Where are you from?

On race, prejudice, and the right to be here

AT A PARTY last year, towards the tail end of summer when leases go up for renewal and people move jobs and cities, a close friend of mine found herself in an odd discussion. We were at a share house in inner Brisbane, a renovated Queenslander with glossy floors and a huge back deck, with a bunch of predominantly white, inner-city, private-school kids with good educations and job prospects. She was talking to a guy she’d known for years about youth crime and the justice sector, in which she works. They were talking about migrant crime (this was before the recent ‘African gangs’ scaremongering) when he interjected.

‘Oh, but you’d believe in multiculturalism, wouldn’t you,’ he said, almost accusingly. My friend was shocked. Believe in multiculturalism? In the empirical existence of it, as one believes in the existence of gravity? Or in the use of the term in reference to the goal of an ethnically plural society? He clarified by commending the ethnic homogeneity of Japan, where he had recently been on a ski trip.

The irony was that my friend is white – the descendant of English convicts – and guy she was talking to is a product of multiculturalism, the son of a Caucasian mother and a first-generation immigrant Indian father. (Where he would fit into his own vision of a mono-ethnic Australia, she didn’t ask.) The same guy, another white friend added later, has confusingly made white privilege jokes in the past.

The staggering self-delusion that has engendered these views is difficult to comprehend. It seemed inconceivable that this man had been so shielded by wealth and circumstance that someone needed to point out the obvious hypocrisy: that he is neither white, nor white-passing.

When one is the child or descendent of immigrants, whose appearance does not conform to the assumption of what an ‘Australian’ looks like – sun-kissed, fair-haired, Caucasian – it is a rare privilege to grow up in this country with no first-hand experience or at least awareness of racial prejudice. Regardless of where you were born, how many generations back your ancestors arrived, or however much you identify as Australian – even if you’ve never known or related to any other culture – whether you are perceived as an immigrant or a true blue Aussie is inextricably linked to the colour of your skin. If only self-identifying as white – however wishfully or unconsciously, as our anti-multicultural acquaintance seemed to have done – meant that racial rhetoric simply ceased to apply.

Virtually all my non-white friends – predominantly second-generation immigrants of East or South Asian descent, who have grown up in Australia – have been asked, ‘Where are you from?’ with an adverbial emphasis placed on the last word in place of an omitted ‘originally’. ‘Australia’ is, of course, an insufficient answer. Some take offence; personally, I don’t – it almost always comes from a well-meaning place. (And it would be hypocritical of me to begrudge those who ask, because I feel at liberty to do it myself. The question has led to many an interesting conversation: with a Palestinian from the Gaza Strip, for example, whose New Zealand-raised kids were freaked out by the sound of missiles during a family holiday there; or with a truck and taxi driver from Somaliland, who gave me a rundown of the geopolitics and history of Somalia.) But in contrast, none of the white friends who are children of immigrants I checked with in writing this essay had been asked the same question. In the absence of a discernible foreign accent, to be white is seen to be Australian, and immigrants are not seen to be white.

Even when an immigrant, or child of immigrants, is embraced by the nation as a result of extraordinary success, their revered status is precarious, contingent upon a faultless track record. Any bad behaviour inevitably leads to the ‘go back to where you came from’ clarion call, which is trumpeted about by the same group of people who have wilfully forgotten that Indigenous Australians are the only Australians with any legitimate claim on that demand.

As writer Richard Cooke points out in a March 2018 profile in The Monthly, prior to redemption at the 2018 Australian Open, poor behaviour from tennis player Nick Kyrgios (born in Canberra to a Greek father and Malaysian mother) had provoked moral outrage that ‘brought out the worst in Australia’. After Kyrgios was accused of tanking in a 2015 Wimbledon match, Dawn Fraser commented on national television that he and Bernard Tomic – who had recently made headlines for what would be the first of several rants about Tennis Australia – should ‘go back to where their fathers or their parents came from’. Before ‘unreservedly’ apologising in a written statement, she doubled down on her original remarks, equating unsportsmanlike behaviour on and poor behaviour off the tennis court with a lack of patriotism: ‘I said, “If they don’t want to be Australians then maybe they should go back to the country where their parents come from.” That’s not being racist.’

But for his ethnic background, Kyrgios might have been branded with that quintessentially Australian word used to describe so many other colourful sporting figures: a larrikin (Macquarie Dictionary: mischievous, rowdy but good-hearted). Instead, he was labelled a ‘piece of shit’, ‘a hopeless case’ and ‘one of the worst tennis brats the world has ever seen’ – all this within a single Daily Telegraph article.[i] Kyrgios’s past behaviour has been admittedly petulant, not incomparable to the verbal tirades Lleyton Hewitt dished out in his heyday – but back then, in the noughties, critics of Hewitt were themselves decried as being ‘un-Australian’.[ii]


IN A COUNTRY where one in three people are born overseas, what does it mean – and who is allowed – to feel ‘Australian’? Need we subscribe to the beach-loving, Vegemite-guzzling, heavy-drinking stereotype? What if you don’t speak English at home? Does this, as The Sunday Mail editor Peter Gleeson put it in a Sky News interview in February, mean ‘you’re failing to integrate properly into mainstream Australia’? ‘We just want these people to be Aussies,’ he added, invoking monolingualism as if an estimated two hundred and fifty distinct languages didn’t exist in Australia before 1788.

