Let's Talk About Racism

The other day a friend came up to me and said, “You know what? I think we’re post-racism, I never hear racist comments in this day and age. Do you ever get any?”

Unfortunately the naivety of such a comment is not uncommon – it is an inherent belief in some parts of our society that racism is well and truly dead.  The thing is, racism in this day and age isn’t just the hateful overt racism we see in Facebook pages such as “F*ck off, we’re full”. It has now slipped into a casual undertone of backhandedness or blind ignorance that is so ingrained in society that it is accepted as the norm. Most people can’t see it, or believe that the issue is over-exaggerated. Generally they are people who have never experienced racism themselves, and cannot fathom just how hurtful – yet subtle – it can be.

Australia has opened its door to immigrants and multiculturalism since the post-war decades and is founded upon a mish-mash of these cultures. We’re fortunate enough to be of a generation who have been educated that racism is not acceptable or appropriate. But this education doesn’t extend to the racist undertones that exist in our society. They are generally only directed towards overt racism such as displays we may see on Youtube or on the news, like the racist attack on ABC news reporter Jeremy Fernandez in February where he and his daughter were racially abused on a commuter bus in Sydney, being told to ‘go back to his own country’.

The nature of casual or back-handed racism is that people are generally unaware of the offensive nature of their comments and/or the implications of what they are saying. Others are quite happy to believe that those who take these comments seriously are too sensitive or that they can’t take a joke. Inherent in this ideology is the Australian larrikin or laid-back attitude of “taking the mickey” out of someone. But if taking the mickey out of someone includes allusions to their race as a way of segregating them, whether in jest or seriousness, it is still racism.

I work in an environment that unfortunately features issues that can lead to racist or xenophobic undertones. I am Australian; I grew up in a rural town and English is my first language, but to see a person of Asian descent in a working environment such as mine can be both confusing and upsetting for some people. They believe that this environment excuses them from their comments and the professional atmosphere commands a tone of respect, so they are ‘polite’ about it. The most frequent comments I get are from older men and women:

 

“Excuse me, but do you speak English?”

“Dear, I hope you don’t mind me asking, but you’re not Australian are you?”

“Where are you from? No, not [insert country town here], where were you born? Not Australia.”

“Your English is very good, how long have you been studying it?”

“Xie xie. Xie xie. Yes you’re [insert other non-Chinese race here], but you can understand me right?”

“You and your people… you need to put signs up that say, speak English here. I hope I didn’t offend you.”

“You must be a translator for all the Asians and that’s why you work here.”

 

Some people may read these comments and believe that these people were truly offhanded and had no malicious intent. Well, they probably didn’t. But, it is generally ignorance in one part, and wilful ignorance in the other part. It is also a generational issue that is slowly being phased out as multiculturalism becomes a bigger part of society. But there is also an undercurrent of our society that remains dismissive or passive about the issue. The criticism and lack of understanding about what exactly is offensive about such comments is in itself problematic. Others being indignant by criticising how another feels  or asking why they are offended by a racist comment continues to manifest itself as casual racism. If it offends the person, and people know nothing of this person’s background or circumstances, then who are they to judge if they are allowed to be offended or not? If they are offended, then it matters.

Casual, almost polite altercations are actually worse than the overt displays sometimes. This is purely because the person is completely unaware of how hurtful they are being and doesn’t quite understand the implications behind what they have said. This stems from a lack of empathy and the ability to understand someone else’s perspective. The ability to laugh off racist comments can be admirable, but it still hurts.

Australian society has come a long way, but it also has a long way to go. The Australian casualness and offhandedness can be an endearing trait, but it is one that permits the unquestioning acceptance of racism. We might tackle the overt racism with vigour, but it’s the undercurrent, the not-so-visible racism we have to tackle next. In my job, and occasionally in society we’re too afraid sometimes to tell others when they are doing something unacceptable in fear of being impolite or incorrect. But unless we begin to let people know, to educate them on their attitudes and behaviour it will continue to be a hidden growth in Australian society. All that is needed is a gentle reminder of the gross inappropriateness of certain comments or questions. Don’t be afraid to call someone on it; this is, after all, a classically endearing Australian trait. If we continue to say, “you’re too sensitive” or “I’m sure they didn’t mean it like that”, we will never be ”post-racism”, if such an era exists.