do words alone make the racist?

Last week I used the term “disabled people”. My friend gently corrected me: “people with disabilities”.

Okay. No problem.

I’ve had a number of friends correct my terminology from time to time. I used to refer to sex workers as prostitutes. I have formerly referred to transgender people as transvestites. I have heard the term hermaphrodite being used to describe intersexuality.

Sometimes I say “black” when referring to people of African descent and I’m still not entirely sure whether that’s okay. Other people seem to use the term so I’ve gone along with it but I don’t think that in itself is enough justification. I have read that people of colour is more appropriate. It is certainly broader.

But all in all, I try to avoid the need to describe people according to their skin colour, sexual or gender orientation or by reference to their abilities.

I also respect the need to be precise and compassionate with our use of the English language. As a woman, I tend to get antsy when inconsiderate language is used towards or about women. So I do and always will respect someone’s request to be referred to in a particular way.

But. I wonder if, in the flurry to correct our words, we miss out on opportunities to have deeper conversations about discrimination. In our haste to cut down figures such as Benedict Cumberbatch who unwittingly use offensive terminology, are we ignoring carefully constructed bigotry?

Australia has become a lot more politically correct (gosh I hate that term, is there an alternative please?) but we haven’t necessarily become more compassionate and understanding along the way. Nor are we the multi-cultural hub that our politicians love to advertise.

Take for example the fact that I had to read up on the language used to describe people from non-anglo racial backgrounds. I have not spent enough time around people of African descent in particular to have those conversations.

There is deep-seated and often unacknowledged racism in our country. A by now obvious example to many is our treatment of refugees in detention centres. After being denied asylum in Australia, many refugees are stateless. The High Court has also decided that technically (arbitrarily) detention centres are not prisons (incarceration cannot be imposed without a criminal trial) despite the fact that refugees are unable to leave.

Do you think we would treat a boat full of white refugees in the same way? Or would that look more like a scene out of Castaway?

Our entire legal system is geared towards privileging the few at the expense of the many. It has been created by and for the most powerful. And the most grating part of it is when we fail to recognise the support we have received in order to reach the lofty heights of tertiary education, career choice and wealth.

It doesn’t matter how poor your family is, if you’re white (like me) and especially a male, the whole of society is designed to bring you up from the depths. We will celebrate your deep voice as an authoritative one. Asking for a promotion will make you seem confident and ambitious, rather than over-expectant and ungrateful. Your anger will not be nearly as “emotional” as that of a bossy female. Your skin colour will make you more trustworthy.

So don’t ever tell me you “made it on your own”. You haven’t. We haven’t.

I have lost count of the number of times I have been gas-lighted, patronised, physically blocked from a conversation or otherwise treated differently because I was a female. And I am not referring to overt sexism (although I’ve experienced plenty of that too). I’m referring to men, usually managers, lecturers, professionals who hide behind office protocol and politically correct language to obfuscate their true attitudes. It can be subtle, sometimes to the point that I only realise afterwards what has happened.

Bigotry does not have to be spoken for the targets to pick up on it. If it happens to me, I have no doubt it happens to people with disabilities, people of colour, sex workers and the LGBTI community.

So whilst we should be having conversations about language, we cannot assume that prejudice has been controlled with a few legislative changes such as the Racial Discrimination Act. Nor can we assume that those who know the right words truly understand or believe in equality.

So how do we overcome prejudice and bigotry?

To be honest, I don’t know. But we can start by removing our heads from the sand.

And for goodness sake, “Lest We Forget” should apply to more than Australia’s involvement in wars overseas.

Lest we forget the past and ongoing atrocities faced by Aboriginal people.

Lest we forget the innocent people rotting in detention centres.

Lest we forget the impact of our words, attitudes and behaviours on those around us.