National identity, as journalist Max Fisher contended recently in The New York Times, is in historical terms a relatively new idea, predicated on the belief that ‘language, race and borders should add up to a country’. Fisher cites France as an example: at the time of their revolution, in 1789, half the population didn’t speak French, which was consolidated as a national language in unifying the country.

The process of Australian colonisation, from the systematic massacres of Indigenous people to the instatement of the White Australia policy, has enabled a national myth prioritising white hegemony. According to the Scanlon Foundation’s 2016 Mapping Social Cohesion report, one in five people reported experiencing discrimination, a probability that increased with darker skin colour. Of those who reported discrimination, more than half were ‘made to feel that they did not belong’, a similar proportion were verbally abused, and almost a fifth reported they were not offered work.

For some in conservative quarters, a distinction exists between ‘actual’ discrimination and the mere perception of it. When an individual claims an experience of discrimination – say, not being offered a job because of their ethnic background – there is often no way of identifying whether this is objectively true, these critics argue. It could just be a case of ‘imagined victimhood’, playing the ‘victim card’ – and in some (hopefully rare) cases, it probably is. But research shows that systemic racial discrimination, whether conscious or not, has tangible consequences. A 2011 study, ‘Does Ethnic Discrimination Vary Across Minority Groups? Evidence from a Field Experiment’, looked at ethnic discrimination in job hiring practices in Australia.[iii] Over six months, researchers randomly submitted more than four thousand fictional applications for entry-level jobs, changing only the name of applicants, using distinctively Anglo-Saxon, Indigenous, Italian, Chinese or Middle Eastern names to denote ethnicity. They found significant differences in rates of callbacks of candidates. ‘We find clear evidence of discrimination,’ wrote the study’s authors, ‘with Chinese and Middle Easterners both having to submit at least 50 per cent more applications in order to receive the same number of callbacks as Anglo candidates.’

The results of a 2016 North American study, ‘Whitened Résumés: Race and Self-Presentation in the Labor Market’, corroborated these findings.[iv] Sixteen hundred fictional résumés, based on real candidates, were sent to employers. When résumés were ‘whitened’ – altered as to obscure ethnicity – the likelihood of applicants with Asian or African-American backgrounds receiving a callback roughly doubled.

I would hazard to say that most Australians are not overtly racist, in the insult-slinging or violent sense. But when tangible disparities exist – as a result of conscious or unconscious biases – a pretension to colour-blindness denies the imperative to address structural inequality.

The best analogy I can think of to describe racism stems from a work trip I took to the US in November 2016, the week after the presidential election. Everywhere I went, observing strangers and eavesdropping nosily on conversations, I felt oddly wary of people, thinking, You could be a Trump voter – or you, or you, or you. It was an insidious feeling of unease that must seem like paranoia to those who aren’t affected by it. Being guarded against prejudice is the racial equivalent of holding keys between your knuckles when walking somewhere isolated late at night – an experience alien to most men, yet virtually universal among women.


ANOTHER UNFLATTERING ANECDOTE from a different party, years ago, when I was younger and dumber but should have been old enough to know better. The theme was ‘golf pros and tennis hoes’ (problematic – but that’s for another essay). A friend and I went dressed as the Williams sisters, in blackface – an act I recall with deep shame, both for the decision itself but also for the ignorance that engendered it. That it occurred before other controversies about cultural appropriation had come to light, or that the history of blackface is not as politically charged in Australia as it in the US, is immaterial.

The intent was not to mock, but when blackface has longstanding historical connotations of ridicule, claiming ignorance is perhaps less morally reprehensible but ultimately more damning than someone who wilfully does it to offend. The guilt, when I learnt of the historical context of minstrelsy and the offensiveness of the act, was immediate. It was a failure on two levels: of self-education, and of empathy. Having grown up in a milieu that eschewed discussions about racial caricature and media misrepresentation, why had I never bothered to investigate it for myself? Why had my friend and I – both the children of first-generation Chinese immigrants, both having been on the receiving end of racism – not paused to consider the oppression or prejudicial treatment of another ethnic group?

I’ve thought about the incident often since, no less stingingly than when I watched Mickey Rooney’s buffoonish depiction of the Japanese neighbour in Breakfast at Tiffany’s a few years later. I was reminded of it again when I read American writer Jenny Zhang’s book of short stories, Sour Heart (Bloomsbury, 2017), earlier this year. From ‘The Empty the Empty the Empty’:

In the movies I saw on TV, Chinese delivery guys brought cartons and cartons of fried rice and spring rolls and fried wontons to men who lived in their robes and were surrounded by beautiful women who had the kind of tits you wanted to use as shelves. And in these movies, they always had buck teeth and started every sentence with ‘me likey’ or ‘me no likey’ and had high-pitched voices and stomped around with their arms flailing up and down, and even though I could laugh at anything, I never laughed at that.

Prejudice and ignorance are easier to spot from afar. When I went to that party in blackface, my own privilege and biases were to me no more obvious than the anti-multiculturalism guy’s are to himself. Being on the receiving end of racism clearly doesn’t inoculate you from dishing it out in turn. Regardless of how short or long one has been in this country, the need to do better endures: to call out injustice, to challenge our own assumptions, to listen, learn and question more. In the land of the fair go, what could be more Australian?




[ii] ‘Leave Lleyton alone’, The Sunday Times (Perth), 30/1/05, by John Thirsk



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