Wednesday, May 15, 2013

"Ignorance and intent" or "Apology 101"

I just went & tweeted myself in the Delta kerfuffle... I guess you'd call it an occupational hazard for me. Not quite the same as saying stupid racist shit is for celebs, but it is what it is.

I'm not writing an anti-Delta article, because I don't have any particular interest in her celebrity.

I'm not boycotting the show because I've never watched it... so that seems a bit moot.

I'm only mentioning this one because it's the one that made me come to a realisation... well, not even a realisation, perhaps just a new articulation of it. One which I currently feel like writing down.

Her fauxpology in regards to tweeting that some nobody painting himself black to impersonate Seal for a party was "hilarious" is just one in a long line of similar incidents. Those guys on Hey Hey, those kids at some uni in Qld somewhere, those other kids more recently at that other uni in WA, that footy announcer dude, various politicians (looking at you in particular, Den!) and various celebs... all have found themselves accused of being racist, or of doing or saying something racist - which is actually not the same thing, think about it. (If you're a Delta fan, just substitute her name for one of those other ones that you were more upset with and it'll still work fine for all intents and purposes. It's makes no difference to me, but it might make this more palatable for you)

And like Delta, all of them are 'horrified to be viewed as racist'.

There is a very notable break down in communication and understanding at this point. From the individuals themselves, their supporters, and more often than not from the journalists who report on it too.
Those who do not understand the offense taken often don't seem to be aware that anything else exists beyond the individual's intent - and they are upset as these offended people, for some unknown and seemingly elusive reason, are mistaking them for racists! How could anyone imagine such a thing?!

"I don't even own a white hood! How could I possibly be, or do or say anything, racist?!"

"These overly sensitive individuals simply just don't understand that I am not racist, because I didn't 'intend' to be racist!!"

"Some people just like to say that everything is racist."

"I have lots of black friends!"

"I don't understand what all the fuss is about."

"Just relax, we didn't mean to be racist."

"I didn't realise the mic was on."

And so on... If we're lucky they might throw in a "sorry IF anyone was offended in some way". 

Unlike that lot, many of us actually do understand.

We know you don't burn crosses on lawns. We know you don't own a white hood.

We know that you don't take pride in the 'racist' label. We know you don't consider yourself a racist. 

We know that many of you sincerely don't know, or understand what the issue is.

And as for 'our' intentions, eg why do we call you the 'R-word' if we know that you 'didn't mean it'?

I'll start by crossing a few things off the list of possible reasons which you have by now amassed just by living in this society, and listening to the wrong people.

It's not because we want you to 'feel guilty', and we aren't 'playing the victim'.

We aren't 'too sensitive', and we don't 'just need to get over it'.

We aren't 'playing the race card', and we don't 'misunderstand'.

And we sure as hell don't 'call everything racist'. 

We call you the unspeakable 'R-word', because you did something... 'R-word'-y.

Whether or not you see it, you did.

That is our interpretation and it deserves just as much recognition as does your intention.

If you spit in my eye, my first consideration is not if you meant to do it or not. It's that you did it.

And how do you think I'm gonna feel about it?  

But you don't think about it. Instead you respond by telling me that you are not the sort of person who spits in people's faces, and you've certainly never done it before.

You tell me that you have lots of friends who you haven't spat in the face of.

You are not apologising, you are excusing yourself.

You are ignoring my interpretation of events, and the actual impact of the event on me. 

You are not acknowledging the level of insult, of outrage, that is being justifiably experienced. That many people are experiencing. Not just by who has been spat on, but those who watched on with shock and horror, and who are standing there waiting, expecting you to do something to rectify this situation. To fully recognise the impact of your actions, irrespective of your intentions, and apologise.

Profusely. Repeatedly. Passionately. Unreservedly.

I'm not interested in acknowledging your intentions for saying or doing something racist if you deny the validity of my interpretation. You get no acknowledgement from me that you do not extend to me in return.

And if I don't think your apology is sincere, or if I don't believe you understand why you are even apologising, then how can I accept it?

We're at a cross roads, and I don't even plan on giving you right of way, let alone let you drive right over the top of me.

Intent vs interpretation, while acknowledging history, power, privilege, and the ongoing impacts of personal discrimination reinforced by societal norms and institutional discrimination is where it's at.

