In the last month or so, the issue of racism has repeatedly popped up in the news. For at least a week, the airwaves and front pages were full of discussion of whether Jade Goody's actions on the British Celebrity Big Brother were racist. Then last week it was revealed that the man so often labelled a racist by subcontinental cricket fans, umpire Darrell Hair, is suing the International Cricket Council and the Pakistan Cricket Board for racial discrimination.
I don't know what went on in the Big Brother house, as I don't watch the show (and not only because I am liable to be shot for even accidentally pressing the "4" button on the remote while it is on), but I gathered that Jade Goody did not treat fellow housemate Shilpa Shetty very well and made remarks referring to her race. At least one talk show asked the question, "Is Jade racist or just a bully?". But why should it matter? Is bullying any worse if it is racist? Alternatively, is it any less bad if there is no racism? Surely bullying is wrong whether it occurs because the victim is of a different background, less skilled at something or because of jealousy.
It is good to speak out against racism, but surely there is something wrong when we imply that similarly bad actions would be ok if committed for other motives. At the same time as Goody was dominating the news, it was reported that a judge in a racial harassment case told the offender "Next time call him a fat bastard and don't say anything about his colour." I'm not sure that calling a doctor a "fat bastard" is really on the same level as saying you want an English one, not a "Paki",* but the incident does highlight the extra importance that is given to anything that can be called racist.
On the topic of racial insults, the Australian advertising watchdog has decided over the summer that the word "pom" is ok, but not "whingeing pom". It is a funny situation, somehow acknowledging that many people use the epithet in a friendly rather than derogatory manner and yet it is clearly a racial term. No doubt the "British People Against Racial Discrimination" who complained have actually at some point been called Poms in circumstances more often associated with other ethnic slurs.
The Hair affair seems quite ironic, in a sense. Several of his controversial actions have been to the detriment of subcontinental cricketers and teams, and they are often blamed on his racism. Now he is trying to turn the tables and say that his removal from umpiring top level cricket after the debacle that was Pakistan's forfeited test at the Oval last year was racist. The event definitely did generate a lot of racist comments especially from Pakistani and Sri Lankan fans. It is also true that Hair seems to have shouldered a bit too much of the blame, when West Indian umpire Billy Doctrove should have been at least nearly as responsible. I would definitely say that Hair has been unfairly treated by the ICC, but the reasons for this definitely aren't simply racial, but to do with Hair's personal history. It is a great pity that race has to come into it. If Hair's treatment was unfair, it is wrong, whether or not it was racial discrimination. Similarly, if his actions as an umpire, undoubtedly courageous, were unfair rather than just misguided, stubborn or even correct, he should take the blame, whether he was racially motivated or not.
The race issue can often be a red herring, and singling out racism as worse than other offences can in my opinion be harmful, but it is worth thinking about why it is singled out. Obviously, racist actions offend a whole group and not just the direct victim, meaning that there are plenty of people eager to support the victim and condemn the perpetrator. However, there is much more to it than that. Racism is targetted because it so common. It is there - people do object to "Paki" doctors, but don't ask for skinny ones. It is also often blatantly unfair. Not only has been behind so many horrible crimes, but it has led to general mistreatment of whole groups of people. We should stand up against any unfairness, and not just unfairness based on race, but racism is so big that stamping it out would make a big dent. On top of that, racism is like a virus, easily bred and spread through whole groups of people in the same way that a whole race will be offended and/or scared by it. For all these reasons, it is right to stand against racism, and try to stamp out even small instances before they grow, but only as one particularly virulent form of wrong.
(*"Paki" in British English is a usually derogatory term to refer to people from the Indian subcontinent, although in Australia it is more likely to be a simple abbreviation of "Pakistani" without any connotations or application to non-Pakistanis. The polite British term is "Asian", which to Australian ears would be more likely suggest East or South-East Asians, except perhaps in the context of cricket.)