The Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal last week dismissed accusations made by South African school teacher Fiona Dickie that she had been the victim of a campaign of racial discrimination and bullying while teaching at Lynbrook Primary School in 2005. Ms Dickie claimed that the alleged abuse was a key contributor to her suffering a nervous break-down and subsequently developing a chronic adjustment disorder. The case was thrown out however, with the VCAT ruling essentially saying that Ms Dickie had misinterpreted statements made by her supervising teacher, Fran Van Laambert. Ms Dickie had found language used by Ms Van Laambert offensive, but the Tribunal ruled that as there had not been intent to offend, there was no case to answer to.
Van Laambert did not contest that she had told Dickie that she looked like that “that Negro Australian singer Marcia Hines”, but claimed that she meant it as a genuine compliment. Fiona Dickie was offended in the extreme by the use of the word “negro”, and claimed that this was simply one example of racist attitudes and discriminatory behaviour at the school.
Is it plausible that Ms Dickie’s claims of racist bullying were overstated as found by the Tribunal? Certainly. And without knowing all of the facts of the case, it’s not constructive to attempt to make a call as to whether VCAT’s ruling was right or wrong. However, the language used in the ruling and the manner in which it was reported highlights that there remains a dangerous grey area in how we determine what can be construed as discrimination. Between the extremes of violent hate-crimes as an articulation of racism and the embedded equality and acceptance of difference, there is a space where normalised or passive prejudicial speech and action exists.
But even if it is more comfortable to say what occurs in this space is only “a little bit” racist, that to take offence at racially charged jokes is “political correctness gone mad”, the bald fact is, comments made in jest or in ignorance are still discrimination and still part of a corrosive force in our society.
Even ignoring the alleged broader reaching prejudicial behaviour in Ms Dickie’s case, just because racism or indeed any other form of discriminatory behaviour is not intentional or articulated with malicious intent doesn't mean it's not real, not offensive and not in need of redress.
It would be interesting to know whether the Tribunal, being so “shocked” at the importance given to the use of the word “negro” looked at the different implications it may have in South Africa as compared to Australia. Or if there was anyone on the Tribunal who might from personal experience be able to empathise with Ms Dickie in terms of how offensive the word “negro” can be.
In Australia, “negro” is a kind of an anachronism, something that is recognised as not exactly a good word to use, but not as offensive as other racially pejorative terms, particularly those that are made in reference to ethno-cultural groups more visible in Australia. However, since the Civil Rights movement of the 1970s in the US, it is widely recognised as a racial slur. In the on-going fraught social context of post-apartheid South Africa, one can only imagine the connotations its use may have for Ms Dickie.
The Tribunal’s dismissal of how politically charged and offensive the term may have been for the individual in question can be contrasted to the reaction to a similar “off-the-cuff” comment made by Carol Thatcher, daughter of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, while working for BBC1. While off-air, Thatcher reportedly referred to a French tennis player as a “golliwog”. The remarks, reported by colleagues in the studio with her, caused uproar across the UK and precipitated Thatcher’s dismissal from The One Show. Opinion papers in the UK debated how offensive referring to someone as a children’s toy could be. Situating the term in historical, social and political contexts that shaped its creation and connotations, the answer for many people is: very. It is entirely reasonable then that Ms Thatcher’s use of the word “golliwog” was recognised and publically called out as inappropriate.
That there is no sense of Ms Van Laambert’s use of the word “negro” being addressed as inappropriate by VCAT is worrying. We can, for argument’s sake, accept that she meant no offence. But using any term that has such strong political and cultural connotations, even in ignorance, is offensive for a wide sector of society, and should have been recognised by the Tribunal. Allowing incidents like this to go under the radar because there are more offensive things that could have been said, or because we are afraid of being labelled as overly sensitive, politically correct wowsers tacitly legitimises the continued, insidious racism that undermines any efforts to promoting inter-cultural harmony in Australia.
Perhaps more worryingly, this case has much wider connotations for how victims of violence - verbal, cultural or physical - are treated in our judicial system. Ms Dickie, described as “emotionally fragile” (hardly surprising given that she’d suffered a nervous breakdown that she claimed discrimination at the school had greatly contributed to) is painted by the VCAT ruling as to blame for her own distress because she didn’t know a compliment. In a similar way that I don’t know how to take a compliment when a random guy passing by yells a lewd comment. Or a victim of sexual assault doesn’t understand that her assailant just finds her very attractive.
Rather than blaming the victim, we should place much greater scrutiny on changing the culture of violence in Australia that maintains below superficial lip-service to equality.
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