Racial privilege is a strange beast. Other privileges are fairly obvious: you’re tall, you’re male, you went to a “good school”. They tie into something tangible that advantages you over others. Race, however, is different. Race is more than the colour of your skin – it’s your accent, your languages, your culture and the relationship between yourself and your nation. Hence, being someone who is a monolingual Anglophone with an Australian accent, when I’m discussing my own privileges, a weird thing happens. I give the standard list – I’m tall, I’m male, I’m from a good school – but bizarrely, another privilege slips in at the end: I’m white.
In case you couldn’t tell from the name, I’m not white. I’m half South Australian, half South Indian. I was raised in a regional town in Victoria, where everybody else was white. For much of my childhood, I lived exclusively with my white mother. I only speak English, as does everyone in my immediate family, including my Tamil father. The only “Indian” characteristic that I have is a marginally higher spice tolerance than your average white Australian, and that nobody can pronounce my name the first time.
Hence, you can see why I sometimes get confused. Other than the literal colour of my skin, I have nothing that makes me a person of colour. I am culturally Anglo-Saxon.
So how is it that an entire half of my heritage was whitewashed away? When my father’s family came to Australia from Tamil Nadu, it was back in the days of the white Australia policy. The children were all forbidden from speaking Tamil (up to that point, they were bilingual) – henceforth, they would only speak English. They felt the need to grasp at the racial privileges of being white, and that couldn’t happen with a Tamil culture or a Tamil language. I hear bizarre stories of my uncles and father being given comic books and told to read them in order to “experience Australian culture”. The family took the “assimilate or die” approach to cultural integration. It ended up being both – they assimilated, but their culture died.
And so, in our generation of the Pathy family, there’s scarce little Indian left in us. The languages learnt by myself and my cousins are Chinese and French, and when we returned to India, it felt far more foreign than any other country to which I’ve been before or since. When my grandparents pass away, there will be nobody left who speaks Tamil. When my father’s generation pass away, there will be only three or four in a huge, Indian family who have any real connection to India. In all but skin colour, we will be a white family with bizarrely non-white names.
Fortunately, Australia has changed. Not all families that emigrated when we did disregarded as much of their heritage, and most that come to Australia now would refuse to do so. Some small part of the multiculturalist message that different cultures are valuable has sunk through to newly immigrated families. But now that’s changing, and not for the better.
When groups like Reclaim Australia say that Muslims have a choice – be Muslim, or be Australian – they send a message of assimilate or die. When Alan Jones, Andrew Bolt and their hordes of intellectually zombified followers denounce Adam Goodes’ war cry as culturally offensive, they send a message of assimilate or die. And that has real consequences. The whitewashed part of your culture never leaves – it just hangs around as an absent scar, the disjunct between your skin colour, your Indian name and the comprehensively Anglo-Saxon nature of your culture.
Australia had almost rid itself of its “assimilate or die” mentality. Cultural differences from Eastern and Southern Europe are celebrated, and Indian culture is now so accepted that going volunteering to “experience the real India” threatens to overtake South-East Asia as the most popular volunteering voyage. But that doesn’t diminish the real threat of bemoaning Indigenous Australian, Arab, Pakistani and other cultures. Extremists don’t respond to whitewashing – by definition, terrorists would rather die than assimilate. The only people hurt by a culture of whitewashing are those who came to Australia seeking an accepting, tolerant society, and instead found that the only way to be accepted was to bleach themselves “clean” of their heritage, and sever their ties to their past.
Whitewashing only happens when non-white Australians feel like their cultures set them apart, and when they feel like their traditions are so fundamentally irreconcilable from their new life that they have to choose between their country and their very heritage. But we can make sure that they never feel like this. It’s our responsibility to make sure that non-white Australians know that their traditions and cultures are perfectly at home here – it’s things like the groundswell of support behind Goodes that achieve this. And if we can quell these “assimilate or die” voices in our community before they grow again to become the majority, then we won’t have to watch another generation see their pasts be whitewashed away.