"All sorts of entertaining" - Elizabeth Seckman

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Friday, 18 March 2016

The Price of Speaking Your Mind On the Internet

Among many other things, the biggest point of this blog is to examine the way I think and behave, and to examine the behaviour of the world around me. On Monday, I decided to do something that I considered to be quite brave  - I publicly examined a thought process I have that I was worried may be racist against Indigenous Australian people. I have a very optimistic belief in human nature, so I believed that if I could explain intelligently and compassionately how I came to have this thought process and ask for advice on whether it's indeed racist, I could not only work on fixing it, but could encourage others to think about their own thought patterns. It sounds very cliche, but in the end I was trying to break down barriers and make the world a better place.

Well, I should have been prepared for the reaction.

At first it was fine. Regular readers commented exactly how I wanted them to - things like "Yeah, I think it is" or "It's hard to say, it depends on the circumstances. Great, I could use that. They understood. But then, some local stand-up comedians got a hold of it. They started hurling vitriol at me, calling the whole article "disgusting" and "fucked" then they moved on to just cheap ridicule - commenting with photos of people of that race with captions like "I'm sad Michael. Why you make me sad?" It's frustrating that they don't see the hypocrisy of calling me racist and then doing something like that. But then, they're the worst kind of person - someone who does and says terrible things because they think they have the moral high ground.

I initially caved in and took down the post, because being labelled as racist/sexist/homophobic/otherwise bigoted is like being sprayed by a skunk. No mater how hard you scrub, you'll never get that smell off you. But after getting private messages of support from people on Facebook, including some of the Indigenous people I'm supposed to have offended, I've regained courage. I've blocked the offending people on Twitter and Facebook and I'm trying again. I've made some very small changes to the syntax to try and minimise any misunderstanding. I've also spoken to an Indigenous Australian friend, a friend that's studying social work and a nurse that's had to treat a lot of Indigenous people to get their opinions on the matter. The result of those conversations is in the last two paragraphs.

If you have an opinion to share on this article, please make it constructive. Share your feedback on the question I've asked, but don't attack me for trying to address it. I've written this because I want to be a better person. If you choose to ignore that, then you're not going to achieve anything. You'll just be outing yourself as a troll. I'll delete the comment before reading it all the way through. If your comment is constructive however, I'll absolutely take it on board.

Wish me luck.

Similar to an earlier post I wrote called Is It Sexist, I'm starting a new thing where I examine something that may be interpreted as racist. For the first one, the spotlight will be turned squarely on myself.

It's not often that I give money to homeless people. Not for any principle or greed, I just usually can't be bothered fishing around in my backpack for my wallet.

Alright, I know how horrible that is. But that's not really what we're discussing here. What I would like to submit is a story that came a couple of years ago. A friend had started up a new comedy show at a bar in town and asked me if I wanted to do 5 minutes of stand-up. He offered me $5 to do it, which doesn't sound like much, but if you figure it out it actually works out to $60 an hour. But then if you think about it further, you realise you're just trying to justify it and it really is a weak amount. But so few comedy venues actually pay acts for their time, so offering anything at all is a really nice gesture. Especially with the small amount that the promoter himself would have been getting.

I did my spot and at the end of the night and was handed my brand new $5 note. It was the first time I'd ever been paid for doing stand-up, so I was pretty pleased with myself, even if it was so low. As I made my way back to my car, I came across a couple of Aboriginal people. One was enormous and had a scowl on his face, the other was my height and just looked like skin and bones. The smaller man saw me and walked up to me, the bigger man watching him.
"Excuse me, do you have any money?" He asked, putting his hand on my shoulder.

Now my first thoughts went to a group of Indigenous people that inhabit the southern Adelaide parklands. They usually keep to themselves, but one time I sat in a house across the street and watched in horror as they descended into a violent brawl. Cops had to be called and some had to be taken to hospital. The guy who owned the house said it wasn't an uncommon occurrence. People can do some nasty things when they're desperate. And I couldn't be sure how desperate these guys standing in front of me were.
"I sure do!" I said cheerfully and took out my $5 note, handing it over.
"Thanks," he said and he took his hand off my shoulder and the two of them left me alone.

