Macquarie University Research Centre for Agency,
Values and Ethics Annual Public Lecture

Thursday 9 November 2017

Edited transcript


How do we respond to racism? This is a question I am often asked, and one that I reflect on everyday in my work. What, for instance, should we do if we are witness to racial abuse or violence? What should we do if we are in a conversation where someone expresses prejudice or intolerance? And what should we do if we encounter an institutional practice or policy of discrimination? What should we do? Maybe more to the point, what would we do?

These are questions that take us to the province of moral psychology. They concern moral judgement, moral reasoning, moral development. In answering these questions we are interested in not only what is the right thing to do, but also how we can come to do the right thing. Often it is the second set of questions that are more difficult to answer. Most of us would know what is the right thing to do when it concerns racism. But not enough of us would know the best way to respond to racism, and not enough of us have the confidence to respond in the right way. 

That is why this evening I wanted to reflect on moral psychology and race. 

Racism and the rise of far-right nationalism

We are living in some difficult times for race relations. In just about every liberal democracy, racial harmony is under challenge. It’s always a dangerous business to generalise across different societies, but hostility towards immigrants and diversity appears to be on the rise.  Whether it is Donald Trump's flirtation with the so-called alt right, the resurgence of far right extremist parties in continental Europe, the anti-immigrant backlash we saw in Brexit in the UK, or the return of nationalist populism here in Australia, there does seem to be a pattern. 

It is worth pausing just for a moment. It may be self-evident that far right populist nationalism in its various expressions is feeding racial prejudice and tolerance. But how exactly are we to understand this as a social and political phenomenon. What are the sources of racism in contemporary liberal democracies? 

It is important to pose such questions for rather obvious reasons: if you do not understand the cause, you cannot deal with the problem. Or to put it another way: if you understand things the wrong way, you might end up with the wrong responses. To help crystallise the matter, I will play you a recent exchange, which is actually going to air in a few hours’ time in the UK on Channel 4. It is an exchange between the British journalist Gary Younge of the Guardian newspaper and Richard Spencer, a white nationalist associated with the recent neo-Nazi renaissance in the United States. 

[Video plays.]

The clip I have just shown you here helped crystallise for me a few things about questions around race that I wanted pose and consider tonight.  With that video, first, you see an archetype. Richard Spencer is a white nationalist, and many would say he is a racial supremacist. This is the kind of face that many people would put on racism: someone who believes in racial superiority and who is associated with an organised movement with an ideological commitment to racial purity. 

But what if racism comes in other forms? What about all the other forms of racism that do not involve doctrinal commitment or an overt belief in racial hierarchy? What if racism is not just confined to those who have evil hearts or dispositions? What if it is also something produced by those with good intentions? Falling back on a picture of racism as embodied by someone as extreme as Richard Spencer seems to make things a bit too simple.

Second, we see a challenge in that clip to what I regard as the typical liberal view of how we should respond to racism. By this, I mean that the assumption that racism can be cured by education, or is best countered through reasoned persuasion.

There is a liberal presumption of killing ugliness with kindness. If racism exists, the right response for the liberal is not to get carried away with moral righteousness, but rather to stop and listen to people and understand their fears and anxieties; we should try and win people over through the strength of civil, respectful and reasoned arguments. But what if people are not open to reason or to mutual respect? What if there are basic limits to reasoning with those who have racist or bigoted views? What then?

A third set of questions is about power. It is interesting watching how Richard Spencer there said to Gary Younge’s questioning, when Spencer denied that Younge as a black man could be regarded as English: ‘I embrace all of it – and I have the right to tell you that you are not an Englishman.’ So much of contemporary racism is been driven by a sense of loss. Those who may have previously felt more powerful or in control are now feeling they are losing their place, and they are responding with anger.

This is one aspect of moral psychology and race which is not fully grasped. Too often, people can regard race in terms that are far too abstract and far too removed from the visceral feelings that accompany race. Debates about race are in one respect debates about power.  The power who defines who belongs, and who does not, and the power to determine who enjoys the privileges of membership, and who does not.

