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Nakkiah Lui: It’s Not Racism That Australia Needs To Get Rid Of; It’s The Privilege Of Whiteness

"I'm not a racist, but who cares what I am? I’m a black woman -- what I am doesn't matter."

On Friday May 29, the NSW Reconciliation Council brought their sell-out event ‘I’m Not Racist, But…‘ to the University of Sydney, as part of National Reconciliation Week. Hosted by Gretel Killeen, the forum’s aim was to generate an open discussion around racism in Australia; it featured ten-minute talks from artist and writer Adam Geczy, writer and screenwriter Benjamin Law, TV host and VJ Yumi Stynes and playwright, writer, and actor Nakkiah Lui, followed by a panel discussion and Q&A. 

The following speech was given by Nakkiah; republished here with her permission, it has been edited for online. 

I’m Nakkiah Nellie We’ama Hope Lui. My name means ‘Special one who is grandmother’s daughter’. Except for ‘Hope’. That part’s after Hope Brady from Days of Our Lives. I’m a proud Gamillario and Torres Strait Islander woman.

I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land and the elders past and present.

Now I’m going to say hello in my traditional language and I want you say hello back, okay?

Hola.

Now you say it back.

Hola.

Como estas? That’s “How are you?”.

Isn’t it funny how that sounds like Spanish? That’s because it is. I’m not a racist but no one here could tell the difference between Spanish and an Aboriginal language. I guess as an Aboriginal woman it doesn’t matter what language I’m speaking to you in. You don’t understand it; it’s just tokenistic.

Tokenistic cultural feel-goods, just like the acknowledgement of the traditional people who used to live on this land.

You know who we should acknowledge? The owners of this land. The white people that stole it. Let’s take a moment of silence to remember the colonisers.

Look, moving on — I think they’ve had enough of our time.

The Urban Dictionary defines ‘I’m Not a Racist But’ as:

1) A disclaimer that allows the speaker to say whatever they like regardless of how racist it actually is;

2) What a racist may say before they lazily chuck around inherently racist sweeping generalisations, but don’t want to appear to be racist.

For example, “I’m not being racist, but gee, I really hate black people.”

I, personally, like to define ‘I’m not a racist but’ as defending Whiteness. For example, “I’m not a racist, but gee, I really like being white”.

There is an irony in me giving this speech; I’m not a racist but here I am, a young black woman in the Great Hall of Sydney University surrounded by walls of portraits of Great, White Men.

I’m not a racist but really, who cares what I am?

I’m a black woman — what I am doesn’t matter.

What matters is White Men.

What matters is White Privilege.

White Privilege that is sexualised.

White Privilege that is radicalised.

White Privilege that is gendered.

White Privilege that is inherent in class.

White Privilege that is a value system, that places a very small few at the centre and then Others everyone who surrounds it, and who don’t hold the values of ‘Whiteness’.

I’m not a racist but you might be. You might not think you’re superior to any other races or disdain them for their race; you might have friends from all races; you might insist you don’t see colour (which if you actually don’t, you should probably see a doctor). I bet you love night noodle markets, and you sit through welcome-to-countries because you ‘get it’.

You’re not a racist but you’re white and you’re privileged, and you’re not giving that privilege up. You’re hanging onto it, as Aboriginal people die on their knees in station cells, as we imprison refugees on an island out of sight just for seeking help, as we continually try and ban the burqa, as white people spout hateful vitriol on trains and buses at anyone who isn’t white (and if you’ve seen the videos on the internet, it’s always white people being racist, no one else). As all of this happens, you’re shaking your head with contempt, you’re reading this speech all the way through — but you’re still hanging on to your privilege.

And what are you doing? These things I’m telling you aren’t things you don’t know. The influx of op-eds and clicktavism is at an all-time high, you come to these events, you read my speech, you wear the guilt of your privilege on your sleeve but still nothing changes.

You know how I know this? Let’s look at Aboriginal people.

An Aboriginal person is likely to die 11.5 years earlier than a non-Indigenous person, and that’s a conservative estimate. We are living in the era of a new Stolen Generation: the number of Aboriginal children in “out of home care” is higher than it’s ever been before. Imprisonment rates for Indigenous Australians are around 13 times those of the rest of the Australian population. And people in the Northern Territory are still being oppressed under the intervention, a policy which Amnesty International described as “blatantly disregarding human rights”.

