There’s been no response from the Herald Sun or cartoonist Mark Knight to my piece on Friday about racist and discriminatory depictions of departing Telstra CEO Sol Trujillo.

However, regular Aussies have taken it upon themselves to defend the tabloid and the Australian media generally in the Comments section of Crikey.

Of course, I didn’t accuse any of these individuals of being racist — I don’t even know them. My criticism was leveled only at the Herald Sun and the media more generally.

Yet some Crikey readers have reacted by taking issue with me personally, accusing me of being “behind the door when a sense of humour was being handed out” and telling me to “grow up mate”, “stop looking for things to take offence at” and “get a life”.

I’ve got broad shoulders (oh yes, they could have insulted me about my weight too) and I can take it, but I am worried by the implications, especially the apparent inability of some Australians to recognise racism when it’s in front of them and willingness to defend it when it’s not even their fight.

Some rationalised it. For example, one reader asked: “Since when is being a Mexican on a donkey a bad thing?”

Since it’s used as a racial stereotype, that’s when! It’s exactly analogous to drawing Marcia Hines eating watermelon and picking cotton because she’s African-American or former Ford CEO Jac Nasser as a kebab-eating Lebanese gang member because — well, you know, ha ha ha — that’s what THOSE people are really like.

Three Crikey readers raised technicalities about definitions of “race”, one offering me — condescendingly — a “Pro-tip: Mexican is not a race”.

I agree. Mexico is a multi-racial society. But the “cartoon Mexican” is a racial stereotype, as it portrays all citizens of Mexico as having shared behavioural characteristics. That is neither political satire nor fair comment.

And then other readers cited practical issues confronting the cartoonist: “So how would you depict someone you wanted to suggest was a ‘thieving bandido’, given they were of Mexican extraction?”

Why is anyone’s “extraction” in any way relevant to his performance as Telstra CEO? Did cartoonists feel compelled to draw former CEO Ziggy Zwitkowski (born in Germany) in lederhosen and eating a bratwurst? And would that have been fair game, just because he had a funny, foreign-sounding name?

By all means show Trujillo as a “fat cat” or a scoundrel, boarding a flight back to America with his pockets stuffed full of Aussie dollars — that’s satire. But don’t show him wearing a sombrero and riding a donkey when the guy isn’t even Mexican!

Maybe if Trujillo shows the US Internal Revenue Service his Australian press clippings he’ll be able to convince them that he really IS Mexican and avoid US taxes on his massive payout. Now that would be funny.

But if you won’t hear it locally, then be prepared to hear it from international observers. Eric Ellis wrote in Fortune magazine in 2006 that Trujillo “has become the foreigner Australians most delight in mocking. Cartoonists depict him in a sombrero astride a donkey, while shock jocks mimic an imagined Mexican accent, even though the Wyoming native’s family came to the U.S. 200 years ago.”

When one looks at the way Trujillo has been dealt with in the Australian media, there’s an important lesson here for Telstra’s Board. If they want to enhance the telco’s struggling public and media image then, when appointing Sol’s successor, the Trujillo experience suggests the Board should pay more attention to a candidate’s name and ethnic background than it does to his or her qualifications and experience.

Try telling me that’s not racist… and illegal.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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