I remember a moment in my twenties, when I was working for a breast cancer charity in London. One day, a group of us from the company were walking somewhere in the city when a charity donation hawker in his brightly coloured bib approached us asking if we could care to give any money to support Muscular Dystrophy. One of my colleagues chortled and sent him away haughtily, “No - we don’t need to donate. We already work for a charity.” She turned to us and scoffed, “Honestly, some people!”, as though two charities’ needs combined could simply cancel each other out, and just conveniently forgetting the fact that we were all paid a regular salary to work for that charity.
I always thought that girl had an astounding level of ignorance, but now that I reflect on it, her comment was no less naïve as how I used to say, I can’t be racist - I’m Asian. A foolish get-out-of-jail-for-free race card. I think what I really meant by saying that was I know what it’s like to be insulted because of my race, so I hope I would never make anyone else feel that way. The truth is, the only way to ensure that one isn’t being racist is by behaving in a kind, courteous, respectful way - it’s a conscious act, and not ‘a given’ based on who we are, or who we work for.
Many people are surprised to learn that I am half Asian (my mother is Singaporean and my father is Australian). They will cock their head to one side, narrow their eyes and ask me if I’m joking, until they remember my fondness for chopsticks decorated in cartoon characters (which I have been known to eat the most delicate of salads with), or my passion as a grown woman for Hello Kitty items. Because I don’t look particularly ethnic, I’ve lived rather like an undercover Asian.
A few years ago, I was at a party in Sydney and met four other seemingly white women who turned out to be hybrid Asians like me. We each shared our personal experiences of racism growing up and all agreed that because we didn’t look very Asian, we had been spared the worst of it. We all knew of classmates, friends and cousins who had endured relentless bullying at school and while there were painful moments of our own, generally school had been fine for us. But we also discussed how being undercover Asians meant we are often accidentally privy to people’s racist views which would normally have been reserved for only sharing with their bonafide white friends. I’m so conscious of this happening that whenever I meet new people, I hastily mention my heritage, to avoid them making any faux pas which would be awkward for both of us.
In my experience, those ‘behind the scenes’ insights oscillate between flippant, mildly rude comments to jaw droppingly obscene remarks from people I thought were open-minded and worldly.
Lately though, my 8 year old has been coming home from school upset, complaining of being teased for being Asian. My heart sinks for him, the pain you feel on behalf of your children is ruthless, but I know that life as an Asian, even just a quarter Asian like he is, means facing racism is just something he is going to have to get used to it.
In my son’s case, it’s such a mild form of racism, comparatively, but it’s making him miserable and feeling excluded. He’s a well-liked kid with a solid group of friends, in fact, but it’s actually some of his friends teasing him. My husband thinks we need to call the Headmistress and hold these boys accountable for this 'unacceptable behaviour', that this isn’t the way friends treat each other. I’m reluctant to make a scene. I don't want to rock the boat, I say meekly.
On the one hand, it’s just silly school yard taunting. That behaviour, regardless of the topic, is the currency of boys that age amongst each other, whether it's between friends or foes - they are learning what to say to get a rise, what makes an impact, what gets a laugh from the group. Boundaries will come later.
I hope that all those boys will grow up to learn what racism is and that it isn’t acceptable, but I know that some won't. They might forget that they ever mocked someone for being a different race, but I also know that my son won’t forget those slurs and all the ones in the years to come, and they will form who he is as a person.
I tried to explain to my son that the world is a big place, full of wonderful diverse races and cultures, and we are all unique. All that really counts is who you are on the inside and how you treat people on the outside. As parents our job is to support and guide our children but at the end of the day only they can realise from within that all those labels are irrelevant.
I remember being 15 at a party with my friends when guy I didn’t know staggered over to me and started abusing me. “You’re a gook. You don’t belong here. Go back to where you came from!” I just stood there and let him abuse me. I never dared to say anything back, and nor did anyone else. What was there to say back? The collective silence reaffirmed to me and everyone else in hearing distance that what he said was true, or at the very least that he had a right to say it. I never spoke about it afterwards, not in the car ride home or years to come.
Recently I heard the story of a table of diners at a trendy restaurant in the CBD. Some of the group were making racist comments, the waitress overheard them, complained to her manager, and the table was asked to pay up and leave immediately, and were black-listed from returning. “We weren’t offending anyone around us,” they protested.
It’s a twisted mentality thinking something isn’t offensive unless the person is right there to hear it. If you are saying those things out loud, people will hear and register what you say, whether it’s your waitress, people at the next table, passersby or your children.
I love the fact that a young waitress recognised this kind of talk wasn’t on, regardless of who it was or wasn't intended for, and had the confidence that her manager, from a different generation and concerned with profits, would also find this unacceptable. It’s a sign to me that things have changed for the better, but there’s a long way to go.
I'm well aware that this personal account is just a teeny tiny drop in the ocean of racial prejudice and ugly behaviour and unfairness. Racism is prevalent in every corner of the world. Nothing is ever going to change unless, every day, we choose to make a stand against it by calling out hate speech, celebrating other cultures and teaching our children about kindness.