23/09/2015 1:46 PM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST

I'm Not Racist, But...

The fact of the matter is, if someone is offended by your racist "joke" it makes no difference whether you intended it to be hurtful or not. "I didn't mean it in a racist way" or "I didn't mean to upset you" doesn't excuse ignorance.


Video by Tom Compagnoni and Aimie Rigas

Objecting to a racist joke in Australia can, for most people, mean you're immediately labelled a pain in the arse who takes everything too seriously. And the fact that writing a post like this is terrifying, because of the social comments that will come along with it (from disgruntled trolls who like to tell minorities what they should and shouldn't feel, no less), says a lot about the state of our culture.

Consider that 40 percent of Australians have a narrow view of who belongs in our country.

We don't think we're being racist when we start sentences with "I'm not racist, but...[insert racist joke here]" and we can't understand how someone could label us racist when we "have loads of [insert race here] friends".

"It's always hard to put a precise number on things," says Race Discrimination Commissioner, Dr Tim Soutphommasane.

"Survey research does show, however, that about 20 percent of people have experienced verbal racial abuse, and about 11 percent have been excluded from workplace or social activities because of their race."

While 20 percent may seem like a high statistic, is it that surprising?

"No fair-minded person would want to be considered racist," said Dr Soutphommasane. "But sometimes you can say or do things which can have racist implications.

"Passing things off as jokes can make it easier for others to excuse racism as just harmless banter. It also belittles the damage that racism can do to those on the receiving end."

Between 2001 and 2008 the Challenging Racism Project collected comprehensive data around racial attitudes in Australia which backs up this point.

The data shows that while there appears to be wide acceptance of diversity (87 percent of the 12,000 respondents agreed or strongly agreed that it's a good thing for society to be made up of people from different cultures) over 40 percent of said respondents also agreed that 'Australia is weakened by people of different ethnic origins sticking to their old ways' and were quite happy to identify specific cultural or ethnic groups that don't mesh with the Australian way of life.

It's these underlying prejudices that occasionally slip out from otherwise level-headed citizens. Jokes and backhanded compliments (like, "she's gorgeous for a [insert race here]" or "I would never be able to tell you're [insert race here]") might not seem as hurtful as the more rampant "get out of our country" slurs we often see reported on the news, but they are. And they're also more common.

Associate Professor Jim Forest from the Human Geography department at Macquarie University cites Eddie Maguire as a classic example. "The kinds of things he says from time to time is typical," he said.

"He doesn't see anything wrong with the kinds of things he says and that sort of behaviour is not unusual."

This kind of subtle "I didn't do anything wrong" racism calls for well-intentioned people to reflect on their own bias and privilege -- even if we don't think that privilege exists anymore.

Professor Forest says that "Australians have got to come to grips with their privileged anglosaxon background" before we're able to see that what we're saying could be seen as "obectionable".

Obviously, white privilege is still a thing. So I'm just going to leave this here for anyone who thinks otherwise (or who genuinely feels reverse racism deserves to be argued)...

If that all makes sense to you, then it's time to speak up. Dr Soutphommasane suggests making it clear that you don't agree with what has been said or done or "asking a question: What do you mean by that? Do you really think that's true?".

It also requires us to have ongoing conversations with family, friends and colleagues. Sure, they're not easy conversations to have and they might spoil the mood of a couple of dinner party chats, but they're important.

"Too often, we get defensive about racism and can't talk about it the way we should," Dr Soutphommasane says. "And too often, we forget about the impact that prejudice and discrimination have on people's dignity. Racism is something that prevents our society from reaching its potential."

The fact of the matter is, if someone is offended by your racist "joke" it makes no difference whether you intended it to be hurtful or not.

"I didn't mean it in a racist way" or "I didn't mean to upset you" doesn't excuse ignorance.

It's not what you intended that is being questioned here. It's how you made someone else feel.

And if you don't care about that, quite frankly, you're forgetting how to be human.