Thursday, January 21, 2010

blame their accusers instead of themselves

This is a guest post for swpd by Eurasian Sensation, who writes of himself, "I'm from Melbourne, Australia, and I'm a little bit white and a little bit Indonesian. I'm both an insider and an outsider in two cultures, and I guess that gives me an interest and insight into how cultures connect and clash. This is the basis for my blogging -- it's a look at various expressions of culture and ethnicity, sometimes serious, sometimes not."

I've been noticing a prevalent tactic to deflect accusations of racism among white folks here in Australia recently. And it's a clever move, too; it allows them to not only avoid facing up to the uncomfortable reality, but to come out of the exchange feeling morally superior to whoever made the accusation.

But first, a little context. In case you haven't been following, Australia in recent months has been the subject of considerable criticism about incidents of a racial nature. Most notable has been the worrying rate of assaults towards Indian students and people of South Asian descent, which has generated much heat in the Indian media and posed the question about whether Australia is a racist nation.

Our credentials as a multicultural utopia were also questioned recently following the "Jackson Jive" skit on a variety show in which a group performed in blackface, which caused offence back in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world.

In both cases, a very similar white strategy has arisen in media and public discourse, to defend Australia's reputation. It basically involves a diversion -- a shift of attention away from Australia and onto whoever is making the criticism.

In relation to the condemnation that emanated from the U.S. regarding the blackface performance, the most common response on talkback radio and in newspaper comments was to condemn the U.S. as being worse. The following are from readers of Brisbane's Courier Mail:

i recall Robert Downey JR dressing as a african american man, with make-up and all, in a new movie called "tropic thunder". I cant remember any big stink getting kicked up about that. Maybe America should stop pointing fingers our way and deal with their own country

Posted by: Ben of Have a look at yourself USA 11:01am October 10, 2009

Americans are so ignorant and arrogant. The whole world is supposed to be in tune with thier cultural and historical guilt. Australians ... did not kidnap and enslave african negroes, Americans did.

Posted by: Didums of Brisbane 5:18pm October 09, 2009

Boo hoo! I've just seen footage of Harry Connick with blackened face portraying a Baptist preacher. Pot - kettle, pardon the pun!

Posted by: Danny Brown of Brisbane 3:22pm October 09, 2009

See how it's done?

By focusing on the faults of the accuser (America and Harry Connick, Jr.), these Courier-Mail readers avoid having to actually question whether anything was wrong with the blackface performance.

Interestingly, it doesn't just apply to something the accuser is currently doing, but also to anything they have ever done in the past. They invoke an institution that died out 150 years ago (slavery), and something Harry Connick, Jr. did in 1996 (which incidentally was entirely different in context to a bunch of guys wearing shoepolish). So a past act of racism forever cancels out any right to accuse anyone else; there is no possibility of someone doing something racist but then learning from that mistake.

When applied to a nation or other grouping of people (i.e. "Americans"), this tactic also makes everyone in that group responsible for whatever some parts of that group may have done. So Harry Connick, Jr. had no right to make comments on Australian racism towards black people, because people from his country once owned slaves and conducted lynchings. Of course, Harry Connick, Jr. never owned slaves or conducted lynchings, but that's an inconvenient truth. What is most important is to discredit him and his country and thus invalidate their right to criticise us.

In regard to the criticism from India, the common white response has been very similar. Rather than question whether they may have a point, just draw attention to India's faults instead. Alan Howe, a columnist in the country's most read newspaper, summed it up in his column, written in response to the angry Indian reaction to the stabbing death of a Punjabi student in Melbourne:

Indians are a riot. Indeed, there are about 60,000 riots reported in India each year. It boasts it is the world's largest democracy, but that "democracy" is very much a work in progress, and the progress is slow.

Much of the country still has well-populated pockets of feudal brutality, deadly caste war, and murderous religious conflict. Indians still carry out so-called honour killings, an unpleasant business in which concerned male family members, worried about the class, religion, background, or maybe just the look of a girl's fiance or husband, brutally kill one or both for bringing shame upon them...

Nitin Garg's death is a tragedy. For him, his family in Punjab, his friends, and for our community. We don't know yet who killed him. It probably was an opportunistic robbery gone wrong, but he may have been killed by someone out to harm an Indian. He may have even been killed by an Indian. They have form, home and away.

So let's solve the crime and get the facts. Let's not jump to any conclusions. Well, maybe one: Australia is a safer and more tolerant country than India will ever be.

Got that? So if Indians are a violent and degenerate people, and many bad things happen in India, therefore Indians have no right to comment on violence or racism in Australia. Likewise, Americans cannot criticise Australia for racism because America is racist.

