JAM: “I got spat on last week.”

Jamila Rizvi

There’s not really a nice way to say it… but I got spat on this week.

Writing that down prompts a reflex nose twitch. An involuntary shudder. And a growing sense of embarrassment that starts in my stomach and spreads rapidly upwards through my chest before revealing itself physically in bright red blotches on my face and neck.

Being spat on is just so utterly degrading, unnerving and well, disgusting. Spitting is an expression of the utmost contempt, which begs the question: Who did the spitting? And more importantly: Why?

Let me go back to the beginning.

One night this week, I was in a cab travelling out of the Sydney city around 6pm. Unsurprisingly we weren’t moving very fast. In fact we weren’t really moving at all.

A fire at Barangaroo had shut down several major streets; the result was Sydney peak hour on steroids. It was also stinking hot and because the cab’s air-conditioning wasn’t overly effective, we had all the windows wound down.

My cab driver was a man of Middle Eastern appearance, aged about 35 and polite almost to a fault. He apologised for every dollar that the metre ticked upwards, while the car remained stationary in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

I knew my hunch about the driver’s heritage was correct after he asked what my name was. His face lit up with the recognition of an Arabic name and he began peppering me with questions about my family’s background. Was I born in Australia? Where were my parents born? Did I know what my name meant?

racism in Australia
“As we chatted, the cab finally found some clear space through Newtown.” Image via Flickr.

As we chatted, the cab finally found some clear space through Newtown and we began to pick up the pace to a healthier 40km/hour. Suddenly, a middle-aged bloke (who was quite clearly drunk) stumbled onto the street. We weren’t at a crossing or a set of lights but the taxi driver pulled up quickly to let the man pass. He waved to the drunk bloke, indicating that he should continue crossing.

The bloke stopped and waved back, implying that the cab should keep driving. What followed was one of those awkward little interludes where nobody wants to move first and so both parties keep acting in deference to the other. The result? A standstill.

I giggled at the situation. My cab driver smiled and waved once again at the man trying to cross the road on foot. At which point the drunken stranger started yelling, strode towards our car, banged his hands on the bonnet and spat through the passenger window. He kept walking back into the traffic, swivelling only his torso around to shout “f*ck off you terrorist c*nts,” in our direction.

I’ll give him this, the bloke had good aim. The left hand side of my face and upper arm both copped a significant dose of spit. As I reached into my bag, in search of something to wipe myself off, the cab driver immediately began offering tissues and apologising once more.

This time he was apologising for the spit rather than the traffic.

“I am so sorry madame, I am so very sorry,” he babbled, as he passed over a quantity of tissues that would have been suitable if a whole bucket of water had been thrown on me. After I had composed myself (the mental search for my dignity, in the now stuffy cab, ending unsuccessfully) I turned to my companion. He was still apologising.

“Please stop,” I said. “Please, that wasn’t your fault. You have nothing to be sorry for.”

He smiled at me sadly.

“I am so sorry this happened to you while you were in my taxi, madame,” he repeated.

We sat in silence, continuing the journey, until finally I asked: “Does that happen often?”

racism in australia
How many times had the man inside that taxi had to put up with that? Image via Flickr.

What followed was a series of stories that I don’t feel comfortable relating here. What I will say, is that they were a devastating reflection on the cab-going Sydney population and painted a picture of pervading racially charged cruelty.

Reflecting on what happened the next morning, I ran through the numerous times I’ve been called a ‘terrorist’ in the online world. Writing about multicultural issues and having an Arabic name means that, sadly, this sort of name calling goes with the territory. The internet can be a mean place and most of the time I manage to laugh it off as someone having a bad day and being a bit of an arse.

But I’ve never experienced that extreme degree of racism in the physical world, where my fair skin and the absence of clothing that signals my heritage protects me. The realisation that my own physical features might be what insulates me from the hate that my darker-skinned taxi driver experiences daily, leaves me feeling torn.

It  reveals the difficult to swallow truth, that my previous perceptions of multicultural harmony in Australia haven’t necessarily been accurate. That maybe I’ve been blinded by my own positive experiences.

Every day good, kind and hardworking Australians – like the cab-driver who wouldn’t stop apologising for traffic delays beyond his control – are subject to this sort of treatment. While I was left shaken and upset by what happened to me, my driver indicated that this was just part of being a  dark-skinned cabbie in Australia.

I wish I had a neat conclusion, a witty ending or even a point to make right now.

I don’t.

But I got spat on this week. And next week? It will just happen again, to somebody else.

Have you ever been the victim of racial vilification or abuse? Share to show that this sort of behaviour is completely unacceptable.

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