The ‘R’ Word

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There’s much to be learned from the recent furore over Kerri-Anne Kennerley’s racist outburst, particularly for Kennerley herself, writes Dr Melinda McPherson.

The recent heated on-air screen exchange between Kerri-Anne Kennerley and Yumi Stynes in which Stynes called Kennerley’s comments ‘racist’ has received a great deal of media attention.

There is something about use of the ‘r’ word in Australia that sparks hyperbolic reaction and offence from its recipients. Almost nobody accused of racism accepts or even contemplates the accusation may contain truth.

For this reason, calling out individual and institutional discrimination is a brave act. Such accusations are usually met with denial and demeaning of the accuser.

Consider Michael Long’s experiences in the AFL and his eventual response to the behaviour of Damien Monkhurst. The AFL tried frantically to mediate the issue in private, delegitimising Long’s experience by coercing him into a conciliatory publicity shot with Monkhurst. Long’s continuing dissatisfaction led to systemic change at the AFL.

Each time an accusation of racism is denied, its targets learn that that their experiences are tangential to the hurt feelings of the accused.

In this most recent case, Kennerley embarked on what can only be described as a vitriolic attack upon protestors whom she claimed were doing nothing practical for Indigenous Australian women. When Stynes asked for evidence of Kennerley’s perspective, Kennerley took the surreal step of demanding that Stynes disprove her view.

Stynes moved on to frame as racist the link drawn by Kennerley between Aboriginality and sexual abuse. Kennerly sidestepped that question and returned to her focus on the moral hypocrisy of protesters. Stynes persisted, questioning Kennerley’s assertion that protestors, “none of whom you know personally”, are all lazy and idle. In another outburst, Kennerley replied, “I did not say that.” Stynes clarified, “You’re asking if they’ve ever done anything, as though it’s clear that they haven’t.”

Despite Kennerley’s objections, Stynes was spot on. To quote Kennerley, “You’d [the protesters would]be better off actually going doing something positive.”

At this point, the panel host intervened with a request that things be “taken back a notch”, stating “we’re all educated people here”. Kennerley’s perspective can hardly be described as educated. In Moynihan’s words, everyone may be entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts. Not only did Kennerley fail to engage with the actual topic of discussion about the merits of keeping Australia Day on 26 January (and ergo the merits of a protest) but, having created her own topic, she provided no evidence to support her views. Her attempts at debate were a litany of dog whistling sound bites.

She implied that the issue of a date change is frivolous in the face of more serious ‘practical’ issues in Aboriginal communities (an argument that harks back to Howard’s preference for ‘practical reconciliation’ over symbolic gestures) and that ergo, protesters are not doing anything ‘real’ about issues that matter to Aboriginal people.

Critical to any meaningful action on Aboriginal issues is the act of listening to Aboriginal voices. The idea that Kennerley has any grasp of what issues do and don’t matter to Indigenous communities, or is qualified to act as a spokesperson for women of the north, is incredulous. Conversely, it cannot be denied that most of the marchers are responding to the perspective of a vast majority of Aboriginal people that find the celebration of Australia Day on 26 January repugnant.

Kennerley’s first allegation, that protest has no legitimacy next to more practical activities, has a long and invidious history in Australian popular discourse.

Only lazy lefties and university students supposedly involve themselves in protest. Note Keating’s infamous barb that student protestors should, ‘go and get a job’. This view fundamentally misunderstands the necessity of protest as an important act, amongst many other types of acts, necessary to social justice.

Standing up to systemic wrongs is a noble act and arguably a moral imperative for people who have the voice and power to speak up in a democracy.

Policies and services to support Indigenous communities are of course important. But we should not forget it was student protests of the 60s that spurred practical improvements to workers’ rights, women’s rights, and rights for people of colour in the west. It was in this context of social change that the issue of Aboriginal citizenship was resolved through a referendum – ironically cited as proof that we’re not racist.

Kennerley’s second argument – that the people protesting were not otherwise volunteering towards the meaningful or practical support of Aboriginal people is also problematic. I’ve been to many marches in support of the rights of women, working people, Indigenous Australians, and other important causes. In my experience, many of the people who participate in these protests are also otherwise engaged in, supportive of, or connected with activities and organisations that undertake practical work.

The fact that they might not get on an aeroplane to Central Australia does not make them morally corrupt, nor morally disqualified from demonstrating solidarity with a view held by many Indigenous Australians.

Stynes made numerous (interrupted) attempts to describe why she considered Kennerley’s comments racist. Given that Stynes is a woman of Asian appearance, is likely to have experienced racism herself and has participated in previous public discussion on the topic, she brings perhaps more experience on this subject matter than her fellow panellists. However in classic Aussie fashion, once Stynes uttered the ‘r’ word, rather than considering how it might be so, Kennerley retreated to the ‘I am offended’ defence.

There are numerous pressing and traumatic issues occurring for Aboriginal Australians. Kennerley’s suggestion that she has dibs on which of these issues matter most, or inviting Aboriginal panellists to pick amongst them, is divisive and ethically corrupt.

Participating in a protest about the heinous impacts of invasion, or the repugnance of celebrating ‘Australian’ identity on the day Terra Nullius was declared, does not mean one cares less about Aboriginal deaths in custody, poverty, family violence, or other issues – indeed, many reputable Aboriginal organisations will point to the link between the two.

Stynes showed bravery for calling out racism, and in the face of Kennerley’s predictable response, made a valiant effort to explain her perspective. Before touting herself as an advocate for Aboriginal women, Kennerley would be well served to enrol in one of the many Indigenous Studies units offered at Australia’s universities. And to brush up on English argument 101.

Dr Melinda McPherson

Dr Melinda McPherson is a social justice researcher and activist with an interest in gender, diversity, refugee issues, and education. Her recent book explores representations of refugee women in education. She has also written on women and violence, women and the asylum process, and women and the media. She is a past board member of the VIRWC and works professionally in education and social justice.

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