Karl Stefanovic Took A Stand. He Should Have Stayed Seated

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The popular TV host received high praise for his swatting down of Peter Dutton’s comments about Australia’s refugee intake. Reena Gupta has a vastly different take.

Late last week, the image of a stern-faced Karl Stefanovic beamed solemnly into the living rooms of tens of thousands of Australians.

“There is something about Peter Dutton’s comments yesterday that didn’t sit well with many Australians, including myself,” Stefanovic began, armed with the deluded sense of authority that only a middle-aged white man on an Australian morning show could muster.

He went on, of course, to talk about his refugee grandparents, the refugee parents of the Today show weather man and the refugee parents of Stefanovic’s “best mate Al” – refugees, of course, can only be humanised if they’re presented as the ancestors of white TV presenters, preferably with names less than three letters long.

Understandably, refugee organisations were quick to commend and promote Stefanovic’s monologue. Whether or not you’re a fan, Stefanovic holds a strong platform, and using that platform to denounce Dutton’s dirty political tactics would strike even the most cynical of observers as a commendable gesture.

Yes, all of this would be brilliantly commendable, if it wasn’t for the inconvenient fact that Stefanovic has previously made strides in actively contributing to the racist climate that thugs like Dutton are now seeking to capitalise on.

It was only last month, in fact, on the heels of the festival of white tears brought forth by a Gold Logie nomination for the cerebral Waleed Aly, that Stefanovic joked that his co-host Lisa Wilkinson was “too white” for a nomination – implying, of course, that it was the Aly’s ethnicity that earned him nomination for an award that had incidentally been given exclusively white people in the past – a standard strategy, usually unconsciously invoked, to invert the true power dynamics at play.

Indeed, one of the ironies in this strange, inverted world is that Stefanovic himself would undoubtedly not hold his post had it not been for the colour of his skin, the indisputable marker of a true ‘Aussie bloke’.

Stefanovic also cut a less than virtuous figure when interviewing a group of Indian-Australian cricket supporters last year, coming up with the question “…who’s going to be manning 7-Elevens today?” While a member of the group fired back with an impressive riposte, the power dynamics at play meant that Stefanovic was using his platform to kick one of Australia’s ethnic groups to the curb – a group that, by the way, was a target of racial violence in 2009 and is virtually invisible amongst Australia’s blindingly white televisual landscape.

new matilda, waleed aly
Waleed Aly delivers a piece to camera on The Project.

If you think that these ‘casual’, jokey forms of racism are harmless, then you need to think harder.

In today’s multiracial Australia, while overt declarations of racial hatred continue to circulate, it is the insidious nature of ‘casual racism’, and its tendency to go undetected, that makes it so damaging.

As American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates states: “racism tends to attract attention when it’s flagrant and filled with invective”. Stefanovic’s brand of racism doesn’t seem full of hatred to your average punter – his comments aren’t condemned too harshly by the mainstream media, he’s framed as an Aussie ‘larrikin’, none of his racist comments prove detrimental to his career.

The fact is, though, that Stefanovic’s penchant for casual racism, much like his solemn call for Dutton to apologise, occupy a strong holding in Australia’s mass media landscape. Much like his emotive pro-refugee call to arms, Stefanovic’s racism normalises and indeed, encourages others to be entertained by the casual dehumanisation of non-white Australians.

It is the sort of behaviour that, consciously or not, attempts to keep non-white Australians in their place.

Stefanovic has made significant strides in whipping up the sort of racism that Peter Dutton is now trying to benefit from. If he was really serious about putting an end to anti-refugee rhetoric, he would cut back on the racism that encourages Australians to demonise refugees in the first place.

But Karl Stefanovic isn’t going to do that. He uses his refugee heritage when it suits him, in order pull together a short, social-media friendly sound bite. But Stefanovic is no hero to the marginalised – at best, he’s an opportunist, and at worst, he’s a hypocrite.

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Reena Gupta

Reena Gupta is a writer and a Cultural Studies student at Melbourne University. She can be tweeted at @purpletank.

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