Why Is It More Offensive To Call Someone Racist Than To Say Something Racist?

On Monday Studio 10 co-host Kerri-Anne Kennerley berated January 26 protesters.

She questioned whether any one of them had “been out to the outback where children, babies, five-year-olds are being raped, their mothers are being raped, their sisters are being raped. They get no education.”

Fellow panellist Yumi Stynes responded by calling her out as sounding racist, which was met with a shocked “I’m offended” from Kennerley.

This situation was a common example of how deeply offended people become when they are called out for racist behaviour, which is touted as much more offensive than actually being racist.

Indigenous people have had to listen to centuries of non-Indigenous people denigrating and demonising us - that we are a problem to be fixed. The minute that is called out, there is discomfort that the status-quo is not being maintained. It is an immediate and lazy defence mechanism to be offended by being called a racist, rather than unpacking why what you’ve said is perceived as racist and challenging your own stereotypes.

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There is no denying that there are social issues that plague Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities (there have been continuous protests to draw attention to this) and it is important to open people’s eyes to the everyday lived reality. But these issues are never explained in context.

They are usually delivered with broad-sweeping statements which are ill-informed by decades of deeply-embedded prejudiced reporting. Most often by non-Indigenous people with little to no knowledge of the issues and with no understanding of the historical racism underpinning it.

There is no explanation of the root of these issues, which is intergenerational trauma caused by colonisation, dispossession, the Stolen Generations, entrenched racism, discriminatory policies and poverty.

January 26 symbolises when these social issues began for our communities. We cannot deal with the current violence, injustice and pain without looking at ourselves in the mirror and into our history.

Kennerley’s comments were a veiled concern for Indigenous people to mask her discomfort with Australians protesting against a day that solidifies and elevates her status as the dominant culture.

Her response to the backlash today was to reiterate her offense at being labelled racist rather than reflecting on her own position of privilege and why her approach and words were in fact what was offensive.

Kerri-Annem with Lidia Thorpe and Jacinta Price, on Tuesday

She says “if you look at ‘racist’ in the dictionary it’s thinking that another racial group is superior or another group is inferior.” The idea that people believe racism is confined to calling someone a racist term fails to acknowledge that racism is systemic and institutional.

It is not a coincidence that the most recent examples of media personalities being called out for being racist have been white women (although white men often make an appearance as well) -- think Sonia Kruger, Samantha Armytage, Prue MacSween.

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It is because they are comfortably sitting within the hegemonic culture; that experiences all the perks of it, commonly known as white privilege. Or as sociologist Dr Robin DiAngelo puts it “the defensiveness and discomfort that white people display when their racial worldviews are challenged.”

(Photo by James D. Morgan/Getty Images)

White privilege means turning on the television and seeing people of your race widely represented. It is having your worldview from a position of power and privilege reiterated and presented above all else, without being questioned or given from a different perspective.

Aboriginal people are rarely represented in these discussions (or often just as a knee-jerk reaction if we are). The media often talks about us, laying judgement, without including us in conversations about our own lives and experiences.

The fact is a non-Indigenous person is not going to have the same experience, perspective or reality as an Indigenous person. Not just because of the racism experienced by our communities, but because the system we are living in was methodically set up to exclude and discriminate against Indigenous people.

Our experience in this country is unique to any other. Almost every Indigenous family and community has been affected by the forcible removal of Indigenous children with the purpose of assimilating us and stripping us of our identity and culture.

My own family has been impacted by the Stolen Generations; two of my aunties were forcibly removed from my grandmother and grandfather.

They were not removed for ‘their wellbeing’, they were removed due to racist policies that also saw my Anglo Grandfather jailed for 18 months for loving my Aboriginal grandmother -- because it was illegal to cohabit with an Aboriginal person.

That is recent history, my aunties are still alive and that is still having a ripple effect on not only my family but our community and other Indigenous communities across the country. It is a lived real experience, one that is not just a distant memory in history books.

Where is the nuanced discussion in mainstream media when it comes to discussing the social issues we face? Why aren’t we talking about the immense trauma we are still suffering that is projected out into painful acts because the hurt is too hard to bear?

Kerri-Anne Kennerley also goes on to say “Throwing words around can be dangerous and very, very hurtful".

I ironically agree with the sentiment. Inaccurate or inflammatory reporting from a position of power has a detrimental impact on already oppressed communities.

Protesters at an 'Invasion Day' rally in Melbourne in 2018 (Photo by James D. Morgan/Getty Images)

The media have an influential and permeating impact on how audiences understand and make sense of the world. Whether deliberate or unconscious, those working in the media have the power to influence how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are perceived and understood.

The media should take time to reflect on their own views, biases and opinions about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and use facts and editorial judgement to challenge, rather than reinforce stereotypes.

Negative reporting is commonplace for our communities.

A recent study of more than 300 articles about Aboriginal health, published over a 12-month period showed that almost 75 percent of these articles were negative.

What the media says matters. When Indigenous people are persistently portrayed as child abusers and other stereotypical labels, it feeds racist attitudes infiltrating the wider population (which have been conditioned by the media) and continues to fuel prejudice, misconceptions and ignorance.

(Photo by Asanka Brendon Ratnayake/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

These stereotypes are internalised for our people, it creates shame and fuels pain and trauma which often isolates people from participating in mainstream society. This perpetuates the cycle of disadvantage.

We are consistently barraged with commentary about how damaged, destructive and broken we are and that we are not taking any responsibility for this. Why should we be the only ones to carry the weight of colonisation and the social impact it has had on our communities? It is our shared responsibility to dismantle the racist institutions that have systematically worked to oppress Indigenous people.

But frankly, I’m tired of carrying the weight and having to constantly justify my humanity and educate the 97 percent of Australians about why saying inflammatory, ill-informed and stereotypical things are racist. We need more people like Yumi to step up and share the burden and call out racism in all shapes and forms.

Shannan Dodson is a Yawuru woman and National NAIDOC Committee member. She is Media Diversity Australia’s Indigenous Affairs advisor where she co-authored a handbook for better reporting on Indigenous peoples and issues. Follow Shannan @ShannanJDodson