This is four generations on since the first whitey jumped off the tall ship with a bayonet and let that black blood sink into the golden soil that is ‘Advance Australia Fair’. Blood is still sinking into the soil of Australia, except now it’s not just that of Aboriginal people; it’s everyone in this country who doesn’t have the privilege of being white.

It’s not racism we need to get rid of; it’s the privilege of Whiteness. Race is only constructed to maintain power and privilege. Without anyone in power, racism doesn’t exist. Racism isn’t the issue; it’s white people and their white privilege. If racism were different races in a boxing ring, fighting it out, whiteness is the boxing ring, referee and audience.

And look, I don’t hate white people. I have a white boyfriend. I enjoy your culture — I love Karl Stefanovic — and your food, such as mashed potatoes. I love white people, but I hate your privilege and the fact that your privilege has been and is the root of every disadvantage for every other race and marginalised group out there.

I looked up some racist jokes because I thought it would be funny and ironic. It wasn’t, but I had a realisation: racists aren’t worried about us, they don’t hate us for our race. No, they are worried about the disintegration of Whiteness. They mock us because we’re threats.

The jokes about ‘Abos’, ‘Asians’, ’Jews’, ‘Curry Munchers’, ‘Niggers’, ‘Arabs’, ‘Gays’ and ‘Sluts’ are so harsh and so cruel because they are based on disadvantage that exists.

For example:

What do you call a black man with white friends? The president.

What do you call a Chinese person with a camera? Japanese.

Why do Muslim girls keep quiet while having sex? Because they’re not supposed to talk to strangers.

What do you do at an Abo garage sale? Get your stuff back.

An Abo and a Leb are in a car. Who is driving? Neither. The cop is driving.

These are the ones I could repeat. Now let’s look at the jokes about white people.

What do you call a white man in court? The lawyer. Great, a joke that reinforces the white guy as a hero. So funny.

What does a white woman make for dinner? Reservations. Oh wow, your financially independent partner doesn’t want cook for you. A laugh riot.

How did the white boy come out of the grocery store with a six pack? He walked in and paid for it. Hilarious, a joke about how white people have an economically stable position.

These aren’t jokes about a hatred of other races; these are jokes about the narcissism of one race, and one race rising to the top — and that race is Whiteness.

Is Reconciliation just about maintaining White Privilege? Why do we have to be reconciled when our own equality is all that we seek? Can Reconciliation in this country ever exist when Aboriginal people still haven’t received a treaty, or true land rights? Can Reconciliation exist in this country where people who seek asylum are being left to suffer in offshore detention?

This country is founded on boat people, and yet we keep them out of eyesight, because of the hypocrisy of the philosophy Australia is built upon. Whiteness is being overtaken by ‘otherness’, by the same means through which they dispossessed the Aboriginal people. The fear, in this country, of Not Being White.

The leading campaign at the moment against racism in Australia is ‘Racism. It Stops With Me’. Racism doesn’t stop with me, it stops with you.

So how do we go forward?

What can we do? The ones who don’t have the privilege of Whiteness? Let’s not play by the rule of Whiteness.

Let’s not be proud of surviving. Let’s not be proud of being tolerated through the guise of multiculturalism. We aren’t here to create myths about our own humanity, or to replace the homogeneity of race that Whiteness oppresses.

We are no longer brave instead of dumb, no longer more instead of less, no longer one instead of many.

We just ARE.

I wanted to offer the people who benefit from White Privilege some kind of action they could take, to help those who don’t. I had nothing. How do you tell people that they have to give up being at the centre?

Maybe it’s not up to white people to change things. Maybe they can’t. If equality for all means a loss of privilege for some, why would they want to give that up? And can they?

The one thing we can all do is start to disrupt White Privilege, through our thoughts and discourse; to make White Privilege the centre when we talk about racism. Let’s not share the blame.

Australia is the myth we need to obliterate together. The only way to do this is to start seeing Australia for what it is. To start deconstructing the bastion of White Power that is our home that’s girt by sea.

Today is Mabo Day, the final day of National Reconciliation Week. To find out more, head here.

Nakkiah Lui is a writer, playwright and actor, and a Gamillario and Torres Strait Islander Woman. She starred in and co-wrote for ABC’s Black Comedy, and was a playwright in residence at Belvoir from 2012-2014, where her most recent play Kill The Messenger enjoyed an acclaimed run. 

Feature photo by Amelia J Dowd.