Moral psychology and racism

First, the task of correctly understanding racism. This is important as racism comes in many forms. But the usages of ‘racism’ can give us a different impression. They can be unhelpful in suggesting a narrow definition of what constitutes racism. 

Many people believe that racism is all about a belief in racial superiority, the idea that races possess certain qualities which define their place in a given hierarchy.  Thus understood, racism is bound up in hateful and noxious doctrine. That is why many would associate racism with explicit or violent expressions of hatred. It's one reason why the dominant image of racism is arguably that of racial abuse or vilification in public places. This genre of public racism is rehearsed most frequently within the contemporary Australian media coverage around race. 

Confining our understanding of racism to such expressions or acts, however, would be misguided.  Extreme or vicious racism is not the most common form of racism you see in our society. That is because racism refers to anything that has the effect of unfairly disadvantaging or privileging someone on the basis of their racial background.  That is about as simple a working definition of racism I will try and offer tonight.

If we understand things this way we can grasp that racism is about not only belief and discrimination. It is also about stereotypes and prejudice, and does not always need to involve overt expression. For there will be many occasions when people understand things well enough to know that they can't be openly racist. No one wants the stigma or opprobrium of engaging in naked hostility, with some obvious exceptions. There are times, for example, when opinions based on racial prejudice will be expressed indirectly or between the lines. There can be just enough room left for plausible deniability or ambiguity. Racism is not always brutish or boorish; it can sometimes be rather sophisticated and cunning. You don't always need a foghorn when sometimes a dog-whistle does a much better job.

Then there are those times when racism need not involve malice. It can be something said or done out of ignorance or insensitivity. Rather than involving a high level of sophistication in such cases, racism can involve the very opposite: a clumsiness, if you will. I think here of what we would often call casual or everyday racism where people say or do things that have racist implications without necessarily intending on causing racist humiliation.

Psychologists would point to another aspect of racial prejudice. People can take part in racist speech and behaviour, not because they subscribe to certain beliefs but because it helps to forms bonds within a certain group. It can help to create a stronger sense of 'us' through creating a stronger sense of 'them'. Racism can involve as much a group’s needs for identity as it does actual hatred or hostility directed at others.

Here it is worth saying something more on the psychology of racism: the assumptions and motivations behind stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination. Typically, I would argue we have understood the basic structure of racism in terms of hatred. But as I’ve noted, animosity doesn't always have to be the driving force.

Not all racism stems from hatred. Racism can be borne of fear and anxiety. Fear is, as we all know, a primitive emotion. All animals can exhibit something resembling fear when confronted with perceived threats.

Fear is not merely something that is primitive in nature. It can also be tied to reason. While fear in its most immediate sense involves a heightened concern about the immediate safety of ones own body and life, it can also extend to one's culture and community. This has been one threat that has run consistently through the historical fabric of racism – fear that a certain other poses a danger to a national identity or way of life.

Then, there is envy and resentment. Racial hostility can be connected with feelings that members of some groups may possess goods that one does not. It has been established, for example, that general levels of racism can be heightened during periods of economic downturn or recession. Even in more prosperous times, feelings of resentment about perceived advantages of others can arise. Just consider at the moment the racial tones that sometimes accompany complaints about housing affordability in cities such as Sydney and Melbourne, which are often couched in terms of foreign, namely Chinese, buyers.

And then racism can be the product of ignorance and arrogance. Sometimes the damage can be done innocently or incidentally simply because one does not know better. What one person may regard as harmless, though, may in fact inflict some injury on another.

So we see many possible roots of racism: fear and anxiety, envy and resentment, ignorance and arrogance. But they all share one thing in common. They all involve to varying degrees a withholding of sympathy or compassion from those who are subject to racist behaviour. 

