Labels Rarely Go More Than Skin-Deep

The recent rallying of Indian migrants in Sydney and Melbourne, and last Monday’s Four Corners about the death of Aboriginal man Mr Ward, are just two recent reminders that racism is alive in Australia.

While much remains the same on the racism front, there are also small changes. These have come to my attention via my sons, each at different high schools in the inner city. When they or their friends – some of whom have non-white faces – describe other kids, they refer to skin colour in the same casual, comfortable way someone of my generation might refer to eye colour.

“Which one is he?” I asked a back seat full of boys admiring the sporting achievements of a new and mutual friend named Kareem. “Have I met him?”

“Yes, at the open day, Mum,” my son replies. “He’s the really, really black one.”

“Who’s that Asian chick?” asked an old friend of my son’s, himself a child of mixed-race parents.

“Should you mention race like that?” I queried one night at the dinner table. “Mightn’t you offend?” Both sons looked at me as if I had sprouted antennae. “Adults are so hung up about race,” the 14-year-old sighed. “It’s not that big a deal for kids.”

“It’s even more offensive not to mention it,” chimed in the younger. “Like you were ignoring it because it was wrong.”

I thought about this and decided it made sense. Discriminating, in the sense of drawing distinctions, is not a problem. It is the use of such distinctions to justify unequal treatment that’s wrong. As long as my children see skin colour as a trivial but useful characteristic to indicate which person they are talking about, it’s hard to see the harm. Indeed, if the Aussie look can come to include people of colour, it could be beneficial.

But my sons are also using race to stereotype their fellow students. Asians are math whizzes, Jews are dweebs, while Skips excel at sport. Even where such ideas can be shown to be patently false – a photo of an outstanding sporting team at one boy’s school is littered with non-Anglo faces – they insist they are useful. “We joke about it, Mum,” one insists. “When I walk into maths class, the Asian kids hum Stupid Boy.”

But fixed and oversimplified ideas of who we are and what we can achieve based on involuntary and irrelevant attributes such as skin colour are racist. This is true even where the attributes ascribed to a racial group are positive, such as “blacks are great at sport”.

The reasons why are many and varied, but include the likelihood that group members who don’t fit the mould will be seen as deviant, not to mention having their real talents ignored.

As well, the positive stereotyping of one group compels the negative stereotyping of others. If Asians are good at maths, then blacks and whites, relatively speaking, must be bad at it. And all such stereotyping affects real-world performance.

For instance, one study found that when black students were told a test measured intelligence, they performed badly, but when the same test was presented as a problem-solving exercise, they did as well as whites. Another showed that when athletic performance was linked to “intelligence”, black sportspeople did worse than whites but linking it to “natural athletic ability” saw whites perform worse.

Race might say what we look like, but not who we are. I will speak to my boys about it again tonight.

Publication history

Labels Rarely Go More Than Skin-Deep  Sunday Sun-Herald (Sydney)