Brown skin and blistering experiences Down Under

Brown skin and blistering experiences Down Under

Is Australia a racist country? I’ve been confronted with this question, and debate accompanying it, over and over again over the past 12 months since the attacks on Indians in Australia began. I believe it is simply the wrong question to ask. It’s too black and white (pardon the play of words) to be anywhere close to reality. It assumes everyone in Australia is racist all the time, and that is clearly not the case. The correct question to ask would be, ‘is there racism in Australia?’ And that, I can answer. And the answer is a resounding yes.

Racism in Australia is subtle and insidious, and rears its ugly head often enough for it to never be far from the mind. Events over the past year have brought this issue to the attention of both Indian and Australian governments and the spotlight has been shone on race.

A month after I first came to Melbourne (in 2005), I wandered into Myer, Australia’s Shopper’s Stop, looking to see if something would catch my eye. I, obviously, didn’t catch anyone’s eye amongst the army of staff present that Saturday. To them, I simply wasn’t there. None came forward offering to serve me. Invisible I walked around. Incensed, and still invisible, I walked out.

I travel on work very regularly to different cities in Australia, but mysteriously, stewards on airplanes, with amazing regularity, miss the opportunity to greet me as I leave the plane. Ever so often, I am either ignored, or get just a minor acknowledgement, not the extended ‘Thank you, have a nice day’ with the generous smile that everyone else seems to get. I know it is not my business suit which is one of the best in the market that puts them off. I also know that the issue is the colour of my skin and my typical Asian features.
From air transport to public transport. Routinely, I find that white fellow passengers sit next to me only if there is no other vacant seat. Or I find that all the seats around me are occupied with people who belong to ethnic minorities. Very few white people choose to sit with me if there are other white people they can sit with. What’s that about?

Being ignored hurts, but unmasked dismissal is disturbing. I volunteered at a major charity event for a leading animal rights charity in Melbourne. I was part of the team at the gate, directing people to the registration counter. One after the other, women and men, young and old, cheerful and grumpy, completely ignored me. I was difficult to miss, a brown face in a bright blue and white t-shirt with a volunteer name-tag, and a neon megaphone hanging from my shoulder.

Keeping away

I was prepared for, and I dare say, used to being ignored. But the unremitting dismissal I faced made me want to explode in an avalanche of swearing and tears. Over and over I walked up to people offering help, and they simply kept walking away. Not so much as a casual glance in my direction. The ones who did stop to ask a question would simply walk away the moment they got the information they needed. It’s as though they were programmed, with great precision, to spend as little time around me as possible.
They walked away even as I was speaking, something nobody in any culture does without being seen as rude in the extreme. I tried everything, being loud, soft, bold, timid, eager. Nothing worked. It seemed I was in the middle of a storm of naked hostile indifference, and unconcealed arrogance. It made me sick to my stomach and... broke my heart.

And then there are the stupid, ignorant questions. The best one was from a doctor, no less. “Do you have fridges in India?” he asked. I stared, half amused, half puzzled. Smart-ass responses about India being a nuclear power and launching 10 satellites in one mission were whizzing through my mind, but I refrained. And avoided the practice he worked at.

Of course not everyone in Australia is racist. I don’t face it all the time, from everybody. I’ve met lovely, friendly people. Like the beautiful couple who, while walking down the street, stopped and offered to take a group picture of my friends and me. Or the lovely lady at the pathology lab who, in spite of me being late for the appointment, put me at ease, and regaled me with stories of her visit to India to distract me from the three syringes of blood she was taking from me. Or the guy I regularly buy coffee from, who throws in a chocolate bar once in a while for free, appreciating my business.

Of course there are people who treat me with kindness and respect, like they would treat anyone else, irrespective of whether they are white, brown or black. But does my skin burn sometimes, smouldering with the ignominy of being ignored, dismissed, considered insignificant, not worthy of attention? Hell, yeah.

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