There have been some pretty duff shows in the history of Australian television — I should know, I’ve made a few of them — but none, I think, so self-defeating as an episode of SBS’ Face Up To Racism (or “FU2Racism”) week of programming, called The Truth About Racism, presented by Yassmin Abdel-Magied.
“Can racism be detected in the brain?”, the show’s promo asked, over pictures of people wired up to screens, pushing buzzers, doing the mirror box trick to be convinced that they had an arm of a different skin colour, etc, etc. The correct answer to the promo’s question would have yielded a two-second show, so it was safe to presume that the producers believed it could, and would demonstrate to us how.
The show they produced from this, will in decades to come be as embarrassing and as of its era as 1950s information reels on how to be a good young gel and future housewife. Or, more pertinently and less amusingly, the eugenics of the early 1900s, which purported to show — with science! — that certain races were inferior to others, the poverty of the poor was due to their mental deficiency, etc, etc.
Abdel-Magied and her presenters (a nice young neuroscientist, and the sort of psychologist you have to see if you’ve been on the dole for more than 12 months) used a series of tests on four subjects — a South Korean-Australian, an indigenous Australian woman, a migrant from East Congo, and a white, male sympathiser with the United Patriots’ Front named Nick — to suggest that people will recognise and remember the faces of people who look like them more accurately, perceive hostility more readily in the faces of people with different skin colours, and used “instant empathy” tests to argue that the root of racism was a want of empathy, which could all be cured by more of the same.
In between, there were segments of Nick saying something like “I just think we’re full and immigration feels to me like an invasion”, and cut-aways of everyone else saying how offended they were by this “I can’t believe Nick said that!”
Dealing with the show is like handling a ticking bomb strapped to a live tiger. It’s hard to know where to start. One main point might be that even if the test results are true (four people is hardly a persuasive sample) and people react in a more oriented fashion, if you will, to their own ethnic type, such reaction is not itself racist. “Racism” is a complex, multi-levelled set of political and cultural beliefs. It is, among other things, a way of interpreting and regarding our own feelings of connection and distance with different ethnic groups, which come and go. The program’s implication was that the only way to be non-racist was to have no affinity or unconscious orientation to people who look like you.
That is psychologically inept, and a product of, among other things, the show’s reductionist neuromania (to use Raymond Tallis’ phrase, an author I would recommend everyone connected with the program read immediately), and its absence of any other idea of what our psychological character might consist of. If we are more oriented to people who look like us, it might be because the first such were our parents and siblings, and such preference is an expression of the particularity that is essential to the possibility of love.
The strong implication of the show was that, having found what they believed to be “racism in the brain!”, educational and other state processes should be adapted to wiping out such (possible) preference and orientation, and creating a society of people whose most basic reaction to others is uniformly, universally empathetic. That, even supposing it were possible, would be noxious, not a genuine empathy to the other at all, but an engineered response to the other’s features.
Having proposed this hare-brained idea of racism (“racism is believing that one race is superior to others,” intones the Centrelink-esque psychologist, confusing “racism” and “racialism”), the show then goes on to construct all politics as simply an outward manifestation of psychology. Nick’s bog-standard nativist politics — sharply reduce immigration numbers, societies are better when composed on a single, or less multi-, ethnic base — is a politics than can be expressed either neutrally or rancidly. In the show, they are constructed as nothing other than an expression of racism. This is a common perception, enforced especially by progressives, for whom SBS operates as a sort of Comms HQ/General Command — which depoliticises nativism.
Indeed, it appears to be implicitly arguing against the validity of any notion of particularity or preference as the ground of meaningful social groupings. This seems a little unexamined on Abdel-Magied’s part. Does she believe, for example, that the religion has the right to restrict access to the city of Mecca? How could the religion operate as it does otherwise? If a city can decide such a principle, can not a nation simply restrict its immigration intake, for any variety of procedural reasons? Notably, there is no record in the show of Nick proposing that immigration be limited on lines of white or European preference.
