Racism, Geraldton, 18c and Freedom of Speech

Part 1. Childhood. 

1992. Year 6. Waggrakine Primary School. I had moved from Perth to Geraldton for a term to live with my Dad. The pressure on an 11 year old to choose which of his divorced parents he loves more is pretty fucked up. But others had it worse I guess. 

I hated having to make friends every time I moved school... which was a lot. My mother was as nomadic as they come. She loved moving, it seemed. It was more of a "life sucks at the moment and clearly the only way to fix it is to move house and change schools" kind of thing actually. But by 11 I was already crushed by it. 

I was fortunate though. I had found a technique for fitting in each time I moved school, a kind of shortcut for making friends. I was tall, and loved basketball. So I'd head to the school's basketball courts and see what happened. 

Sport has a funny way of levelling everything. No-one gives a crap if you're the new kid, if you're white, black, or some kind of mixture. Can you play ball? That's all that matters. And if you're half decent, by the end of lunch time you've made 8 or more friends and the other boys trust you. 

So it was at Waggrakine Primary. Within a day or two I was playing with the other kids and holding my own on the court. 

And I made a friend.

Alfred Farrell. I'll never forget him. He was a little Aboriginal kid. He was fast and a great basketball player. And he was kind to me. 

Not with a "tolerate the new kid" type of kind. But with a "I want to be your friend" kindness. 

Despite having some Aboriginal blood myself, my skin is Point Moore lighthouse... either very white or very red/sunburnt. So skin colour was not the thing that connected myself with Alfred. What bonded us was his kindness and my loneliness.

His house was directly across the road from mine. We hung out all the time. We played heaps of basketball after school, and caught up on weekends. 

At the end of the school term I was faced with the choice of returning to Perth or staying in Geraldton and living with my Dad and step family. I chose to return to Perth to be with my mother and brothers. 

The day I was to leave, Alfred came across the street and handed me a Hallmark card. 

I'll never forget that card. He was thanking me for my friendship. 

It shocked me so hard I think I cried. He had written how he was going to miss me. It ended with:

love, Alfred.

I hadn't realised he was actually going to miss me, and my friendship had meant something to him. 

I sat in my Dad's carpet shop waiting for my bus to Perth, and decided I would get Alfred a card too. It felt reactionary though, a bit "you got me one so I get you one too" kinda thing. But I was just so blown away by his card I didn't know what else to do. 

I got on the bus. 

And I never spoke to Alfred again. 

About every 6 months or so since that time, I have thought of Alfred. 

To me, he's my symbol of why racism is so stupid. We were just two boys, a very black kid, and a very white kid, hanging out. 

I was going through perhaps the roughest time in my childhood, and he had chosen to care and be my friend when I needed a friend more than anything in the world. To us at the time, there was no "race narrative" running through our minds. In fact, to me he wasn't black. He was Alfred, my friend. I wasn't white. I was just Jason.

It was only later as I would start reading the news, would my conscience become infected with society's need to categorise everyone. 

I'm blessed today to live next to wonderful Aboriginal neighbours. As I watch my boys and their boys play with each other in the street, oblivious to the fact that there's so much racial angst in the world, my heart is encouraged. 

Part 2. Freedom of Speech. 

Chances are you've seen a lot of articles recently about the RACIAL DISCRIMINATION ACT, and the changes proposed to it. I've noticed rarely do the articles include the wording of the actual law. 

The section of interest is not very long. Please take a moment to read it:


Offensive behaviour because of race, colour or national or ethnic origin

(1)  It is unlawful for a person to do an act, otherwise than in private, if: 

(a)  the act is reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people; and 

(b)  the act is done because of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin of the other person or of some or all of the people in the group. 

You read that correctly.  

In our law, simply OFFENDING someone with anything to do with race, colour or ethnicity could be construed as unlawful. According to how this law is written, it doesn't matter what the intent of the offender was... just if someone was offended. 

For example, that controversial Bill Leak cartoon. 

In August 2016, on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children's Day, a Leak cartoon in The Australian depicted an Aboriginal policeman holding a teenage male and telling the youth's father that he needed to teach his son about personal responsibility. The father, with a can of beer in hand, replies "Yeah, righto, What's his name then?". - Wikipedia. 

These laws were used against Leak. It didn't matter that the message he meant was "Aboriginal people need to take accountability for the behaviour of their own children," a sentiment echoed by much of the community and Police. 

Personally, even though I got the point the cartoon was trying to make, I saw how it could have made any Aboriginal person feel degraded. Cartoonists say things with cartoons. I don't have a suggestion for a better one Leak could have done to make the same point. But all the same, I'm not surprised there was offence taken. 

So, after receiving a complaint, the Australian Human Rights Commission pursued Mr Leak and The Australian. 

After much hullabaloo, and receiving another 2 complaints, the complaints were dropped and nothing happened, other than cause a lot of hassle for Leak and his employer. You can read a lot more about the cases online. 

Another case that came about because of 18c, was the QUT (Queensland University of Technology) case. 

