I’ve never had think much about racism. I’m a white person who went to a school that was predominantly white in a country town that was predominantly white. In primary school we would have multicultural days when we’d bring in plates of dahl and fried rice and wear an approximation of a sari. When I was twelve my family went on holiday to Phuket. I read in the tourist brochure that Thai people had beautiful smiles and if you smiled at them they would always smile back. Experiments proved this to be true and I decided they must be lovely people. In high school I had a friend from Sri Lanka and one from Singapore, but I never thought much about their race.
When I first moved to Sydney I caught a bus with a new friend from the city to Surry Hills. Soon after we got on a woman started screaming that there were too many fucking foreigners in Australia. The bus driver didn’t say anything and she kept going. My friend and I sat quietly, pinned down partly by her rage and partly by our uncertainty. What could we do? It wasn’t until after we jumped off that we shook our heads over her raw anger, over the ferocity of the attack, over the little girl in a pram and her mother who bore the brunt of it. I felt sickened by my silence. It felt like cowardice. It felt like complicity.
I was living with my Sri Lankan friend from school. She was an extra in a local film and we got all dressed up to go to the premiere in Bondi Junction with her new boyfriend. Afterwards we went looking for a drink and a guy started following us, yelling “curry muncher” at intervals. My friend didn’t respond, she didn’t hurry. Her (white) boyfriend and I followed her lead. It wasn’t a new experience for her, but it was for us. She walked with grace and I curled up inside, speechless in the face of these words, flung with such certainty into our silence.
After a series of not-particularly-successful relationships with not-particularly-nice men, I fell in love with a man of great sweetness. His family emigrated from Hong Kong when he was three. He didn’t fit my rugged Anglo teenage fantasy of a man, informed by the heroes of Hollywood films (after all where were the Asian men in the poster section of Dolly?), but he did offer a world full of laughter and acceptance, of care and kindness and a new, easy happiness.
A few weeks ago he went out of town with some mates. They dropped into a pub in a small country town. He went to the loo and a group of local guys squirted a hose at him through the window and yelled “take that Jackie!” As in Jackie Chan. Did you get it? It’s kind of witty, because all Asian men look like Jackie Chan in the same way all white men look like Ryan Gosling. He tells me that it doesn’t really bother him, that he’s used to it. I’m not used to it. I hate the idea of people hijacking the tenderness of his body in that private moment. I bang around the kitchen, slamming doors and trying not to cry. “Hey,” he says, “it’s OK.” He hugs me. Tells me that it says much more about the other people than about him. That people are afraid and ignorant, and besides, he’s used to it. But I still don’t want to think of his honey sweetness rubbing up against that hard, unfair edge to the world.
Recently there were news reports about an angry Anglo-Australian man who verbally abused a group of Asian tourists in front of a whole (mostly silent) bus of people. In an article about the incident in The Age, Waleed Aly pointed out that these random bouts of bile seem to act to exonerate the rest of the white Australian population from their entrenched and unacknowledged racial privilege – after all, we can tell ourselves, we’re not the ones going around screaming at people on public transport. Aly pointed to a study by the Australian National University that found if your surname is Chinese, you have to apply for 68 per cent more jobs to get the same number of interviews as someone with an Anglo name. 64 per cent if it’s Middle Eastern, 35 per cent if it’s Indigenous. After I read the article there is another round of banging kitchen doors and hugs. My partner and I want to have children. If we do, most likely their surname will be Cheung. Unless things change they’re going to be applying for a lot more jobs than I have had to.
I doubt many white people have considered that their skin colour or their name helped them get where they are, but here it is: proof of our unspoken, entrenched advantage. Despite appearances to the contrary, living isn’t innocuous. The act of being a human, of having skin and hair and eyes, still takes place within an old system of prejudice, exploitation and an irrational – but historically rationalised – notion of superiority. It’s a misreading of Darwinism on a vast scale, and it’s still leaving an indelible mark on the world. From the ridiculous (people calling their dog away from my partner because he’s Asian and obviously likely to barbecue it on the spot) to the tragic (the gap in life expectancy between Aboriginal and non Aboriginal people, the Cronulla Riots) and the whole vast, deep silence in between, Australia is rife with this falsely constructed intolerance and hatred. It makes me ache to think that if I’m ever lucky enough to be a mother, the little bundle I’ve borne in my body, carried since forever in my bones, will come into a world where there are still people primed to hate it. I feel ashamed because for so long I’ve been unaware that my skin colour is protecting me.
A few weeks ago my friend and her boyfriend (the same one from the Bondi Junction days) got married. A group of us had gone shopping in the Indian shops in Liverpool for jewel coloured saris, and the night before the wedding while my friend had be henna done, her sister took us through the complex system of putting them on. They had a traditional Hindu ceremony and then read their own vows. My friend promised to raise children who respect their Sri Lankan Tamil, Dutch, Australian heritage. For me the wedding was more than the union of two wonderful people. It was a sparkling, joyful antidote to the hard edge, the old inequalities, the racist undercurrent of the world. As I danced to the Bollywood music with my partner I realised that the world is full of a love that goes even deeper, that – just maybe – can trump that undercurrent every time. But as far as I can tell, that’s still a long way from happening.