Racism, humour, commentary


Are these cartoons racist? I have little doubt they are. They’re also cartoons that take a stand against violence against women. I guess they’re racist (in a bad way – or in the way that we generally take to be a bad way) because they present people in a very unattractive light in a way that is intrinsically tied to their race. Specifically the cartoon asserts a stereotype that aboriginal men are violent against their women.

When I saw them tweeted to this commentary “A quick reminder that Bill Leak was drawing racist cartoons long before his head injury”, I began tweeting back – to @johnnicolay and his retweeter @bernardkeane

1/2 “How do you draw a cartoon relating to this: ?

2/2 ‘How violent were Australian men towards their women. The answer has to be “very”.’

Inga Clendinnen on 1788, Dances with Strangers. 


I then thought better of pressing the tweet button, as it’s a very difficult subject. To say that it would be ill-suited to the twitter-sphere would surely be an understatement.

My initial reaction was a visceral hostility to the political correctness that’s springing up everywhere. Indeed, you may soon see me outside Parliament House with a sandwich board and megaphone campaigning for trigger warnings whenever political correctness rears its ugly head. But then that’s just me jumping onto one side of a culture war. Getting my rocks off the way we’ve been training ourselves to do ever since we were told on the side of busses that Mike Willesee from A Current Affair was on our side. I also have to ask the question from Paul Keating’s Redfern Speech of how would I like it if I was the subject of the abuse. I’m such a privileged little pistachio that it’s hard for me to imagine how I could be implicated in a direct way. But if I were an aboriginal man who wasn’t violent I’d feel pretty hurt, upset and angry. I think I’d have a right to feel that way.

So that leaves me sympathising with a fairly unsatisfactory position, which is that there should be self-censorship on matters of considerable public importance.

But as ever, I would appreciate any commenters’ Troppodiliquance on the issue.

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31 Responses to Racism, humour, commentary

  1. Moz of Yarramulla says:

    “could set our culture back 2000 years” is a classic example of someone too stupid to be as racist as they want to be. For aboriginal culture to have to rewind 2000 years in order to reach a place that white culture is only beginning to aim for would mean that they started out more than 2000 years ahead. That might be racist, but it’s one of those “is it racist when a discriminated-against minority poke fun at the racial characteristics of the oppressor” questions?

    • Moz of Yarramulla says:

      And FWIW, I’m completely ignoring the question of whether domestic violence is happening, more common in one culture or the other, whether there might be more than one aboriginal culture, or whether it’s wrong to use any of that as the subject of a joke at all.

  2. Peter WARWICK says:

    “because they present people in a very unattractive light”. Is there a requirement to present everyone in an “attractive” light ???

    What would your reaction be to a cartoon with A. Hitler standing outside a gas chamber with a thought bubble: “These people a running up a very large gas bill. There must be a cheaper way !?!”. Hardly presents A Hitler in an “attractive” light.

    If Bill Leaks cartoon had featured white men and women, would that have been more or less attractive ?

    Do we get the proportion absolutely right ?? If 50% of domestic violence is perpetrated by Aboriginals, then perhaps Bill could have added one white man and one white woman into the picture.

    And what about domestic violence perpetrated by women. That was not represented in the cartoon.

    The cartoon simply portrays one simple fact – that Aboriginals perpetrate domestic violence – it does not imply “exclusively” or any sort of proportion or frequency. Yes, its ugly, but if something looks ugly, smells ugly, walks ugly, tastes ugly, feels ugly, talks ugly, then guess what ? “its ugly”.

    If the cap fits . . . . . .

  3. Lt. Fred says:

    It’s fairly simple. If you think that Indigenous Australians are subhumans, either violent and uncultured (men) or silent victims (women), these cartoons are fine. That does seem to be the consensus of policy, both under Howard and Rudd, so maybe they’re not that controversial after all.

    On the other hand, if you take the extreme view that they are, perhaps, people, possibly perpetuating dishonest stereotypes might be considered inflammatory.

    • Peter WARWICK says:

      Where on earth do you connect “Indigenous Australians are subhumans” with a political party. Where have I mentioned a political party (I am not a political animal – neither left, right, Labour, Liberal, Greens etc).

      What has politics got to do with the Leak cartoon ?

