At the beginning of the year, I was in Bondi getting a coffee. I was gossiping with the barista about the dodgy history of two of Bondi’s D-list celebrities. I know we shouldn’t have been gossiping, but it was a way for us as two young people to bond despite not having much in common. He then said something that shocked me. ‘Well, you know, those brothers, they are dodgy because they are Lebanese. All Lebanese are drug dealers, you see them out here with their fancy clothes and cars. That’s all they do; they are lazy drug dealers.”
I was so taken aback I tried to say, ‘that would be statistically impossible for all Lebanese Australians to be drug dealers. And second of all, that is quite racist to associate one particular ethnicity with criminality’. I remember it coming out much more like ‘eeeehhhh no not possible that. Bit racist.’
The barista then said, ‘gosh you are naïve aren’t you?’ He then proceeded to give me my coffee and told me it was on the house today.
The whole exchange left me reeling. Did he know that what he said was racist?
A bit of context about me before we go any further. I am a white, cis-female, from a family where both my parents are university educated. As a result of these factors and many more, I move through the world, uninhibited by the many forms of discrimination and prejudice that many of my loved ones, colleagues and the people around me, experience. I would hazard a guess that my appearance and ethnicity is why people feel I am an appropriate audience for their ignorance.
These incidents always seem to happen in cafes. Before the June lockdown started in Sydney, I went to ask the owner of one of my local cafes if the seats out the front were free even though they had a little reserved sign. He replied with ‘Yes yes they are free, I only put that to stop Aboriginals, Asians and people with prams from sitting there. You girls go ahead’. This time, I was much more prepared although the adrenaline had created a knot in my stomach. I said, ‘that was pretty racist’. He spluttered out something incoherent about it being a joke and I responded with the eternally wise ‘mmmmmm’.
These interactions make me wonder, if people feel comfortable enough verbalising these sorts of things to me, although admittedly a white female, but someone they barely know, how much more racist are the things they are thinking?
I think the moment I became painfully aware of how big a problem discrimination is in Australia, was when I was working after I finished high school. I had said to a regular customer in the café in which I worked, that I was moving to France to start university. He then said, unprompted, ‘well Memphis, just remember, not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims’. Little did he know that people like him were the reason I was moving to study the Arabic language, the history of Islam, politics and the Middle East. Unfortunately, I quickly learned that France was no different. There were racists everywhere.
I had decided to study these things at university because much of the information I had had access to via the media, and the opinions I had heard around me at high school, sounded so irrational and devoid of logic. It bothered me that when any Muslim spoke about Islam, they had to first wade through questions about terrorism, women and different cultures before getting to answer? and in the process of answering that question, they were expected to be speaking for their entire religious community?
I, as a white Australian, do not have to justify or explain anyone’s actions other than my own. However, for minorities, and especially Muslims, there is this expectation of ambassadorship.
I think the question that annoys me the most, even before I was awakened to Islamophobia, is ‘where are you from?’. I have the privilege of getting so incensed by this question because I don’t face it, but I hear it all the time directed at Australian friends of non-white backgrounds. Although it seems benign, when it is one of the first questions someone is asked, to me it reflects something deeper about how minorities’ presence is seen in Australia. I always wonder how it is relevant to the conversation.
Many people, especially our politicians, say that Australia is the most successful example of Multiculturalism. However, 76% of respondents to the 2021 Australia Talks survey, agreed with statement ‘There is still a lot of racism in Australia these days.’
This figure of 76% doesn’t sound right for the most successful example of multiculturalism. Labelling Australia as such, undermines all the work we still have left to do to in order to make this country a truly successful example of multiculturalism. Statements and behaviours like those I mentioned ARE part and parcel of the lived experience of many people from non-European, non-white backgrounds here in Australia. We can’t say that racism doesn’t exist in our society while these sorts of views are casually thrown around.
Despite my strong tendency for optimism, I would be slightly delusional if I thought we could ‘fix’ all the different forms of racism in our society. Racism’s immensity and all the ways in which it manifests and holds Australia back, seems to me like an immense skyscraper. Made up of so many structures, systems, attitudes and ways of doing things, it will require a nation-wide movement of people to dismantle. Given media, political and social currents however, it seems that this movement is still a way off. This realisation can often make me feel helpless, but I am comforted by the fact that there are steps we can take and encourage others to take to be anti-racist.
In addition to questioning the many status quos that make up our society, the Anti-racist movement encourages people to first start with themselves. Acknowledging how current and historic systems and structures can privilege and disadvantage. This is especially important for people who come from backgrounds that have been privileged as part of colonisation, like my own.
Cultivating humility about one’s knowledge and one’s interpretation of a situation is also very important. There have been so many things that I have said or asked, that when looking back, make me wince because they were just plain dumb. A group of boys that I met and became good friends with who were all from Afghanistan, definitely bore the brunt of my stupid questions. We were all fifteen at the time and they helped me realise that just because I didn’t think a question was racist or harmful, does not necessarily mean that it is received that way by those around you. This is something that I think everyone needs to remember – just because you don’t think what you are asking or saying is racist, does not mean it isn’t. The possibility of being open to being corrected and learning from it, especially without taking this as a personal criticism, allows us to grow as people and respectful members of our communities.
What I have learnt is, being anti-racist is not a destination, but a process. We will constantly be learning and adapting. But only once we work on ourselves, can we then extend the same expectations to others around us.
Café Culture of Casual Racism by Memphis Bourne Blue