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Are you racist? You may be without even knowing it

The infamous Youtube video capturing a young man abusing women on a Melbourne bus for the crime of singing in French, and being supported in his violent tirade by fellow passengers, raises the uncomfortable…

Our implicit associations reveal more about our true attitudes than what we explicitly state. Image from shutterstock.com

The infamous Youtube video capturing a young man abusing women on a Melbourne bus for the crime of singing in French, and being supported in his violent tirade by fellow passengers, raises the uncomfortable question – are Australians racists?

Most of us acknowledge our shameful history of racism, including genocidal violence directed against the first inhabitants of this continent, but we hope we’ve left those dark days far behind us.

I don’t know how common overt racism of the kind captured on the video is today. Questions like that are notoriously difficult to answer, in part because people are often reluctant to express their true attitudes when they know that many others disapprove of them.

I’m going to suggest, however, that a great many of us, almost certainly an overwhelming majority, are home to a range of biases, including xenophobia and racism, which dispose us to think badly of how things are done elsewhere or by people who we don’t think of as belonging to our in-group. I’m not going to suggest that most Australians are racist; I’m not going to suggest that you are racist.

I think the evidence I will cite doesn’t settle that question. In fact, whether you are racist may be less important than we tend to think.

It’s not easy to say what exactly it takes to be a racist. It’s usually not hard, though, to recognise racists; that’s why the Youtube video is so shocking. If someone believes that members of some racial group are less intelligent, or more lazy, or less moral, than members of their own racial group, they are racist.

Some cases are harder to classify – what do we say about the person who thinks that members of some cultures are inferior in some way? Sometimes, this kind of belief is a rationalisation of racism, sometimes it may not be. Psychologists call the kind of beliefs in question here explicit attitudes. An explicit attitude is an attitude that the person can express and stand by, and which they assert as theirs.

But explicit attitudes are not the only kind of attitudes there are. We also have implicit attitudes, and our implicit attitudes may also – or instead – be the source of bias.

A grab from the video of the racial abuse on a Melbourne bus in November. Mike Nayna/YouTube

We discover what someone’s explicit attitudes are by asking her. Honest answers to questions like “do you think Aboriginals (or Africans, or whatever) are as intelligent as whites?” will reveal her explicit attitudes. You can discover your explicit attitudes in exactly the same kind of way. But it can take some work to discover someone’s implicit attitudes.

There are various techniques scientists use to measure implicit attitudes. One of the most popular is the Implicit Association Test. You can do such a test yourself; the researchers at Project Implicit have made many available on the web (including one that tests for implicit associations with regard to Aboriginal and white Australians).

An Implicit Association Test measures speed in associating pairs of concepts. For instance, you might press one key if presented either with a picture of an Aboriginal face or with the word for a positive concept (“laughter”; “wonderful”; “joy”) and another key if presented with a white face or the word for a negative concept (“pain”; “awful”; “evil”).

The position of every element switches around – sometimes the left key is white/bad, sometimes it is white/good, sometimes Aboriginal/bad and sometimes Aboriginal/good. By measuring the speed of button presses, researchers are able to measure the strength of the association in an individual between positive and negative concepts and white and black faces (or pictures of males versus females, or words describing gay men and women, or whatever else they are interested in measuring).

Here’s the interesting finding: implicit and explicit attitudes don’t always travel hand in hand. It’s quite common for someone who on every explicit measure is clearly not racist to nevertheless be quicker to associate positive concepts with white faces than with black faces, and quicker to associate negative concepts with black faces than with white faces.

In fact, most white Americans show a moderate preference for white faces over black faces, as measured by Implicit Association Test scores. That doesn’t mean that most white Americans are racist. I think there are good reasons to identify people’s real attitudes with their explicit attitudes (though the issues here are complex).

One reason for caution is that having negative implicit attitudes to a particular group is by no means confined to people outside that group. Though black Americans have more variable implicit attitudes toward black faces than do white Americans, many black Americans have negative implicit attitudes too. Similarly, many gay men and women have negative implicit attitudes toward homosexuality; many women have negative implicit attitudes toward women, and so on.

The explanation for why people have implicit attitudes that differ from their explicit attitudes is controversial, but it’s widely accepted that it has a lot to do with the stereotypes that are prevalent in a culture.

If you live in the United States, you can’t help being bombarded with suggestions that there’s an association between black people and crime. If you live in Australia, you can’t help being bombarded with suggestions that women are highly emotional and irrational. These “suggestions” may not be delivered in the form of statements or claims; they are embedded in cultural stereotypes, in jokes and sitcoms, in the taken-for-granted background of everyday gossip.

They may be transmitted by people who don’t believe them, and who don’t even realise that they are transmitting the message (the fact that this kind of stereotype can be transmitted unconsciously helps to explain why parents who try to raise their children “gender-free” rarely meet with great success). Absorbing these stereotypes leads to the laying down of associations, which might result in activation patterns: being presented with a black face (say) activates related concepts (perhaps unconsciously) and the fact that they’re active affects mental processes.

That’s what an implicit association is – an association between one concept and another, meaning that having one active is likely to make the other active too, consciously or unconsciously.

Image from shutterstock.com

Given that, as I have claimed, there are good grounds for identifying people’s real attitudes with their explicit attitudes, why does it matter what their implicit attitudes are? Here’s why – having an attitude activated affects our further thinking processes, and that can result in biased thought and behaviour.

Good people, people sincerely opposed to racism, for instance, can find themselves acting in ways that express racial biases. They can do this without even knowing it.

Since the 1970s, cognitive and social psychologists have gradually been revealing the extent to which our thought and behaviour is completely shot through by unconscious processes. The unconscious that psychologists study is not the Freudian unconscious, made up of thoughts we dare not acknowledge even to ourselves. Rather, it’s simply mental processing that is carried out efficiently by the brain below the level of awareness.