      Your connection with the political parties is well off the mark and offensive.

    • John walker says:

      A few years ago the Australian museum on its website, re the mass extinction of the megafauna, said ( from memory) , that aborigines did not cause the mass extinction, because they lived in harmony with the environment.

      Perhaps this involves the clash of two ( or more) stereotypes?( one of which seems a bit too attractive to the self righteous)

  4. The only “self-censorship on matters of considerable public importance” should happen if people like Leak want to continue to have their work published at a respectable national broadsheet. He can have as much free speech as he wants on his own publishing platforms, no censorship at all on his personal blog or whatever, but the editors of the Australian are not obligated to print his rubbish. The fault (if any, YMMV) lies with his editors who condone his bigotry by continuing to include it in their publications.

    I mean, why is Leak published and Pickering not? Is there any functional difference between the politics of those two? Why does one have a leave pass at a national outlet, and the other is shunned and relegated to self-publishing? Then again, Pickering Post is probably read more widely than the Oz site, post-paywall. Could be the best thing that ever happened to Leak’s career.

    • Peter WARWICK says:

      Paul, its got nothing to do with the publishing platform.

      Leak drew a cartoon which highlighted the “fact” that Aboriginal me perpetrate domestic violence. That does not mean that non-aboriginals do not. And we know that non-Aboriginals perpetrate domestic violence.

      Are you suggesting that A. Hitler was the only one to engage in mass extermination, and therefore any cartoon about him implies exclusivity. Try Pol Pot for size !

  5. desipis says:

    But if I were an aboriginal man who wasn’t violent I’d feel pretty hurt, upset and angry. I think I’d have a right to feel that way.

    I look at how the domestic violence and sexual assault issues are handled generally, and how frequently the issues are framed as a men-hurting-women issue in a way that implies all men are somehow responsible for the violence. As a non-violent man, that sort of stuff bothers me. Yet, if a author were to lampoon the toxic masculinity of a hypothetical man being violent towards a woman, I wouldn’t necessarily see it as a broader attack on men or masculinity more generally.

    The series of one-punch attacks as put the focus on Australian drinking culture. When you compare Australia with other cultures (e.g. various European countries) it’s clear that there is an element of Australian culture that significantly contributes to the problem; it’s not just the alcohol and its not just a few young idiots, it’s a cultural problem. That said, this shouldn’t be seen as a criticism of Australian culture more generally or a statement that every Australian who likes to drink has problem. As uncomfortable as it may be for many Australians to think about, I’m not sure we would be doing anyone any favours by saying that cartoonists should avoid depicting Australians as drunken louts because some people might be bothered by it.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Yes I agree with your points desipis, but somehow they don’t speak to my example. If I were an aboriginal man, I’d feel much more upset about those cartoons and the stereotypes they propagate than I am as a non-violent white guy who also doesn’t like the way in which domestic violence is portrayed as a women’s issue (rather than a violence issue).

      • desipis says:

        Can you explain why you think you would be more angry, or at least why you think Aboriginals have a right to be more angry?

        • Nicholas Gruen says:

          How about because aboriginal people have been screwed over by Europeans for a couple of centuries?

          I say that, also believing that Australia’s colonial dispossessions were, amongst other colonial dispossessions, unusually well intentioned. Gov Philip insisted on a lack of slavery and showed considerable restraint and good will in the face of more or less complete mutual incomprehension between Europeans and the natives. (He refused to order reprisals even after being speared in the leg, and went to some lengths to introduce the idea of reciprocal rights and protections under the British crown – though of course he also ordered a notorious and ultimately farcical reprisals on the killing of some whites a little later on.)

          But the fact is that the aboriginal people of Australia were minding their own business when the Europeans turned up and they’ve had a pretty shit time of it since- to put it mildly. An important part of that has been European racism towards aboriginal people often – certainly in history – of the most vicious kind.

        • paul frijters says:

          Sigh. I see that you two have fallen into the age-old trap of ‘us’ and ‘them’ stretching back over centuries. That tendency, to see historical continuity of group differences based on ethnic traits (which really does not take an awful lot of reflection to see as largely nonsense in this case), is the thing I dislike most about the cartoons above and it dismays me that even the most liberal and open-minded of commenters has effectively fallen in the same trap. Sigh.