The American philosopher Martha Nussbaum has written about the structure of compassion. While Nussbaum frames the matter in terms of what people feel towards those who are in a situation of suffering, her insights are instructive with respect to what people feel towards those they may be subjecting to racist prejudice or discrimination. According to Nassbaum there are four conditions of compassion:

  • there is a thought of seriousness in experiencing compassion, such that the person who feels the emotion thinks that someone else is suffering in some way that is non-trivial and important;
  • to feel compassion typically means that we do not believe a person's predicament is chosen or self-inflicted;
  • a person who has compassion will think that the suffering person is similar to them in some way; and
  • where there is compassion, a person will consider the suffering person as one who is connected to their own well-being or goals in life.

These conditions are not met when racism occurs. When racism occurs there is a withholding of sympathy or compassion. It is telling, and it's no accident that when racism is expressed it is often couched in animalistic language or accompanied by references to filth. Racism involves someone putting distance between themselves and another and subjugating someone in moral importance.

Context and institutions

There are limits to viewing racism purely in psychological terms, and this is not a path that I'm suggesting. It's difficult, for example, to explain the phenomenon of institutional or structural racism through either moral or psychological concepts. As the British writer Reni Eddo-Lodge explains:

If all racism was as easy to spot and denounce as white extremism is, the task of the anti-racist would be simple. But racism thrives in places where those in charge do not align themselves with white extremist politics. The problem must run deeper.  We tell ourselves good people can't be racist. We seem to think that true racism only exists in the hearts of evil people. We tell ourselves that racism is about moral values when instead it is about the survival strategy of systemic power.  When a large proportion of the population votes for politicians and political efforts that explicitly use racism as a campaign tool - we tell ourselves that such huge sections of the electorate simply cannot be racist because that would render them as heartless monsters. But this isn't about good and bad people. 

If we don't reduce racism to a matter of good and bad people, racist bad, anti-racist or non-racist good, that would mean a few things.

First, it would mean that people wouldn't be caught up focussing only on intention or motive, as often they are. Too often people can excuse or justify an act or state of affairs by explaining away that there was no malice involved. People can forget that racism is as much about impact as it is about intent. Just because someone doesn't have evil in their heart doesn't mean that another wasn't harmed by a racist act or belief. 

Second, it would mean we would be able to see that, in addition to extremist racism, there can be structural and institutional racism. This is a more banal form of racism, one that can appear with the face of respectability. It does not need to involve physical violence or threatening abuse or even noxious doctrine. It can be perpetrated perfectly well with a pleasant smile with good manners and with acceptable reasons.

Another way of understanding all of this is to say that context matters. It is to say that behaviours can be explained as much by institutions as they are by psychology, or that psychology can't be separated from institutions, customs and habits. 

Over the decades and prompted by the arguments of Hannah Arendt among others, we have come to accept that evil may assume much more banal forms. As Arendt reminds us, the sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never made their minds up to be or do evil at all. When it comes to the very worst crimes against humanity, the problem isn’t that evil people committed them, it’s that normal people committed them.

Context and circumstance matter. Moral judgments seldom appear in absolute form, and none of us is ever exempt from human deficiency. If we were to look at experiments in social psychology, there is plenty of evidence to support the idea that small changes in context can affect our moral responses.

In one famous experiment, the psychologist Philip Zimbardo took a group of healthy young men to a makeshift prison in the basement of a university laboratory.  He assigned one half to act as prisoners, and the other half to act as guards. Zimbardo appointed himself prison superintendent. He gave the guards instructions that they should refrain from physical torture.

So what happened? Within two days the student guards set about inflicting on prisoners punishments – verbal abuse, sleep deprivation, hours spent in stress positions. Prisoners were forced to repeat physical and mental exercises. Even within this controlled, benign prison environment the guards grew sadistic. Some prisoners broke into hysteria; others broke into hives. A cycle of degradation had been unleashed. Here is Zimbardo's conclusion:

Any deed that any human being has ever committed, however horrible, is possible for any of us under the right or wrong situation or circumstances. That knowledge does not excuse evil, rather, it democratises it. Sharing its blame among ordinary actors rather than declaring it the province only of deviants and despots - of them, and not us.

I'll give you other examples. The Milgram experiments, of course, spring to mind. Darley and Batson's famous seminary experiment involving the Good Samaritan and the slumped stranger is another. There is plenty of research establishing that context matters.

