In the aftermath of Christchurch, it’s clearer than ever that not enough is being done to quash the existential threat of far-right extremism. And it’s a sign of how hungry we have become for anti-racist activity that the Internet has so enthusiastically rallied around a plucky egg-wielding teenager.
At an institutional level, government must do more to combat this threat. If the danger of far-right extremism were treated with even a fraction of the seriousness jihadist extremism is currently treated, authorities may have been able to prevent Friday’s terrorist attack. The media and political classes must also acknowledge their complicity in allowing hatred to fester, and stamp out toxic cultures where they have developed.
And in the meantime, there is so much important and valuable work to be done at the ground level too. Extremist violence starts with hate speech, and we have the power to challenge it. Anti-racism — effective, principled anti-racism — must now be the focus.
A significant problem is that until now, too much of this work has fallen on the shoulders of those who bear the brunt of white supremacy. Australia was built on lethal myths of racial superiority, and for First Nations people, in particular, confronting white supremacy has literally been a matter of individual and cultural survival. But we should not expect targets of far-right extremism to constantly do the heavy lifting of challenging it directly. It’s up to everyone else, as well, to ensure that racism, Islamophobia and antisemitism are not given an inch.
I spent the last six years of my life as a policy adviser to Australia’s first Muslim woman politician, Mehreen Faruqi, and then to the Race Discrimination Commissioner. I have seen first-hand the burden of abuse and hatred that prominent people of colour can carry, every single day, simply for doing the necessary and painstaking work of calling out racism and promoting anti-racist justice.
It’s not fair, and it’s completely unsustainable. White people who are not the ordinary targets of the far-right now must step up and contribute to the hard work of anti-racism. White supremacy is the problem and white anti-racists must be ready to challenge it head-on.
Here is what effective anti-racism can involve for white people.
First, a genuine commitment to learning about and critically considering your racial position, and how you have benefitted from it. This holds true for non-Anglo whites like me just as much as for Anglos. If you’ve been taught for ever that your whiteness does not affect your life, this can be confronting. But we should read the literature and engage. As a starting point, try Reni Eddo-Lodge and Robin DiAngelo. In Australia, look to authors and scholars of colour such as Lebanese-Australian anthropologist Ghassan Hage and Indigenous studies academic and Geonpul woman Aileen Moreton-Robinson. Start thinking and talking about how your race has impacted your life, and what racism looks like in all its forms.
Second, live your anti-racism. Step in when you see something racist said in public or in private. Challenge racism and tell people when you find something offensive. For the love of God, talk to your racist relative. Intervene when it’s awkward — especially when it’s awkward. This can be uncomfortable territory, but it is necessary work. (Here are some tips for how to do this effectively.)
Unless those who express racist views are challenged, they (and those listening) will assume that their racism is accepted or at least tolerated by everyone. We may not have the power to regulate what crackpot Facebook pages our white relatives and friends can access, but we do have their ear as intimate family members and trusted confidants. Some won’t want to listen. But many will.
This is not incumbent on white anti-racists simply because those at risk of being radicalised are likely to be in the demographics of our friends and family. This is also an act of solidarity. If our words make a difference, racism may not be inflicted on a potential target.
And every time we intervene, a potential victim of racism does not have to do so. A person of colour does not wear the risk of becoming the next victim of doxxing or object of hatred on morning television or mainstream newspapers for daring to have an opinion.
On top of a basic commitment to action at an individual and interpersonal level, it is worth considering organised anti-racist activity. At any one time there are dozens of national and local campaigns taking place aimed at eradicating the causes and consequences of institutional racial injustice. They include action on criminal justice and Aboriginal health, opposing organised racism and highlighting broad structural racism and inequalities. These campaigns are worthy of much greater support than they currently receive. And of course we have an upcoming federal election in which there are openly racist candidates that must not be elected or re-elected.
While taking on all of this, the one thing we must be absolutely conscious of is not allowing our advocacy to drown out the voices of people of colour who are finally starting to be heard in mainstream public debate. In those forums, we should be aiming to amplify their voices, and make our own additional contributions where they are most useful.
Practising anti-racism in this way will involve a certain amount of risk. The far-right hate ‘white traitors’. No one wants to see the same tragic fate as Heather Heyer. But now more than ever, we have an obligation to step up.