Getting Started: things to read and things to know about critical education

Oct 30, 2009

CEN Fortnightly Post, #9

Sam Watson and White Sensibilities

Yet again, the mainstream media has got its knickers in a knot over 'PC gone mad'. This time it relates to author and activist Sam Watson's (who you may know from such novels as Kadaitcha Sung and film Black Man Down) claim against Coles supermarket's Creole Cream biscuits. In what became the second 'PC gone mad' episode in the space of a month (the first, of course, being the Jackson Jive Hey Hey skit), the issue is perhaps not so much around whether these biscuits 'are racist' per se (with the legacies of creole-ness in Australia being largely unknown) but that any suggestion of race is quickly picked up as yet another attack on the sensibilities of 'ordinary' folks. Imagery of the majority, of folks who represent the core of this country somehow having to bend to the pressures of these fringe minorities and their political correctness claims, are conjured to great effect.

The problem with this idea of the 'ordinary' folk however is that this largely doesnt exist in contemporary Australia. There is no 'archetypal' Australian and no genuinely Australian lifestyle or way of being. There are just people who happen to live and be in this geographic space, and who perhaps share certain traits and ways of doing things, but who ultimately are diverse in the views, ideas, backgrounds and practices they hold.

This suggestion of 'PC gone mad' is a troubling one as it deflects attention away from real issues of race that we encounter as everyday elements of our lives and maintains a dominant, albeit largely mythical, idea of a 'mainstream' Australia. The tone and anger with which some journalists present these stories is more than a little concerning given the almost pathological approach to difference suggested in the thinly veiled, but poorly researched and analysed accounts of race and difference that draw on a perceived (and perhaps actual for some folks) public fear of difference. These sorts of reports also suggest that we, socially, dont quite know what to do with race in this country- we are worried by difference but dont do anything really to understand it and hence craft arguments such as 'PC gone mad' to dismiss what exists under the surface. It isnt a packet of biscuits that is at stake here, but the underlying logic by which we understand ourselves and the Other. To dismiss this under the oft used 'PC gone mad' line is to miss the point entirely and to maintain a social logic that fails to recognize that race should be an issue for those at the right end of the racial binary (ie, white folks who live with the privilege that being white carries) as much as it is for those who are pathologised by it.

Sam probably didnt do himself any favours by running the argument the way he did, and I suspect for the average person (does this person actually exist?) the argument around a packet of biscuits probably does seem more than a little trite. But what the mainstream media missed was the opportunity to pose some questions on what the naming of things as banal as biscuits might mean socio-politically and how very real legacies of race are represented in the naming of such products. Instead, they chose to run with the easier and ratings guaranteed 'belt up the black bloke' line. Unfortunately this was to the loss of all of us.

In the October 8 issue of the ABC's QandA program, Germaine Greer made an interesting observation of race in Australia. Paraphrasing her statements heavily, she noted that we in Oz have this unfounded fear of hoardes of people wanting to come to this country- people who are prepared to work harder than we 'real' Australian folks are- and who, according to the myth, will steal our jobs and buy our companies. As such, we look suspiciously on anything different and attack vehemently any suggestion that is contrary to our sensibilities. The response to a packet of biscuits is probably a good example of this. You can see Germaine in action at:

Until next fortnight.... Andrew

1 comment:

  1. was just in a specialty lolly shop yesterday and saw a packet of lollies called "minstrels" - judging by the packet they were chocolate (of course). Thinking of all the possible arrangements of letters of the English language one could use to construct a product name, this kind of thing really is unnecessary I think.