This is the processing that allows us to drive while thinking of other things, and which alerts us if an unexpected situation calls for attention (a dog runs out into the road for instance). It’s the processing that allows me to type while thinking about what to say, leaving both finger movements and grammar to sort themselves out.

Psychologists have demonstrated time and again that unconscious processes handle the bulk of execution of our movements and a great deal of the actual reasoning processes themselves. Things we are not conscious of seeing – which we can’t report, for instance – influence our subsequent behaviour, by altering how we process information and what comes to mind.

Things we’re conscious of may also influence us, without our being conscious either that or how they influence us.

Take the phenomenon of behavioural priming. In one famous experiment, the subjects unscrambled words to make sentences. One group of subjects got sentences that contained words that suggested elderly people: “wise”; “knits”; “Florida” (this was an American experiment); “grey”; ”wrinkled”, and so on.

The other group got scrambled sentences that didn’t contain words like this. After the experiment was ostensibly over, the experiments timed how fast the participants moved as they left the lab. Participants who unscrambled sentences containing words that suggested elderly people walked more slowly than the participants in the other group.

What seems to have happened is that the words suggesting elderly people “primed” the elderly stereotype, and led to behaviour that was influenced by it. This effect may be independent of whether people believe that elderly people walk more slowly than younger. As a matter of fact, they probably did believe it. But the activation of the stereotype may be enough to influence behaviour.

Because the activation of the stereotype can be unconscious, and because its effects can be unconscious, we may not know that, or how, it is altering our behaviour. We may confabulate, as psychologists say, a good reason for what we are doing, when in fact the explanation is a bad reason, or no reason at all.

Human beings are creatures for whom reasons are important; when we don’t have a good reason to tell ourselves, we often make one up (without realising that’s what we’re doing).

One nice example comes from a study that asked male subjects to pick the photo of a woman they liked better from a pair of photos. In some trials, the experimenter used a magician’s trick to hand the subject the other photo. The subject was then asked to explain why he preferred it.

The majority of the subjects failed to notice the switch, and confabulated reasons why they chose the picture they had been given (saying, for example, that they chose the picture of the blonde “because I prefer blondes”, when in fact they had chosen the picture of the brunette). Because confabulation may involve the production of a plausible story, we may have good consciences, even when our actions express racist or sexist implicit attitudes.

Here’s an example of how this kind of thing can occur, from a 2005 American study. In this study, participants were asked to choose the better applicant for the job of police chief. There were two candidates. One was “street wise” while the other had more formal education. One was male, one was female. Some experimental subjects were given the choice between a male street wise applicant and a female formally educated applicant, while some got the options reversed, with the female applicant being the street wise one.

Here’s the interesting finding – both groups tended to pick the male applicant as the better qualified. They justified this choice by reference to the qualification the female lacked. So the participants who got the female street wise applicant preferred the male, because (they said) formal education matters more for police chief than street experience (after all, we’re not hiring a beat cop).

Meanwhile, participants who got the female formally educated applicant preferred the male because (they said) it is beat experience that matters for the job – how can you run a police department unless you have policing in your bones?

What’s going on here is that people’s implicit attitudes are altering their perception of what skills and qualifications are needed for a job. People judged that a particular qualification was relevant only because they had sexist assumptions, about women and policing. But they couldn’t detect the processes at work in them.

From their perspective, it looked as though they were making a judgement based on what qualifications they thought were required for police chief. They weren’t really: they were making a judgement based on gender, and justifying it, based on a confabulated theory about what qualifications were required for police chief. When they looked at their judgements, they saw a plausible story about qualifications.

How would they know that the story was driven by their implicit attitudes? Interestingly, in this study the experimenters asked the participants how confident they were that their judgement was objective. Those who were most confident that they were objective showed the most bias.

Image from shutterstock.com

It took careful experimental work to show that the judgement was driven by sexist attitudes. We can’t say of any particular participant that their judgement was caused by sexism (though we have grounds for suspicion). It’s the overall pattern across all the groups that tells us that sexism was a very important factor. But obviously, when you or I are making a decision – deciding on job applicants, or who to vote for, or making up our minds about a newspaper story – we don’t have this kind of data available.

It’s difficult to counter the effects of implicit attitudes which conflict with our explicit beliefs. The first step is to recognise that we have them. By making Implicit Association Tests available, the people at Project Implicit have done us a service. Doing such a test induces humility. If (most) everyone recognised that they had some implicit biases, we might be less quick to condemn, less quick to blame others for their troubles, and a little more accepting that discrimination – not necessarily conscious – helps to explain gross inequalities.

We can also begin the hard work of trying to alter our biases. Here again, we must be humble: few people manage entirely to free themselves of biases. They are often acquired very early (we all learn the cultural stereotypes associated with gays, and women, and Aborigines, and other groups, very early, and learning them may be enough to cause some biases in unconscious processes). We counter these biases not by rational argument but by setting up new associations.

If the only Aborigines you ever encounter are those depicted on commercial news stations, your associations will probably never be positive. It’s only if the images change that new associations have a chance to form. People often complain about political correctness, but these complaints may be based (in part) on an unrealistically rosy picture of human rationality. Below the level of rational argument, stereotypes do their work.

It’s quite likely that implicit associations play a role in explicit negative attitudes toward particular people. Think of the incredible vitriol directed toward Julia Gillard. A confabulatory process may well be at work in some or even most of the people who chant “Ju-liar”. Negative implicit attitudes toward women may bias them toward thinking worse of her government and policies than they would have had she been a man. But because they have no access to the processes that colour their perceptions, they attribute the cause to her policies and her character.

