Anti-Racism Homework: Why is Everyone so 'Offended?'

Let's talk about a word that gets really misused and misunderstood in dialogues about equality. The word is:


One of the easiest ways to parlay a request for justice into a no-holds-barred comment section whinge-fest, is to describe a group as 'easily offended' or a perpetrator as 'offensive'.

Offensive, as a word, says a whole lot of nothing. What it does connote, is privilege. If you are offended by something, it doesn't actually cause physical or emotional harm so much as it does displease your finer, less-urgent needs such as the need for recognition or friendship.

What a lot of people misunderstand is the difference between what is 'offensive' and what is actually, quantifiably racist, sexist or abusive.

The answer can be found by asking a question: Is this comment or action, systematic? Do I (or the person making the gesture) hold a higher level of historical, hierarchical power than the person on the receiving end?

When something is offensive, it is unpleasant, hurtful and may be gross or cruel behaviour. Where it becomes racist/sexist/abusive, is at the point where the offensive action becomes part of a system of unpleasant, hurtful, gross or cruel behaviour towards a group of people. Racism, sexism and abuse have scientifically, quantifiably measurable results on the groups that they effect. So the weight of an 'offensive' comment or action actually has the force of that system behind it, to harm or even kill a person.

Let me give you an example.

I could call our Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, a bone-headed doofus with a face like a dropped souffle. Offensive? Yes! Hurtful? Yes! Gross and unpleasant? Absolutely.

However, despite the 'offensiveness' of my comment, it does not have any systemic weight behind it. That is, the Prime Minister holds much more power than I do: He is a wealthy, white Christian male and therefore, statistically, in the top 2% of privileged groups in Australian society. He has a full-time security team, he has legal and social support that I don't have; and in effect, a comment like this would not in any way restrict Morrison's access to healthcare, employment, money or safety; nor would it incite others to violence toward him.

So that's an example of something offensive.

I reference now, the people who called Aboriginal sportsman Adam Goodes an 'ape'. Historically, and until very recently, BIPOC in Western countries were medically and legally considered to be 'sub-human', 'flora and fauna' (that is, animals) or 'cattle'. These medical and legal classifications were used to systemically kill, torture, enslave, rape, steal land, humiliate and decimate Indigenous communities, people, languages and practices as well as colonise their native land.

So already, the word 'ape' has huge historical weight. What we also know is that BIPOC (epecially Aboriginals in Australia) suffer from police brutality, reduced access to quality education, price-gouged food, poorer healthcare, little to no mental health support or reparations made for two full centuries of trauma. So not only has that word 'ape' been used as a weapon for over two centuries, it had the power to strip an Indigenous person of their social support, their home, their family or even their life. The systems in place that equated Aboriginals with 'apes' were the ones that murdered and displaced them. The football fans that called Goodes this slur are among those whose money goes into funding the game of football: so, by dint of being Anglo-Australian and ticketholders, they hold power and influence over Goodes livelihood, along with the historical and ongoing trauma of the colonial Australian legal and medical systems I've described.

In more complex social hierarchy, the 'face' of the 'Ape incident' was shown to be a young white female, who - while no doubt having learned the phrase from her parents - historically, takes precedence in social hierarchies over black males. For more information we can look at the case of teenager Emmett Till and others in the USA, who were brutally lynched on false testimony of white women. Studies in the US, UK and Australia show that in perceived social hierarchies, white men occupy the top role and power positions, while black women - followed by black men - occupy the bottom. So in public opinion, the words and privilege of this white female child are seen to be more valuable than of the Aboriginal man, adding even more weight and systemic cruelty to the slur, along with putting Goodes at risk of losing his income and danger of incurring violence if he were in any way to respond.

That isn't merely 'offensive', it's racist, abusive and injust. Because the word 'ape' is part of a centuries old system to kill, starve, harm and abuse Indigenous people.

Can you see the difference?

An easy way to derail conversations about anti-racism, and funnily enough, one employed by racists, is to suggest that survivors of racism are 'feeling offended'.

Likewise, its an easy and dismissive cop-out to apologise “for causing offence” when the person has actually committed harm.

This is important: When you read this, correct them.

When a person or group ask for justice, they are not asking because they are 'offended', or because what was said or done was 'offensive'. When you write about survivors of injustice, don't write 'they were offended', write that injustice occurred against them. If you are in a position of societal privilege (note I said societal privilege, not how privileged you consider yourself to be; it's not a statement on your own personal struggles or a suggestion that your life has been easy), then understand that your words have more weight and multiple systemic powers against people at the other end of the privilege spectrum

In short: Offensiveness is just you, on your own, being a dickhead. Injustice is when a whole system is behind you, enabling you to cause harm to life and livelihood.

Recent Posts

See All

I'm seeing this a lot, so just quickly: The term ‘political correctness’, for what it’s worth, is never used with accuracy or as some kind of neutral observation that a person is, say, very adept to t