At the end of SBS’s Is Australia Racist? a marketeer tells host Ray Martin about the "framing effect."
It as a tool that media uses to "manipulate the truth." To frame something is to lead someone; it is persuasion; it is propaganda. It sets the stage; it creates an emotive narrative; it entices. It directs us toward what they want us to.
Ironic, I thought. Because both this documentary and the more recent The Truth about Racism were typical expressions of the most common manipulation of the truth about – and the framing of – racism.
Today we often wish to present ourselves as a self-reflective, open society engaging in an urgent discussion about Australia’s racism. But these documentaries both reflect the way we in fact the opposite. And that, you could say, is the framing effect.
We discuss racism without discussing racism.
As a race scholar, I found it very hard to watch these two documentaries, and a career’s worth of reading critical Indigenous, post-colonial, black, Asian and Latino scholars – all of them ignored in the shows – compelled me to respond in this way.
Let me highlight three examples of this framing of racism through a non-discussion of racism.
Racism: psychology or power?
First, the shows sloppily threw around terms as if they all mean the same thing. Prejudice, bias, bigotry, intolerance (unconscious or otherwise) are not racism. They may have relations, but my cousin is not me. Harmful stereotypes or generalisations may offend us, but these are symptoms, not the kernel, of racism.
Furthermore, racism does not result from some perspective error born out of ignorance or an innate human psychology. Confusing two Asians as the same person in a social experiment tells us something, but it is just one piece of a big jigsaw puzzle.
Framing racism, therefore, by means of its symptoms or by focussing on a sole piece of the jigsaw here or there is a convenience, and is the first device of this framing effect. We thereby de-historicize and de-contextualise racism. For, really, everyone has biases, and maybe we ought to address those. But the show’s overdetermination of our biases was purely a framing effect that ended up distorting what racism is and manipulating the audience.
Hence the gimmick on The Truth about Racism when wires are placed on the head of a participant. Monitoring brain patterns to conclude scientifically that we have anxieties about differences really only means that we have anxieties about differences. The "science" proves nothing else here. It is quite a leap to go from having anxieties about differences and displacing, enslaving and killing millions of Africans while colonising their lands. Racism is the system that permitted, justified and maintained the latter.
The key component of racism is thus power. The power to do it. The ability to punish and reward. The power to discipline and to own, to name and to kill the Other can only come with possessing military and cultural will and capacity to do so. Power also makes our excuses seem natural, along what we exclude, what we repress, censor, abstract and conceal.
But racism is not solely to be defined negatively. Power also produces: it produces our sense of reality, of rights and privileges; it produces our rituals of truth. And, most notably, it produces Europe.
The reverse cannot be true. An Indigenous elder may have biases about the white fella. But he does not have the power to turn that into intervention into white communities. He does not have the power to turn his prejudices into institutions that punish and enslave. It does not have the power to steal land and turn it into law. Making racism about human psychology is a lie.
Racism: sentiment or system?
The second framing effect is related to the first: it defines racism by counting racists. The shows make the latter the former and the former the latter. Racism no longer defines a system but rather but is defined by a person or group. It thus becomes something we can trace – absurdly – through a survey and, as Professor Kevin Dunn hints on the show, thereby becomes about people’s feelings, attitudes and dispositions towards Others.
What does this understanding of racism manipulate? It erases from the conversation almost everything you see around you that you cannot personalise. It displaces the material, concrete world that racism built. It is much easier to locate the source of racism in the sentiments of an ignorant bigot than it is to address the sobering fact that our current First-World wealth, privilege, economy, use of language, standards of beauty and even cups of latte are all made possible because of racism’s historical effect.
And, above all, it becomes a convenient way to forgive ourselves and not implicate our own well-being. I am simplifying here, to be sure, but there is a common formula that goes something like: I condemn racism, therefore, I am not a racist. But, the truth is our benign feelings, attitudes and dispositions about others don't mean we do not benefit from what racism built. Racism can and does exist without you or me being racists.