Tony Abbott was incensed to be called misogynist recently. Perhaps his conscience, and those of many of his supporters, are clear: they look within to the causes of their negative assessments of Gillard and find only intense dislike of her policies, and therefore a strong negative attitude toward the woman who implements them. But they cannot tell, by looking within, whether their dislike of policies and person is not significantly strengthened by their implicit attitudes.

Our thought – all of us, even the most well-intentioned, the most careful, the most intelligent and well-educated – may be shot through with bias. The images with which we surround ourselves (and advertising is particularly pervasive and egregious in this regard, especially as concerns sexism) may produce stereotypes that subtly and not so subtly undermine our commitments to equality.

We never rise above these influences – all our thought remains utterly dependent on unconscious processes. We live in an environment that is polluted. We breathe this stuff in all the time. Perhaps it’s time for a cleanup.

Join the conversation

80 Comments sorted by

  1. George Naumovski

    Online Political Activist

    People see other people as “if they are not like me” then they are wrong or bad and we become afraid of that person! We immediately label other people before we even know a little about them; it is as an instinct makes us do it without knowing why. I guess it’s just human nature!

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  2. Ian Donald Lowe

    Seeker of Truth

    I watched the linked video and the youtube video of the incident. The video shows the true nature of Australian racism and how it is becoming violent and ugly. The article seems to ignore this or minimalise how ugly and violent that particular incident became. Take a good hard look at yourself Australia, you are becoming a very nasty, very narrow-minded people.

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    1. Mark Carter

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Ian Donald Lowe

      I don't understand this appetite in some quarters to cast all white Australians as racist thugs. I personally think its born from complete ignorance of what the rest of the world is actually like.
      I am an immigrant to this country and I have found white Australians to be on the whole more tolerant and open minded than you will find in any other western democracy. There will always be an element in every society that sees foreigners as a threat or a scapegoat: Australia is no different, but to claim (like some dinner-party lefties do) that the whole nation is some sort of cesspit of crypto-fascism is just ridiculous.

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    2. John Phillip
      John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Grumpy Old Man

      In reply to Ian Donald Lowe

      Ian, you have just tarred all Australians with the same brush. The problem of racism is a LOT more complex and subtle than that. In casting such a broad net, you have displayed your own bigotry and 'racism'.

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    1. Geoffrey Edwards

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Stiofán Mac Suibhne

      "It's probaly highly suspect that simplistic distillations of history can be used to diagnose the present."

      Indeed, but the author has done no such thing. Your comment bares little relation to the arguments developed in the article.

      The history of overt racism in Australia - as well as most European cultures of the time - is contrasted with our current attitudes. The second paragraph is the background to the discussion showing the difference between past and present. It is not a diagnosis.

      The author does not look to the 'dark days of the past' to explain the present. He looks to a growing body of literature that posits a difference between our explicit attitudes and the implicit ones that shape our behaviour,

      This is where the author sees room for improvement, but you seem to have been thoroughly sidetracked by the three lines of paragraph 2. So thoroughly it appears as if you read nothing beyond that point.

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  3. Comment removed by moderator.

  4. Tim Scanlon

    Debunker

    I'm not racist, but....

    If you step past the obvious examples of race and sex, it is pretty obvious that most people, not just Aussies, are bigoted against anyone who doesn't look and act the way they do. This applies to everything from religion to music tastes, gender to literature. Just think about the last time someone made a joke about the short/tall person, ridiculed someones taste in books or music, avoided a group of people because of the clothes they were wearing.

    The truth is that we need to be more accepting of everyone.

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    1. Pamela H.

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to Tim Scanlon

      True. We all need to be more accepting of difference (as long as it doesn't promote violence). Life would be pretty boring if we were all the same, like rows of tin soldiers or robots.
      And I remember what passed for Australian 'food' before multiculturalism. Woeful.

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  5. Sean Lamb

    Science Denier

    "The infamous Youtube video capturing a young man abusing women on a Melbourne bus for the crime of singing in French"
    I think it is only fair to point out singing in French is very irritating, I don't know how even the French cope. If anyone starts up a rousing rendition Je t'aime...moi non plus anywhere in my vicinity, they can expect a lot more than a verbal spray. Besides, what was Dave Lister doing on a Melbourne bus in the first place?

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    1. Dave Phillips

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      I seriously hope for your sake you are being sarcastic regarding the singing in French and that you would dish out a lot more than a verbal spray? I mean the buffoons on the bus not only gave them a spray but threatened them harm and broke a window on the bus. That in and of itself is bad enough, to suggest you would do more is frankly disturbing! I suggest you seek assistance from a health care professional for what sounds like an irrational fear and ignorance driven violent streak in your personality. The most troubling aspect of that clip is the zero reaction from passengers and the bus driver (who you will note is responsible for the health safety and well being of all the passengers while they are in his/her care).

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  6. Sue Ieraci

    Public hospital clinician

    I have never understood why a sector of the Australian population is offended by hearing others speak another language.

    There seems to be a suspicion of an underlying conspiracy - that the speakers must be saying something secret and offensive about them. The reality is most likely the opposite - that the speakers are just more comfortable conversing in a language in which they feel adept.

    While it is discourteous to others to speak an exclusive language within an interacting group, what harm can be done by NESBs speaking their own language amongst fellow speakers, but just within earshot of others?

    In my experience, no migrant sets out to resist learning the language of their new country. The difficulty results from a combination of lack of aptitude and lack of exposure (eg factory work or stay-at-home parents). Nobody suffers the inability to communicate more than the migrant themselves.

