I had never thought of the term ‘casual racism’ in any significant way until recently when the Australian media exploded with a story of a well-known media personality who made an on-air gaffe when he suggested an Aboriginal football player be used to promote King Kong, the musical as King Kong.
As I navigated through my torturous thinking, I realised what a minefield this subject of casual racism is!
What made the story intriguing is that just a few days before the on-air incident; the same media personality had publicly supported the very same Aboriginal football player after he had been racially abused by a supporter during a match.
So what was it about the King Kong reference that made the media scream ‘racist’? Well, you see the football supporter had called the Aboriginal player an ‘ape’ and King Kong is a fictional giant gorilla. Link that to all the times that black people have been called monkeys and apes and all sorts of other offensive name and you can see why the shit hit the fan!
Now, just to set the record straight, this media personality is not someone that I would term as racist. In fact, he is well recognised as a keen advocate of equality. So why did he make such a colossal mistake? Was it a simple case of foot in the mouth or what?
The ‘what’ turned out to be something that has been classified as ‘casual racism’ – a terminology that I am still processing.
The Urban Dictionary says that casual racism is evident when racist words or phrases are used as a ‘normal’ word and not with the intent to be racist. According to a prominent Australian athlete of African descent ‘casual racism’ is often masked as a joke and shrugged away as humour when questioned.
Well, that set me thinking. Have I have ever been casually racist without realising it? Have you? In Africa, we often make sweeping statements about people on a tribal basis. How many times have we said the people of tribe x or tribe y are known to behave in this or that way. Is this casual racism?
Or does a phrase or word become casually racist when it is used in the wrong context? I doubt that there would been any notice taken if the media personality had compared a white friend to King Kong. The context was created when he compared the black football player to King Kong. This context is created because of the often-turbulent history of race relations, from slavery to the civil movement of the 1960s and the many on-going attempts to right the wrongs of the past.
There was something else that resonated with me as an African. I was listening to a talk-back radio program and was particularly struck by the comments of an Italian-Australian lady. She said that she didn’t like being asked where she came from, and claimed that this was a form of casual racism.
Personally, I have never minded being asked where I come from. Being black I look different from most people in Australia so when I am asked where I come from I take it as a sign of interest in me. And the interest has always seemed genuine. Once I say that I am from Africa, I get lots of questions about my homeland, its people, its politics and so on. Invariably, I bond well with such people. And with good reason – after all they are interested in me! What is casually racist about that?
However, it is all about context, isn’t it? When it comes to my community, the Somali, we ask a slightly different question – ‘who are you?’ Every Somali knows what this question means as it goes to the core of Somali identity – the clan lineage. Once a Somali knows ‘who you are’ they can identify with you in a particular way. For example, if you belong to the same clan you can be embraced as a brother or sister. The interaction isn’t quite as comfortable if you belong to a rival clan! I am not quite sure if this is casual racism, outright racism or simply a case of identity management…