When I saw Ray Martin fronting a doco on racism I expected the worst. He’s so in love with schmoozing the audience with his dulcets, I expected a whitewash. There are a few bad eggs, but we’re not racist. We’re Aussies! The program certainly isn’t that. It presents a series of ‘experiments’ in which people act out various scenarios and hidden cameras demonstrate racism as it’s experienced and as it’s dished out on our streets as well as others coming to their aid and ticking off racist bullies – though they’re a bit thin on the ground.
Perhaps the most confronting experiment is a well known one where two people – one in the favoured group, the other in the ‘out’ group – do something inherently capable of arousing suspicion. A young white man hacksaws his way through a chain around a bicycle to free it up and nary an eye is batted. His brazenness indicates that he has nothing to hide. He’s obviously lost the key to the padlock or something. …. You know in your bones what will happen to the aboriginal guy who does it. In an illustration of the difference between American and Australian democracy, where the Americans I’ve seen in videos of similar experiments start challenging the presumed bike thief, the Australians go get the government to sort it out. Two coppers appear in short order in their obligatory high-vis vests. And without so much as asking him any questions, they presume his guilt, force the poor kid to the ground and start applying handcuffs. Very nasty stuff, which they then show a mix of embarrassment and (oddly) relief when the film crew step in and vouch for the poor, shaken sucker who agreed (with considerable and well founded trepidation) to be the stool pigeon.
Regarding these experiments I think it’s worth distinguishing between three levels of racism. There’s what we might call direct, overt racism. Someone doesn’t like black people and demonstrates that in their conduct – even if they don’t acknowledge it to others, or even to themselves. The doco engineered social situations in which this could have emerged and we should be very relieved and happy that I don’t think they uncovered a single instance of this. There’s also indirect racism, where people think they’re pretty colour blind but don’t act that way. It turns out they’re not as well disposed towards black people as white people, though they might swear black and blue that they were.
I’m thinking most of the racism uncovered on the Brisbane busses by the disgracefully unethical Paul Frijters (who has fortunately been deported for his troubles) and the colleagues he led so callously astray (I’ve always thought we shouldn’t let in foreigners). Statistical studies of umpires also frequently show unacknowledged racial bias which I’m sure would surprise the umpires themselves. Then there’s a third kind of refracted indirect racism where a persons’ race doesn’t necessarily make people feel badly towards them or treat them differently in many circumstances, but in some circumstances it does because it leads people to infer the likelihood that those from the out-group are a threat to them somehow or up to no good. That inference may often be reasonable given the evidence and of course it may not be. I think it overwhelmingly likely that this was the kind of racism exhibited in the bicycle experiment. Let’s call these “openly hostile racism”, “unacknowledged racism” and “inferential racism”. I’ll come back to this in part two.
Unusually within this genre – where a singular narrative is generally imposed and delivered – it’s also quite an honest show. In the program, one aboriginal woman – she’s noticeably darker than a European but a long way from being very black – says that when she goes out, she feels naked without her makeup. She doesn’t want to be looked down on or treated disrespectfully. It’s rather a good illustration of the difference between the indirect kinds of racism mentioned above and openly hostile racism which has been so stigmatised and has diminished so much in our culture over the last four decades.
I found it moving being shown how she feels obliged to wear makeup (I’m presuming) to send a signal to people that she’s ‘making an effort’. I don’t have to do that. I dress as I please and people treat me as well as anyone else. So for the ‘experiment’ she dresses down, wearing jeans and so on and doesn’t wear makeup and we find out how she’s treated. The lovely thing is that, even though the film crew work away at it for several days, with their hidden camera’s she’s treated with great respect and pleasantness! I was surprised and quietly thrilled. I don’t by the way, regard this as a refutation of her fear of disrespect. Being disrespected is humiliating. And you don’t need much humiliation to try pretty hard to avoid encountering it.
One of the doco’s final experiments shows people footage of the arrival of some boat people with two very different framings of the way the TV ‘package’ is put together. On the one hand the story is presented as the arrival of “yet another” boat with the emphasis on stuff being ‘out of control’. The boat is overflowing, and authorities don’t’ know if it’s carrying terrorists. The result is that people say that boarder protection is ‘out of control’, we’ve got to do something, yada yada. The other package reports the boat people as families fleeing the horrors of a war-zone who are grateful to finally be in a safe, democratic country. The same people – who don’t seem to realise they’re watching the same (fictitious) event recast – now express their sympathy for the boat people and a resulting hospitality towards the new arrivals and a pride in Australia that it can be a haven in a heartless world for such people. The contrast is all a bit crude for my taste but it makes its points powerfully. Ray Martin then looks, straight faced into the camera and says that, of all people he shouldn’t be surprised, but he is shocked at how much media framing can affect the way people see things. Shocked! He should know having been the unrepentant front man for the vilification of the hapless Paxton kids all those ago.
But there’s something I found much more unsatisfactory about the show than Ray’s self-interested, feckless insouciance regarding his own complicity in stoking Australia’s social road rage towards bogans doing it tough.
To be continued …