Not understanding why something is offensive, and has been for over a century, doesn't make your actions not offensive, it just makes you ignorant.

Ignoring or dismissing the views of those you offended doesn't make you right, it just makes you more ignorant (ignoring - ignorant... get it?!).

Being supported by media commentators doesn't make you right, it just makes them as ignorant as you.  

The story doesn't finish once you feel you have cleared up the 'confusion' or 'misunderstanding', or just because the media stop reporting on it. There is no confusion to clear up. We know exactly what's going on.

In short:

A sincere apology is a good start, but taking appropriate action to address the issue, make amends, and prevent a repeat of the incident is important too. Get educated... I'm happy to help if I can.

A fauxpology is a horrible place to start, and an even worse place to declare the matter finished. Get stuffed... I've got no time for you.


"White people’s ignorance of Aboriginal people is so pervasive, so profound, that it exhausts the Indigenous who are forced to argue every point: well, yes we did live here before you came, no, we didn’t eat our children, yes, my grandfather was murdered by your grandfather, yes, my father went to both world wars alongside yours, no he didn’t get a soldier settlers’ farm like yours, no, we didn’t invent the wheel…or the jail, or the rack, boiling oil, or instruments to pluck out fingernails, white collar crime; there were a lot of things we didn’t invent."
Convincing Ground: Learning to fall in love with your country (Chapter 16, Native Born) Download from AIATSIS
Bruce Pascoe
And the first person who jumps in and says 'not all white people' in response to that quote, look out! 
In fact, consider that your after blog quiz. 
See if you can work out why I'll be pissed off at anyone what jumps in with that comment.


  1. Thank you for your clarity. I appreciate greatly all that I am learning from blogs such as this, NITV, and following a number of Indigenous people and groups on Twitter.

    I hope this is read, and understood, far and why.

  2. Beautifully said

  3. Nailed it brother!! Beautifully articulated!

  4. Well said. I think Mamamia should ask you to contribute.

  5. Utterly spot on! Brilliant writing! And this piece should be introduced to school curricular right now so that the kids who watch Delta et al start understanding that... in the words often attributed to the Buddha...

    Watch your thoughts for they become words,
    watch your words for they become actions,
    watch your actions, for they become habits,
    watch your habits for they become your character,
    watch your character for it becomes your destiny.

  6. Perfecly said, thank you x

  7. Thank you for taking the time to share. You used an analogy that i understand and can articulate.

    I read your article to further educate myself on an issue being talked about in the media at the moment, and am leaving your blog with my own opinion on the matter, something i didn't have when i arrived.

    Thank you x

  8. Very well put!

    But you forgot one excuse or retort that seems to be used by alot of Australians these days...i.e. "We are not racist, you should go to ...they are racist!

    like somehow that makes it OK to be "less" racist.

  9. where does Chris Lilley's effort in Angry Boys, as the character "Smouse" sit in this debate? Does the intent question remain irrelevant in storytelling?

  10. The issue of intent in any kind of action is an interesting thing to consider. As a teacher, I find with young minds that they are incapable of stepping outside their ego when reflecting on their actions.

    A bully will say, "I was only mucking around."

    So I say, "Imagine whilst driving a car you had a moment of religous enlightenment and as you realised the full extent of God's love etc etc etc, you ran over and killed a pregnant woman on a pedestrian crossing. Intent here is not particularly relevant. You can only be judged on what you do and the consequences of what you do."

    So it is with racist comments, jokes etc. A failure to consider how your actions/words etc affect others is the mark of a very immature morality, the mark of a mind too ego centred.

    Whenever I see racist rants like the one above, I can only think of a pimply faced, adolescent, trench-coated, socially retarded keyboard warrior dreaming of Columbine and streaking to Earth like a doomed particle of dust firing up a brief but ultimately self destructive streak of light in a limitless sky.

  11. Your article reminds me a lot of this other article I came across a few months ago:

    I thought you (and possibly your readers) might like to read it because Ask A Korean makes an excellent argument (as did you) about racism and intent, and why it is not just intent that matters. Any person who is "horrified to viewed as racist" should be made to read it if you ask me... :)

  12. I have found this blog post so useful. As soon as I first read it, I knew I had to bookmark it because the question of intent arises all the time and I knew I'd need to refer back to this post (which I have... fortunately and unfortunately). Thank you so much for writing this.