  6. paul frijters says:

    A brave post, Nick.

    I had a look at the statistics. Murder rates are quite low here, essentially typical for a European country (eg http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/mf/4510.0 ), so not much there that is exceptional. Hard to know how the incidence of sexual assault rates in Australia compare to other countries as many, if not most, sexual assaults are simply not recorded because victims don’t want the hassle, embarrassment, and probable failure of pushing through a complaint. Maybe one of the reading civil servants will know more about how we do on that score.

    While I see the problem of how to raise awareness of a high relative prevalence of sexual assault in Aboriginal communities in a politically correct environment, I do remind myself every time I see the word ‘Aboriginal’ that in fact we are talking about a self-identified category of Australians wherein the majority of ancestors probably came from Europe in the last 200 years. So color or ancient culture will have relatively little to do with current circumstances as the self-identifying communities are in fact much more modern and integrated than they might seem or even think of themselves. The phenomenon must come from pressures today. So I try to avoid falling into the trap of ascribing differences in outcomes to entrenched ethnic differences. In that sense I find the cartoons above unhelpful. They support an artificial notion of separateness of continuing cultures that IMO is the main culprit in much of this.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Yes, fair point though I think a lot of the sexual violence perpetrated against aboriginal women and children that was the trigger for the intervention was by aboriginal men wasn’t it?

    • conrad says:

      Paul, you are assuming Aboriginals are a homogenous group. Whilst I suspect the majority are similar to those you are talking about (although it’s not clear to me what % European genetics they have, but I don’t think that matters), there are groups that basically lived more or less untouched well into the 70s. So there really are groups with members that are likely what they are due to a long cultural heritage and haven’t had much time to deal with the radical current changes that living today entails.

      In case you are interested, this was filmed in the late 60s as an ethnographic record of such a group and is quite fascinating: http://nfsa.gov.au/collection/film-australia-collection/program-sales/search-programs/program/?sn=911 Some of these people are probably still around today and it’s hard to imagine their children wouldn’t have been influenced by them.

      • paul frijters says:

        of course there is heterogeneity and of course there are influences of the past. Some of those influences I too, as a non-violent white male of recent European descent, have thoroughly adopted. But you are making my point: today there are no communities that can reasonably be said to live like, and be almost exclusively descended from, the people living in Australia in, say, 1700. The video you link to from the 1960s is telling: these were, already then, anthropological oddities that the researchers were aware were not going to last much longer.
        We should thus research these groups as they are now, with very odd governance structures and hybrid dynamic cultural institutions. The stereotyping into continuous ethnic cultures that have been fighting each other for centuries, is profoundly unhelpful (as well as plain wrong).

  7. Moz of Yarramulla says:

    As far as “high prevalence of assault” goes, there is the cliche that if you look for something you’re more likely to find it. When we over-police communities of colour they will provide a disproportionate share of caught criminals purely because of the over-policing. This is currently news in the USA, but it happens here too. I’m sure that if we made Mosman and Toorak sites for “The Intervention” and brought in aboriginal rangers to police those communities (assisted by Fijian mercenaries rather than the Australian Army) they would find all sorts of problems. Using “zero tolerance” for drugs including alcohol and underage smoking, “hardcore” porn, drunk driving and every petty offense the enforcers can find would quickly produce a stream of very angry, very entitled criminals. I suspect many would also be done for resist arrest and assault police, because “you don’t lay a hand on me, boy, do you know who I am?”

    • marks says:

      I had reason to visit Alice Springs Hospital as a patient.

      I don’t think that the parade of bruised and bandaged women had anything to do with over policing. If anything, I would have thought under policing was the problem.

      I have not seen anything like it in any major metropolitan hospital when visiting.

      With the cheapness of airfares today, you could confirm this yourself with an overnight trip to Alice Springs. Stay in Annies Backpackers nearby with its Czech Communist anti capitalist posters. Then next morning see the reality for aboriginal women. .. Over policing my fat arse.

  8. Fyodor says:

    I’m sure that if we made Mosman and Toorak sites for “The Intervention” and brought in aboriginal rangers to police those communities (assisted by Fijian mercenaries rather than the Australian Army) they would find all sorts of problems.

