Earlier this week, I was in a department store torturing myself by browsing the racks of summer dresses (none of which I could afford to buy). Behind the counter were four young salespeople, all clearly friends, one of whom was Aboriginal. The store was surprisingly quiet, and so it was easy to overhear their conversation which revolved around a new range of skirts. When asked her opinion of a particularly vibrant yellow piece, one of the saleswomen indicated at her Aboriginal colleague and said, ‘There’s already too much colour here.’
They all laughed, even the woman who was the punchline, but I felt a vague sort of discomfort. It was obviously a racist joke. But was it somehow less offensive because the person being disrespected found it funny?
The reality is that racism isn’t only committed by hateful extremists on the shady edges of society. It’s committed by everyday folk who think they are excluded because they are comfortable to surround themselves with people of other races. It’s done by people who couch their statements with ‘I’m not a racist, but…’ and then launch into something incredibly offensive and belligerent. And it’s perpetuated by people who believe that humour somehow precludes them from acknowledging that what they are saying is hurtful and damaging.
I’ve told enough racist jokes myself, believing it didn’t matter because my best friend is Jewish, my long-term housemate Korean, and some of my oldest friends Aboriginal, Fijian and Samoan. But racist jokes are an insidious way of dehumanising another person, and frankly I want to be better than that.
I hope we all can be better than that.