Sam Kerr Wasn’t Racist — But In The Eyes of the Law, That Might Not Matter

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“Stupid white bastard.” That’s what Sam Kerr, Matildas captain and Chelsea Football Club striker, allegedly called a London police officer during an altercation in January 2023. Now, more than a year later, Kerr has been charged with "racially aggravated harassment" – a crime that, for many, does not fit the interaction that took place.
While it’s been reassuring to see that the charges don’t pass the ‘pub test’ for the majority of people online, it’s frustrating that the whole debacle has dragged us back to the seemingly never-ending discussion of whether ‘reverse racism’ is real.
Can we draw a line in the sand here? It’s not real. But unfortunately, that doesn’t mean Kerr will be able to easily dismiss the charges. 

Reverse racism isn’t real

Racism is not simply discrimination or even having negative beliefs about people of a certain racial or ethnic background. For racism to exist, there must be a power imbalance. As the Australian Human Rights Commission explains: “racism is the process by which systems and policies, actions and attitudes create inequitable opportunities and outcomes for people based on race… It occurs when this prejudice – whether individual or institutional – is accompanied by the power to discriminate against, oppress or limit the rights of others.”
In Australia and Britain, the weight of institutional power sits with white people. Our governments, legal systems, economic systems and yes, policing institutions, have been created to protect the interests of the wealthy elite in mind, which means you’re more likely to face systematic disadvantages within them as someone who is not white, wealthy or a man. 
Lots of white people do face systematic disadvantage at the hands of these institutions everyday – people facing poverty, queer people, people with disabilities, health problems or mental illness, even working class people. But it’s quite simply never because of their race. That’s the key difference.
For reverse racism to exist in countries like Australia and England, Black, Indigenous and people of colour would have control of institutions and be able to wield that power to oppress white people. That’s clearly not the case, which is why claims of ‘reverse racism’ are met with eyerolls and dismissed as a waste of time (and discourse).

Laws don’t account for power imbalances

You may be surprised to learn that the ‘power imbalance’ component of racism is not factored into many racial discrimination laws, including those in Australia and the UK. 
The UK’s Race Relations Act (1968) focuses on discrimination on the grounds of race, and applies to the ‘unfavourable’ treatment of a person from any racial or ethnic background. There is no language within the Act that requires the complainant to be from a minority or marginalised race, nor that the defendant comes from a place of racial privilege. 
The same goes for Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act (1975). While it is more explicit than the U.K. laws in prohibiting (and attempting to define) racially charged hate speech, it does not outline who qualifies as a victim.
Should the legislation include questions of power? Possibly. But right now they don’t, which leaves the decision about which complaints are worth pursuing up to police, lawyers and the courts.

Is being rude illegal?

Interestingly, even though Kerr was charged with a racially aggravated offence, she was not charged under the Race Relations Act. Instead, police are claiming she broke the law under the UK’s Public Order Act (1986) by using “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour” that intended to cause the officer distress. 
And that’s where it could get tricky for the sporting star. Because while calling a cop “white bastard” is not reverse racism, it is an insult. It’s not a nice thing to say. Kerr is not denying that she said a mean thing to a cop, but her defence argument is that the insult does not constitute abuse or harassment.
Taking ‘white’ out of the statement raises more questions than answers. If she’d called the cop a “stupid bastard” – still pretty rude – would she be charged? Would this argument over a taxi fare still constitute aggravated harassment without the element of race? I find it hard to believe that police officers in Australia and the UK don’t hear mean or insulting comments flung their way pretty regularly.
Could any person who uses, for example, that very Aussie insult ‘bloody idiot’ in a confrontation with a police officer, also face charges for using insulting words? Yes, according to these laws. 
Of course, race and power cannot be ignored in this incident. Kerr is a brown, masc-presenting lesbian woman. If she was white, would the officer have felt threatened by her insult? If she was femme, would he have felt harassed? I find these alternatives hard to believe. 
In fact, could viewing Kerr as threatening could be an example of the officer’s own racism and homophobia? These are well-documented, longstanding issues within the British (and Australian) police. 
After police officer Wayne Couzens was convicted of raping and murdering Sarah Everard in 2021, an independent review by Baroness Louise Casey found the Metropolitan Police was “institutionally racist, misogynist and homophobic” — it specifically called out a “deep-seated homophobia” throughout the entire organisation. Female, Black and gay officers within the force spoke of being scared of their own organisation and how it wields its power against anyone with marginalised identities. In early January, head of Britain’s National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) Gavin Stephens also admitted the force is racist, and perpetuates “discrimination in policing operated at an ‘institutional level’.”
Surely these are much bigger problems that police must address before worrying about whether a gay woman of colour is being too mean. 
Did Kerr say something rude? Absolutely. Was it ‘reverse racism’? No. But the decision to charge her for such a minor infringement shows just how aggressively institutional power can be weaponised against you on nothing more than a whim. 
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