“We’re All Racist”: Antoinette Lattouf On Overcoming Australia’s Anti-Black Attitude

“A lot of other people of colour have problematic attitudes towards race and blackness in this country - and that is something that is just not talked about."

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Antoinette Lattouf first discovered that standing up to injustice comes with a cost in the schoolyard.

At the age of 12, she describes being uninvited from a peer’s birthday party over her ethnicity, and, without missing a beat, maturely responded: “That’s okay, that must make you feel pretty bad. Do you want to talk about what it’s like to live with a racist?”

In the years since, the Lebanese-Australian journalist has continued to subvert the status quo, questioning how our racial dynamics and imbalances came to be, and why mainstream Australia just laps it up instead of pushing for real, meaningful change.

Her new book How To Lose Friends And Influence White People — a play on the 1936 classic by Dale Carnegie — offers advice and analysis on a post-Black Lives Matter world, slowing down to reflect on the momentous international movement, and the next steps forward on the home ground.

Unpacking Privilege

After centuries of benefiting from a system that rewarded white people for nothing more than being born a certain colour, the Black Lives Matter movement challenged institutions in power and placed racial inequality under the microscope.

Suddenly, the ruling majority were called upon from their ‘lucky ledge’ as Lattouf describes it, and forced to look down at the reality on the ground for everybody else.

“So much of racism and the patriarchy is directed at white supremacists — and in many ways, rightly so. But progressive, middle-class white women also like to pat themselves on the back, and not identify what they’re doing to maintain white supremacy,” she told Junkee.

Lattouf’s favourite metaphor in her book are the attributes of ‘pale, male, stale, and Gayle’. Gayle, she says, is like Karen’s cousin — she might share an infographic when injustices hit the news cycle, but turns a blind eye when called out on for being all talk and no action.

“There is an appetite for change. Will change happen overnight? Absolutely not…”

Often we hear words thrown around like ‘white guilt’, ‘microaggressions’, and ‘critical race theory’, but many use these buzzwords without fully understanding what they’re fully about. Lattouf draws these key terms out — explaining their context, discourse, and history — in an accessible and non-judgemental way, while still asking Australians to be held to a higher standard.

How To Lose Friends And Influence White People asserts that change and freedom has never been handed out on a silver platter — they’ve always been hard-fought for, and has a price.

“Understand that change will come at a cost for you — in strained relationships, work opportunities, being labelled a troublemaker, or forgoing a payrise when you identify a person of colour is earning less than you,” offered Lattouf to white people who genuinely want to do better.

“There are more white people willing to either step aside or amplify black voices and experiences of other people of colour. There is an appetite for change. Will change happen overnight? Absolutely not, but there’s more hope, and there are more allies in this space, which is a start.”

Springboard For Change

There are so many barriers to having vital, meaningful, and productive discussions about race — people ignore concrete facts, shut down, or refuse to face their privilege — but Lattouf’s book offers ideas on how to have these dialogues productively.

Everyone is asked to hold up the mirror — not just racist nan at Christmas lunch, but left-wing progressives and minority communities as well.

“A lot of discussions around race, especially in the Black Lives Matter context are framed in an African-American experience, which is completely different to an Australian experience,” said Lattouf. “I just thought it was really important for us to have these conversations bearing in mind our brutal colonisation, and our ongoing abhorrent treatment of Indigenous people, but also taking into account that a lot of other people of colour have problematic attitudes towards race and blackness in this country — and that is something that is just not talked about.”

A priority for Lattouf in the writing process was trying to engage readers in a way that was engaging, but not patronising. Simple, but not oversimplified. Relatable, but not dismissive.

“Race is a hard, toxic, taxing topic. It’s easy to go, ‘Oh fuck that. I’m just going to binge on a packet of Doritos and stream Netflix instead’,” she said.

Far from the self-help manuals we’re used to, her book seeks to challenge not only our own biases but those of the world around us, by tackling the fallout of going against the grain — and why that isn’t such a bad thing.

“People only think of racism as individual acts of nastiness where you throw the n-word at someone, you say an Islamophobic slur at a woman with a hijab, you have anti-Asian attitude against someone from China, for example.

“Yes, that’s individual acts of racism, but the most detrimental form is structural racism — when Indigenous people and people of colour don’t get equal access to power, to a voice, to health, and sometimes even to the right to live,” said Lattouf.

She believes that until we collectively challenge these systems at play, we can’t continue to call Australia a multicultural country — as is often proclaimed on the world stage.

Bitter Pill To Swallow

“Everybody likes to think that they’re not a racist, but we’re all racist, and if you really want to take people on a journey to self-reflection, you need radical honesty,” said Lattouf, who includes passages of tough conversations with her family and friends, as well as personal realisations in her book. “I show my mistakes. I show my vulnerabilities. I show where I’ve learnt. I just thought that if I want people to really dig deep, I’ve got to demonstrate that I too will be vulnerable.”

She said the most confronting lesson when putting together How To Lose Friends And Influence White People was realising how much her own experiences of racism and discrimination still affect her to this day. “It’s the ongoing, cumulative impact of these instances, of these offhand comments, of these opportunities denied — for me it was actually quite triggering, and I was processing my own racial trauma,” she said.

Lattouf reflected on how racism moves and transmorphs; shifting from verbal and physical attacks on Arab Australians in the early 2000s (after 9/11 and Cronulla) to the targeting of African Australians today.

“If you really are going to be an anti-racist ally and advocate, you’ve got to be honest about where you started…”

The black diaspora has gone through the struggle of being scapegoated in Victoria as universal gang members, to repeated race-baiting during the pandemic — and Lattouf said she was surprised to see her own community pit themselves against other people of colour in an attempt to try and get a foot up.

“It’s just this bullshit carrot that’s dangled in an attempt to make us really turn on one another — it makes people of colour turn on one another where they think ‘we’re the better minority, so you deserve [this racist treatment]’.”

There’s a hierarchy of hate in Australia, says Lattouf, where black and blak minorities have been held down at the bottom of the pecking order.

“I just thought it was really important for me to acknowledge that, and to scrutinise it from where I sit, and not speak for anybody else — but instead to amplify — and that’s why I interviewed so many wonderful Indigenous thinkers and people of colour with a public profile, because all our lived experiences are different and valid.

“But if you really are going to be an anti-racist ally and advocate, you’ve got to be honest about where you started, and even though we don’t know where the finish line is, we’ve all got to be heading in the same direction,” she said.

A Look To The Future

“What gives me hope is those institutions of power are being challenged in a way that they haven’t before,” said Lattouf on Australia’s potential for racial change.

But for a nation built on having a ‘fair go’, Australia is still hinged on the false belief that opportunities come equally, and are awarded to the best candidates in a so-called meritocracy.

On May 21, Australia will take to the polls and determine the fate of the country — as well as the livelihoods of Indigenous people and people of colour — for the next four years. “We have Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese as our only two choices to lead. Do you really believe in a country of over 25 million that they are the brightest, the best individuals?” asked Lattouf.

“If you truly believe that, good on you, but I reckon when people have a look, it should cast some serious doubt on this merit system.”

How To Lose Friends And Influence White People is out now through Penguin Random House Australia.

Millie Roberts is a staff writer at Junkee, focusing on social justice and pop culture. Follow her on Twitter.