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.