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    1. James Jenkin

      EFL Teacher Trainer

      In reply to Sue Ieraci

      I agree. (And it would be absurd to imagine that, say, Australian expats speak Mandarin to each other in Shanghai!)

      However, I suspect being offended by people speaking other languages is rare. I live in a multicultural suburb and have never heard anyone get stuck into someone for not using English.

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    2. Jim KABLE

      teacher

      In reply to Sue Ieraci

      Sue, James - I agree! The other day on the train to the city from Mascot Airport (arriving back from Japan) I asked a younger chap standing with bags near me where he was from: China! (I don't speak Chinese apart from the odd phrase: (I am a teacher; My wife is a teacher. Greetings/Thanks) BUT it transpired - he had lived some time in Shinjuku in Tokyo. And while threading his sentences slowly but to my understanding perfectly together we carried on a conversation in Japanese. So why are you here…

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  7. John C Smith

    Auditor

    "Australian are racist" is a racist comment as Australia has all kinds of people or should I say races. According to a non Anglo friend of mine who is married to an Anglo, used to attend Ethinc council meetings of a State. According to him the meeting was all about Anglo bashing.

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  8. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    Some of this article is ostensibly based on research - 'Unconscious processes handle ,,, a great deal of the actual reasoning processes themselves'. And some is pure conjecture - 'If the only Aborigines you ever encounter are those depicted on commercial news stations, your associations will probably never be positive'.

    Neil Levy has given us a collection of these unsubstantiated assertions which fit neatly with his political beliefs (criticism of Gillard is driven by prejudice, Abbott doesn't realise he is actually a misogynist). I guess the author is driven by his unconscious attitudes as well.

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    1. Linus Bowden

      management consultant

      In reply to James Jenkin

      Indeed, I often encounter academics - and oddly, folks addicted to reading The Age - with the same symptoms. I can diagnose quickly, usually only a few paragraphs needed: Malignant Platonic Moral Narcissism. Though this one is a recently discovered new strain that presents with an MRI scan.

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  9. Comment removed by moderator.

  10. Linus Bowden

    management consultant

    Actually whoever wrote this dreadful headline should change it.

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  11. Comment removed by moderator.

  12. Mark Carter

    logged in via Facebook

    "what do we say about the person who thinks that members of some cultures are inferior in some way? Sometimes, this kind of belief is a rationalisation of racism, sometimes it may not be."
    Phew- I'm glad to see the concession that my view that cultures which enforce practices such as female genital mutilation, sexual violence or paedophilia are inferior to those which do not MAY not automatically mean that I am a racist.
    Here we are (almost ) in 2013 and many well-educated adults on the left still can't (or won't) understand that race, culture and religion are not the same thing.

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    1. Clifford Chapman

      Retired English Teacher

      In reply to Mark Carter

      Yes, Mark Carter, exactly. This idea is a lovely sweeper that rests on an implicit footing that human cultures are things to be admired. There's irony aplenty in this pretty package.

      I do wonder, I must confess, why this topic is rarely, if at all, analysed from the position of man as a base creature, so that Mugabe and Idi Amin, for example, become seen as being Orwell's pigs in 'Animal Farm', for example, just 'black' instead of 'white'. One of the greatest ironies of this syrup is that we are…

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    2. alfred venison

      records manager (public sector)

      In reply to Mark Carter

      slavery is deplorable wherever its practiced. the romans were color blind when it came to slaves. they did not - like europeans - source their slaves exclusively from africa, or only from britannia. nor did the romans - like europeans - resort to some theory of "racial" inferiority to justify enslaving people whose skin color was black. romans did not discriminate against people with black skins on the rationale that black skinned people were morally inferior to white skinned people. black men became emporers & no one demanded to see their birth certificates.

      to argue against female genital mutilation because women should not be subject to procedures against their will, or because of cultural pressure exercised by men, is not racist. it would be racist to argue against female genital mutilation if one claimed it is practiced by black skinned or arabic people because black skinned or arabic people are inherently morally depraved because they are black skinned or arabic.

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  13. jonathanconway

    logged in via Twitter

    All of the studies cited in the article present astonishing correlations, which could be explained by many factors other than those which the author suggests/claims.

    To take just one example, the 1996 experiment, supposedly demonstrating priming as evidenced by people walking slowly, has been cited thousands of times but seldom replicated. In fact, at least one replication attempt by a group of scientists in Belgium was a failure. (See: http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2012/06/yong_on_science.html

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  14. Craig Minns

    Self-employed

    I'm routinely accused here on the Conversation of holding some kind of prejudice against women (although recently one of my interlocutors followed that up by claiming he wasn't accusing me of misogyny). However, I have never expressed any view that is not supported by referenced data. That data, from well-respected economic researchers, is ignored by those who don't like what it leads to in favour of an attempt to "poison the well" by the accusation of prejudice.

    Funnily enough, none of those…

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  15. Lynne Day

    Nurse Practitioner

    I suppose implicit bias collectively defines a society. I am very interested in whether implicit bias around gender within our society ( which has historically had a dominant gender) is being tested with a female prime minister?. Both genders will have implicit bias towards hearing leadership comments from male gender, we are socialized to have heard male voices in leadership positions. I am not speaking of policy here: but wonder if the same words spoken by our current PM were spoken by a male voice, our implicit bias may lead us to respond differently?

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  16. Pamela H.

    logged in via email @hotmail.com

    Having moved from Melbourne to Queensland in the 1990's, I've noticed that Australians are extremely racist here. It seemed so strange when I first moved here, that everyone was blond and white, not what I was used to at all. Then came the frequent racist comments from co-workers and others. I was truly shocked. It just showed how naive I was to think that we actually had left our racism back in the days when our white ancestors plundered and pillaged this land.
    Another bias in our culture is that brought about by the much denied canyon that exists between the haves and the have-nots. The neuvo-riche tend to look down their noses at the latter.

