The Cultural Assumptions Behind Casual Racism

16/10/2015 5:15 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:50 PM AEST

Last week I was in a supermarket, reaching for a packet of tea bags. Some random bloke walked up to me and asked: "Mate, where do you keep your cold and flu tablets?"

"I don't work here, mate. I'm a customer," I said, holding up the red basket that carried my shopping. Seemingly unimpressed with my answer, old mate stormed off.

In my experience, this reaches far beyond a simple case of being mistaken for shop staff -- which, on its merits, wouldn't bother me. The issue for me was twofold: That the first thing he understood about me was that I was brown. The second was an assumption that I because I was brown, I was necessarily stacking shelves.

I believe this was racism -- racism of a kind which is revealed so casually and unconsciously in Australia that it is rarely even acknowledged as being racist. In my experience, when I tell someone -- say a friend or a colleague -- what happened in circumstances such as these, and how it affected, offended or upset me, those people will invariably come to the defence of the other guy.

Before you do, though, I ask that you instead offer me the benefit of the doubt, and afford me the opportunity to at least explore my own reaction to these situations.

I am the son of Indian immigrants. I'm brown and my features are Indian -- two obvious, visibly identifiable characteristics. Strictly speaking, however, my parents are Anglo-Indian -- hence my English sounding name.

They have British and Indian genealogy, grew up speaking English as their first language, went to British-styled schools, and culturally identified more with the Commonwealth than the Sub-continent. I was born in Australia having no ties to any Indian community, and have no discernible Indian accent, language or cultural identity.

Yet despite whatever personal choice, ambition, office or authority I have employed over the past four decades of my life, some people are clearly compelled to define me by my 'Indian-ness.'

"Where did you learn your English?" a Brisbane cabbie once asked me. "Same place you did, you peanut!" I silently hurled behind me as I left the cab.

"Where are you from?" is another question that I'm frequently confronted with -- often within moments of someone meeting me for the first time.

"Melbourne," I respond, in an obviously suburban Australian accent.

"No, what is your nationality?"

"Australian," I say truthfully.

"No, originally," I am met with in response.

"I was born in Melbourne," I say.

"No, what is your background?" they ask, seemingly dissatisfied. "You're brown! You're a brown person!" I imagine their internal monologue saying.

"My parents are Indian," I reply patiently.

"Ahhh," they nod, knowingly.

This line of questioning is loaded with cultural assumptions and unconscious biases about being brown. I recently heard someone describe Waleed Aly as 'that Indian guy on The Project'. The fact that Waleed Aly was born in Melbourne to Egyptian parents was entirely lost, along with every other detail of his lived experience. The obvious identifier -- that he is brown -- appeared enough to locate him in a convenient cultural landscape, presumably lumped with all the other brown people.

At best, that's intellectually lazy.

Growing up brown in Australia, I can attribute names, dates and locations to a lifetime of racist abuse and violence. I've been subjected to a mock lynching at high-school, threatened by neo-Nazis skinheads at Flinders Street Station, racially vilified at the Boxing Day Test at the MCG, and shouted at to 'go back to where you came from' at the shops in the centre of Canberra.

While not as overt as these examples of racism, the kind of racism I experienced at the supermarket is no less pervasive or damaging.

The difficulty for me is that when I raise the spectre of racism in conversation, I am met with denial and defensiveness or simply dismissed out-of-hand. Surely I am best placed to offer comment about my own lived experience. Yet I am often left having to provide a forensic account of events and irrefutable proof -- even to people who know me well. It is rare that I am given the benefit of the doubt that my instincts about my own experience are to be trusted.

It's taken me many years of reflection to navigate the complexities of my own 'Indian-ness'. Now in my forties, I'm thankfully no longer subjected to the racially motivated violence I grew up with, but the legacy of that era, and its impacts, remain.

It would be both naïve and problematic to think that we, as Australians, are 'colour-blind' or somehow 'post-racial.' We aren't. But affording those without a mainstream voice an opportunity to speak about their experiences of racism in Australia, without the issue being co-opted, denied or dismissed, is as good a place as any to start a real conversation about the impacts of racism in Australia.

And, just for the record, I keep my cold and flu tablets in the kitchen cupboard above the kettle.

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