I’m not latently racist, but…

It’s an interesting exercise getting people to admit to racism. The ABC reports on a nation-wide survey (or rather a collection of state-wide surveys) exploring the nature and extent of racist attitudes in Australia.

Only 1 in 8 people were prepared to explicitly admit to racial prejudice. Yet, 1 in 2 people were found to be “anti-Muslim”, 1 in 4 were “anti-Indigenous”, 1 in 4 were “anti-Asian”, 1 in 4 were anti-Semitic and 1 in 4 were “anti-black African” (approximately, in each case). Clearly there is a disconnect, but how did the researchers manage to uncover it? By asking the following question:

In your opinion how concerned would you feel if one of your close relatives were to marry a person of…?

(This question was asked once for each of five national/ethic groups – Asian, Indigenous, Italian, British and black African – and three religious affiliations – Muslim, Jewish and Christian. )

In other words, though you might not identify yourself as prejudiced, your prejudices can be revealed by having you imagine a personal association with someone different. People are evidentially very good at fooling themselves when it comes to racial prejudice; hence the expression “I’m not racist, but…”, which is almost invariably followed by something mind-bendingly racist. As a society, we’ve learnt by rote that racism is bad, but a lot of us clearly don’t understand why. Thus, we perform mental gymnastics to allow us to be racist without acknowledging it.

Of course, there are lots of ways in which racism can be worse than concern over interracial marriage in your own family. There was some relatively good news from the survey:

  • Less than 1 in 10 people felt insecure “with people of different ethic backgrounds”.
  • Less than 1 in 15 people felt that society ought not to be “made up of people from different cultures”.

Maybe this is where our “latent racism” comes in. We’re happy to work with people from different backgrounds, but we don’t truly think of them as equals. This shows up in the 41% agreement with the following statement:

Australia is weakened by people of different ethnic origins sticking to their old ways.

This is a curious form of wording. “Old ways” seems to invite respondents to fantasise about all manner of archaic, barbaric practices that might occur in Ethnicistan. The statement is not loaded per se – it is perfectly possible to give a reasonable, straight “agree” or “disagree”. However, like the marriage question, it is cleverly designed to press our buttons and draw out latent prejudice.

The responses to that original marriage question also turn the “integration” debate on its head. For years, politicians and commentators have cried out for migrants, especially Muslims, to “integrate” into Australian society. Interracial, inter-religious, inter-ethnic marriage is surely one of the best markers of successful integration. If Muslim migrants are to be truly integrated into Australian society, such marriage is an inevitable, perhaps crucial part of the process. And yet, on a personal level, it would be a cause for concern for half of all Australians. It is concerning, presumably, for many of the very same people1 who complain about the lack of integration.

Hopefully those 14 out of 15 Australians are not just paying lip service to diversity.

  1. I tend to be wary of the phrase “the same people who…”, because often it’s a device to conjure up fictional double standards for your opponents. Often there’s no evidence that the people in question are the same at all. I’ll concede that some of the people complaining of the lack of Muslim integration might not be concerned about their own relatives marrying Muslims. I’m not really worried about anyone who holds that combination of views, because race riots are not conducted by those with such nuanced opinions. I fear it’s a little too nuanced for many of us, though. []

2 thoughts on “I’m not latently racist, but…

  1. As a society, we’ve learnt by rote that racism is bad, but a lot of us clearly don’t understand why.

    Actually, I think a lot of people don’t understand what it even is. Specifically, many people seem to think that as long as you don’t explicitly mention race, everything’s fine. But arbitrary discrimination against, say, some socio-economic class in a particular geographic area that just happens to consist almost entirely of people of a particular race… that’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s not a race issue at all…

    • Indeed. It’s not just “latent” racism but “plausibly deniable” racism. I also get the feeling, sometimes, that people believe they can’t be racist if the other race really is inferior.

      Finding out what people know about the concept of racism would make another interesting set of survey questions.

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