Saturday, 2 February 2008

Giving offence

I learnt something about being offensive this week. I occasionally work for some of the Aboriginal housing organisations here in South-East Queensland and as a result I'm on an e-mail list that gets a lot of news from around the Indigenous community. The other day - right after Australia Day or Invasion Day as Indigenous Australians call it - I got an e-mail with this cartoon attached. The cartoon had appeared in our local newspaper on Invasion Day. It depicts the "first property deal, 220 years ago", and the Indigenous auctioneer is saying "... sold for no money to the weird white fella in the funny hat". The person who sent this image added some indignant comments that included the following

"I'm astounded at how eurocentric and deluded this cartoon is in displaying the 'first property deal in Australia'. There was no deal...It outraged me and I shudder to think that many Aussies out there got a little chuckle out of it and kept reading...I hope you can send this out to your network of enlightened people and hopefully they will let the Courier Mail know how offensive, socially irresponsible and essentially evil such printed material is."

I have to admit that my first reaction to this was that the person sending the e-mail had misunderstood the cartoon. It seemed to me to be actually pro-Indigenous, using typical ironic white Australian humour to highlight the injustice of the British land grab. I too would have had a little chuckle and kept reading.

As I thought about it, though, I realised a couple of things. Firstly, the person who sent the e-mail was not a white Australian and therefore might not share that sense of irony (I was being eurocentric!). The second was that since I wasn't one of the people whose land got invaded, it didn't really matter what I thought. An Indigenous person was clearly offended by the cartoon, and I'm assuming she wasn't alone since the list moderator sent the message on.

This made me think about the difference between being accidentially offensive, and being deliberately so. In this case there is no doubt that the cartoon is offensive since Indigenous people were offended. Whether the cartoonist meant to give offence is another matter. I doubt that he did. He just didn't know enough about Indigenous culture to know what would give offence. Neither did I.

It reminded me of a quote from "Murder in the Collective" by Barbara Wilson. One of the characters says, "...you worry about being called racist as if it were syphilis or something. Like you were accused of having some dread, disfiguring, incurable disease. But I think it's more like telling someone or being told, 'Hey, you've got snot hanging out of your nose.' You say thank you and wipe it off. Though that doesn't mean the snot's not going to ever drip again."

So, I've just wiped the snot from my nose and I hope the Courier-Mail cartoonist can wipe his too.

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