There’s a phenomenon afoot called casual racism. Seemingly less malevolent than intentional racism, it’s a careless and often subliminal form of abuse whose danger lies in the fact it normalises prejudice, perpetuates stereotypes and gives licence to bigotry.
It is evident in offhand remarks, social media and pointed jokes, invariably on the basis of race or religion.
Australia recently was described as “comfortably racist” by an observer. Offensive gibes enter the conversation too easily, he noted, such as a media personality suggesting that footballer Adam Goodes — who is indigenous — promote King Kong, while a television anchor asked Indian cricket fans who would run the 7-Eleven stores while India was competing in the World Cup.
Intentionally racist? Probably not. Casually racist? Without doubt. A dictionary defined it as “the art of being slightly racist in a casual fashion. When one doesn’t really hate people of another colour”, yet jokes at their expense. Overt racism is easily recognisable, casual racism less so.
Examples abound. Seinfeld used the pejorative term “Indian giver”, meaning to give a gift and then demand it back — an indictment of Native Americans. A “Scotch call” implies Scots are stingy, referring to hanging up before the other person has answered the phone. “Going Dutch” means each party pays for himself because Dutch are stingy. “Don’t be a Jew” says Jews are stingy. “Gypped” — being cheated — ascribes dishonesty to gypsies. And “Beware the Greeks bearing gifts” alludes to the wooden horse the Greeks used to enter Troy.
The issue here is not political correctness; it is the impact of such remarks, which can range from hurt and denigration to exclusion and social malaise. Whether any is intended is entirely irrelevant.
The racist tweets recently directed at Assistant Treasurer Josh Frydenberg fall into that category. Frydenberg had expressed support for a reduction in commissions paid to life insurance agents; a finance adviser took exception and lashed out with a series of crass tweets against the politician, who is Jewish. He described Frydenberg as a “tinkering Jew”, a “central planning Jew” and a “slapstick comedy Jew”, with ugly epithets thrown in for good measure.
Challenged by critics, the finance adviser initially refused to retract, defending his right to “free speech”.
But after his remarks were roundly condemned, he insisted they were“inadvertently taken as antisemitism”, adding “I am honestly very sorry if anyone in the Jewish community was offended. I am certainly not antisemitic. I have many Jewish friends and just 12 months ago I attended a Jewish funeral of a very dear friend.”
As vile as his tweets were, his contrition appeared genuine, even though it defied belief that he hadn’t expected to cause offence.
But then a tweet surfaced that he had posted three months prior. Referring to a blaze that destroyed a model dinosaur at a Coolum resort, he tweeted “Jewish stocktake?” — a disparaging stereotype alleging that Jews orchestrate such events to claim insurance.
Where now his claim that he was misunderstood, that no bigotry was intended? Was his defence a function of casual racism — loaded words that impute negative characteristics to a particular group without necessarily intending to offend? Our country’s social cohesion is being tested in ways we haven’t experienced for some time, extremists exploiting global tensions to indulge in attacks on minorities. Casual racism is different, less obvious, and therefore slips too easily below the radar.
The good news is we hear of greater willingness by onlookers to get involved. A woman on a Sydney train recently confronted a passenger abusing a Muslim couple, while a man on a Melbourne train intervened when women wearing Islamic headscarves were vilified.
But it’s not good enough that almost one in five Australians experienced racial or religious slurs in the past 12 months or that a significant percentage of indigenous Australians suffer discrimination. Or that a television host referred to New Zealand sports fans as a “dole-bludger army”.
Human rights agencies, sports organisations and corporate bodies are getting on board in anti-racism activism, but ordinary Australians need to do so too.
We can’t afford to shrug our shoulders at offensive tweets, at comments that denigrate, at rebukes that remonstrate with others to “go back to where you came from”.
Whether or not abuse is intended, casual racism can be as hurtful and harmful as the other form.
Vic Alhadeff is Chief Executive of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies.