I’m no stranger to racism in Melbourne. As an Asian Australian, racist encounters have been a part of my life here for as long as I can remember. But I don’t remember doing much about this.
Over the years, I learned there are different types of racism. I’ve had insults about my non-Aussie accent and yellow skin thrown verbally in my face by non-Asians. There have been times where I met new people who immediately assumed I wasn’t Australian and asked, “Where are you from?” That is, there is direct racism and casual/everyday racism, one of them more subtle than the other.
It’s not hard to spot either kind of racism. But it’s not always easy speaking up about either one, at least in Australia.
We find it hard to speak up about racism because we’re afraid. When someone racially insults us face-to-face, we’re afraid of making them angry – we never know what they’ll say or do if we say something that rubs them the wrong way. In Australia, some of them don’t hesitate to get physically aggressive with us. A few Saturday afternoons ago as I was wandering around the city, a Caucasian guy around twenty came up to me and yelled, “Hey chinky! Chink!”. I didn’t stop. Kept on walking after giving him the once-over. He was two heads taller than me. Thrice my size. Don’t want to spend the weekend in hospital.
We hesitate to speak up about racism because we think it’s none of our business. Whether we’re the victim or onlooker, maybe we’re embarrassed of associating ourselves with such negative vibes – that’s not who we are. There’s a “laid back, almost-ignorant” sentiment in Australia: we’re encouraged to say and do what we like minus taking things too seriously – anything goes. Walking away from the guy who called me an unattractive name, it occurred to me that he was free to call me what he liked, at least silently in his head. Besides, I didn’t want anyone ruining my mood that weekend.
Sometimes others hold stubborn assumptions about us and our culture. So perhaps we think: what’s the point of standing up to racism? It can be hard to change their minds. Some of us in Australia think Asians “don’t fit in in Australia“. The other day at work a Caucasian female client asked me over the phone, “Did you listen? Are you from Australia?”. Not all Australians speak with the broad Aussie accent. But perhaps you don’t know any non-Caucasian Aussies. “Yes…we’re based in Melbourne.”
Maybe we don’t speak up against racism because we think that if we do, we’ll attract more hate towards one another. Fighting fire with fire never solves anything. Every now and then I receive opinionated comments on this blog, comments such as “Mabel is racist” and I’m “not multicultural” for pointing out just one small part of Asian culture (cyber-racism?). These comments usually go on to attract equally opinionated views until I remove them. Why let friendly, thoughtful discussions on everyday cultural differences on this blog turn into arguments filled with hate?
Then again, if we don’t speak up about these incidents, chances are they’ll be forgotten sooner or later. And the more we don’t say anything about them, the more some of us might not realise we’re offending other cultures.
It takes time to accept each other’s differences, just as it takes time to get to know a person and their story. And this starts with education. Learning. Through face-to-face multicultural events. Recently I went to Righteous at the Roundtable and at this event it was great seeing so many young people from Asian, Caucasian, Indigenous backgrounds talk about racism between and within cultural groups. Last year I spoke to a high school class – of many Asian students – about challenging stereotypes in the face of racism, and the students hardly stopped asking questions about this topic. Understanding other cultures, each of our cultures, begins in the classroom. Begins when we’re ready to learn.
Then there’s social media and blogs (like The Two Chairs) where we ourselves can start conversations about fighting racism in Australia, anytime. I hesitated writing about this topic for a long time. Not because I’m afraid of offending others writing this sensitive topic. But because for a long time I thought it was normal to be teased in Melbourne for my Singapore-Malaysian accent. Normal to get called names because of the way I looked. Other Asian Australians faced the same thing. Until I asked myself: why am I making excuses for the person I am?
Racism is a big deal. Being insulted because of our background is a big deal – we all have the right to be proud of our heritage and who we are. We’re all different, so there’s every chance someone will racially offend us sometime – or we might offend others without knowing it.
Standing up against racism. It’s about realising it can happen to any of us. And being confident about our culture and who we are in the first place.
Have you stood up for yourself when someone picked a fight with you?