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Five Things Brown People Hear That White People Don't

09/05/2016 5:53 AM AEST | Updated 09/05/2016 5:53 AM AEST
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1. "Where are you from?"

This is a question I'm frequently confronted with, often within moments of meeting someone for the first time. Having been born in Melbourne, I am necessarily from Melbourne. Fact.

Nevertheless, I am pressed ever further to divulge the elusive secrets of my mysterious antecedents. I imagine my inquisitor's internal monologue, increasingly frustrated, pointing in accusation -- 'But you're brown! You're a brown person!'

Why it's problematic:

This line of inquiry seeks to locate me in a convenient cultural landscape, seemingly lumped in with all the other brown people. At best this is intellectually lazy. At worst, it necessarily defines me in opposition to being white -- as 'other.'

Growing up brown in Australia, I was forced to develop a sense of self relative to other people's perceptions of the colour of my skin. That's pretty intense for a kid. All I really wanted to do was read my Choose Your Own Adventure and get a Sunnyboy from the tuckshop.

2. "Are you in IT?"

I've spent my whole life subjected to assumptions and biases based on the colour of my skin. My working life has been no exception -- from the ubiquitous 'Are you in IT?' to 'Where do you keep your cold and flu tablets?' I even got 'Where did you learn your English?' one time.

Even Australia's Race Discrimination Commissioner, Dr Tim Soutphommasane, is not immune to unconscious biases. In a 2014 speech he describes one instance: "Let me share with you one conversation I had a year or so ago, when a new acquaintance asked me what I did for work. When I responded that I worked at the Human Rights Commission, he then said: 'So, do you work in the Finance section or IT section at the Commission?' It was a question that candidly reflected this person's expectations of what a person who looks like me should be doing."

Why it's problematic:

There is a misconceived perception that Asian-Australians are quiet and timid -- 'that they may not be able to master Anglo-Australian expectations of leadership.'

The Diversity Council of Australia's research lists cultural bias and stereotyping as key barriers to locking out Asian talent in Australian organisations (Asian = East Asia (China, Japan, South Korea, etc), South East Asia (Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam etc) and South Asia (India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka etc)). It shows only 18 percent of Asian talent feel their workplaces are free of cultural diversity biases and stereotypes.

Many Asian Australians regularly experience bias and stereotyping about their cultural identity, leadership capability, English proficiency, and age. And it's even worse for women from Asian backgrounds -- they experience the double disadvantage of the 'glass ceiling' and the 'bamboo ceiling'.

P.S. I'm not in IT.

3. "Your son's/daughter's complexion is a good mix of you and your partner"

My wife is white. I'm brown. Mixed-race kids, like ours, are often subjected to qualifying statements about the colour of their skin -- sometimes explicitly -- as in 'she has such lovely skin -- it's so exotic!'

Why it's problematic:

Mixed-race kids can be fetishised in such a way that there would appear to be something 'otherly' about the colour of their skin that requires remark. However well-intentioned a compliment may be, it also implies that they are brown, but not too brown -- as though any browner and they might cease to be so 'lovely'. This is further complicated and problematic if that child then has a sibling that has darker skin, and who receives fewer such 'compliments'. There is an implicit message that whiter is better. Sadly, there is an entire industry devoted to this.

4. "You're the one who keeps bringing up race -- you're the racist!"

Firstly, yes -- this is something someone has actually said to me.

And secondly -- facepalm.

Why it's problematic:

If non-white people like me didn't talk about our lived experiences of racism, who would? Answer: No one. That's because the social burden of race resides with me and other brown people (and other non-white minorities). Being white is socially located as the normative cultural identity and does not have to be comprehensible in terms of race. Therefore, in a sociological context, race is constructed and defined relative to being white. White people don't get to be the experts in talking about lived experience of racism.

The whole 'I'm not racist -- you're racist' thing is what Dr Robin DiAngelo describes as white fragility. She defines it as 'a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves'.

So, me talking about racism isn't racist.

5. "Not all white people!"

Talking about racism with white people is sometimes difficult and confronting and I'm often met with the kind of defensiveness and denialism described by DiAngelo above.

Why it's problematic:

Kirkinis and Birdsong describe how the concept of white privilege directly challenges the belief that white people are hardworking and deserve everything that they have. It's as if acknowledging that white privilege exists will somehow mean the government is going to take away their house and give it to me.

That's not going to happen.

I'm pretty sure.

Complicating matters even further is the way racism is reported in the media. It is frequently presented in terms we can all collectively be offended by. In this context, we are typically presented with the selfless, white hero who protects the hapless, ethnic victim, incapable of defending themselves. The victims in these horrifying ordeals are more often than not rendered mute and diminished, while the hero does the morning show circuit, and we can all attest to 'not all white people.' The victim of the racial vilification serves as a plot device driving the narrative of the white heroic protagonist. This serves only to miss an opportunity to confront difficult questions, deny a voice to those best placed to offer insight, and falsely skew the public discourse.

CP out.

Mic drop.

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