There's one aspect of social context and race that I want to single out for consideration – internalised racism. Namely, the effect that social context can have on those who experience racism and the effect it may have on distorting their view of things. W E B DuBois describes internalised racism this way:

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.

Internalised racism is something that commences externally from others. It happens when dominant players or structures express racist and discriminatory ideas or engage in racist and discriminatory behaviour. This can range from physical violence to social exclusion. It can include derogatory name-calling or stereotyping. When internalised racism occurs, those who are on the receiving end of such treatment begin to believe what they hear.

There have been some interesting studies over the years of internalised racism. In 1986, Gilman, for example, conducted a much-cited study of Jewish self-hatred. There he described how ideologies can win compliance by inspiring a desire among those subjugated to be like the oppressors. The more the subjugated identify with the powerful, the more they begin to absorb the rules and values of the dominant. Gilman refers to this as involving a classical double-blind situation: there's a promise that the oppressed can escape their otherness by shunning their difference, or becoming like the majority. This is what lures them into supporting the very rules that define them as the other. But of course they are never allowed to share power. As he puts it: ‘Become like us, and you will be accepted into our group. But they never are.’

More recent studies have focused on 'defensive othering' – the phenomenon of minorities dumping on other minorities. One study in the United States analysed the term 'fob' or 'fresh off the boat', and its relationship with anti-Asian stereotypes. Interviews were conducted with young Californian adults who grew up in immigrant Korean and Vietnamese families. The study found that the use of the very word 'fob', the resort to ridiculing others in the same ethnic group, was done as a stratagem of distancing. People were trying to distance themselves from the group to which they had belonged, yet they were never ultimately able to escape it.

When you have a social context involving racism, one of the profound effects is that it can lead to those who are on the receiving end of racism internalising the very stereotypes they are subjected to.

Setting the tone: the law and civil society

So what does this mean for how we must respond?

If context matters, then clearly setting the tone matters. Having leadership on race matters. Our leaders should give nothing to give license, and should do nothing to give license to any hatred, prejudice or ignorance, because where there is encouragement of intolerance, we will more likely than not find such encouragement being taken up.

The law must play a role here in setting our standards. For the last four years, we have had almost constant debate about the Racial Discrimination Act – in particular, section 18C of the Act. This is the section that makes it unlawful to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or group because of their race. There have been two attempts to change section 18C, one in 2013-14, and one earlier this year. Both attempts did not result in any change to the Racial Discrimination Act.

Let’s recap some of the arguments put forward in the debate about section 18C.

According to those supporting legislative change, section 18C imposes an unreasonable restriction on freedom of speech. Proponents of change believe the section is political censorship. One critic of section 18C has even described it as a ‘weapon of mass destruction in the battle for freedom in this country’.

On the other hand, you have those who have argued that section 18C sends a message to our society that racism is unacceptable. It is argued that, while it imposes accountability for things which cause racial offence, insult, humiliation or intimidation, section 18C is also accompanied by very clear protections for freedom of speech through section 18D. If you do something reasonably and in good faith, and it is artistic work, public discussion, scientific inquiry, fair comment or fair reporting on a matter of public interest, that will be exempt from breaching section 18C – even if it causes racial offence, insult, humiliation or intimidation to others. One question I believe was never convincingly answered by those who wanted change to section 18C was: 'What was it that you want to say that you cannot already say?'

If we were to reflect on how the debate transpired over the years, a few things are clear. A Fairfax-Ipsos poll earlier this year of 1400 voters, for example, found that 78 per cent of Australians believe it should be unlawful to offend, insult or humiliate someone on the basis of their race or ethnicity. This is a finding that echoes an Essential Research poll in February which found that over 75 per cent of respondents did not believe people should be free to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate others on the basis of race. That poll found that only 10 per cent of Australians believe that people should have the freedom to insult and offend others on the basis of race.

This has been consistent over time. In 2014, Fairfax Media asked the same question they did this year. They found that 88 per cent of people believed it should remain unlawful to offend, insult or humiliate others on racial grounds. So for all the debate we've had over four years, there's been a shift of ten per cent in public sentiment on this.