A number of old sayings spring to mind here. "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." Or, "People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones." (Clearly, stone-throwing was one of the most pressing issues affecting our ancestors.)

And there is certainly something to those old chestnuts. As an Australian, I admit it is a bit strange hearing criticism from the US about our attitudes to black people, as if slavery never existed. I would hope that the Americans who condemned the offending blackface skit would at least take a moment to reflect on their own nation's sticky record on race, for context.

Nevertheless, the "clean up your own backyard" mentality is extremely limiting, and in a sense hypocritical. If Australians respond to American criticism by citing American racism, they are in essence criticising the US and ignoring the mess in Australia's own "backyard". It also means that no one ever has the moral authority to criticise anyone else. Because no person, and no society, is perfect in every way, and every society has a problem with racism and violence to some degree.

Hence, the spotlight is taken away from the initial problem, and instead focuses on the alleged hypocrisy of the critic. So white people never have to ask themselves the hard questions about their own racism. They never have to bother with being introspective about their prejudices. And thus racism continues and thrives, because no one addresses it. In the case of the Indian students, this tactic may even increase the level of racism and violence against them; it effectively labels them hypocrites and troublemakers, and fuels the flames of hatred and xenophobia even further.

But of course, in the white Australian psyche, whether some Indians get attacked is not really that important. What is more important is making sure no one dares to call us racist.

So how should Australia, or any other country for that matter, measure its performance as a society?

Do we look around for the worst aspect of someone else, and use that as a yardstick to rate ourselves? Should we compare our record on race to the U.S., whose history of treatment towards non-white people is arguably one of the most shameful of any nation? And in doing so, should we conveniently ignore the positive things the U.S. has accomplished in this area?

Should we compare ourselves to India -- an enormous nation wracked by poverty and longstanding ethnic, class and religious divisions -- and pat ourselves on the back that our small and wealthy country does not have as many problems?

Do we really want to turn this into a pissing contest over who is less racist?

The thing is, in that kind of contest, no matter who wins, everybody loses.


  1. Loved this post.

    This tendency may, in fact, be the one that drives me the most crazy.

    The fastest way to get my blood boiling is to, during the conversation of slavery, attempt to enlighten me as to this irrelevant fact that "Africans owned slaves too..." which typically is also leads to the implication that the all-knowing white American did those poor black Africans a favor by shipping them over to the USA. At least then we ended up in America instead of still in Africa (which leads to a whole host of other issues, but we'll let sleeping dogs lie)

    It's amazing to me how the same people who would say "if everyone jumped off a bridge, would you?" to me if I tried to excuse doing drugs with "all my friends are..." would also somehow try to deflect responsibility, or hell, even the simple conversation about slavery by telling me Africans did it too. Drives. me. crazy.

    It's all so basic -- the reason why people do this. The reasoning is the same as why a 6 year old will point at his brother and say "he started it..." anything to not have to accept the consequences or deal with the repercussions.

    You're right about everybody losing; the thing is, no one is really trying to win -- the people who employ this tactic just don't want to have to look in the mirror and honestly assess what they see. It's absurd, really

  2. This is also China's favorite way to deal with any outside criticism of its racist treatment of Tibetans. Examples are easy to find on youtube comments (just search for some pro-Tibet videos) but the practice extends all the way up to major news media and statements by government officials.

  3. Did riche just ironically provide an example of the common white tendency that this post is basically about?

  4. AE, perhaps. =)

    I joined in on this thread to bring up another example of the "blame their accusers" phenomenon. Here the persons doing it are mostly Chinese and thus non-white, but I have also encountered white people, especially in China-related academia, doing the "blame the accuser" thing. Some of these white people are even very pro-Tibet in their own minds, but they'll bring up "well China doing that is no different than America doing such-in-such" and thereby derail.

    There are certainly a lot of different dynamics going on here beyond what the original post was about, related to the race, nationality, and privilege of the accuser (white/Tibetan/PoC-ally, etc.), the persons blaming the accuser (white/Chinese/other-PoC), and the person calling out the blaming (in this case, me). I'm not sure whether that makes my posts off-topic/derailing.

  5. AE said The fastest way to get my blood boiling is to, during the conversation of slavery, attempt to enlighten me as to this irrelevant fact that "Africans owned slaves too..."

    I hear ya. I always want to cringe when I hear this statement! One of my all time favorites:

    "Racism ended with the civil rights movement. It's a certain group that keeps it going by bringing up the issue..."

