It was in a Chinese restaurant in Amsterdam, and I was a couple of months into my first backpacking jaunt around continental Europe. That night, dining with a bunch of fellow globetrotters, I spied a cat wending its way between patrons’ legs.
Recognising an opportunity to be hilarious and impress the gorgeous Kiwi girl opposite me, I reached out to said feline as it approached our table. “Here Dim Sim,” I said. (‘Cos Chinese people eat cats, geddit?)
The object of my affection was not impressed, revealing that her grandmother was Chinese and telling me that what I said was offensive to all Chinese people.
I was crushed and not a little mortified. As a white male brought up in a conservative family and educated at a Christian private school there was always a better-than-average chance that I’d end up with a blinkered world view, but a racist? Was making a gag about Chinese food actual, real-life racism and if so, as a racist, would eating Chinese food give me hives?
If I’d been a grown-up, I would have apologised immediately for my poor attempt at humour and offered to buy everyone on the table a drink. Because while we may not be able to prevent ourselves thinking racist stuff (there’s evidence that we’re all a bit racist but – bonus! – it’s not our fault), we do have the power to not say those things – or apologise in the event that we do. An apology might not have been enough to convince the raven-haired maiden that I wasn’t a One Nation voter, but them’s the breaks when you open your mouth a dumb shit comes out.
Sadly, there are no breaks anymore. As our understanding of the world and human nature increases and becomes more nuanced, our ability to view others as anything other than caricatures decreases. Everything is harmful, everything is personal, everything is an attack. Making an observation deemed “racist” automatically makes the observer “a racist”. Nothing is forgiven, no allowances made.
This is no truer than on Twitter, the increasingly irony-free platform where you’re insta-fucked if you’re judged to have transgressed and the condemnation pile-on begins. Satirist par excellence Stephen Colbert discovered this recently when the now infamous “Ching-Chong Ding-Dong” tweet, posted on his show’s official Twitter account, set loose the dogs of outrage. This was the offending post:
Now, I dunno about you, but I find this fucking hilarious. (“Check your privilege, whitey!”, etc.) But that’s because I know that Stephen Colbert is a satirist, The Colbert Report is a comedy show and that this tweet was a reference to a sketch from the show, not some random thought bubble. (Although I suspect I still would have found it funny if I hadn’t known that because OMFG IT’S CLEARLY SATIRE, PEOPLE.)
Others – like, literally thousands of others – disagreed, and the #CancelColbert hashtag became a globally trending topic. Colbert, “they” had decided, must be A RACIST because the tweet was, to any objective observer, clearly racist. No context was applied, no consideration given to the author of the tweet or that author’s history. Offence was sought, and offence was received.
I should note at this time that much has been written to the effect that non-Asians should not be telling Asians what they should and should not be offended by. That’s perhaps fair enough, but in my defence overreacting to inconsequentialities is a phenomenon blind to race, colour and creed. Even white middle-class people do it! Like when Twitter went off on Sunday when, in a Fairfax story, the new Australian Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson appeared to criticise existing racial discrimination laws for preventing non-black people using the word “n***er” (I’ve made an editorial decision not to repeat the word – let’s just leave it at that).
This would, at best, seem like a remarkably inflammatory thing to say. At worst it evinces a terrifying level of ignorance from the man appointed to safeguard the fundamental principles that underpin our behaviour towards each other.
Do I think Tim Wilson is a racist? No. Do I think he’s a massive dickhead who lacks the intellectual capacity for the role to which he’s been appointed? Yes. Do I think that even massive dickheads out of their depth deserve the right to not be called racists until they’ve had a chance to explain themselves? I sure do.
Besides, it isn’t Tim Wilson you should worry about. I have it on good authority that Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane can’t fucking stand caucasians.