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    1. Ron Hoenig

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Pamela H.

      @Alfred. While I agree that the media, especially advertising, plays a major role in maintaining fictions about the actual demographics of the Australian population and about the normativity of whiteness, some of your examples are problematic. One could legitimately ask how would we know whether those jumping for joy in the Toyota ad are Italian or the ethnic make up of those in the Target ad. In an increasingly mixed population, we don’t know the actual ethnic derivation of people we meet or see…

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    2. alfred venison

      records manager (public sector)

      In reply to Pamela H.

      "how would we know whether those jumping for joy in the Toyota ad are Italian or the ethnic make up of those in the Target ad?" respectfully, i'd say we don't need to know the "ethnicity" of the white man doing the toyota leap to know he's not an australian of aboriginal, or asian, or indian decent & after a while that the main variant on that theme is to have a white woman do the leap with or without a dog in the frame. the point is that "every man" or "every woman" in australian ads is more often than not represented by a white man or white woman. can you recall many car ads where the character role is an aboriginal or asian or indian decended australian man, woman or family? the current westpac ad, with a series of sentimental vignettes about the bank being there to support every australian's dream, does a far better job of pitching its product while not misrepresenting the actual diversity of the country. -a.v.

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  17. jonathanconway

    logged in via Twitter

    Another idea I see bandied around by the left is that I'm automatically disqualified from having any legitimate ideas about race or racism simply because I'm white, and therefore "the oppressor".

    This idea is actually a subtle variation on "polylogism": the idea that different races (or sexes, classes, etc) of people have a different logic, so that what is true for one group is not (and cannot be) true for another.

    Think for a moment what it would mean if this was true. It would mean that there…

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  18. Jim KABLE

    teacher

    Jonathan
    Not an argument I have noticed exclusive to one or other side of the political spectrum - perhaps I've been away too long to note the bias you outline. I always assumed (when I noticed it) that it was a kind of bend over-backwards effort to try and be fair by those part of the mainstream majority - or else a kind of ignorance of historical realities. Many sides/connections to my own family/good neighbours/widely and culturally diverse colleagues/students for me to think of disqualifying…

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  19. Alex Cannara

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Surprise! Humans are racist/cliquish/parochial/narrow-minded...

    With a genome 98% identical to its nearest cousin, the Chimp, who establish clans, go marauding on other clans, mutilate enemies...humans can't be expected to be very different just via a 2% genetic difference.
    ;]

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  20. Colin MacGillivray

    Architect, retired, Sarawak

    Neil
    Good article, could you write another one some time defining what a racist is?
    I don't think I'm one because my wife is Indian Malaysian and I choose to live in Sarawak partly because the people, Native, Malay, Chinese etc are friendly.
    But I recognize that there are more Jews who have won Nobel prizes and there are more Africans who compete in the Olympic 100 metres final and play jazz trumpet in the US. These are facts not racist opinions.
    I guess a racist is one who (mistakenly) feels superior to another race.

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    1. Mark Carter

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Colin MacGillivray

      No, I'd say a racist is someone who thinks they can make assumptions about another person based on their race.
      So thinking that a black american will automatically be good at sport because they are black, or that an Aboriginal person is automatically an oppressed victim or that a white person is automatically racist because they are white (or the flip-side of that, that a non-white person automatically cannot be a racist because they are not white!).
      As soon as you start seeing the world through the prism of race and assuming anything- good or bad- based on skin colour or origin then you dabble in racism.

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  21. Ron Hoenig

    logged in via Facebook

    There’s a lot that’s very interesting in the article, but it doesn’t explain the enormous prejudice against speaking, or singing, in a language other than English, which was the original stimulus for the article. That’s not exactly racism but it’s ‘monolingualism’. That was a view that was strongly supported by educational and immigration authorities that all Australians should only speak English. While there was every reason to encourage people to speak the language of the majority, making it socially…

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    1. alfred venison

      records manager (public sector)

      In reply to Ron Hoenig

      "what is it in societies that helps to maintain those prejudices?" i'd start by a critical deconstruction of tv advertising, for both sex & "race" stereotyping. how many asian, indian or aboriginal women in the target underwear ad, eh? i'd ask how many italian descended australians feature on tv ads unless its an ad for pasta sauce? how many non-anglo australians do the toyota leap? don't non-anglo australians have barbies? drive a jeep? get acne? do non-anglo australians not need retirement…

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    2. Alex Cannara

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Ron Hoenig

      Alfred, good point -- some see "What's on the street as unnatural".

      If you want to understand just how "natural" the truly 'unnatural" became in the US during slavery, watch Django, just out here. And then note how attitudes are still not much changed in a very large part of our country.

      In our case, slavery was not just supported by international economics, but by acting out unreal, unenlightened play-like scripts of inhumanity. The plantation master naming his best slave fighter after a Dumas character, without knowing Dumas was African, is a remarkable scene, as is the master's ignorant reliance on Phrenology to ascribe reason to slave submission.

      Thanks to Quentin Tarantino for displaying the disgraces of our Old South for all to clearly grasp.

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  22. Lorraine Muller

    PhD - eternal student

    Thank you for this article.

    It helps explain in some part the reason why so the employment figures for Indigenous academics in Australian universities is so poor - and getting worse.

    An alarming number of Indigenous academics with PhDs are on short term, contract, or precarious employment. Permanent positions remain out of reach. So much for the claim that education is the panacea for Indigenous Australians - another myth of colonisation.

    On the other hand, it may also help to hasten the decline in full time employment commensurate with their Western based qualifications and their additional cultural qualifications.

