Antoinette Lattouf on writing a guide to anti-racism: ‘I was sitting there and sobbing’

·6-min read

When Antoinette Lattouf’s father suggested she pursue hairdressing instead of journalism, he warned people may not like a woman like her. “Especially not one who has so many opinions,” he had said.

In her nonfiction debut, the Australian journalist responds with the benefit of hindsight: “Dammit, dad. Maybe you were right.”

How to Lose Friends and Influence White People was borne of changing times. The Black Lives Matter movement landed on Australian shores in 2020, and Lattouf, co-founder of Media Diversity Australia and former Network 10 reporter, sensed a shift in public awareness and an appetite for change.

“People are looking and listening who had ignored the issue before,” she says. And her book, which plays off Dale Carnegie’s 1936 How To Win Friends and Influence People, capitalises on that.

“Times have changed,” Lattouf says. “Every right has had to be fought for and negotiated.”

Her guide speaks to both white Australians and people of colour, teaching readers to be better advocates and push back against institutionalised racism.

Lattouf parcels up data with her own experience as a daughter of Lebanese refugees. She turns to the expertise of other diverse media thinkers and advocates, such as Benjamin Law and Celeste Liddle. And a deft list of dos and don’ts summarises each chapter. (On how to be a white ally, for instance, “Do … ensure your allyship is not just superficial,” and “Don’t … say ‘I don’t see colour’ – unless, of course, you are clinically colourblind.”)

It’s a searing, witty, meticulously crafted manual to anti-racism, feminism, advocacy, power, relationships and individual responsibility. But the process of writing was not without pain. Personal stories hurt, data was sobering and revisiting memories of her own journey triggered trauma, Lattouf says.

“There were times I was sitting there and sobbing, ugly crying,” she says.

For instance, in chapter eight – Letting go of friends, family and unexpected foes – Lattouf opens up about opposition to her work by people she considered mentors, allies and friends.

In 2020, Media Diversity Australia released its report Who Gets To Tell Australian Stories? It was the first comprehensive dataset to reveal the woeful lack of representation on television news, and Lattouf had expected backlash from divisive commentators or networks analysed in the report. What she didn’t expect was public criticism from people she thought were on side.

It’s easy to block nameless, faceless people online, she says. “But it is hard to be let down by the people you care about.”

In the book she cites data that found Indigenous women are 32 times more likely to be hospitalised because of family violence, and that a person is three times more likely to get a callback for a job application with the name Adam than with the name Mohamed. She points to problems with diverse representation in the media, legislature and government. Australian institutions “fall short when you look and see that all our pillars of power are white”, she says.

“The most damaging racism is structural racism that doesn’t allow non-white people in Australia to fully participate and have safety, access to power and a voice in our democracy.”

Speaking out is scary … At an individual level, as a mother and a woman of colour.

Antoinette Lattouf

Lattouf brings forth a lineup of case studies, from Adam Goodes to Yumi Stynes, to show what happens when non-white people speak out on racism, religion and equality.

The Sydney Swans player was targeted by what Lattouf calls a character assassination by media, after he called out a racist remark from the crowd at a game in the AFL’s 2013 Indigenous round. That prompted an instant plummet in the player’s popularity, and ended in Goodes walking away from his career two years later. An Anzac Day Facebook post in 2017 ultimately led to Sudanese Australian writer Yassmin Abdel-Magied losing her media job and leaving the country after copping torrents of abuse. Most recently, the discovery of ABC journalist Fauziah Ibrahim’s anti-Labor Twitter “shit-lists” saw her vanish off TV screens.

Lattouf says that when a white media commentator makes a controversial comment – such as Prue MacSween saying on 2GB that “I would have been tempted to run [Abdel-Magied] over”, or Alan Jones’s many “offensive highlights” – they are free from front-page critiques, offensive cartoons and exile.

But for people of colour, “the bandwidth to fail is much smaller … lives and careers can be ruined,” she says.

Lattouf says precedent “definitely has a silencing affect” that leaves people asking: “Why would I want to try and stick my neck out?”

“Speaking out is scary … At an individual level, as a mother and a woman of colour.”

She reflects on the fallout following Abdel-Magied’s Facebook post. “I feel so bad I never stood up for her,” she says. “I was scared that what happened to her would happen to me, and I didn’t have enough power to really change anything.”

One survival mechanism for Lattouf has been “banding together” with other people of colour in media and activism, including Mariam Veiszadeh and Stynes.

Thanks to practical advice she has picked up from them, Lattouf avoids revealing her location on social media, protects her children’s identity from the public and makes mental health a priority. (“Do … remember that exposure to racism can have long-term mental health impacts. Don’t … worry about people who are strongly opposed, as they will do little more than wear you down.”)

“I guess for me I had to really practise what I preach,” Lattouf says. That also meant shining a “pretty scrutinising light” on communities that, on the surface, seem allied or subject to racism themselves.

Related: Racism in Australia is about the structures that ensure non-white people don’t get a fair go | Antoinette Lattouf

In her own Arabic-speaking community – who “got a taste of what it was like to be unfairly treated” – Lattouf notices a lateral anti-blackness. She calls it being “off white”.

“There is a pecking order of racism … for people like myself, who are neither black nor white.

“These migrant and refugee communities think that if they try to be white-reaching, they will get a free pass,” she says. “It is a false sense of security.” (On how to avoid being off white: “Do … use your proximity to whiteness to support rather than denounce other people of colour. Don’t … forget that you can be at the receiving end of racism and simultaneously be racist to others.”)

She scrutinises white-conditioned feminism that tramples on Indigenous and diverse people’s voices, dubbing them the “prosecco flavoured progressives”.

“They are middle class, white, but unable to confront their own racism, or champion diverse voices, or be happy when they see people of colour thriving.”

Among it all, Lattouf remains hopeful that humans are decent.

“I’ve definitely felt, in the past couple of years, a dial shift,” she says. “Australians want to do and be better. People are looking for things that are right.

“We can invest in that goodwill. Equip people with the evidence-based tools to achieve it.”

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting