Inequality (HLD 105)

5 July 2020

I read something (don’t know where or when, but it stuck in my brain) about a teacher many many decades ago running a little experiment with her students.

Trying to teach them about equality, or lack thereof, she announced that this week the decision had been made that people with blue eyes were superior, and people with brown eyes were not as smart, not as nice etc. Within days there were problems in the playground with bullying related to eye colour, and attitudes amongst her class deteriorated (who my memory tells me were low primary school age, but my memory isn’t always accurate). On day three of the experiment, she turned it around making the brown eyed children the smart kids and the blue eyes kids not so.

The mere thought of being defined by something as out of your control as eye colour seems ridiculous to us, something that would never happen. Obviously eye colour does not affect your intelligence, your morals, your employability, your ability to apply for a bank loan, etc.

Obviously. We aren’t stupid. We know this.

But skin colour? That makes a difference.

Like eye colour, a person has no control over their skin colour. But while we would never judge someone walking past us on their blue eyes, if they had dark skin, that causes many people to think twice. We would not hold a tighter grip on a handbag, for example, on noticing the person in a queue next to you had green eyes.

Being born Caucasian, I’ve never had to deal with the judgement of people based on my skin colour. Height and weight, sure, but not the colour of my skin and its connection to my honesty and trustworthiness. I like to think I am happy to be judged on my deeds – if I’ve broken a law then I deserved to face whatever punishment and scrutiny that comes with it. If I’m bad, feel free to judge me for it. But if I’m not bad, you have no right to make assumptions about me without any evidence of wrongdoing.

Aren’t I lucky?

I’ve read articles by Australian indigenous people, talking about their difficulty in catching public transport, catching taxis, facing overwhelmingly tighter police scrutiny by far than their white counterparts, let alone renting houses or applying for loans. Listening to their stories, I shudder to think that this is 21st century Australia we are talking about, not stories from our dim, distant, and tragically often very dark past.

When we hear of problems in our indigenous communities – unemployment, poor health care, low education levels, broken families, high rates of incarceration – do we assume that these problems are self inflicted? The people who died in custody won’t have died in custody if they didn’t break the law?

I’ve been doing a bit of reading lately, and I’m convinced the way to learn more about what our first Australians are dealing with is to read and listen to their stories. Yes the stories of the past are important, but the stories of their present will tell us how they are being treated by their fellow Australians in our modern educated Australia. 

Absolutely all lives matter – all things being equal. But when a black life doesn’t matter as much as a white life, then we need to educate ourselves better.

Photo by Dids on

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