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My adopted sister came to live with us and now I understand racism in Australia.

Rebecca Huntley

Just when I thought I understood the shape and texture of racism in Australia, a new level of understanding opened up to me when my 19-year-old sister came to live with us.

Natasha is young enough to be my daughter, the younger of two adopted girls from my father’s second marriage. She is Sri Lankan and has dark enough skin that you might mistake her for someone from the Caribbean. She is tall, with long dark hair, glittering piercings, a few discreet tattoos, a megawatt smile and a heavy London accent. She is hard to miss.

Hanging out with her in public, I notice how much attention she gets, positive and negative.

In a country where there are few black people she sticks out and she feels it. “Where are all the black people?”, she asks me as we walk through the city. She comes from London where there are more people of colour generally. She tends to hang out in places where she is not so conspicuous.

Spending time with her I notice how for no apparent reason people are antagonist towards her. A passenger on a plane. An airhostess. A barista. A neighbour of ours eyed her with deep suspicion as she smoked her morning cigarette in front of our house. I had to take her around and introduce her to those living near us as my sister.

Then there have been some overt examples of racist behaviour. Like the stoned couple at the restaurant where she was serving as a waitress. The girl told her she was beautiful but then asked if she had a juicy black vagina. The man bit her playfully on the arm when she tried to take his plate away. Another women, angry her curry was a little on the watery side, called her “a stupid wog”. Did they feel they could treat her like that because she was a young woman? A waitress? Or black? Or a combination of all these?

There have been funny moments too. Like the time I sent her to a hotel spa for a treatment. The pedicure she wanted was too expensive so she asked the receptionist for the most affordable treatment on the spa menu. “I can give you a spa tan” she said. Was the woman colour blind or was this some kind of a cheap shot? Or merely thoughtlessness?

It’s not uncommon, when travelling overseas, to learn that Australia is viewed as a racist country. Perhaps it’s the long-lasting taint of the White Australia policy when we proudly restricted non-white immigration. Perhaps it’s our reputation as a society that has treated its indigenous population shamefully. Perhaps we are seen as a nation of beer swilling bogans and hence people assume a range of unevolved behaviours flow from that – sexism, racism and a love of khaki. Who knows? But I have found myself more than once feeling defensive as some Brit, Frenchman, Canadian or Singaporean tells me that I live in a racist country. Defensive because there is racism everywhere and he who is without sin cast the first stone etc. But coming away from these conversations I do wonder – how racist a country are we?

Up until recently, my personal experience of racism has been limited.

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My father’s side of the family are Scots who came here generations ago. My mother’s side of the family are Italian. My grandfather came here before World War I. Researching my family history and talking to relatives has revealed Italians had to cope with racism from the police, the government, the unions, neighbours and employers. The racism against European migrants abated with the influx of Asian migration in the 1970s. There were new targets.

By the time I was in my teens it was trendy to be Italian. Espresso and leather handbags had broken down prejudice. That being said, I experienced the odd flash of racist opinion about Italians in my time. Cooking pasta one day in my boyfriend’s kitchen – I was about 18 – his grandfather walked up to the stove and peered into the pot. “You cooking wog food again?” This was no teasing comment. His face was grim. I was shocked. I was a wog to him even thought I thought the world had changed.

I hear racist sentiment in my work all the time…

Aside from those instances, I have rarely witnessed racism but I hear racist sentiment in my work all the time.

As a social researcher, I conduct my research in people’s homes among friendship groups. People are relaxed and comfortable and they find it easy to speak their minds, especially after a few drinks. It’s in these quiet lounge rooms and bright and airy backyards that I hear racism in all its forms.

The subtle: “They are building a mosque down the road. I’d be much happier if it was a Buddhist temple. Those people are much more peaceful.”

The not-so-subtle: “Our standards are being lowered by the way these migrants live.”

The funny: “I love Norton Street, so multicultural. Except now it’s full of Lebs.”

And the heart breaking: “We need to bomb some of those asylum seeker boats. That will teach them”.

Once out on a research field trip I ventured by train into the south-western suburbs of Sydney. I was in a neighbourhood a few blocks away from a mosque. The clutch of corner stores reflected the changing demographics of the area: the Chinese take away had closed down, the fish and chip shop sold Chico rolls but the best place to buy food was a deli selling Arabic delicacies – rosewater, pomegranate molasses and date biscuits.

Making my way back to the train station, I crossed the road, walking past a middle-aged woman in a dusky pink hijab. An SUV slowed down as it neared her and I heard a man yell out aggressively, ‘Welcome to Australia!’ I was startled and stopped in my tracks.

She didn’t stop walking. She didn’t even turn her head, as if this was an everyday occurrence.

‘I was totally shocked…and other people just walked past…’

As a nation, we’ve always worried about migrants. For most of the time, in particular during economic downturns, we’ve mainly worried that they were going to take our jobs because they were prepared to work harder for less. But even in the good times, we’ve worried about migrants.

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We’ve had a booming economy for decades and yet fears about asylum seekers have remained high.

We imagine they are getting more from the government than we do, that they are getting into Australia on false grounds and that some of them might be terrorists. Are they first of a horde of people on boats who will come here if we don’t take a stand? Asylum seekers trigger a fear of invasion we as a culture seem to harbour despite the fact we must be one of the hardest countries to invade on the planet.

Of course if you ask new migrants themselves whether Australia is a racist country they will be reluctant to say so. New migrants – particularly refugees – are quick to praise Australia as a safe, stable, wonderful country they are proud and grateful to call home. And yet if you probe beyond these patriotic sentiments, there are stories of petty and not-so petty racism.

In one study for SBS I was involved in, an Indian woman recounted her experience of being threatened by a group of men in the street: “I was leaving work and a group of guys in an SUV, they all had their shirts off and were drinking beers.  And suddenly I heard a screech and they just jumped out of their cars and surrounded me and were saying, ‘do you want a five dollar curry?’ and other things I couldn’t understand. … I was totally shocked. I thought, ‘is this really happening to me?’ And other people just walked past, and they didn’t stop, they just walked past.”

But even those who have experienced racism first-hand are inclined to believe there is a racist element in our society but stop short of saying we are a racist society. They generally feel as if racism happens on a personal rather than a community level. Racism is Australia isn’t institutionalised. And of course they note there are good and bad people everywhere.  The other thing I’ve noticed is that racist sentiment isn’t confined to ‘Australians’. Racism, particularly antagonism towards asylum seekers, is there in the new migrant community as well.

If you ask new migrants whether they think that racism is getting worse or better in Australia, the views are mixed. Racism seems to be ‘ebbing’ rather than ‘flowing’, they say, but there is no doubt it is a slow process.  For every movement forward (Jessica Gomes and Samantha Harris becoming the face of DJs) there is a backward step (like those accounts of racist attacks on public transport).

As one first generation Chinese migrant put it to me, “I think it’s getting better, but Australia is … being dragged kicking and screaming in some respects.  Some people don’t want to change the current way of life”. It’s too utopian a vision to thing we can stamp out racism entirely. There is something very human about fear of difference. But I do want and hope we can become a less racist society.

For me this is no longer academic.

It’s personal.

Have you ever experienced racism in Australia?

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