I have long admired Jessica Rowe. When she spoke openly and honestly about her own mental illness and experience with postnatal depression, she broke the mould. She was a high profile successful woman willing to shine a light on an issue long shrouded in secrecy and shame and stigma by lifting the lid on her battles. Mental illness is now, fortunately, far less taboo than it was back then. There’s no understating the significance of what she did.
I have met Jessica on a few occasions and can confirm that in real life she radiates the very same warmth and sparkle she does on TV. I know I am not alone in considering Jessica a kind, big-hearted woman because I was not alone on Wednesday in feeling shock and dismay upon seeing that she had shared a podcast interview with Senator Pauline Hanson.
My heart sank when I saw it. The comments beneath the post confirmed my reaction wasn’t unique. Hundreds of followers politely expressed their disappointment and concerns.
Nakkiah Lui got right to the point with a tweet that quickly racked up likes by the thousands.
“Jess, I have a lot of respect for you but this is not it. You’re platforming a racist. You’re celebrating someone who has made a career/$$$ from degrading, disrespecting and dehumanising many people. If you’re not interrogating them, you’re validating those racist opinions.”
Since then, Jessica Rowe has deleted the podcast and publicly acknowledged that taking it down was the “start of a bigger conversation” for her and “those who this topic directly affects”.
In the face of a mistake that has caused harm, a genuine acknowledgement and recognition that harm has been caused and an attempt, in both words and actions, to make amends is progress. It’s not perfect and it doesn’t erase the harm, but it represents a willingness and opportunity to learn and repair.
The resulting hysteria about “cancel culture” that Rowe’s decision to delete the podcast has triggered is perfectly predictable. It wilfully overlooks any scope for repair presumably because that would mean considering the possibility that the public response is not just baseless mischief, but reasonable and valid. If you cast the collective disappointment and anger as cruel, ‘violent’ online bullying, you conveniently sidestep the fact that not every person has the same experiences and opportunities as every other person.
Pauline Hanson is horrified that this constitutes her silencing, censorship and mob-rule. Many senior media commentators and journalists are equally horrified by the public ‘outrage’ and the response. None of that is the point.
The point is “who this topic directly affects” and racism and bigotry don’t affect people equally.
Like both Pauline Hanson and Jessica Rowe I have white skin and I have never experienced racism. The colour of my skin has never made a single moment in any day of my life in Australia more difficult. That is white privilege. I have it. So does Jessica and so does Pauline.
And while there’s nothing to be gained by apologising for the colour of my skin, there’s an awful lot to be gained by recognising the inherent privilege attached. Recognising white privilege means recognising that Pauline Hanson’s brand of bigotry has never made my daily life harder. From that privileged position, entertaining her “different opinions” and “viewpoints” might seem a harmless expedition.
It’s not. Pauline Hanson didn’t invent racism but she has steadfastly promoted it at every opportunity. It has made the lives of Australians who don’t have white skin harder, in big and small ways, every day for decades, in ways that, as a fair-skinned woman, it’s hard to imagine.
Only on Tuesday night my heart crumpled upon reading Tarang Chawla detail yet another instance of unadulterated everyday racism as he went about his life. An older white man pushed into a queue and dismissed Tarang as “just the delivery driver” as they both stood to order food. The assumption was made instantly. The only basis upon which it was made was the colour of Tarang’s skin. And while there’s nothing wrong with being a delivery driver, as Tarang noted, the remark was derogatory. “Just” a delivery driver. Less important. Less good. Less welcome. Less than.
Racism in Australia isn’t hypothetical or intellectual: it’s as deeply ingrained in everyday life as it is in institutions and systems. In myriad ways, day in, day out, racism sends an unambiguous message to anyone in Australia without white skin that they aren’t as enough, as valid, as welcome, as those with white skin.
It is shameful and the damage isn’t hypothetical or intellectual. The gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in life expectancy, health, education, employment and income is the diabolical cost of racism and it remains our national shame.
Senator Pauline Hanson has been permitting, promoting and amplifying bigotry and racism that enables this shameful gap to flourish for decades. She is a Senator, that’s true. But there is no quota for how often and where every elected representative gets airtime.
There are hard-working, effective state and federal politicians who don’t get a fraction of the airtime Pauline Hanson does and no one is saying they’re silenced. They’re just not invited on podcasts and television programs and other platforms like Pauline Hanson is in the first place and it isn’t difficult to deduce why.
It is, of course, Jessica Rowe’s prerogative to invite whomever she likes on her podcast but it is the prerogative of the public to respond to those choices as they like. The public response was swift: by inviting Pauline Hanson on her show Jessica Rowe implicitly endorsed her which is fine if that’s something she’s comfortable with. On reflection Rowe decided she isn’t.
Every platform is a privilege. And every person or organisation with access to a platform has a responsibility to use that privilege wisely. There is a social license at play now that is different to the license media organisations and broadcasters have traditionally enjoyed. People are able to voice their dismay and disappointment publicly, in real time, and collectively have influence.
There are people who argue, vehemently, that this scenario is political correctness gone wrong. It’s a correction, certainly, but it’s not wrong.
Unless and until every cohort of Australians has equal access to power, representation and privilege it is not wrong to point out who has more power, representation and privilege. To point out whose “opinions” are heard more than others and at what cost. It is not wrong for listeners or readers or viewers to seek to redress the power imbalance in the way that occurred here by openly expressing their opinions.
Pauline Hanson has not been silenced. Jessica Rowe is not the victim. And this is not another travesty for free speech.
It’s a correction; a small win for decency. It’s a person with a large public platform being asked to reflect on an issue and adjust. Jessica Rowe doesn’t need to be vilified. She made a mistake that disappointed a lot of people. She listened and decided the people she had disappointed were worth listening to. She deleted the podcast. She has committed to engage in a conversation about why that podcast should never have happened.
Being at the centre of a social media storm is brutal and not something I’d wish upon anyone. But Jessica Rowe wasn’t “called out” for platforming Pauline Hanson because of a predilection for making problems or because she’s a successful woman or because people are mean.
It was called out because racism is a scourge that doesn’t need to be peddled. And because not being racist is not enough. Stopping the scourge means being unequivocally anti-racist. And not because that’s “woke” but because creating a nation in which the colour of a person’s skin doesn’t influence and determine the quality of a person’s life is worth fighting for. Creating a nation in which no child or teenager or adult has to endure the toll Nakkiah Lui describes beneath this Twitter thread is a nation worth fighting for.