    I’d buy that for a dollar.

  9. Nicholas Gruen says:


    Thing is, the only way to fully address your point, it seems to me, is to say that there is no point in anyone identifying with aboriginal people because they’re profoundly different now to the way they were (as indeed non-aboriginal people are compared with their ethnic ancestors of 200 years ago.)

    Can you say more about where you see your view of things leading in terms of responding to these issues?

    • paul frijters says:

      neither you nor I can stop people identifying with group-images of centuries past, but in this case, it is indeed very unhelpful as outsiders to these problems (which we both are) to identify current groups as being the continuous descendants of the groups around in 1700 (including ‘Europeans’ who in the last 300 years have mainly fought other Europeans).

      Where do you go if you stop viewing current communities as longstanding ethnic groups fighting for centuries? You see them all as citizens of the same country, with the same rights and duties. Tell the population any story you need to tell them to feel good about themselves, as long as it does not impede the various citizen from seeing each other as more or less the same. The law of the land IS then the common culture and there would be no such thing as an acceptable sub-culture wherein different laws apply.


      • Nicholas Gruen says:

        Thanks Paul, but your categories are too definitive to be of much use to me. We’re all individuals, we’re also all parts of communities with which we identify and/or are identified with.

        There’s lots of discontinuities in the way those communities became the way they are today (including of course our own), but that doesn’t vitiate the facts of identification. Communities cohere as does identification through discontinuities.

        You write that it’s “unhelpful . . . to identify current groups as being the continuous descendants of the groups around in 1700.” But I’m not trying to do that. My telling of the story from 1788 wasn’t saying it’s all the same as it was then, or that ‘we’ are or that ‘they’ are. I’m acknowledging the continuity of the story – which is one of mutual incomprehension, our apparent failure to forge a relationship in which our differences, as they evolve, are respected and made mutually productive.

        • paul frijters says:

          “our differences, as they evolve, are respected and made mutually productive”

          but that is the acknowledgement that we still have the same groups now! It is the ‘us’ and ‘them’ distinction that I so rile against and find so unhelpful. Sure, communities self-label and come up with story lines in which they are an ‘us’ and the others are a ‘them’, complete with pretended historical continuities, and sure, other communities too need a story to interact. Yet stories can be chosen, and resisted, and surely the stories to choose are those that are functional and offer hope for the future. So to be seduced by the white-guilt story of hundreds of years of mal-treatment of Aborigines at the hands of Europeans, continuing to the present day is a choice to buy into a particular story of ‘us’ and ‘them’. One that sets you up for more failure for it forces you into a victim-perpetrator relation that almost ensures continued victimhood; it ensures an industry surrounding (and depending on) the maintainance of differences; it forces one into pretending there are neat distinctions between ‘communities’ (which in reality are far less clear-cut); and it stigmatises each ‘community’ and enforces (rather than merely acknowledges) an ethnic view of the world.

          I thus don’t think that in the long-run one is helping by acknowledging the story of continued group differences.

        • conrad says:

          One problem with not accepting that there are differences between groups is that it means you are obliged to deal with them in potentially less than optimum ways. For example, in some places with low SES indigenous groups, experiments with self-policing have been done, and I believe this can work better than standard policing. In your model, this couldn’t be done and so you would just end up with the policing failure which Australia had (has) for a very long time.

          A second problem is that there are groups that are in endemic poverty that believe and more or less always will believe they are a particular group. The majority population probably also accepts them as a group and may well systematically discriminate against them. If you ignore this and just use a one size fits all solution, generally designed for low SES groups who are members of the population majority group (NZ tries to get around this problem by having a minimum number of Maori people in parliament), this will simply perpetuate. Once it perpetuates long enough you may well get groups that don’t care too much about either your laws or social norms. This can be disasterous once they choose false prophets to believe instead.

          A third problem is just the empirical evidence. In your model, which is used in France where the government does not even collect most (any?) racial statistics, there in no evidence people will simply drop the histories they construct for themselves or believe less about their social groups.

        • paul frijters says:

          France is a good example of why I believe the exact opposite to you on all three issues you mention.