I was more concerned for my safety in that moment than I'd ever been in the presence of a Caucasian panhandler. It could have just been because it was night time. One time I was in Sydney at night, alone in a fairly deserted place. A Caucasian man came up to me and asked me for money.  I felt concerned for my safety then, so I made the effort to get my wallet out of my backpack. And just last Friday, an Indigenous woman came up to me in the middle of the day, grabbed my shoulder and asked me for money. I still felt unsafe, but it was likely because she was invading my personal space. It happened in  broad daylight in the busiest part of the city, so I didn't have any real belief that she'd do anything stupid. On this occasion, I softly said no, took her hand off my shoulder and walked on. But the fact remains and I can't ignore it - the two times I was most concerned for my safety were when confronted with Indigenous people over Caucasian ones.

Does that come from a valid place or is it just plain racism? Is an underprivileged person from the Aboriginal community statistically likelier to cause violence? Or is it completely even between the races and I've just imagined that? It's fairly well-known that Indigenous Australian people make up 70% of the jail population in Australia. What's harder to measure is how much of that figure is due to actual crime rates and how much comes from white prejudice. I've spoken to Indigenous people who say that they often have to be more careful around their own than around Caucasian people. Their anger, grief and desperation can lead them to lash out. If that's true, then that could validate my fear. But then, I think of the famous Stanford Prison Guard Experiment we all learned about in high school psychology. The one where the two groups of people - one acting as prisoners and the others their guards - started to genuinely take on the characteristics that they'd been artificially imbued with. One became abusive and authoritarian and the other became depressed and subordinate. Is it possible that our treatment of the Aboriginal community as criminals has achieved the same affect? Could my (and I'm sure others') possible prejudice have actually made it a reality?

If the answer is yes, then I think I have my answer to the first question. It may be a valid fear, but it's still racist. If I think I have something to fear, then I will. If I don't, then I won't.


  1. Could be, yup, although aggressive panhandling is scary no matter the race or time of day, as far as I'm concerned.

    1. That's true. I haven't yet had a Caucasian person invade my personal space.

  2. It depends on your experience with aboriginals. It could be not being sure of body language. When someone puts their hands on you, they are violating your personal space. Plus they were inebriated and all drunks can be a problem, white, black, purple, green, no matter.
    If it will make you feel better, I keep a couple of bucks handy when walking in some areas to give to aggressive panhandlers. Not that I want to buy their next drink, I just don't want them to get angry and assault me.
    Yesterday I gave some money to a panhandler who I realized was a professional as I gave him money. He just looked downtrodden and sun weathered from a distance. We have a problem with professional beggars. It is hard to impossible to know if you are helping someone. I would never dig in my purse to give money. It leaves you too vulnerable for robbery.

    1. Actually, that's one thing I've accepted in the time since I first published the post. I just assumed they were drunk by the look of them, which was terrible of me. Like your "professional panhandler", looks can be deceiving.

  3. Maybe. It also reflects the attitudes you have been exposed to and fed through the media.
    And Ann and Debra are both right. Drunks, particularly aggressive drunks, are scary. And unpredictable. Regardless of colour, race, religion or gender.

    1. I feel like the media does quite a good job at expressing helpful attitudes towards minorities. TV shows are making more of an effort to include LGBTI characters, females characters are given better parts and more races are represented. I also thought the way the news outlets handled the Adam Goodes saga was really well done.

  4. As someone who has been mugged, I have to say "if your antennae are up" and you're having concerns about safety, does it matter why? If I say that sounds racist, will you put yourself at risk in order to be socially correct?