Equally, some ethnic Muslim communities in Australia place a strong emphasis on “marrying-in”, as do Orthodox Jewish communities. For obvious reasons. You can’t have a strong religious base if your community consists of families in which only one or some members are observant. Any religion requires a core community of the uniformly observant and devout. But that, of course, demands a process that will very definitely orient empathy and attachment to people who are very much like you.
There’s no real mystery as to where a program like The Truth About Racism is going: it is a form of advocacy for state-enforced behavioural reshaping, along the lines of the Safe Schools and Respectful Relationships programs, a very explicit process of reshaping cultures, child-raising etc according to narrow policy prescription. That is an error on every level, most significantly because it is not inviting people to be conscious moral subjects, and choose to recognise the humanity of the ethnically different, but also because it creates a deadened world of authorised feeling.
In seeking acceptance of difference, it demands uniformity. That’s awful. Fortunately, it doesn’t work. Unfortunately, the manner of its not-working feeds, the refusal of empathy it so abhors.
As with the Safe Schools program, the state reserves for itself authority over all positive feeling — empathy, tolerance, etc — which it then enforces and allocates. Negative feeling, the mordant moments of hostility and spite, which visit all of us, thus become the only part of us the state doesn’t want to own. Such thoughts — labelled “politically incorrect” — then become the simplest and most energetic way to express individuality and autonomy.
There is a real prospect that programs such as Safe Schools feed a refusal of empathy (we don’t know; there’s no reliable evidence concerning its efficacy, even on its stated goals) — in that case, among straight students, not in any particular doubt or crisis about their gender identity or sexuality, but getting increasingly pissed off that “empathy” has become as compulsory as trigonometry. The same might be true of any crackpot anti-racism policy being planned on the basis of a program like FU2Racism. If you wanted a recruiting video for UPF you couldn’t do better than this show, in which the one Anglo-European white person is a working-class guy and a nativist politically, and the show consists of him being berated by young, groovy Asian-, indigenous, and African-Australians. It’s as if the producers of My Kitchen Rules remade Godard’s La Chinoise, a film in which five Maoists share an apartment and spend their days denouncing each other in struggle sessions.
Also grimly funny — though more grim than funny — is the way in which the show’s producers have unwittingly reproduced and re-advocated the beliefs on which the racist nativist policies of the early 20th century were based. The show’s absence of any mention of eugenics, the White Australia Policy, etc, suggests that no one associated with it had the slightest clue about the topic they were tackling. Had they done so, they would have understood that those who advocated for racially separated societies in the early 20th century did so on the basis of the “impossibility” (and undesirability) that people could overcome their inherent embodied preference for their own kind.
The Truth About Racism is so unquestioning of the desirability of social reprogramming by the state, that it cannot see that its gimmicky TV semi-science, if taken literally, makes the case for ethnicities living apart, as a simple and more effective way of ensuring social harmony.
One section — lord, the producers, if they are young, are going to spend a lot of years disowning this program down the line — has three small girls of different ethnicities choosing among a white, black and Asian dolly to play with (whether this construction of girls as “specialists” in bonding and empathy is deliberate or inept is an interesting question; perhaps it reflects a certain conservatism about gender roles on the part of some among the producers and presenters?).
The white girl chooses the white doll as the “best and smartest”, the Asian girl the Asian doll. The black girl chooses the white doll. A sad moment, but one that simply reflects something black liberationists from Marcus Garvey to Frantz Fanon argued: the reconstruction of a black identity that is psychologically decolonised demands an ethnic/racial separation from whites.
The show shows no evidence that it is even aware that there are left/radical versions of such separatism, and that it is practised, to varying degrees, by some remote-area Aboriginal communities (the show’s conflation of two very different things, anti-immigrant racism and anti-indigenous racism, in a settler-capitalist society, is appalling, an all-too common tendency of multiculturalism advocates).
So, yeah, um, not five stars for this one.
Sadly, FU2Racism doesn’t tell you much about the complexities of ethnic and racial relations in a multicultural society; but it tells you a great deal about the supreme passion of sections of the progressive class, a new-found love of the state, and a deep desire to use it to reprogram whole classes of their fellow citizens, rather than arguing them around, through social and political debate about values.
And, yet, for all that, it’s still not as bad as season eight of Full Frontal.