Words | Sara Choudhry
Australia! Mate-ship, a fair go, the good ol’ Aussie spirit, friendly bogans, Rhonda and Katut, and systemically embedded racism.
Australia has always held the image of a relaxed, laid-back, free-spirited country. While this facade has begun to crack in recent years due to political turmoil and a global systematic right-wing shift, the idea of Australia being a racist country still draws controversy. This country was birthed from stolen land and genocide, it contains a history littered with the White Australia Policy, and the likes of One Nation. Only those who have the privilege of being blissfully unaware, or those who want to keep a system which grants them disproportionate power, would dare make the claim that racism is not deeply entrenched in the foundations of this land. Today, you only have to look to the lack of sensitivity towards the hardships faced by refugees, or the dismissal of the disenfranchisement of Indigenous peoples to see the very normalised view of oppression held in this country.
When hate crimes occur, when a politician makes racially insensitive comments about needing a “final solution to the immigration problem” (see Fraser Anning), when an Australian citizen commits a racially motivated act of terror in another country; these aren’t ‘un-Australian’ acts. These are the very behaviours we and the systems which make up this country foster.
Being a Pakistani woman born in Australia to immigrant parents, I cannot speak for, but can reflect some of the experiences of many second-gen South Asians in this country; one of the many groups of people who experience everything from hate crimes, to ‘casual everyday racism.’ I was six-years-old, sitting by myself eating a rainbow paddle-pop when a group of white boys in the school playground ran up, circled me and chanted “brown monkey.” Several weeks later I was told by the friend I had made on the first day of school that her mum had told her not to be friends with “Indian people.” When I was nine a brown man was brutally beaten at our local train station in a perceived hate crime. My dad had to catch the train home from work every night one week, and every night I wondered if he’d make it back. In high school I was casually told by a ‘friend’ during a political debate in class that I wasn’t “as bad as other immigrants” – the fact that I was born in Melbourne aside – this exhibited a common trope of being brought up on the backs of others like me. My own people being put down to point out how I “acted quite Australian” and was “pretty for an Indian” etc.
Over the years this has highlighted to me some of the privileges I have such as being light-skinned and speaking English as my first language. I cannot fully understand how much worse many others have had it, yet these ‘compliments’ must also be recognised for the oppressive tools that they are. Even when you are differentiated as one of ‘the good ones’ you are being other-ed and used by someone to put down a group of people. You are painted as the exception to whatever the racist rule may be.
These are just my first-hand experiences. I’ve seen my mum face random glares when she walks out with a headscarf on or speaks to me in Urdu in public. I’ve seen passersby’s experience shouts of “go back to your country,” friends having to fight the fetishization of their ethnicity. We hear of hate crimes on the news, hear of innocent brown people being questioned and detained by the government agencies that are meant to protect them. We’ve seen it with how asylum seekers are demonized in this country, with whole elections hanging on whose border patrol policies are strict enough to keep them out. Most notably at the moment we are seeing heightened racism against those of Chinese (or perceived Chinese) descent being revealed as a result of Coronavirus reporting. The key word here being ‘revealed,’ because this hatred and prejudice has always bubbled within the foundations of Australian society, rearing its head far too often. From hate crimes to the casual ‘just-a-joke,’ this is Australia.
Many hear of instances like these and presume that they are in the clear because they’ve never shouted racial obscenities at a passerby or used slurs or done any number of the things mentioned. The minority experience (in this case racial minority) is riddled with not just these more jarring experiences, but the day to day casual racism. Looking at Macquarie University’s official Instagram story and seeing the caption “it’s hard to find a local among all these international students” (yes this was really posted), being the only woman of colour in a tutorial full of white men, and struggling to have your voice heard or validated, the seemingly trivial things like people not bothering to learn how to pronounce your name, hearing statements like “it’s all the same” when clarifying “oh, where I’m from isn’t the same place as India.” Racism is complex and characterised by forceful power structures and systemic suppression and will not always present itself as a white hood or a racial slur. It is a series of norms. It’s growing up in a country you love which will not love you back because the other-ing of people like you is in its roots. We cannot kid ourselves and believe that casual racially insensitive comments and jokes at the expense of minorities are harmless or not a part of a greater oppressive system.
Australia is full of beautiful wildlife, awe-inspiring natural and man-made structures, a rich Indigenous history and cultures, and a diverse group of people from all over the world. For that it is beautiful, but it can also be ugly. Its ugliness lies in the hatred which has been bred within it. In the oppressive power structures that date back to colonisation and are deeply entrenched as a result, and in those who continue to perpetuate these knowingly and unknowingly, and therefore are complicit. It is racist, no but.