One comment by a former Olympian may not mean that much to her, but it may have a huge impact to someone who has been subjected to a lifetime of racial abuse and vilification.

In the case of Adam Goodes, those defending the booing responded with the 'political correctness gone mad' defence - 'why should I have to change the way I behave because you find it offensive?'

And, sure, good question, don't change your behaviour, if that's who you are-embrace it-but take some personal responsibility and accept that what you're saying is racist. But if you then insist that that was not you're intention, that you're not racist, how about you show some empathy and just stop letting racist gear come out your pie hole when someone tells you it's offensive.

This is not just a football issue, this is also a workplace issue. Adam Goodes should not be subjected to this kind of racial abuse while in the general course of his employment. He was a two-time Brownlow Medalist and Australian of the Year!. It breaks my goddamn heart.

While on the matter of workplace-codes of conduct and other corporate values documents have yet to draw a clear line in the sand about what they are prepared to enforce when it comes to what is acceptable and what is not acceptable regarding racism.

It's easy -- don't be racist at work, intentionally or otherwise. Workplaces need to shut down racism and stop placing the onus on the victim to resolve it.

Racism is not a personal conflict issue that can be appropriately managed by traditional HR methodology.

Organisations need to empower victims of racism. Awareness-raising cupcakes and poster campaigns are not enough. Stamp it out. Period. A live example is playing out before the courts now.

On the occasions when racist behavior can't be defended or denied, the victims can also be disempowered. In a recent incident where a woman was vilified on public transport for wearing a headscarf, nowhere in the media do I recall her opinion being sought.

The victims in these cases are not afforded the cultural authority to speak (or not to speak) freely. A lot of people with mainstream voices appeared entitled to speak for her.

So, here's the thing -- the people with structural power don't get to tell those in subordinate structural power whether they should or should not be offended by something, or what is an acceptable level of racism to call out.

When people who don't have a mainstream cultural voice fail to persuade those who do, the only thing achieved is to dampen even further the voices of the few.

Everyone else has to fight for it. To insist otherwise is to lack an understanding of sociological phenomena and lack a capacity for self-reflection.

The question is not about whether we, as a nation, are racist, the question is 'what do we do now?'.

If that makes some people feel uncomfortable-well good. That's the point.

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