Law, economy, history, education are all racialized. The idea that colonisation happened 220-odd years ago and therefore I shouldn't be held responsible, does not fly. White settlement gave the opportunity that we have today. It denied others the same opportunity.
Let me concede, for sake of argument, that Australia is the greatest, fairest country in the world. The waxing lyrical of how peaceful and multicultural a country Australia is, is irrelevant. The point is that our prosperity came from a violence that excluded and killed. It has a legacy. If racism wasn't prosperous, it wouldn't persist. And, neither would the particular inequalities created globally by British imperialism.
Racism: denial of acceptance, or denial of agency?
Third, the documentaries infantilize people of colour as passive victims who pursue recognition. Throughout my life as a British Australian Muslim, I have grown up into believing I have a responsibility to educate people about where I am from, to calm their fears about my loyalty, to speak about our similarities and to engage in discussions about my commitment to secularism and democracy. I have long been socialised into believing the end game of racism is their recognition of my sameness. Here, the effect is to shift the aim of anti-racism into acceptance.
All the while, an almost uninterrupted economic and military violence continues from colonialism to this day in the Middle East. Has there been one year in the last few decades when the United States or a European country has not dropped a bomb – or a thousand – on one of the tri-continental peoples? When has Australia taken seriously the need for a treaty with the First Peoples?
The effect of this third framing of racism reduces people of colour to wanting symbolic and not material gains as a way to help us all forget the past.
Once the institutional, material and concrete world that racism built is forgotten, then you can have (as we did) a show which turns us into beggars in search of love and recognition, rather than full agents pursuing justice against the violence of European and Western aggression.
Furthermore, people of colour became sites of emotional exploration about who Australia is. We are again turned into threats or victims; we become a backdrop or prop in a dramatic story about the state of the nation. White experts as our social science saviours help narrate as they give us a theory about racism (in this case, a wrong one). And what do we do? People of colour go onto the street and test this theory. No, they really did put a Muslim woman in a niqab even after she admitted she doesn't wear one any other day.
Sorry for being blunt, but I truly believe only Australia would produce two mainstream television shows on racism based on the works of white scholars, while casting people of colour as their guinea pigs. I cannot imagine this happening in the United States or the UK. It is the equivalent of a show tracing sexism by citing a vast majority of men as experts and casting women into the roles of playing bait by wearing mini-skirts.
This is not just a superficial or cosmetic issue. White scholars (not all) more often than not fail to articulate their problematic positionality. For without historical analyses of racism – and the positions of power and privilege it has created – there is no discussion, only the performance of one.
I am aware this may clash with the permissive character of anti-racism’s mantra of inclusion for all, but I do not apologise. Discussions of racism is not an open buffet in which we are all invited. They lose their integrity and intelligibility if we again marginalize the voices it has already marginalized.
The same old "new" racism
On Is Australia Racist?, Yin Paradies got his definition of "new" racism wrong when he defined racism today as being more about culture than biology. There is no "new" racism. It has always been about culture, and has always been about religion. The use of biology was just one moment in a long line of European excuses to justify their domination and supremacy.
Thus, racialized subjects are racialized, not only by the way they look, but by a description of what that look says about their underdeveloped culture. Our food, our dress, our customs, our places of worship, our laws, our land and language are all made inferior or exotic and plotted on a timeline to measure our development.
And today, it seems, our political aims are racialized, too. Our politics is narrowed down to the simple pursuit of getting people to like us; getting people to recognise our inherit worth; getting people to see us as humans worthy of respect.
The idea that anti-racism is about being accepted is perhaps the greatest manipulation of what racism is. I do not want validation for the way I look. I do not care if people like Islam. That’s their choice. I want mobility and justice for those denied an opportunity to live – denied by the West’s past, persistent and continued violence, and the unjust world it created for people of colour.
I will not exchange a pursuit for justice for a purist of respect. The latter can only come through the former, otherwise it is not worth having.
Yassir Morsi is a lecturer in critical race and political theory at La Trobe University. His forthcoming book, Radical Skin, Moderate Masks, looks at the way racism in discourses and images conjured up by the War on Terror shape Muslims' political voice.