          France pre-revolution (and even pre 1900) was incredibly diverse, with lot of ethnicities, languages, cultures, etc. The radical negation of all those differences, culminating in a single national curriculum, a single national army, a strict separation of church and state, etc. (despite the continued reality of hugely different cultures), lead to the gradual erosion of all the prior cultural differences such that today they hardly matter any more. Should the French have maintained the apartheid system that you seem to advocate (and that it implicitly had between 1000-1600 AD when there were lots of wars between the regions), it is unlikely we would be speaking of the French as an identity at all today. Instead, the dominant identities might still be Bourgogne, Aquitaine, Bretagne, Picardie, and all the rest of them.
          Similarly, one reason we hear a lot about the current integration struggle within France of the largely Algerian Muslim communities, is precisely because of the strong resolve of the French to assimilate their Muslim population into the French way of life. The jury is out on whether they are having more success than, say, the British, but from what I have seen and heard, there is actually more integration within France than in Britain. Strife is more visible partially because the initial cultural distance (and skill distance) was particularly large, but also partially because of the tenacity of the majority to imprint the unitary state ideals on every community. The resistance is understandable and visible, but that does not mean the policy is failing. Of course I know the reality is a lot more complex, with discrimination, xenophobia and all the rest of it, but the main thrust in France is towards assimilation via the outright refusal acknowledge the inevitability of group differences.
          As far as I can see, the rest of Northern Europe and the US are slowly following the French example, for the alternatives (like what you see in Brussels, which perhaps has the clearest system of cultural Apartheid in Europe) are not looking very successful.

          Note that I am not arguing against the ability of individuals to self-identify as this or that. I am against the majority going along with group stories that carry inherent continued strife in them. To go along with the ‘us’ and ‘them’ stories strikes me as counter-productive in the long run.

        • conrad says:

          To me its almost impossible to compare whether France now is better now because of homogenization or not — It’s like a Philip K. Dick novel — you really can’t tell. Would Switzerland be better if they only spoke German? Would it matter if half of France spoke Provencale? Is the massive loss of culture Aboriginal Australians experienced worth the benefits they got? Who knows.

          As to the extent my suggestions are Apartheid — I make a distinction between disenfranchised groups doing things with and for each other vs. powerful groups inflicting their rules on them. To me your suggestion gives too much power to tyranny of the majority style government over what have often been reasonably well functioning policies that have used pre-existing culture positively for positive benefits (e.g., teaching Maori kids Maori) or provided solutions to existing problems caused by the majority (poor policing). Its also the case that when homogenization solutions are used to simply oppress people (e.g., you must only use one language at school), which is historically very common, it often leads to more problems, not less. I assume these sorts of policies would be considered a good idea under your suggestions as when they work they lead to longer term cultural homogenization and hence less conflict.

  10. peter says:

    “All as citizens of the same country…”I agree with Paul but would ask if that also covers institutions…structures of recent times (past three decades say) designed to cater to those identifying as distinctly different from the lumpen Euro post 1700 as PF posits or the past 200 from Nick. What particularly got me was a plea for further Government funding for indigenous pre-schools. I accept the need for an Aboriginal Medical Service and Aboriginal Legal Aid to overcome particular adult and regional disadvantage. But the idea that we must now cater for difference in young pre-schoolers seems over the top. I guess I would like to see some ‘sunset’ provisions on maintaining these other adult institutions. I don’t think that puts me into the assimilationist as against integrationist camp. Certainly access to facilities to overcome any disadvantage should be supported.

  11. John walker says:

    It’s hard to put the finger on exactly ‘what’ is wrong.
    On reflection I think it might be down to the fact that the aboriginals , make and female, in the two cartoons are drawn as stereotypical , bogans and as physicaly , ugly.
    And there is no good reason for that, wife bashers are not automatically , ugly to look at, or automatically bogans either.

  12. Nicholas Gruen says:


    The thing that bothers me about what you’re saying is not its basic logic, which seems broadly correct, but its all or nothing character.

    Australia is as successful as any country so far in its multi-culturalism. Is people liking to go to Vietnamese restaurants and building a whole idea of celebrating difference within basic national bonds apartheid?

    Why should some recognition of difference, some attempt to understand it, celebrate it and then build on it be apartheid? Must it lead there?

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