Rather, there is something else at stake here that is much bigger than any particular legislative provision. I’m not so much concerned by section 18C or its repeal, but by the mythology on which that repeal is apparently based. Unspoken at the heart of this debate is a contest over the way race relations works in this country – and on whose terms.
That’s what struck me most about the proposed legislation. It’s just so … well, white. In fact it’s probably the whitest piece of proposed legislation I’ve encountered during my lifetime. It trades on all the assumptions about race that you’re likely to hold if, in your experience, racism is just something that other people complain about.
Subsection (3) – mostly ignored to this point – is perhaps the most subtly revealing. Earlier subsections make it unlawful to do something that is “reasonably likely” to vilify or intimidate someone on the basis of race. But reasonably likely according to whom? Who gets to decide whether something is intimidating or vilifying? Subsection (3) provides the answer.
Whether something is “reasonably likely” to vilify is “to be determined by the standards of an ordinary reasonable member of the Australian community” it begins. Fair enough. But then it adds in the most pointed way: “not by the standards of any particular group within the Australian community.” That’s code. It means, not by the standard of whatever racial minority is being vilified. Not the ordinary reasonable wog, gook or sand-nigger; the ordinary reasonable Australian. And what race is this hypothetical “ordinary reasonable member of the Australian community” meant to be, exactly?
If you answered that they have no particular race, then you’ve just given the whitest answer possible. It’s the answer that assumes there is such a thing as racial neutrality. Of course, only white people have the chance to be neutral because in our society only white is deemed normal; only whiteness is invisible.