Why checking your privilege on race is more than just a ‘woke’ mantra

Genevieve Jacobs 7 June 2021 10
Elizabeth Lee

ACT Liberals leader Elizabeth Lee has called out the pain of being subjected to racism. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

It was a strange phone call from the moment he answered.

I was following up a complaint about an article. The man claimed it had damaged him and took Region Media’s journalist to task aggressively.

“Ah, Ms Jacobs,” said the voice on the other end of the phone. Someone I’d never met or spoken with.

“Let me start by telling you that I’m a keen student of the Old Testament.”

I was baffled and told him so. Could we discuss the article?

“How would you like it if I painted a Star of David on your property?” he asked. The penny was starting to drop. I asked several times if we could return to the article and offered to respond to his concerns. References to the Star of David continued.

There was more about lawyers and defamation, his power and influence and the care we should take when publishing. I said he should, by all means, exercise his right to legal advice, but that I knew the law well and stood by the story and my staff member.

“Then I have nothing more to say to you,” he replied, his voice slowing and thickening, “because you are a Jew.” Then he hung up.

And there it was, the ugly, weird, hiss of overt, hate-filled anti-Semitism.

Despite my surname, I am not, in fact, Jewish, so this particular barb flew well wide of its intended mark. But the meaning was clear.

As a journalist and broadcaster, I’m used to people’s anger about something I’ve said or written and that criticism being expressed, sometimes, as personal abuse.

I take it on the chin, part of the job. I block abusive callers, consign their emails to the spam filter and move on (although I’ve made a couple of police reports regarding particularly egregious characters).

But as a sixth-generation Anglo-Celtic Australian, a middle class, educated, heterosexual woman, I’m rarely, if ever subjected to instant, visceral hatred founded on nothing more than a presumption about my family background.

ACT Liberal leader Elizabeth Lee made a powerful and important adjournment debate speech about racism and hatred last week in the Legislative Assembly.

As the first Asian-Australian to lead a major political party, the former lawyer and academic has been courageous in standing up to bullying. She made headlines when she identified herself as a victim of alleged sexual harassment by former High Court judge Dyson Heydon.


READ ALSO: Elizabeth Lee nominated for emerging political leader award


Part of her appeal to voters is, surely, her cheerful and supportive Korean family. I have warm memories of her father positively beaming with pride while watching a live ABC radio interview we did during the 2016 election campaign.

But racism, Ms Lee said last week, “shatters your entire world; it brings into question your belief in humanity; it hurts deeply – so deeply – to know that you are, in some ways, thoroughly rejected by your fellow human beings”.

She spoke about dusting herself off and moving on, sharing the hurt with other Asian Australians and clinging to the belief that the haters are in the minority.

“But it does matter. Because we matter,” she said.

Last week, a room full of predominantly Indian and Pakistani guests at a Forum Australia dinner spoke about their fears that Chinese people were being targeted over COVID-19 in a way that felt horribly familiar to them.

Earlier this year, a video of local teenagers spewing racist abuse at a Dickson cafe owner went viral. The owner showed great dignity and was overwhelmed with support from the Canberra community.


READ ALSO: “It is not just his fault”: Dickson cafe owner calls for multicultural education after racist abuse


The phrase “check your privilege” has been oft-repeated and oft-dismissed as a “woke” mantra that infers Anglo-Celtic Australians should feel guilt or shame about ourselves.

Perhaps, instead, it could alert us all to the need to shut up and listen, to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes before dismissing them as whingers who need to drink a cup of concrete and harden up.

Elizabeth Lee is right that in our community, racism and hatred is probably less pervasive than elsewhere. But hating other people because of their skin colour or religious faith is such an easy way to blame someone for whatever is wrong in your world.

Bizarrely, my caller has done me a favour. This minor incident illuminated what it’s like to be on the receiving end of pointless prejudice, a straw in the wind that gave me some sense of how the storm might feel.

Because if we want everyone to live together in peace, understanding racism does matter. In a fair and just society, we all matter.

If you experience violence, abuse or other criminal behaviour, you can report it to the ACT Human Rights Commission on 6205 2222.

If you need support, you can call Lifeline’s 24-hour crisis support line on 13 11 14.


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10 Responses to Why checking your privilege on race is more than just a ‘woke’ mantra
Scott Turner Scott Turner 4:41 pm 29 Jun 21

The only hope the liberals had was to run against Woke culture. In 5 minutes this new leader destroyed any chance of winning an election. She has demonstrated that she believes in identity politics and if you believe in that, you will be voting labor or greens, not liberal / national party.

russianafroman russianafroman 1:49 pm 10 Jun 21

No offense but I can’t see this person receiving even 20% of the vote next election

    Scott Turner Scott Turner 4:48 pm 29 Jun 21

    She will be lucky to get 20% if people listen to her. She just alienated 50% of the electorate that is sick of divisiveness of identity politics.

Ol L Ol L 12:35 pm 10 Jun 21

I’m noticeably aboriginal and have never had any racism in Canberra. I believe if you want to be racially targeted you likely need to go looking for it

John Moulis John Moulis 6:04 am 10 Jun 21

A few years ago before I was kicked off Twitter, the term “woke” was trending and I couldn’t understand it. I didn’t know what it referred to, the grammar and syntax was wrong and it just didn’t sound right. I asked what it meant.

Someone replied saying that the word originated in African-American communities in the US and had been appropriated by conservatives to disparage any views which didn’t align with their own rather narrowminded view of the world and attitudes in general. It was a good description.

I suggest that whenever you see or hear that word you keep that description in mind.

franky22 franky22 6:08 pm 09 Jun 21

My father grew up in an orphanage during the depression, had no chance of an education, was conscripted into the army, was a prisoner of war then did crappy low paid manual labour until he retired.
He really appreciated his white privilege.

Bernard Bernard 1:37 pm 09 Jun 21

To start, I don’t disagree with the premise of the article, however, the term itself was/is intended to be offensive and has been perceived as ‘woke’ people, or culture, mocking the general public (usually people who are older) and demonstrating how “enlightened” they are by comparison to the “plebs”.

“Check your privilege” is still said, in the manner of “pull your head in” or “who do you think you are?” Unsurprisingly people react badly to that as they would to being told to feel guilty and shamed by how their ancestors acted. More to the point they may feel, rightly or wrongly, that the person “checking their privilege” isn’t really in an appropriate position to do so whether due to their age, apparent life experience/knowledge or just the fact that they know literally nothing about the person they are “checking”…

“Because if we want everyone to live together in peace, understanding racism does matter. In a fair and just society, we all matter.” Hear hear, I agree with this! Let’s just ask people to treat others as they would want to be treated as opposed to “checking their privilege”.

Judith White Judith White 1:23 pm 09 Jun 21

People shouldn't jump to conclusions about your name. I have had racist comments and criticisms specifically because my name is "White" and yet my own family, not my husband's, have ancestry in 7 countries, including Aboriginal Australia. It's pretty disgusting to be criticized and judged about being White.........(or any other colour!)

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