One Thousand Empty Apologies Are Not Enough

23/02/2016 5:47 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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Shadow of a young child on swing

I grew up in suburban Melbourne in the '70s and '80s. My early childhood is filled with schoolyard memories of little lunch and tan bark, lining up at the taps behind the portable classrooms, Bata Scout school shoes and the red stain of Mercurochrome on skinned knees. I remember lunch orders and ice coffee Big Ms. Thinking back now, these are some of my fondest memories of childhood.

My experience at the time, though, was a very different story.

I started primary school only a few years after the dismantling of the White Australia Policy. One of the first brown kids at my school, I felt the visceral impact of racism.

Over the course of my early years, at lunchtime I was often forced to keep to a narrow strip of asphalt between the portables and the ovals. There were some days, I remember, walking along the fading white paint line that marked where the volleyball courts had once been, marking an imaginary border that kept me out.

Sometimes I was alone, physically and violently excluded by other kids. If I was caught in the wrong part of the yard I was pushed and bullied, called "nigger", spat on, or hit. If I stood my ground, I was humiliated -- "curry-muncher!" they would shout with mock Indian accents. If I called someone out for being racist, or pushed back, they would say "one thousand apologies" with their palms pressed together, wobbling their heads, laughing.

As a result of years of racist abuse, I learned to make myself a small target. I learned to keep my mouth shut. I learned not to push my way to the front. I learned not to appear offended by racist jokes. I learned to comply, not to rock the boat, not to speak up, and never to challenge the status quo.

Now, in my forties and a father of two, these are not lessons I ever wish my children to learn.

Today in contemporary Australia we continue to see stories of racist tirades, people dressing up in blackface, shops selling golliwogs, or the whitewashing of popular culture. The most recent example of Australian basketballer, Alice Kunek, posting a picture of herself in blackface on Instagram is just the latest installment in a growing public record of racism in Australia.

Yet somehow, some people are still compelled to defend this behavior with arguments against the "outrage industry" or "political correctness gone mad". Those with a mainstream voice can leverage their privilege and mediate the narrative.

Historically, what has been missing from public discourse is any real understanding of the impact of racism. The voices of those with lived experience of racism are not often enough reflected in the public debate.

The friction we saw with the Adam Goodes booing saga is what happens when privilege is challenged.

What we saw when Stan Grant's speech on racism and the Australian dream went viral on Australia Day is what happens when the prevailing narrative is disrupted.

Racism is real. Denying its impact discounts the lived experiences of many Australians. Racism, whether structural, overt, casual, institutional or unintentional, has the capacity to deny opportunity, deny a voice, deny a sense of place and belonging. It can negatively shape cultural identity and sharply limit self-worth.

That's not what I want for my children.

When I was growing up, there were places I wasn't allowed to go because I was brown. I literally and figuratively walked a line between identifying personally as Australian and being identified externally as other.

Public discourse on racism should require a level playing field, but in some cases those with lived experience of racism aren't even allowed on the field.

Let's end the culture of defensiveness about racism. Let's not argue endlessly about what is or isn't racism, and let's empower those without a mainstream voice to speak out about its impacts. Let's shift the debate. Let's challenge privilege. Let's disrupt the prevailing narrative.

Because I don't want my children to walk a line limited by the value others place on the colour of their skin. I want them to grow up entitled to walk onto any damn piece of grass in this country that they please.

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