What was the case about?

From "The Conversation"

On May 28, 2013, (Alex) Wood and two other students were using a QUT computer lab when (Cindy) Prior asked them whether they were indigenous. They replied they weren’t. Prior then asked them to leave.

Later that day, on the “QUT Stalkerspace” Facebook page, Wood posted:

Just got kicked out of the unsigned Indigenous computer room. QUT stopping segregation with segregation…?

Many people commented. Powell posted:

I wonder where the white supremacist computer lab is….

These kids were shocked that they got kicked off computers because they were white. They made their point via a post, and a snarky joke. And they ended up in court.

The Conversation article goes on to tell how that case went to "Federal Circuit Court against QUT, certain QUT employees, and a number of QUT students including Wood, Thwaites and Powell. Prior’s claim was for A$247,570.52. Prior alleged that the students had breached 18C. She also alleged that QUT and its employees had breached section 9 of the RDA."

That's right. The person who took these kids who complained about the treatment they received on Facebook were asked to pay a quarter of a million dollars to Cindy Prior to compensate her for how "physically sick and abandoned" she felt.  

How we can live in a world where we can't even have a conversation about whether white kids should be kicked off computers because they're white, is absurd. They clearly felt like they were the ones being discriminated against. And for saying it, they faced a hell of a ride. 

Ultimately the case failed in court, but the point is, these people were able to be dragged through the courts, vilified in the media, and had their lives turned upside down because they published their opinion, and someone was "offended".

The kids that took the case all the way to court had to come up with copious legal fees.

And the kids that couldn't afford it, actually SETTLED with Cindy Prior for $5000. 

I know, right. Mind blowing.

This woman getting bulk coin for what everyone now agrees was a ridiculous law suit, only encourages more of these to happen in the future.  

So now, understandably, some people want to change the poorly worded law.

But the proposed changes are drawing a line in the sand once again throughout the nation. It's like Australia Day all over again.

According to one side of the debate, if you support the changes you're a racist. 

Freedom of Speech

I understand the power of words. I use them for a living. So I support robust laws that shut down hate groups. 

And I also support effective measures to improve the welfare of our Aboriginal brothers and sisters. I have family in the Kimberly. If you think it's rough in Gero, take a trip up north. Australia still has a lot of progress to make. 

But we can't find real solutions to our problems if we're all silenced in to not offending anyone. 

That's, in part, why I completely support freedom of speech laws also. 

And the way the law reads at the moment, it's scary to do anything online or in print that even mentions specific races. 

The law as it stands is not breeding reconciliation. It's breeding resentment from those who feel silenced. 

They're staying silent, sure. Congratulations, you're shutting them up with a stupid law. 

But I see what they say outside of the public eye. They're not happy.

They're not racist. But many of them carry a certain growing resentment for a system that doesn't want to hear their side of an argument.  

They feel vilified for having an opinion on anything. They've stopped contributing to public debate on how to solve a lot of VERY REAL PROBLEMS. They're closing off and staying in their own communities. They're changing how they vote. And they're leaving the people who need help the most to fend for themselves. 

And the actual racism isn't going away at all. Because it's so easy to stay anonymous online, the true racists can't be prosecuted at all.

I know, because I play whack-a-mole with them on Everything Geraldton. Some people in the community think we allow that type of thing, but you only see the comments we miss. We delete and ban trolls all the time. And I'm pretty sure the accounts we ban are just the same 3 idiots creating new accounts each week. 

Unless you start suing YouTube, Twitter, 4Chan, Reddit and Facebook, you're going to find that we live in a global community now anyway, where 18c doesn't apply.

I hate racism.

I hate it when people won't rent their homes to Aboriginal people. I hate it when a white person is abused at the train station for using an Aboriginal word and has to spend 10 minutes explaining that she's married to an Aboriginal and that's why she speaks that way. I hate it when someone is assaulted for their ethnicity. I hate it when someone is called a white dog while they walk down the street. I know these are real problems. 

But I also know that the vast majority of Australians are not racist in the slightest. 

Most of us love each other, work together, live next to each other... and we get along perfectly. But that never makes the news for some reason. 

Most of us who support changes to section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act abhor racism, we just support freedom of speech and more sensible ways to stop racial discrimination. 

And to be very clear, the proposed changes to the law still make overt racist acts of harassment illegal. All those stories you've read online about people's racist experiences in Australia, supposedly to justify keeping the law the way it is, would actually remain illegal under the proposed changes. 

If you honestly want to engage working class Australians and allow them to contribute to progressing our nation, then they need to know they're not going to have to pay tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees because someone was "offended" by their opinion. 

Sometimes people are harassed because of their race. The law needs to remain robust enough to protect us ALL from this. 

And sometimes people will have opinions that aren't politically correct. But if you scream "racist" and sue them each time they pipe up with an opinion you don't like, guess what. They'll stop trying to help, and they'll stop voting for people trying to help. 

Jason Smith

Jason Smith is the founder of Just Everything. He is also a local volunteer, law student, and home-schools his three kids.