Language, assumptions and spreading untruths

During the week Senator Eric Abetz referred to the United States Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as ‘negro’. In the context of Senator Abetz’s comments I would argue that it was not acceptable and demonstrates that the Senator has not moved with the times.

Unfortunately that wasn’t the only gaffe this week. This morning, in an article meant to respond to the incident, Susan Butler, the editor of The Macquarie Dictionary attempting to explain why it was offensive, talk about the dynamic nature of language, and why it’s understandable that folks make mistakes, made a quite disgusting mistake herself.

The following,

It is fine for wogs to talk about wogs and wogball. Non-wogs need to be careful, although a certain degree of affectionate use is now permitted. If you are a boong, you can refer to another Aborigine as a boong. This is not a derogatory word in Aboriginal English although it is very much a taboo word in Australian English. (my emphasis)

Note the “if you are a boong”. I beg your pardon? I know of no Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person who refers to themselves or others using this term. I cannot for the life of me comprehend where Ms Butler sourced this information from, but from my experience it is a complete untruth.

Perhaps dictionary editing gives one permission to speak in absolutes. Her statement that

Black American was a new beginning. It was an attitude quickly adopted by Indigenous people in Australia who have now refreshed black by spelling it blak.

is also an over-reach. I’ve written before (link coming) about how Blak has become used, but to say that that it has been adopted by all is not the case.

The author demonstrates racism through ignorance. The author makes statements about the language used by Indigenous Australians.

My opinion on the Senator’s original remarks: Wouldn’t it be nice if he and his colleagues would say “Oh bugger. Sorry, I messed up because I didn’t understand the role of language in shaping people’s understand of culture and cultural assumptions. Really sorry. I promise I’ll not say it again”. Would be so much better than “I didn’t mean to be racist”.