What if Leak’s characters were white?

Apparently if you say anything critical of members of another race it is, according to a wide range of activists, twitterati, human rights commissioners and journalists, racist. That’s the only conclusion you can draw from the criticism of Bill Leak’s cartoon.

But let’s apply a test here. Something can only be racist if it is something which unfairly singles out a particular race for having a particular characteristic which it doesn’t.

I realise there is a bit of duplication in this definition, but if something is a race it has to have characteristics, so describing them couldn’t be described as racist. It would only be if you treated them unfairly for having those characteristics, or drew unwarranted conclusions from those characteristics, or imputed characteristics to them that weren’t theirs, that you could be said to have done something negative based on race.

Is it racist to say that African Americans will do well in the sprints at the Olympics? I don’t think so. Seems to be objectively true, and while it might be broadly based on race, it is not unfair, unwarranted, or a false imputation.

What about Leak’s cartoon? Well I think it can only be racist if his observations single out one race, and do so unjustly. A good test of this is whether the cartoon would be regarded as being racist if the characters were white.

That resolves itself to a question of whether white children going into detention could be the product of bad parenting. Seems to be a no-brainer that this would be the case in a wide range of cases, and a cartoon pointing this out would be a worthy addition to the debate.

In which case the cartoon Leak drew cannot be regarded as being racist, because its message does not impute anything based on racial characteristics, but family characteristics. It correctly describes a situation and suggests that the problem might lie more with the family than the institution in which they are incarcerated.

So what is going on? Why is a decent man like Bill Leak being pilloried as a racist?

I think two things are at play – tribalism and guilt.

Take a situation in what might be my family, or yours, where we might all know that one of our siblings is a dead beat. We’ll have vicious, behind the scenes gripes about them, and maybe manouever to get them out of the will.

But if someone comes along from outside the family and criticises them, chances are we will circle the wagons and turn on the outsider.

While tribalism is understandable, it can’t be allowed to ultimately dictate what happens in a democracy where everyone is held to be equal. If we have a tribe, it is Australia.

In terms of guilt, I think Leak has undermined his crusade by backing the #indigenousdads movement. I understand why good indigenous fathers would recoil at what they are seeing in the Northern Territory, but the appropriate response is not to redirect attention by saying “Look at me, I’m indigenous and I’m a good dad.”

To be blunt, that is either a narcissistic response, or one that is driven by a deep feeling of attachment to the wrong that is being done, and an attempt to deflect the guilt that one is feeling.

The correct response is the hard one. It is to say “How can I help to do something about the situation that people who are ethnically related to me are creating?”

And it is hard, because after 50 or 60 years of trying by all levels of government, that situation appears to be getting worse, not better.

My suspicion is that happens because we persist in treating those Aboriginal communities as being indigenous, rather than human. Our Aboriginal and Islander policies, while trying to be non-racist, have in fact been completely racist, unfairly imputing racial characteristics that don’t exist to communities in our nation.

Up until the 60s Aborigines were not citizens of Australia, and many treated them as being a distinct, and lower, species. You can see that attitude in landscape paintings from the 18th Century on, where they are as likely to dot the background as kangaroos.

But we are still treating Aborigines as a different sort of humanity, not as capable as the rest of us.

That is where Leak’s cartoon cuts in and has such force. It is being called racist, because it actually calls out the racist attitude that many “educated” Australians, and many activists, have to our indigenous.

If the characters were white, there would be no furore. Neither should there be, seeing that they are black.