Editorial: What We Really Learn From The Racist Rants Of Professor Barry Spurr


Yesterday, New Matilda published extracts from a series of emails sent by University of Sydney Professor Barry Spurr.

Spurr’s career may be devoted to the study of language but the words he reserves for women and people of colour, to put it lightly, are lacking in poetry.

He refers to Aboriginal people as “rubbish”, and calls them by the derogatory term “Abos”, elsewhere referring to “chinky-poos”, “mussies” and “darkies”.

He makes light of a woman who has been seriously sexually assaulted and suggests she needs more than just ‘penis’ in her mouth, before it’s sewn shut.

His language and derision of women and people of colour is shocking and difficult to read.

Professor Spurr says his words were intended to mock the extremity of his language. Readers can make their own judgments about whether it was intended as humour, and if he achieved his goal.

But there’s one line in his writing, seemingly innocuous, that is crucially important to understanding why Professor Spurr’s views are more than a disturbing case of antiquated thinking in the ivory tower.

Spurr writes that Education Minister Christopher Pyne asked him to examine the Californian high school English curriculum as part of his contribution to the government’s recently released curriculum review.

“…whereas the local curriculum has the phrase ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander’ on virtually every one of its 300 pages, the Californian curriculum does not ONCE mention native Americans and has only a very slight representation of African-American literature (which, unlike Abo literature, actually exists and has some distinguished productions).”

That’s right – the man charged with reviewing the national English curriculum doesn’t think Aboriginal literature exists in any meaningful, valuable way.

That is a claim so far beyond the realms of the absurd it barely warrants a response. The fact an esteemed poetry lecturer could write such rubbish is itself an indictment of the failure of Australia’s education system at all levels to reflect and incorporate the contributions of First Nations peoples.

Professor Spurr may not know of any significant Aboriginal writers but New Matilda’s senior journalist Amy McQuire sure as hell does. She considers their contributions here.

It’s worth comparing Spurr’s statements in private correspondence to what he wrote as a special consultant to Pyne’s education review.

“The impact of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on literature in English in Australia has been minimal and is vastly outweighed by the impact of global literature in English, and especially that from Britain, on our literary culture.”

“Minimal”. But not non-existent.

It’s a tiny tweak, from his private exclamations to his public testimony, but a vital one.

It reveals just how little you have to lie to make your racism publicly acceptable, and to write it in to a major government review.

Choose your words carefully, hold back ever so slightly, and you’ll get away with it.

Take out your overtly racist language; draft your racist recommendations and implement your racist ideology with subtlety.

When video of a bigot berating bystanders and transit officials goes viral – as it did earlier this week – Australians pay attention.

We share the images, express our disdain, and pat ourselves on the back for condemning an act of visible and immediate discrimination.

Yet when a white academic carefully covers his racism in a bid to strip Black literature from the curriculum, we don’t even notice.

That’s what makes elite racism more dangerous than any one man or woman yelling at a railway cop or someone in the street.

Racists in parliaments, in bureaucracies, in media outlets and respected cultural institutions are smart enough not to yell down a blackfella or a woman in a veil on a train.

They don’t need to. They can dog whistle, wink, and draft carefully worded reports.

Looking over Spurr’s letters may leave a very sour taste in mouths of readers. But it also leaves Christopher Pyne, and for that matter University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence, with some uncomfortable questions to answer.

The most difficult to honestly confront, however, is this one: how many other powerful white men are secretly writing letters like those of Professor Barry Spurr?

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