    So when a non-white, non-Indigenous off-discipline candidate is given preference over a qualified Indigenous candidate, it can be explained away as unintentional bias.

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  23. Rolade Berthier

    logged in via LinkedIn

    I'm a Filipino-born Australian who lives in France and works in nearby Luxembourg. My Belgian student had read an article about the Melbourne incident in Lux newspaper and asked me the same question, which I answered in my website www.beingintelligentgifted.com : racism is found in any society but not widely experienced and tolerated in Australia, where its local, state and national governments and NGOs do their best to prevent and eradict racism, discrimination and social injustices.

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  24. alfred venison

    records manager (public sector)

    my view on "race" is informed by people like richard lewontin. there is one human race - what are called "races" in the popular vernacular are no more than phenotypic variations on the one genotype. nevertheless, for ease of expression & economy of prose i'll use "race" here in the vernacular sense & add quotations marks for my own satisfaction.

    over the years i've notice plenty of casual reflexive anti-french sentiment in australia. ranging from "their language is irritating when sung" to…

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    1. Jim KABLE

      teacher

      In reply to alfred venison

      [The French are not a "race": they're an ancient nation] - though made up of other 'ancient' bits - of Celts and Norse and Poles and Basques and Alsatians et al - and Africans (of various parts north and central) and from India and south-east Asia and the Pacific and the Caribbean/Latin America and North America - goodness me - just like the UK and Australia and Argentina and Brazil and the US and the Netherlands and Spain and Portugal and Russia and Germany - and so on and so on. Others in this…

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  25. Peter Sommerville

    Scientist & Technologist

    A very interesting article. However, I did struggle with some things. In particular whilst the terms "explicit" and "implicit" are used extensively the author seems to assume implicit understanding of the various 'ism' terms used. An explicit definition of his understanding of the meaning of the term would have been helpful.

    For example I don't regard the behaviour of the buffoon hurling insults at the young French lady on the bus as racism. My implicit understanding of the term 'racism' is that…

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  26. Ron Hoenig

    logged in via Facebook

    Of course Peter, Jim and Alfred you are correct about the specific naming of the ‘isms’ that are being transacted by the ‘buffoon’ in the bus. But while the specific form of ‘othering’ that Neil is referring to may have many names, its manifestations are equally repulsive. To the people singing on the bus it matter not one iota whether they are being attacked because of national chauvinism or xenop-hobia rather than racism, it matters that their joyful act is attacked with such brutality and no one…

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    1. Jim KABLE

      teacher

      In reply to Ron Hoenig

      Ron: You are absolutely right - the behaviour was insupportable! I recall a time when bad behaviour in public places could be called out - and miscreants pulled their heads in! But times have changed (media tales focussing on the negatives making folk cautious/fearful of creating/seeming to create a fuss)! So a lack of response on board that bus in Melbourne. Two days after that story broke - I was visiting in Sydney - taking a bus from Gladesville towards the city. Two stops after I had boarded…

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    2. alfred venison

      records manager (public sector)

      In reply to Ron Hoenig

      dear Ron Hoenig - thanks for the reply in passing. lewontin is one of my biology heroes. and gould (s.j.), too, and latterly, ken miller for his work on the dover "panda" case. and, yes, "race" as a social category seems destined to remain with us for a long time to come regardless of biological disconfirmation in our time.

      the goon is probably a racist too. and like i said paranoid nationalism can be expressed along racial/ethnic as well as religious, linguistic or historical vectors. my…

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  27. Kate Finlay

    Clerical Assistant

    'Perhaps its time for a cleanup'....?

    But that is the point, isn't it. We are forever discussing the fact of racism specifically, or subconcious bias/prejudice generally. We get all wowserish and soap-boxy about particularly horrible incidents, but what is it that we do to actually address the continuing rot? Please excuse me for the harshness of saying this, but you've just wasted a good deal of time and effort *outlining what is already known* in your article - that people have subconcious biases…

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    1. alfred venison

      records manager (public sector)

      In reply to Alex Cannara

      thanks, Alex, for that pertinent aside. the flack they got for that one song is a measure of how right they were. -a.v.

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  28. Philip Dowling

    IT teacher

    I hate to say this, but this would have got only a conceded pass in a second year social psychology course thirty years ago. The red ink pen would have nearly run out by the end.
    A pass would have been assured as it contained criticism - albeit unsupported - of the Liberal Party, and even then the political leanings of lecturers was quite clear.
    . "But they cannot tell, by looking within, whether their dislike of policies and person is not significantly strengthened by their implicit attitudes…

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    1. Mia Masters

      pensioner

      In reply to Philip Dowling

      That's funny! That was your exact response to one of my comments months ago. You really have to come up with new 'swipes', new phrases for bullying as it is becoming stale, esp. if one is a long-term reader of TC, and is confronted by you opining no matter what the subject...
      Constructive criticism is welcome, 'conversation' even more so, but this is not it. All this coming from a teacher...who seems especially sensitive when the term 'racism' comes up in a conversation.

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  29. Jim KABLE

    teacher

    One of the things I find personally disconcerting about these conversations is that there is very little of the person writing their part of the conversation - merely a kind of empty cleverness - that this conversation is merely for parading theoretical positions or put-downs. Not all the responses are such I acknowledge - but when teachers are part of the negativity I feel much more aggrieved and wonder about the paedagogical nature of that person's development - or are they merely someone suddenly…

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    1. Alex Cannara

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Jim KABLE

      JohnK, indeed we all act as we've been grown up to do, until some events elnighten us, even scare us, to think broadly.

      Here are some personal examples, from the USA...

