By JAMILA RIZVI
Yesterday morning, Jeremy Fernandez was subjected to a torrent of horrific and public abuse because of the colour of his skin. And it all happened in front of his 2-year-old daughter.
The ABC newsreader was traveling through the inner western suburbs of Sydney with his toddler, when an older child who was sitting behind them on the bus began pinching his daughter repeatedly.
Jeremy put his arm around his daughter to shield her from the harmless but no doubt, incredibly annoying series of pinches. But the child behind them simply switched targets and began pinching Jeremy. After the frustration grew too much, Jeremy turned around and explained – quietly and politely – “that was my arm”.
What happened next is enough to make your stomach turn. Jeremy recounts:
The girl’s mother asked what was going on, and I told her what had happened. She denied her daughter had even touched me…
She began hurling abuse and accused me of reaching behind our seats and touching her daughter.
Of course, I had not done anything of the sort. This accusation hit me pretty hard…
As the woman’s rant continued, I did argue back, telling her she was a piece of work for even talking like this in front of children. She raised a fist to my face, and threatened to drag me off the bus if I didn’t move…
I used my phone to record the tail end of the woman’s rant, while she got her phone out to take photographs of me. She muttered threats, saying that she knew where I lived and would round up a few men to show me a lesson.
One other passenger on the bus did try and step in to defend Jeremy but to no avail.
The other passengers stayed silent.
When Jeremy got off the bus at his own stop, he said to the driver – a European migrant himself – that it would have been nice to have him step in. The driver simply told Jeremy that he and his daughter should have moved seats.
What struck me most about this story was not the failure of others to come to Jeremy’s aid, nor the extent of the woman’s deeply fueled racial hate, nor the sad response of the bus driver, who you might hope would have felt some kind of duty to assist.
What struck me most about this story was that it unfolded in the presence of children.
As a child, I honestly don’t remember ever having experienced or witnessed racism.
I have absolutely no doubt that I did. My mother is a Catholic-raised woman with skin that can’t even catch a hint of sun without turning from snow white to bright red and my father is an Indian man whose Muslim family migrated to this country before the abolition of the White Australia policy. Their marriage, while perhaps not remarkable today, was highly unusual then.
I am sure – and as an adult I’ve been told – that of course there were instances of racism from strangers, as well as family and friends, at various points in my childhood. But I don’t remember them. And it’s a tribute to my parents that I was so carefully shielded from it.
I remember asking mum one day why dad’s skin was a different colour to mum’s and why my sister and I were a different colour again. We were watching an Art Attack video at the time, so mum simply explained that when you mix a dark colour with a light colour, you get a different colour that is somewhere in the middle.
I took that explanation 100% on face value and that’s where my questions ended.
Because children don’t hate. Not until they are taught to, anyway.
Nobody is born hating another because of the colour of their skin. Nor are we born hating another because of their race, their religion, their gender, their ability or disability, or their sexual preference.
Hate is something we teach each other. And it is something that parents teach their kids.
At least two children witnessed the cruel and hate-filled abuse of Jeremy Fernandez, but probably many more.
His own daughter will no doubt grow up strong, resiliant and rightfully proud of the colour of her own and her father’s skin. I imagine, she will also grow up painfully aware that there are some who will think her pride is misplaced.
The child of the woman who was responsible for the abuse, will grow up scared of difference, intolerant of diversity and with a sense of entitlement to her place in this country that is built on believing that others do not deserve the same.
So what? They’re not your kids right? You would never abuse a stranger, you’d never made a racist slur, you wouldn’t even giggle at a racist joke. But would you have been the one other person on that bus who stepped in to defend Jeremy?
But you should be. We all should be.
Because even when it’s scary, even when you think it’s none of your business, even when you think it might be better if you stayed out of it – remember that your children are watching too.
Be the one who stands up for what’s right. Because I promise you, that your kids will remember.