  6. @riche

    Your posts do seem a bit derailing because it's accusing China of another instance of "finger-pointing", but not really adding any input that effectively addresses the problem. Also, this blog is directed at the problem of racism, and while other oppressions are important to address, pointing out China without specificity is dangerous. You've effectively homogeonized a populous country that is full of varied opinions and thinking individuals... Not to mention that you have victimized Tibetans in a similarly homogeonizing way...

  7. arab trader arguement is so childish.

  8. @ Aiyo - I'm not sure if this is exactly the same as the "Arab Trader" argument. Abagond's definition of the ATA seemed to involve invoking a 3rd party (Arabs) to use as the yardstick; this post is about biting back at the credentials of whoever dares point out racism.

    So a similar example might be responding to a black person's complaints of racism with "Yes, but black people are racist all the time."

    @ Ebony - Similar to the favourite example you give, I once heard a white Australian say, with no hint of irony, that "there's no racism here anymore. The only ones who are racist are the immigrants and the Aborigines." Ignoring of course the racist nature of that statement itself.

  9. Drowned Lotuses, thank you for evaluating my comments in a way that's not dismissive to the issues behind them.

  10. Eurasion Sensation:

    This. A million times.

    I don't even know how to respond to these "African owned slaves too!" arguments. Then people always like to bring in the fact that conflicts take place intra-racial but inter-ethnically. And I'm like "Okay..." Because that doesn't negate racism...But I have NO IDEA how to keep the conversation going because people like to use that as a "case closed!" kind of argument.

    A. Smith:
    As far as the "Africans owned slaves too argument", I've heard that HERE. IN GHANA. From my cousins. Who then go on to say that black Americans should be grateful because the ONLY form of discrimination affecting them is in hiring and they should be glad about everything else. Even after I explain to them that that is so not the case.


  11. It also means that no one ever has the moral authority to criticise anyone else. Because no person, and no society, is perfect in every way, and every society has a problem with racism and violence to some degree.

    This. I know America's history is steeped in racism, but that doesn't mean Americans aren't allowed to voice their disapproval of what some folks in another country do. Knowing humanity in general, I'm pretty sure all cultures and countries throughout the world have xenophobic, ethnocentric, and racist tendencies.

    Being called a racist is the last thing a lot of people want to hear. It just boils down to many people viewing racism as something that existed only in the past and thinking that only outright hatred and violence counts as racism.

  12. Classic post. Something I am all too familiar with as a black woman in America. I have noticed too often that some white people have the luxury of not addressing their own racism. Somehow, it is always the accuser's fault and generally the accuser is being too sensitive, too serious, or making a fuss about nothing. Therefore, this lessens the accuser's opinion and place it into a category of nonsense. What really confuses me are the stupid examples used to justify a racist act! Particulary in Australia. I have read silly, uneducated posts by some Australians discussing Harry Connick Jr., Robert Downey Jr., The Wayans Brothers, or Dave Chappelle portraying black or white people and ALL Americans find it funny. First and foremost, there is a difference between blackface and wearing makeup to look more African or European. Second, not EVERYONE is a fan of the entertainers previously mentioned. I have yet to see Tropic Thunder or White Chicks (and don't care to because I didn't find the film trailers interesting). The lack of education is from the fact blackface was a dehumanzing form of entertainment first used by white Americans to portray their perception of black Americans. However, a POC providing a history lesson in response to an offensive act is not all that important because the POC doesn't know their own history or culture well enough to make an intelligent assessment on race. This type of stupidity and ignorance is not limited to Australia or America, but around the world.

  13. Yes, I've been thinking about it, this is a very useful post. And it certainly is different from the Arab Trader Argument.

    I think what the blame-shifters often think they're doing is cleverly undercutting their accusers by pointing out their -- supposed? -- hypocrisy ("Before you accuse me, take a look at yourself," etc.). But yes, the resuilt is really a childish bit of diversionary finger-pointing.

  14. In all fairness, of the examples you mentioned, only one ("Maybe America should stop pointing fingers our way and deal with their own country") actually questioned the right of the other to criticise, and even that was pretty mild.

    Alan Howe didn't say that Indians have no right to criticise Australians. And he said that the attacks quite possibly were racially motivated.

    [The rest of this comment has been redacted -- As you yourself acknowledged, 2 cent soldier, this blog is about stuff white people do, not stuff Chinese people do. ~macon]

  15. The rest of the developed world has always used the US a scapegoat. What many refuse to realize is that the U.S. did not start the slavetrade. It started in Europe. Australia may not have had slavery, but its government wiped out the indigenous population.

    And it annoyed me that some whites refuse to tale responsiblity for their racist behavior by pointing the finger.

    The "but he's oing it, too" argument is juvenile.