    1. Haha yeah I guess not. Maybe after I'm out of there I can figure out where that gut instinct came from.

  5. First, let me say that I admire your wanting to grow as a person, particularly by throwing yourself in the shark pool covered in blood and viscera. Second, the Stanford Prison Experiment is a total sham. It completely ignored the scientific method, the professor was a sensationalist whose findings can't be trusted because many of the participants dispute his observations and there were absolutely no controls put into place, and the sample size was tiny, and it can't be replicated. Future attempts to replicate it have found the Stanford Prison Experiment to not be an experiment at all and completely without merit. (Sorry, pet peeve.)
    Now, for your question, I think you've been conditioned through general societal racism to regard aboriginals as more intimidating or violent. It's something people say and point out often enough that you start only seeing that and disregarding individual humanity, instead reflexively give over to the stereotype and thus feel intimidated. However, the incidences you speak of, there's obviously an intended intimidation by violating your personal space. I'm intimidated by anyone who comes up and touches me, even my spouse, let alone some smelly stranger asking, not for a handout, but if I have any money. That's strange and scary.
    As for your question/noting about the prison population, I can only draw a corollary with American prisons and the disproportionate number of minorities in prison over white people. If you stop there, as a racist would, it would seem to confirm some racist thoughts. But look further, and you'll see that most prisoners are in for drug violations. Are minorities prone to more drug use than whites? Nope, white people have been found to use illegal drugs in equal proportion to, for example, black people. So why are black people incarcerated at a vastly higher rate for drug violations than white people? Probably because the justice system for years favors second chances for whites versus incarceration for blacks. I don't think judges are inherently racist, but they are societally conditioned to view minorities differently, as "thugs" versus white people who they empathize with more and are prone to think, "aww shucks, he lost his way, I sentence Jim-Bob to rehab, without putting a federal conviction on his record that will certainly inhibit future employment opportunities that may perpetuate a cycle of poverty and violence."
    You raise a lot of interesting points about personal and socialized racism. By recognizing it in yourself, you're taking the right steps to try to reverse an all-too-common subconscious racism. That said, don't talk yourself out of being vigilant when you feel threatened. Unwarranted touching is terrifying. Pardon my droning on, but it's something I ask about myself too.

    1. I love this, thank you. You seem to have a much better grasp of the situation than I do, since you've raised a lot of accurate points that I was trying to allude to, but didn't know how to articulate.

      Great point about the reason for incarcerations, is like to know what the biggest alleged crimes are among people in Australian jails. I wouldn't know where to find that out though.

      Where did you get that info on the Prison Guard Experiment?

    2. I've been fascinated by, then disillusioned by the Stanford Prison Experiment since I was a kid (that and the equally fraught Milgram Obedience Study) so that info comes from a bunch of places, but to start, Psychology Today has a good starter article that still gives it a little too much validity but points out that Zimbardo (the professor) "coached the guards" before they started: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201307/the-rarely-told-true-story-zimbardo-s-prison-experiment
      Then there's a follow-up Psychology Today article talks about how Zimbardo brought in an ex-con to also coach guards into how to be better sadists: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/201310/why-zimbardo-s-prison-experiment-isn-t-in-my-textbook
      For a more succinct, entertaining read, check out the Cracked article about the experiment and other bs pseudo-psychology: http://www.cracked.com/article_21193_5-ridiculous-lies-you-probably-believe-about-psychology.html

    3. Awesome, I've made a note to read all those articles this Monday :)

  6. Say what you like....its your blog

    1. Hahaha I also love this answer. I wish it were that simple.

  7. As the person who sent you the pictures of "Why are you making me sad?" I feel like I should let you know why people got angry. The most offensive thing about you're original post was not that you were admitting that you can be fearful of being mugged by different races, although being prejudice in that way does classify as a form of racism. The part I feel people had the most trouble with was the language you used to describe indigenous people, in which you made them sound like a different species or like wild animals. You've taken certain bits out now like "they're usually docile but can turn violent." but you've still kept in segments like "I'd had one experience with underprivileged Indigenous people before. There's a group that inhabit the southern Adelaide parklands." Terms like 'Inhabit' and 'I've had experience with' make it sound like these people are different not only from you, but to all humans. You might not be doing this deliberately but the fact the language you use when discussing indigenous people has this undercurrent of dehumanisation is far more worrying than being scared of underprivileged people (who you also describe in a way which is dehumanising). This is not trolling, this is not meant to abuse or insult you, it is my real reaction to an article which left me feeling very uncomfortable and uneasy, and worried about your view of other races and disadvantaged people. Lewis Dowell

    1. Okay. You're right, that wasn't my intention. But I also think it's a matter of interpretation. My focus was on bringing up this particular group of people without implying that I'm likening them to all indigenous people. When I read it, I can't see anything that implies that I think Indigenous Australian people are a separate species.

      Thank you.


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