by Penny van Toorn, Altitude, Volume 5, Article 4, 2005.
During times of political crisis, certain verbal signs become a focus of intense social struggle. Rival groups try to capture each other’s biggest word-guns and turn them against their former owners. Debates erupt over what these powerful words ‘really’ mean, how they might legitimately be used, by whom, and for what purposes. As different groups fight for control of these strategically crucial signs, the latter become manifestly multivoiced and semantically volatile.
Recently in Australia, the words ‘racist’ and ‘racism’ have become a subject of contention. These terms were once monopolised by supporters of Aboriginal and migrants’ rights, who used them – sometimes glibly in a shorthand manner that emptied the words of their meaning – to castigate those who practised discrimination, prejudice, or intolerance towards non-Anglo-Celtic peoples. Today, in the late 1990s, this monopoly has come to an end. A new, right-wing, nationalist rhetoric has emerged which identifies the ‘real racists’ as those who want special rights and benefits for Aboriginal people. In her 1996 election statement, Pauline Hanson claimed that the Government was ‘looking after the Aborigines too much… I simply think everyone should be treated equally. If Aborigines get paid to send their kids to school or get this or that benefit, I should be able to get the same’ (qtd in Kingston 29). John Howard has implicitly endorsed Hanson’s re-definition of ‘racism’ by stating that the Liberal Party has ‘clung tenaciously to the principle that no one group in the Australian community should have rights that are not enjoyed by another group’ (29). Similarly, the anti-Native Title lobby (in a semantic switch that denies a two-hundred-year history of racial oppression) vilifies its opponents as ‘racists’ in an effort to win the high moral ground and hence the land itself. In each case, Aborigines and ‘ordinary Australians’ are envisaged as two mutually exclusive groups, yet the charge of being racist is deflected by redefining ‘racism’ as discrimination against non-Aborigines. In 1990s Australia, racism thus disavows itself; it wears an egalitarian, anti-racist mask (Lattas).