  16. I'm not sure if it's going too off topic, but another method that I observe quite often by blame-shifters is the "stop being so sensitive" attitude. The comments following the story of the link below, demonstrate just that :,215206

  17. @ 2 cent soldier: if those examples are not directly questioning the right of the other to criticise, they are aimed at undermining the credibility of the criticiser by making them seem hypocritical.

    Regarding Alan Howe's article, my question would be this: What purpose is served by writing an article in an Australian newspaper, all about how terrible and violent Indians are? He seems solely to want to make Australians feel better about themselves.

  18. Hehehe. Cool post mate. When I started following the Indian student and Harry Connick Jr story over at your blog, I couldn't help but laugh. For so many years I had been seeing the following pattern in the news: Western country (often Oz or US) accuses Asian country of human rights abuse, environmental pollution (and any other 'global issues'). Asian country tells Western country to go clean their backyard. Western country laughs at how absurd that claim sounds to them thinking, "They (these backward countries) can't possibly think things are worse in our (advanced) country, bah." And I'd feel uncomfortable at every stage of this process with both teams on the field...And then I saw Australia do the exact same thing to the US and I thought, LOL.

    When someone (anyone) pulls that argument out, I think you can be sure that they're being defensive because deep down they know they've just pooed in their pants and wants you to look the other way.

  19. "I have noticed too often that some white people have the luxury of not addressing their own racism."

    The attackers come from a variety of differnt ethnic backgrouds. Your focus on whites is problematic.

  20. @ Manju:
    "The attackers come from a variety of differnt ethnic backgrouds. Your focus on whites is problematic."

    Given that this site is called Stuff White People Do, don't be too surprised that it focuses on white people.

    But you are right in saying that the attackers were not just white. What I'm trying to point out is that there are many white Australians, including in the white-dominated media, who are trying to absolve white Australians of any blame. This includes commentators like Andrew Bolt who essentially blame it entirely on non-white immigrants.

  21. when people give the "african's had slaves too" response. I say "But the slaves were treated human. They had clothes, houses, their own lovestock, etc. " (example: The Ancient Egyptians and the Israelites.)

  22. I found the exact same thing when I was Australia from last year. I told an Australian woman online the shit that had been happening to me. ( I was walking to my apartment with a group of Australian men yelled, "NIGGER!" as they drove by. Then there was the Australian male thought it was funny to say the word Nigger to me. Then he and his best friend, made monkey noises, joked about me having AIDS, being from Africa and didn't listen to me protesting for them to stop. I ended up having to get my Australian friends to back me up on how racist it was. In fact, the guy who stood up for me told me that the reason they didn't get him for being Asian was because he was a guy. Where as they saw my breasts and thought, "Easy target!")
    What ended up happening is that after I explained what happened she told me that: America were hypocrites for Tropic Thunder, I was a liar since I had posted something that was three months old about Australian men hitting on me, and that Australia is safer in that she won't get shot on her way to school because of the blacks.
    I quickly told her that just because I had a post unlocked on my journal, didn't mean that shit didn't happen and she was a racist. Which ended with her telling me that she helps out the Aboriginal people, so my comment was moot.

    It frustrated me then and still frustrates me on how some people fail to take accountability for their actions. I was told by an older man that the reason Australia does it, is because they were founded in the 1900's and they haven't had a lot of diversity in the country.
    But that comment left me angry, as it's an excuse. Why is it that people are so ready to come up with excuses as if to say, "I'm sorry he called you a black bitch. But you know. He CAN'T HELP IT!!" That type of shit doesn't make the memory go away, make the humiliation hurt a little less.

  23. @Eurasian Sensation
    I think the argument is that since it isn't established that the attacks were racially motivated, it is not so much hypocritical to use those cases to lay into Australian's racial attitudes, just unfounded and unwarranted. But if, nevertheless, you want to engage in a debate on such attitudes, you need to be prepared to have your own examined as well.

    The approach is still "playing the man, not the ball" / ad hominen, but not as dismissive of debate as the approach engaged by others who I apparently need to be careful who I mention (oh blog deity- can i at least put in this wiki link?

  24. @ 2 cent soldier:

    For argument's sake, let's say your reading of Howe's article is correct in terms of his intention. There is still a question of how it is interpreted by the people who read that newspaper.

    Australian media and government have not demonstrates a great deal of desire to look inward on this, and there is a repeated theme of either looking for scapegoats (violent immigrants attacking Indians), blaming Indians (for walking around at night, or stirring up trouble), or denying any link to general racism in the community (saying that it's just a few criminal elements).

    I see Howe's article as fitting into that spectrum, all of which results in Indians' fears being trivialised, and Australia's self-image as being a problem-free place as being upheld.


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