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Sticks and stones... Racial slurs or free speech?

By Stephen Hagan - posted Tuesday, 1 March 2005

RMIT and the University of Melbourne recently conducted a year long research into free speech. The authors of the 49-page report Love Thy Neighbours have called for innovative educational programs to “challenge this group” after finding nearly half the adolescent and young adult males commonly cited their right to freedom of speech in defence of expressing their intolerance.

Co-author Rivka Witenberg, a psychologist and academic reported in The Age, said those who cited freedom of speech regarded it as a “queen” of rights, not to be subordinated to others. She said she opposed censorship. She believed in the need to encourage “a logical reasonable understanding that freedom of speech needs to have some moral limits to it”.

Dr Witenberg said Australia's education system might be credited with a higher level of tolerance among young Australians than she had found in studies in Israel and the Ukraine. She said free speech had been raised in the other studies, but the extent to which it was cited in the Australian study “came completely out of the blue”.


The report, soon to be released by the Australian Multicultural Foundation, and based on findings from 374 students from schools, universities and TAFEs in Victoria, says boys aged 15 and 16 were those least accepting of "differences". Obviously this academic is not Indigenous or of dark complexion, because if she was she’d know what it was like to be humiliated, insulted and demeaned at the hands of cowardly non-Indigenous people in gangs or an intimidating bully, as he or she dishes out their vitriol in the playground, on the bus, at a nightclub or at the weekend footy.

Try telling parents of the victims of racial vilification that they and their child should turn the other cheek as their circumstances can only get better. Try telling an Indigenous spouse in an intolerant relationship that the racial abuse (physical or verbal) from their partner and his or her family will eventually improve. Try telling Indigenous employees who are subjected to daily overt and covert forms of work place racial taunts that their future will take a turn for the better - just hang in there and don’t rock the boat.

Race hate offenses are no longer exclusively packaged as physical assaults but are there for the target group to see in the form of graffitti on public and private property, on SMS messages, voice mail, email, answering machines, notes deposited in school lockers or text books, on toilet walls and a multitude of other innovative places cowardly perpetrators find to display their depravity.

The racial slur boong, coon, abo, gin are words I’ve campaigned against for many years in the court room and through public forums including the media. The slur that I believe that sits at the top of the tree universally is the highly offensive word “nigger”. There are many theories as to the origin of the odious word “nigger” but one thing is certain is that it was firmly entrenched in Australia as a degenerative nickname in the early 1800s. Today it remains a principal symbol of white racism regardless of who is using it. The African American Registry refers to the term as:

Historically, nigger defined, limited, made fun of, and ridiculed Blacks. It was a term of exclusion, a verbal reason for discrimination. Whether used as a noun, verb, or adjective, it strengthened the stereotype of the lazy, stupid, dirty, worthless nobody. No other American surname carries as much purposeful cruelty.

Australia’s renowned historian Henry Reynolds 2001 publication The question of genocide in Australia’s history - An Indelible Stain? provides an instance of the derogatory manner in which a high ranking government official, Archibald Meston (1851-1924),made use of "nigger" in his vernacular in an address to Queensland’s parliament:


… those who know the nigger best feel most the impossibility of doing much to ameliorate his condition or protract the existence of his race. This callousness as a rule arises from no lack of sympathy with the blacks, but from a firm conviction that their stage of civilization is too many hundred perhaps thousand years behind our own to allow their race to thrive side by side with ours.

On the other hand academic Rosalind Kidd’s 1997 book The Way We Civilise provides a look (a rather flimsy one at that) at a compassionate oratory on the use of the offending word:

1913. A Kuranda businessmen lobbied against any removal of local Aborigines, declaring them to be a “wonderful little tribe of niggers … a strictly moral tribe pure blood and on a fair increase”.

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About the Author

Stephen Hagan is Editor of the National Indigenous Times, award winning author, film maker and 2006 NAIDOC Person of the Year.

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