This past weekend was used by the Australian Football League to pay tribute to the nation’s indigenous people. Unfortunately, one Aboriginal player was verbally attacked by a young teenager who apparently called him an ‘ape’. Now whether or not this was intended to racially abuse the player, it caused offence. After all, the term in question has been associated with the denigration of indigenous people for many years. The ensuing furore has highlighted the enormous community sensitivity that has developed in recent years in regard to vilification. Overt racism, of course, needs to be eradicated. Much of what passes for racism, though, and which is nothing of the sort, demeans more genuine examples.
For example, in the same game in question, a supporter was heard to sarcastically question an umpire favouring a player who was “black”, which is unsavoury because of the tone and the inference, but this was principally umpire criticism and hardly worthy of losing his club membership as was being proposed by some officials. I have also found that people have taken offence to the mere observation of cultural or physical traits in ethnic groups or to the well-intentioned use of descriptive terms (such as ‘black’!), as if that is casting aspersions on racial grounds. Then there was the celebrated cricketing case of a former Australian player being upset when labelled a “monkey” by Indian supporters. This was possibly a mere misunderstanding over his being likened to the Hindu monkey god, Hanuman, on account of his regular smothering of zinc cream around his mouth and thereby somewhat resembling its appearance. Whilst I am certainly not advocating the idea that people need simply to become more impervious to criticism, I am suggesting that an overbalance of political correctness has meant overextending on the necessary stamping out of the mistreatment of others based on race.
We surely need to be careful not to avert one offence to end up creating another. Vilifying those who allegedly vilify others can create offences that don’t exist or that aren’t intended, can also produce an unhealthy police state, and can therefore stir up new offences against relatively innocent conversationalists. Ironically, people’s fear and misunderstanding continues where comments of an ethnic nature are mistaken as racial prejudice so that communities remain ignorant of the relevant issues.
Clearly, though, genuine racial vilification is unacceptable and many people have been needlessly and shamefully hurt and disenfranchised by insensitive or intentional actions that, in some cases, add to many years of ethnic stereotyping and disadvantage. It is because such strong action is needed to root this out of twenty-first century Australia that we must avoid the desensitisation that comes with magnifying and mislabelling the more trivial cases.