WORDS | Alessandro Guarrera
“My teachers said, ‘don’t you wanna become an athlete?’… I wanted to become something that was outside of the paradigms of the people in power.”
–Neil DeGrasse Tyson
An odd look, a pout of the lips, someone stumbling over your name. A person asking “where are you from?” The question having nothing to do with state or suburb. These are some of the lighter forms of casual, everyday racism that many of us experience. Research suggests racism can be defined, broadly, as an arbitrary set of criteria based around one’s culture, bodily and facial characteristics, language, and other signs which a person is born with or given when young (signs used to judge and discriminate against people on a totalising basis of difference and inferiority).
Racism, unfortunately, is a very active reality in many of our lives. Racist judgments are made of us without any basis in a geo-political reality, our face is our ‘race’. Does this mean our faces carry with them baggage through our lives which effects our choices, and the opportunities available to us, even in this enlightened age? I believe they do, otherwise problematic phrases in relation to race, such as ‘person of middle eastern appearance’, ‘ethnic’, or ‘oriental’, would be completely abandoned. What’s more, we would not have to suffer the indignity of reading the uneducated opinions of certain columnists who believe they’re the authority on what race is and should be based on skin colour.
Student Tim Law, and staff member, Dr Elaine Laforteza, were interviewed and asked what their thoughts were on racism in Australia, and how it might have affected their job opportunities, career choices, and their lives more generally.
One of the aims was to determine whether ‘race’ played a role when deciding to embark on their study or career path. “Definitely,” said Elaine. Her thesis and research interests use critical theories of race and whiteness, examining the origins and pathways of radicalising practices, identities, and stereotypes.
Tim said no, “Unless we’re talking about the invisibility of whiteness and how I longed to be a part of it.” When Tim began working in news media, there were only “five other Asian guys,” with a friend of his having broken through certain ceilings to become the first Asian manager outside of the IT departments. Though he is happy with his job, further discussions revealed, the all too apparent reality, that a career in front of the camera would not have met similar success.
When asked if their study and career choices were affected by any influential figures, such as their parents, Tim answered no. He reached his current job as an editor at a major network station through a chance meeting when he was a clerk at Blockbuster. Media is something he moved into through a love of ‘make believe’ and storytelling, and a documentation of the real, rather than racial considerations.
For Elaine, she was inspired to become a lecturer by some of her high-school teachers and her third-year university tutor. In her words, her teachers taught her that “…cultural studies attempts to dissect something that was necessary to imbibe in order to live an ethical life. All of them made me see that classrooms can be sites of activism and that knowledge (or more specifically, challenging dominant knowledge) is a very powerful thing.”
“Some people ‘inside’ my race have been encouraging, but many also feel like I am being a trouble-maker, in terms of failing to fit the model of an assimilated ‘model minority’. “
–Dr Elaine Laforteza
This notion of invisible whiteness has coloured many class discussions, essays, and projects which Macquarie University’s cultural studies departments have facilitated. Professor Joseph Pugliese has spoken previously of the ‘quasi prior,’ a state in which an individual is categorized according to certain signifiers, making and unmaking themselves as an individual, falsely grouping them according to certain racial stereotypes. Pugliese often speaks of how he’d be stereotyped as an ‘ethnic,’ of ‘middle eastern appearance’.
Whether applying for jobs, courses, or simply trying to pass through social encounters, this kind of ‘quasi prior’ thinking is frighteningly damaging. Society has structured itself where whiteness becomes the norm, and all other considerations are passed over or made secondary. This sort of prejudice results in a racial profiling that extends from police procedure, such as being the only one who is asked to strip off clothing in the airport, or in social situations where people may suspiciously avoid sitting next to you, on an otherwise full bus. As Elaine put it, “My body came before me, prompting people to assume a discrepancy between how I look and what I sound like. My body came before me, already formed by the convergence of whiteness and Orientalism.” To combat racism, we must step beyond these naturalized dichotomies of white/other, and have open dialogues of inclusiveness and understanding. Otherwise we will forever be impaired as people by a primitive notion we should long have left by the wayside.