      1) In 5th grade, I had a friend I'd walk home from school with. We'd often stop at the candy store on the way. Some days we'd go to his home, which was nearer than mine, for a snack. It was upstairs, over some store, in a small apartment. It was clearly the home of a poor family, but his mother was nice and always had something…

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    2. Clifford Chapman

      Retired English Teacher

      In reply to Jim KABLE

      Well, Jim Kable, since you specifically refer to teachers in your reply here, and just Philip Dowling and myself. albeit I'm retired, are teachers, with James Jenkin a 'Teacher Trainer', I imagine you're having a swipe at me.

      If so, let me disabuse you of any preconceived notions you might have regarding my post, and I include your comment 'I ....wonder about the pedagogical nature of that person's development'. Nothing inferior suggested there, is there, in your level of thought compared to mine…

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  30. Clifford Chapman

    Retired English Teacher

    Alfred Venison

    Yes, exactly, slavery is abhorrent wherever and whenever it was, and is, practised.

    But the fact remains that the 'debate' about it, if it can be called a debate, focuses on the slave trade from Africa to the Americas.

    I don't know whether it's just the passing of time or the 'mystique' and 'romanticism' of an ancient civilisation, but there is no way the enslaving of white people in the long past is interpreted as being as great a crime against humanity as it is in relation to the enslaving of the Negro.

    I prefer the great words of writers and poets like Robbie Burns: 'Man's inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn'.

    He didn't differentiate on the basis of colour, because the issue called for truth, not a sentimental dollop of syrup.

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    1. alfred venison

      records manager (public sector)

      In reply to Clifford Chapman

      people today are indeed very concerned about people smuggling & other forms of slavery practiced in the contemporary world.

      have you actually read any of the modern scholarship on slavery in classical societies? i did when i studied ancient history at university and no serious scholar or student of that subject minimises the effect on the slaves of the slavery practiced in ancient rome 2,000 years ago & the slavery practiced in ancient greece 2,500 years ago. indeed in modern scholarship slavery…

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  31. Clifford Chapman

    Retired English Teacher

    Alfred Venison

    But we can also hope that black people have the dignity, the personal belief and the pride in themselves of great men like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, not to advertise some crap product just to make easy money?

    It's bad enough white people selling themselves. Who wants equality with them?

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  32. Greg Boyles

    Lanscaper and former medical scientist

    " If someone believes that members of some racial group are less intelligent, or more lazy, or less moral, than members of their own racial group, they are racist."

    I object to this.

    I would like to draw the author's attenting to the Race Discrimaination Act and the Miller versus Wertheim case where the court came to the decision that criticism of the attitudes of an ethnic community, namely the Jewish community, was legitimate criticism and could not be considered racism under the act…

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    1. Gordon Young

      Environmental Consultant

      In reply to Greg Boyles

      First of all, the original quote is poorly written. Racism is when we consider a person to be lesser than us (or anyone else) BECAUSE of their race. Finding individuals of a given race lesser than individuals of our own race isn't racist, provided race itself does not figure in those judgements.

      Regarding the issue of racism towards anglo-saxons being acceptable, compared to racism against their groups, a couple of pertinent points;

      Nationality tends to overlap considerably with race in people's…

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  33. Jim KABLE

    teacher

    Not adding any intelligent perspective to the conversation, Greg.

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    1. Greg Boyles

      Lanscaper and former medical scientist

      In reply to Jim KABLE

      Naturally I disagree with you!

      I object to sensorship what ever form it takes!

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  34. Gordon Young

    Environmental Consultant

    I absolutely agree with this article; On occasion I am most definitely racist on a subconscious level. While education, experience and deliberate efforts to overcome it have lessened these reactions greatly, I've come to accept that such subconscious reactions cannot be destroyed. And to be honest, I don't think it's particularly important that they are.

    What IS important is that such thoughts be recognised and consciously analysed when they occur. As with subconscious impulses towards violence, sex and anything else are extremely hard, if not possible to eliminate and beating yourself up for having them just makes you feel crap for no good purpose. By accepting that you have these thought and learning how to catch and ignore them before they affect your behaviour, you avoid both the negative behavious AND the unhelpful guilt.

    Something to consider anyway

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    1. Greg Boyles

      Lanscaper and former medical scientist

      In reply to Gordon Young

      I think you need to get it straight in you head the difference between racism and xenophobia Gordon.

      You clearly confused between the two.

      Those feelings that rise up in you from time to time are far more likely to be xenophobia I wager.

      Now if such feelings in you make you want to go out a bash a 'foreigner' then you are right to want to suppress these feelings.

      But if such feelings make you concerned for your society, for the future of your grand children or concern for the environment…

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  35. Greg Boyles

    Lanscaper and former medical scientist

    "First of all, the original quote is poorly written. Racism is when we consider a person to be lesser than us (or anyone else) BECAUSE of their race. Finding individuals of a given race lesser than individuals of our own race isn't racist, provided race itself does not figure in those judgements."

    From the oxford dictionary, I believe racism is even more specific than this. A person is racist if they are of the view that another ethnic group is inherently inferior, e.g. genetically speaking or…

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  36. Greg Boyles

    Lanscaper and former medical scientist

    I don't feel any particular resentment towards those who speak another language.

    But I tell you what I do get a little impatient with is in trying to communicate with clients, who do not have a complete grasp of english, about weed control principals and the difference between native and indigenous plants etc.

    For the simple reason that I have no interest in puting the time and effort into learning other languages and simply want to be able to commincate accurately in my own language.

    In that respect I think the government should require higher english profficiency standards before they grant permanent residency.

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  37. Greg Boyles

    Lanscaper and former medical scientist

    Would you people please stop conflating racism with xenophobia - it does not assist these debates to continually do so!

