Racism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia and disability discrimination are pervasive.

Oct 30, 2020

The absence of women in the boardrooms of companies is evidence of systemic misogyny; the applicant in the wheelchair with the equivalent qualifications rejected because access to the office will be difficult is redolent with systemic disability discrimination; an absence of ‘coloured’ faces on TV screens reflects the conscious and unconscious biases of systemic racism. 

Even as we witnessed (black) George Floyd take his last breath under the knee of a (white) policeman, just as many people were vehemently denying ‘systemic’ racism existed as were passionately alleging its existence. For many, this event was just an isolated incident that could happen to anyone, regardless of race, as they go about their daily lives and intersect with authorities; but for others, it was another example of ‘systemic’ racism.

I am interested in this word: systemic. What does it mean? Do those  people who express no view one way or the other really just see these events as random. “S–t happens!” Do those who loudly pronounce these events as ‘systemic’ just have ‘an axe to grind’ because they identify with the victim? Do some want to focus only on how the victim got himself into this predicament under the knee of a policeman rather than attempt to acknowledge any underlying systemic elements?

When another Indigenous person dies in custody (434 in 30 years) or dies by suicide (four times more likely in 15-24 age group than their white peers) a heartbroken Australian family condemns systemic racism. The vast bulk of Australians register no concern on the streets or at the ballot box and suspect these people are not doing enough to help themselves. “Have a go and you’ll get a go!”

While slavery was widespread in ancient Greece and Rome, and seemingly accepted in the Hebrew Bible, this particular racism of blacks reached its peak with the ‘discovery’ and colonisation of the New World in the 16th Century. It is only 180 years ago that it was made illegal to hold black slaves. But attitudes are not abolished just by legislation. In ensuing years, the system was designed by powerful white men to exclude this section of the human race from political, religious and commercial governance. Racism remains deeply systemic in the sense that attitudes towards colour seem irrevocably stained.

What about “systemic misogyny”? Does that exist, too? Certainly, when Julia Gillard ‘had a go’ she was subjected to an abusive misogyny that has its roots in centuries past in which women were portrayed openly as the weaker sex, not just physically, but intellectually as well. (St) Augustine’s theology of ‘authority and order’ (4th Century) proposed “that women should serve men, and children their parents, because this is just in itself, that the weaker reason should serve the stronger.”

It is not much more than a century ago that women fought for, and won, the right to vote or to get an education, let alone participate in the machinery of government. A gap between the wages of men and women stubbornly continues. The system was designed by powerful white men to exclude this section of humanity from political, religious and commercial governance. Misogyny remains deeply systemic despite the hard-won progress of women’s rights.

In what way is xenophobia systemic? Is Australia’s deteriorating relationship with China in 2020 linked with underlying systemic racism echoing back to the 1850s gold fields and to our (systemic) 1901 White Australia Policy; or is it just our suspicions and fears of the ‘other’?

‘Othering’ happens at many levels in a society. Like racism, the process of othering unites the in-group at the expense of the others because of a perceived difference. In a school yard, the ‘odd’ kid is the ‘other’ and is excluded from the peer group. Migrants who don’t/won’t speak English are the others. Catholics and Protestants have a long history of othering each other.

Pauline Hanson asked the interviewer to “please explain” what xenophobic meant. She has a deep, unexamined xenophobic distrust of anyone who does not fit her systemically contrived view of who has a legitimate place in her world, and who doesn’t (the other). And that view is reasonably widespread. “They take our jobs. They wear culturally different clothes. They’re not Christians.” The system is devised by the dominant culture of nationalism and patriotism to exclude the other. Xenophobia and racism are inextricably linked and deeply systemic.

One could argue that ‘systemic’ homophobia was dealt a death blow by the legislation to allow same-sex marriage in December 2017. But the system still allowed all kinds of exemptions in which ‘religious bodies’ and ‘educational institutions established for ‘religious-purposes’ can discriminate (e.g. to employ or not employ) against people on the basis of certain attributes protected by the Sex Discrimination Act. It remains untested if refusing a particular service (bake a wedding cake) for a homosexual customer is at variance with the Act. It wasn’t until March 2017 that Queensland abolished the Gay Panic Law, which had provided a partial defence for murder following an unwanted homosexual advance. Legal systems can be remedied; but they cannot abolish established cultural or religious beliefs.

People with disabilities have suffered discrimination for thousands of years, routinely excluded from participating in social, educational, employment or sporting activities with their more able peers. In ancient times, the disabled who could not contribute to the tribe were quickly dispensed with. In time, the ‘disabled’ became pitied and protected, cloistered by the system away from community, invisible.

But more recently they and their advocates have fought hard for them to take their place in society at every level to which they can positively contribute. For centuries ‘disability discrimination’ has been systemic. While women represent 50% of the population, their fight for equality was clearly visible. People with a disability might comprise up to 10% of the population and their quest for recognition has been, and continues to be, much more difficult, with entrenched negative attitudes still prevalent.

When racism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia and disability discrimination are systemic within a community it means not only that these beliefs may be, to a lesser or greater extent, enshrined within the Laws of Government or the Codes of Companies or Institutions, but that the attitudes associated with centuries of these discriminatory practices have seeped into the behaviours of individuals, consciously or unconsciously, so as to render them ‘systemic’.

Church Canon Law stating that homosexuals cannot be married in a church is clearly a systemic form of homophobia. The absence of women in the boardrooms of companies, while not the outcome of established company policy, is systemic misogyny at the conscious/unconscious attitudinal level. The applicant in the wheelchair with the equivalent qualifications rejected for no other reason than access to the office will be difficult is redolent with systemic disability discrimination. An absence of ‘coloured’ faces on our TV screens reflects the conscious and unconscious biases of systemic racism. The vitriolic, verbal abuse of a mother in a burqa taking her children shopping shouts systemic xenophobic rejection of the other.

Each of these groups has typically been the butt of jokes, with disparaging terms used for people of colour, for homosexuals, for people of minority ethnic descent, for anyone with a disability of any kind and too keep women in their place. Yes, we need to look deeply within our institutions and within ourselves to deal with systemic othering of all kinds!

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