There's another aspect to community views on all this that I want to reflect upon. It should be clear that the majority of Australians recognise that freedom of speech, as with all freedoms, is not something absolute or unqualified. My freedom ends where your freedom begins. I may have the freedom to swing my fist in the area in front of me, but that ends where your nose begins. Any right to express bigotry must not exist at the expense of a right to live free from bigotry's effects. Freedom is foundational to our society but it doesn't exist in a vacuum. If we are committed to civility, tolerance and harmony it is only appropriate that we have laws that set an appropriate standard on race.

One thing about laws which I'll touch on is that, apart from just setting a standard, it may also help to shape attitudes. The relationship between regulating behaviour and conduct, and changing attitudes is an interesting one. Because often we would posit that attitudes shape behaviour or conduct: the way we behave reflects our attitudes.

But what if it runs the other way? What if it's behaviour and conduct that sets our attitudes? If that is the case, then the law on race becomes all the more important.

Again, I turn to the literature. There are some studies on the causation question around laws and attitudes. The proposition here is that citizens internalise the values signalled by laws – that the law does not exist simply for symbolic purposes, but it helps to generate attitudinal change over time.

There have been some studies which appear to indicate that there is such a relationship, although the studies in my interpretation appear to suggest that proximity is important if the law is to bear upon attitudes. That is to say, it has to affect your life or shape your interactions in some way. Racial discrimination laws are more likely to lead to attitudinal changes in people who live in multicultural environments and societies. These are people who are constantly exposed to situations where racial discrimination may occur. The law then becomes part of their understanding of how to deal with these situations. This would describe, for me, an Australian multicultural society rather accurately.

Having said all this, a law can only ever go part of the way to changing attitudes. If it were only as easy as legislating for things, we would have eradicated crime, murder, theft, from humanity a long time ago. We've had laws on such things for thousands of years, after all.

We must continue to educate people alongside the law. And that's one reason why on matters concerning race, the Human Rights Commission runs the ‘Racism. It Stops with Me’ campaign, which is an awareness campaign aimed at empowering people to speak out and stand up against prejudice and discrimination. For the past five years, we've had more than 400 organisations across the country participate in the campaign as supporters.

Conclusion: Race and colourblindness

How do we respond to racism, then? Clearly, we can't reduce racism just to debates about concepts or psychology. Power is implicated. That is one aspect of conversations we've had about race that isn't always fully understood.

I have said that we need laws, that we need leadership, and that we need civil society and education to play their role. But there's also something that we all need to do in our day-to-day lives.

Here I want to conclude with some remarks about racial literacy – about being able to talk about race in a more meaningful and intelligent way. One of the things we need to get better at doing is dealing with the idea of colourblindness, this idea that we don't really see race, or that we are blind to colour. The idea that if we are really committed to eradicating prejudice we would stop talking about race, because that only gets people to focus on people's differences and races rather than their true characters.

This is a convenient excuse for many who do not have to confront racism. It allows people to dismiss the task of dealing with racism and its many forms. And it prevents people from being forthright in dealing with racial difference. It is easy to think that multiculturalism is simply about saying that everyone has their place, that we accept people from whatever their background and be friends, and think that this alone will get us through.

This is a worthy sentiment and a good place to start. But if we stop the conversation there, it would set the bar too low. It would just imply a soft form of tolerance. One problem with beginning and ending with such ideas is that we don't ever get to talk about differences in any real sense. It's one thing for us to talk about differences if that means talking about different foods and cuisines. If only things were as easy as embracing culinary diversity, we would have eradicated racism in Australia by now. We would have exported this cure for racism to the world.

We need to be more demanding, more sophisticated and more honest in dealing with racial differences. The default barrier of 'we don't see race' or 'race is invisible' only gets in the way of recognising and naming the problem in the first place. Talking about it, and naming it, is the only way that we can begin to deal with racism. For all that we may theorise or philosophise about racism, it is ultimately not an intellectual problem. It is a human problem. It is as much about the heart, if not more, as it is about the head.