    Xenophobia is a dislike or fear of people from other countries or of that which is perceived to be foreign or strange. Some definitions suggest xenophobia as arising from irrationality or unreason.[1] [2] It comes from the Greek words ξένος (xenos), meaning "stranger," "foreigner," and φόβος (phobos), meaning "fear."[3]

    Definition of FOREIGN
    1: situated outside a place or…

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    1. Greg Boyles

      Lanscaper and former medical scientist

      In reply to Greg Boyles

      I find it helpful to view xenophobia and racism as opposite ends of a spectrum of behavioural patterns.

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    2. alfred venison

      records manager (public sector)

      In reply to Greg Boyles

      here's xenophobia:- when i was in france, with some mates, in the latter half of the last century, we attended a war cemetery to pay our respects. my friend (who's american, by the way, of swiss decent) is tall & blond. after a while, we could see, some way away from us, a well dressed old man, sporting a walrus moustache & carrying a walking stick. he was waving his stick in our general direction & angrily uttering words i didn't fully understand at a distance, until we heard "bosch" in amongst…

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  38. Greg Boyles

    Lanscaper and former medical scientist

    http://keentalks.com/human-behavioral-biology/

    For those of you who are of the view that undesriable human behavioural patterns (such as xenophobia, rape and many others) are entirely the result of free will and can therefore be expunged by individuals and society if we have the collective ill to do so, I suggest you view this lecture series from Stanford University.

    They are not entirely the result of free will, although I guess it could be reasonably argued that individuals have varying levels…

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  39. Clifford Chapman

    Retired English Teacher

    Alfred Venison

    The issue is simply this: the enslaving of any human being is a crime against humanity and life, and colour, height, sex, age, tastes, beliefs, have absolutely nothing to do with it. I didn't study Ancient History at university, though I would like to do a degree in that subject one day, but I have read a little of it, here and there. You don't need to study something to know it's wrong, not unless you have sawdust for brains.

    I don't want to hear sentimental slop about black…

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  40. Beatriz Maturana Cossio

    logged in via Facebook

    Racism is promoted even in universities, where for example, to fill your academic profile, or to apply for a job, questions about ethnicity are asked. Some would say that this assists ‘positive’ discrimination. Personally, I disagree with discrimination in the first place. Besides, rather than forcing anyone to self-discriminate racially, they could ask for nationality, which often combines more than a single 'race'.
    For instance, how any university (or public office) can get away with asking this question?
    Are you:
    African American/Other Black
    American Indian/Native American
    Asian American/Pacific Islander
    Latino/Hispanic
    White (non-Hispanic)
    Other

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    1. Greg Boyles

      Lanscaper and former medical scientist

      In reply to Beatriz Maturana Cossio

      Beatriz, what evidence can you provide that, in asking these sorts of questions, universities are practicing any sort of discrimination?

      The Australian census and applications for various Centrelink payments asks you if you are an aboriginal or torres straight islander.

      Does that mean that the Australian government is discriminating against aborigines?

      Of course not! In fact it is to determine whether or not the applicant is entitled to additional payments and privaledges etc.

      Perhaps…

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    2. Jim KABLE

      teacher

      In reply to Beatriz Maturana Cossio

      I couldn't quite believe it - many years ago (30 or so years ago) - when accepting a lift home from HSC marking in Sydney - and a hyphenated-named academic seated in the car as another passenger - made the claim that she was a pure Anglo-Saxon. It was such a brazen claim (emphasis on the "pure" - mind) that I didn't know whether to laugh out loud or simply keep my mouth closed. Where to start? Ms COSSIO seems to be identifying something in a related way to this concern with defining ethnicity down to all its component parts. Might be easier if everyone simply hands over a DNA/genetic "fingerprint" - he writes ironically!

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    3. Greg Boyles

      Lanscaper and former medical scientist

      In reply to Beatriz Maturana Cossio

      You are either:

      1) Ignorant yourself as to the proper meaning of racism and therefore using this term inappropriately.

      2) You are maliciously misusing this term to further a political agenda and to limit debate around such issues.

      Even if universities are using racial profiling to fill quotas, that in and of itself does not amount to racism.

      It might however be reagrded as political correctness.

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  41. Stephen Nicholson

    Town Planner

    I've pondered the question of how often someone admits to being a racist? Most racists won't recognise or admit it.
    So I have worked out that my answer would be "I try not to be racist." (Or "... sexist", etc.) And this aligns with reading about implicit and explicit attitudes.
    What most struck me about the Melbourne bus incident is that I must be willing to intervene when I see someone being victimised - nastiness and evil triumph when good people remain passive.

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    1. Greg Boyles

      Lanscaper and former medical scientist

      In reply to Stephen Nicholson

      Tell that to the family of that layer and the dutch tourist who were shot dead and injured by that biker in the Melbourne CBD when they intervened to try a stop the biker bashing up his girl friend.

      I think you carefully have to weigh up the chances of success with the chances of being injured yourself. If in doubt call the cops.

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  42. Michael Bolan

    Systems practicioner

    It's disappointing to read an article starting out with a fundamental error of logic. The event on the bus in para 1 does not raise the question 'Are Australians racist', it is simply evidence that some Australians are racist. Are they all the same or are there important differences?

    Overall, with a 'hot topic' like this, logical accuracy would surely be a better start.

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  43. Garry Baker

    researcher

    Learned academic or not, a bias is showing early in the editorial

    For one ...
    " Most of us acknowledge our shameful history of racism, including genocidal violence directed against the first inhabitants of this continent, but we hope we’ve left those dark days far behind us. ""

    Having a pretty good handle on Colonial history - I for one, will happily refute this unthinking stance. Rather, it's the "British" record one should speak of - not "our" history

    In general terms, it will soon…

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