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The thing about race

The ongoing debate about whether Australia is a racist country doesn't seem to be coming to an end. And as Santilla Chingaipe explains, personal experience can often lead to understandings of the danger of generalisations.

In the past few weeks I’ve found myself unwillingly involved in public and private debates about racism, which is bizarre, as I actually hate talking about race.  And that’s ironic, considering the first thing people notice about me is my skin colour.

The reason I dislike engaging in debates about race is because the lines are often so blurred.  What’s deemed racist by some is just picking at a non-issue to others.

Take for example the incident a few weeks ago when a lecturer from the London School of Economics, Satoshi Kanazawa, wrote an article for Psychology Today (which has since been removed for reasons I will go in to) claiming he had analysed data from an online study of physical attractiveness.

In it, Dr Kanazawa wrote: ‘Black women are … far less attractive than white, Asian, and Native American women.’  What followed was a wave of attacks labelling him a racist and led to the article being pulled down from the site.  He is currently under investigation by the school.

Growing up black – and female – I’ve had a fair share of racial slurs thrown at me.  From complete strangers calling me a ‘nigger’ or a ‘kaffir,’ to back-handed comments from people I know showing their ignorance.

The interesting thing about race is you don’t choose to be born a certain colour. You don’t choose to be judged by what people see and the stereotypes surrounding ‘your race’. But you do anyway. I’ve lost count of the number of times when I’ve publicly shown my frustration and people around me expect me to turn into some ‘Shanaynay’, with a finger snap and ‘oh no you di-int’.

Does this make them racist? For generalising what (some) black women are perceived as in the mainstream media?

I was reading an article by BBC presenter Ben Douglas in which he claims to have been racially abused by a friend of supermodel Kate Moss at an awards ceremony.  Douglas says he was called ‘nigger’ on several occasions by this man in a drunken tirade.

The man has  since come forward and apologised, but insists he is not racist. He blames it on the alcohol instead.

As I scrolled through the comments section of the article on an Australian news website, I was shocked at the level of ignorance that this ‘n-word’ incites.  A few commenters said they don’t see what the problem is since hip hop and rap music use the ‘n-word’ all the time.  Others claimed that if it’s okay for black people to use it amongst themselves, why couldn’t everyone else use it without offending people?

There are two points to be made here.

First, not all black people use this word. I don’t use it and don’t personally know any other black person who uses it.  No occasion is ever okay for it to be used.  Some black people may say it gives the power back to them by using the word, but not everyone would agree with this.

Secondly, when did hip hop become the moral compass for society? I can equally cite hip hop songs that use misogynistic and homophobic lyrics. Does that make it okay for people to walk around and say such hateful things?

That said, I think there has to be more open discussion about race for people that are either ignorant or think that the world is just too politically correct and that the rest of us just need to get over it.

So was Dr Kanazawa racist with his article? I don’t think so. Was he careless for trying to stir the pot? Absolutely.

I think the bigger issue is where these generalisations are coming from, in this day and age.

I spend time speaking to women from many ethnic and indigenous groups, and a lot of the time many feel discriminated against because of how they are oftentimes portrayed in society.

Recently, South Australian Aboriginal Affairs Minister Grace Portolesi said racism is still a problem in Australia. She said that research from across the world shows that racism not only affects people’s mental and physical health, but can also significantly reduce people’s opportunities.

Ms Portolesi said Aboriginal people continue to tell of discrimination and prejudice in their daily lives, and that research backed their stories.

She cited a study from the University of Western Sydney, which shows that more than a quarter of the Australians polled expressed anti-Aboriginal sentiments.

This is not all that surprising.  Watching people debate about asylum seekers and indigenous affairs, one would think we’re a country of racists.

Are we? I don’t know and nor am I claiming to know.

Findings from a University of Western Sydney study claim that 84 percent of Australians agree that there is racial prejudice in Australia.

What I do know is there are far too many generalisations of minority groups – and not just race, but also gender and sexuality – that need to be broken down.

Once this is achieved (if ever) can we get a better understanding of our extended human family.

Santilla Chingaipe is a Zambian-born journalist currently working for SBS Radio News.

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