Socrates explains racism

Socrates is enjoying some mid-week beers with a few friends. As a keen follower of the footy with an interest in ethics, Socrates has some thoughts on the exchange between indigenous footballer Adam Goodes and a thirteen year-old football fan. Although a number of weeks have passed, some people present feel they have not yet heard a satisfying exposition of the incident. One person in particular still has a few questions.

Jamie: So why is it racist to call him an ape? I have a large nose and i’ve been called a Toucan; how is that any different?

Socrates: There are two reasons. First is the meaning of the slur and the second is the context surrounding its use. Apes are closely related to humans but commonly thought of as less intelligent, more primitive, and lower down the evolutionary chain. To call someone an ape is to call them animalistic and less than human.

Jamie: Quite so. And the same doesn’t hold for calling someone a toucan?

Socrates: That would certainly be an insult based on the meaning of the word but it would not be racist because it is not based on a trait associated with race, nor is it implying a person is sub-human.

Jamie: Ok.

Socrates: Furthermore, this name-calling occurred in a context in which the term ‘ape’ has been used, because of this meaning, to denigrate and oppress indigenous and black people. This includes being used as a justification, or the shorthand for the justification, for treating indigenous people as less than human and therefore not deserving of equal rights or treatment.

Jamie: Has it?

Socrates: Aboriginal people only received the right to vote in all states of Australia in 1962 and were not counted in the census until 1967. Up until 1970 the children of many Indigenous Australians were forcibly taken from their parents in order to “protect them”. The attitude behind these actions is that Aboriginal people and their culture are less civilised, they should not be treated equally, or they need the guidance of white Australia to prosper. More broadly, the same beliefs supported slavery and segregation in the United States. Referring to an indigenous or black person as an ape is a neat way to summarise this attitude.

Even today, the Northern Territory intervention has been criticised as infringing on the autonomy of indigenous Australians in a way that would not happen to a majority non-indigenous community. Indigenous Australians have lower life expectancies, by approximately one decade, and lower rates of graduation from all types of educational institutions. The unemployment rate for Indigenous Australians is higher, average income is lower, and health outcomes are more likely to be poor.

This term was used in a context of historical and current inequality that resulted from the belief of previous generations, and perhaps the occasional person today, that indigenous people are less human than non-indigenous Australians.

Jamie: But this girl probably wouldn’t have known all of this. When she used the term ‘ape’, she wasn’t trying to refer to that history. She probably didn’t even realise it was racist.

Socrates: Whether or not the girl understood the term to be racist, used it with that meaning in mind, or held racist beliefs, consciously or unconsciously, she can’t escape the context her words are said in. The context still exists and others will interpret her words and actions light of it.

Jamie: But if I say something, isn’t the meaning I want my words to have the one that counts?

Socrates: Communication is an interpersonal activity, not a private one. Part of communicating successfully is responding to the meaning others will automatically assign to the words you use. The racist associations particular words have are inescapable facts about the world we live in. You can’t pull out a gun in a cinema and then get mad when people start running, even if you had no intention of doing any harm with it. Regardless of intent, the slur will be experienced by the target and by the audience as racist.

Jamie: How can that be the context of the word ‘ape’ if I’m not aware of it? Or if the girl wasn’t aware of it? Why does this still apply to my actions?

Socrates: Racism is not always very visible in society if you’re not the one experiencing it yourself. Aside from our personal experiences, we learn about the world through the dominant culture. The people who control the production of our media, our politicians, visible business leaders, and other powerful people in our society have an oversized contribution to the narrative we’re taught about our society. These people are also overwhelmingly non-indigenous. The story they tell about what kind of country we live in is one that reflects their experiences. Those experiences rarely include being the target of racial slurs or discrimination.

Jamie: Makes sense.

Socrates: People from similar backgrounds will have their own experience reflected back at them and thus confirmed as normal. Nothing seems out of place about the absence of racist experiences – that’s just the world we live in. Racism in this version of the world is hidden.

Jamie: So, it’s like they’re living in an ideal version of the world without racism and other people are living in a non-ideal world in which racism does exist, and the non-ideal world is invisible to people in the ideal world.

Socrates: Exactly. This invisibility is why people who claim that talking about race or having an Indigenous AFL round is ‘divisive racial politics’ are making a fundamental error. Such statements fail to recognise that the world is already divided. The divisions are simply invisible to many people who don’t experience racism themselves. Furthermore, the historical context is hidden as a result of racial inequality.

Jamie: So if there was no history of oppression by calling black people apes, if everyone of all races really was equal and had always been, calling a black person an ape wouldn’t be racist?

Socrates: In an ideal world with no racial inequalities and no history of oppression, it would be the same as calling someone a toucan.

Jamie: Are they really that different, though? Surely there aren’t that many racist people out there. It can’t happen that often and still be invisible.

Socrates: Part of the difference is that in the ideal version of our world, you might only hear someone say something racist once or twice. That may also be the only racist thing that person will ever say. For a person who experiences racism, though, that one-off comment may be just another to add to a lifetime’s experience of slurs and prejudice.

Jamie: That seems a little extreme. It’s not like a person will be called racist names every day of their lives. Isn’t that an overreaction?

Socrates: This is an important point. Racist acts differ from many other acts directed at individuals in that the insult is based on a group trait – race. Therefore, it also applies to every person of that race. It wasn’t only Adam Goodes that was called an ape. That girl, knowingly or unknowingly, was implying that all indigenous people, perhaps all black people, were apes. Many other people, not just Goodes, felt the sting of that slur.

Jamie: If this context is hidden, though, and I don’t experience it, how am I supposed to know what I should and shouldn’t say?

Socrates: Once you do become aware of it – for example, a particular slur is criticised in the news – you can listen to the criticism and learn form it. You can ask questions and have discussions, like we have today. Be aware, though, that others might have the expertise on this topic that only a lifetime’s experience can bring. This is something many of us lack.

Jamie: Of course.

Socrates: It’s also important to keep in mind that delegitimizing discussion of race because it’s divisive, overly politically correct, or oversensitive effectively, even if not intentionally, can end debate and restrict minorities’ speech, adding to their marginalisation.

Jamie: And keeps the non-ideal world that racism exists in out of the public imagination.

Socrates: Quite so.

Jamie: Enlightened at last!

Maya Lin has an Honours degree in Politics and Philosophy from the University of Melbourne, and a Science degree from the same institution.


  1. Hey, great idea to present the arguments like a discussion! Here’s a related article: A bit depressing, but goes to show why this is still an issue, and so important.

    1. Thanks Hanne! That was a really interesting article. It’s somewhat alarming that the effect for race is larger than SES.

  2. Thanks Hanne! That was a really interesting article. It’s somewhat alarming that the effect for race is larger than SES.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: