On Wednesday night I received a number of curious emails. I received an email from Tracie O’Keefe telling me she intends to sue me for libel, because I wrote that I thought her comments at the Transdestinations forum were racist. The email I received pointed out that O’Keefe herself is non-white, and that therefore, my accusation was particularly offensive. I received an email from my thesis supervisor, who had been sent a copy of the same threat to sue. (Who knows why you would send a thesis supervisor such a thing; it’s not like an employer/employee relationship, where they can fire you for saying the wrong thing in public.) The last email was from someone at Blogsome, requesting me to remove the comment about racism within twelve hours, or my blog would be deleted. They are a small hosting company, the email said, and they can’t afford to be sued for defamation. From this I assume Blogsome was threatened with legal action, as well.
I’ve removed the word ‘racist’ from the post and put ‘offensive’ in its place. Obviously I’d rather that my blog isn’t deleted. But I stand by my original response to what happened. I don’t know anyone present at the Transdestinations Law and Politics panel who wasn’t either fuming, or made really uncomfortable, by O’Keefe’s comments.
Of course, ‘racist’ is a hot button word. People tend to get uptight when you tell them that they’re being racist. Precisely because of that, it often loses its efficacy to communicate anything. Maybe this is one of those times. But then again, why is it defamatory to point out that a person’s actions are questionable in this way? Most people are raised in a culture that reproduces ideologies of racial differentiation. We treat people differently on the basis of their skin colour, or difference from ourselves, as a matter of course. I’ve behaved in a racist manner before; I’ve had racist ‘thoughts’, and so have you, probably. (I mean you specifically, and generally.)
I can say this without offering a specific example from my own life, because before a certain point when I became aware of it, racism was probably intrinsic to the structure of my known universe. I had to become aware of it, and then I had to re-order the way I ‘knew’ just about everything about the world. This is partially because I’m white, and I’d never experienced the violence of racialised thinking personally. But this is not because I’m Anglo. Race and racism work differently in particular contexts, but there is racism everywhere. It’s not a get out of jail free card to claim one is of mixed race. Particularly not in this situation, where we’re talking about a really different distinction: that between indigneous and non-indigenous people. Racism also depends on a hierarchy, and indigenous people are usually at the bottom being picked on by everyone else.
If someone commented that I was being racist, I might take it as an indication that I should interrogate my actions more carefully. I would try not to react as if it were an insult, a mark of shame that needs to be wiped away, or the cause to go to war.
Tracie has commented on the post itself, and I’ve responded to her concerns on the comment thread as well. I hope that I don’t get sued, but I’m not willing to simply back off on this point.