The school that tried to end racism aims high, but risks building the power of race
Can we escape race and racism? Are we marked at birth, trapped in a world where color seals our destiny?
The ABC attempted to answer these questions this week. The School That Tried to End Racism program brought the thorny issue of race into the classroom and playground.
It was one of those “out of the mouths of babies” experiences where children, in their honesty and naivety, reveal deeper truths. Some of them were confrontational and empowering, some touching – and some unsettling.
I couldn’t help but walk away reminding myself that you can’t end racism just by talking about race. It is a link: one strengthens the other. I have seen children become more confused, questioning their friendships and wondering where (if any) they belonged.
The program seeks to demystify the breed and yet inevitably risks strengthening it. The race drives us crazy. The race is not real and yet it may be its power. It is terribly unreal.
Discover the hierarchical order of the playing field
My life has inevitably been framed by race. As an Indigenous person, one of the first lessons I learned was that race matters.
I was about five years old when I discovered the pecking order of the playground. A classmate – with freckles, blonde hair, like someone from a Milky Bar Kid commercial – put his arm next to mine and asked, “Why are you so black?”
He would never have thought to ask why was he so white. White was normal. The teacher was white, the other children were white. The people who worked in the shops, who drove the school bus, the lifeguards at the local swimming pool, the faces on the television were white.
Everyone who seemed to matter in our little world was white. Being white meant never having to ask questions. Being “black” had to be an aberration, an oddity, something to be explained.
As the French psychiatrist and philosopher from Martinique Frantz Fanon said: âLook, a nigger!
There was another native boy in our class and we stuck together like glue. He was the adopted son of the local Presbyterian pastor and his wife. We rushed home that afternoon and told him we were called black. In her kind and well-meaning way, she said, “You are not black, you have beautiful olive skin.”
This is the way the world works: in one day we are told that we are black, then we are told that we are not. But we were reminded that we were certainly not white.
A lesson in critical breed theory
The kids in the ABC program were asked this question this week: where do you fit in? Where do you line up?
Children have taken their place in the race of life. Step forward if you have blue or green eyes, step forward if most of the people on television look like you, step forward if the Prime Minister has the same skin color as you. Take a step back if you’ve been asked where are you really from.
White children are ahead of the game.
At the same age I would have been in the back. Race does indeed explain a lot about our world and where we start in life.
It was a little lesson in what is called critical race theory. A lesson in “L” plates. The CRT first appeared in the United States in the 1970s to explain how race is institutionalized and supported in law and public policy. According to the theory, this seeps even into individual prejudices, conscious or not.
Critical race theory is hotly debated in the United States at the moment. Its detractors call it a division and claim that it seeks to destroy America. Donald Trump has even banned federal agencies from taking racial awareness training. Up to eight Republican-controlled states have passed laws restricting CRT education.
This culture war is also seeping into Australia. Where some see a liberating idea, others see a Marxist plot to infiltrate our classrooms and sow resentment and white guilt and tear up whatever we hold sacred.
Critical race theory is just that, a theory. Like all theories, it is useful and not, good and not.
It helps reveal how race is an organizing principle of power. The rise of the West goes hand in hand with colonization and empire. Indigenous communities have been invaded and brutalized. People were enslaved to build colonial economies.
The legacy remains in crushing poverty, high rates of imprisonment, poor health, premature death, unemployment and despair.
Liberalism has a racial problem
We are living at a turning point in history. Western power is declining. Some predict the end of the West. China’s rise to power tilts the balance of global power. China, too, carries the weight of history – it has its own memories of foreign domination.
Xi Jinping reminds his people to never forget what he calls the “hundred years of humiliation” of the fall of the Qing Empire and the opium wars with Britain in the mid-19th century and the “liberation” from the communist revolution in 1949.
Throughout this period, Chinese leaders and thinkers developed their own racial awareness.
In the West, movements like Black Lives Matter and public gestures like kneeling are raising awareness and challenging the status quo. Rather than an attack on democracy, this is a time for democracy to question itself – and exemplifies the power of protest, something democracy should cherish.
There are undoubtedly activists in these movements who want to usurp the system, but they would do well to remember that there is no Uyghur Lives Matter movement in China. Liberalism, for its flaws and its colonizing roots, retains a powerful potential for emancipation.
Yet liberalism has a racial problem. It cannot just legislate. It is structural but it does not have to be permanent. It is our challenge, to build better liberalism.
Understanding the race is essential to understanding our world. But does race explain everything?
“Running is like witchcraft”
When my schoolmate pointed out my dark skin, he didn’t see that my grandmother was white. My family on my mom’s and dad’s side are aboriginal, but they’re what we would awkwardly call âmixâ.
I have an Irish great-great-grandfather. How does an essentialist notion of a fixed race explain to me? Statistics show that most Aboriginal people have a non-Aboriginal partner.
My wife is not native. She presents herself as “white”, but in a less obvious way to many, she has a Chinese heritage. She is closer to me than any Aboriginal person. Love is greater than race. Yet, because of race and racism, there are parts of me that she could never really know. It’s okay, we learn from each other.
My children have friends and partners that we would call different “races”. The word itself – race – hardly seems appropriate.
African-American scholars and sisters Barbara and Karen Fields coined the term “racecraft” to describe how race torments us. Race is the mother of racism, they say, not the other way around. Race is like witchcraft, its power comes from our will to believe.
Yet it is naive to imagine, as some do, a post-racial world. Martin Luther King Jnr may have dreamed of a world where we are not judged by the color of our skin but by the content of our character, but even he didn’t really believe that day would come anytime soon.
I don’t want my “race” to fade away. I don’t want to blend in with a melting pot. I want to be recognized for who I am; that I am everything and everything else. To use Walt Whitman’s words, I contain multitudes.
I am human – not a separate race: Messily, complex, infuriating human. As the former Roman playwright Terence, himself once a slave, wrote: âI am human, nothing human is foreign to me.
Look beyond the race
What if early in life we ââasked our ABC kids different questions? Go ahead if your parents went to university; if they own their home; if your parents earn a six figure income. Some of the “white” children may have stayed behind.
The class blurs the tracks. Our federal parliament now has more indigenous representatives than at any time in our history, as well as people of other ethnic backgrounds. But Linda Burney, Josh Frydenberg, Peter Khalil or Penny Wong may well have as much if not more in common than other indigenous peoples, Jews, Egyptians or Chinese in Malaysia.
Penny Wong is one of those people with multiple legacies, someone who wouldn’t fit into a single box. For me, a sad part of The School That Tried to End Racism featured a mother of mixed Croatian and Syrian descent who felt ostracized for most of her life. She cried as she recounted how she was told she was out of place.
That’s a shame. Trace any of our backgrounds and none of us are “pure” – what a horrible idea anyway. Racial purity and superiority belong to the Nazis.
I have always been drawn to those who look beyond race. The writers of exile have always spoken to me. I hold to heart the words of the great Irish writer, James Joyce, who said that he had gone “to forge in the forge of my soul the uncreated consciousness of my race”.
I was born into an Indigenous family that made me proud of who I am, and have traveled the world to have new ideas, meet new people, and find a voice beyond the limiting ideas of others about my race. ; create in my soul this consciousness to respond to racism.
Those responsible for the ABC program aim high; it is too much to expect a school to end racism. But I hope these kids have a chance to break free from the perverse logic of racism – to know that where they line up isn’t where they end up.
Stan Grant presents China Tonight Monday at 9:35 p.m. on ABC TV and Tuesday at 8 p.m. on ABC News Channel.