Waiting for my number to be called at the deli at my local supermarket, I watched the red digital display tick over from 81 to 82. Scanning the staff behind the deli window, I cleared my throat in anticipation. Finally.
"Yep, thanks!" I said clearly, holding up ticket 83.
The lady looked at me.
"Eighty three?" she repeated.
"Yes! Thank you -- eighty three," I said, my hand remaining in the air.
The lady looked at me again. She blinked. Unmoved. As if her mind could not reconcile the difference between my Australian accent and Indian features. A look of incredulity came over her face as I could see her thinking that people who look like me don't sound like that.
Now some people may be inclined to come to the deli lady's defence -- kicking off about how I'm jumping to conclusions, and how I couldn't possibly know what she was thinking -- but this is by no means the first time I've seen that look.
It's a look I've seen a thousand times. It's the look I got when the coffee shop guy leaned over the counter -- anticipating indecipherable English. It's the look I got when a cab driver asked me, "Where did you learn your English?" in some kind of perversely back-handed compliment. It's the look I got when a tax accountant twice questioned my citizenship after apparently failing to accept I could legitimately be brown and Australian. And, it's the look I got in line at the supermarket deli.
It's in those moments, I feel myself sinking with the weight of every time I've been asked -- 'But where are you really from?'
Because, as Australian as my accent is, as Australian as being born here is, and as Australian as my flannie-wearing, sausage sizzle, six'n'out, grand final-loving aspirations could ever hope to be -- I'll never be Australian enough. Because, I'll never be white enough. Any effort to fit into the narrative of 'Australianness' stops grindingly short at my brown skin.
The message is clear -- 'You don't belong here.' And, as a result I am forced to walk a tightrope cast perilously between 'Where are you from?' and 'Go back to where you came from!'
My recent memory is filled with images of an Australian map with 'FULL' stamped across it, and slogans like 'You flew here, we grew here', and t-shirts printed with 'Speak English or die!' These are obvious and visceral examples of racism. Yet much of the racism I experience on a day-to-day basis is demonstrated in more subtle micro-aggressions -- everyday social transactions that are predicated on the centring of whiteness.
I accept that will sound alarmist to some. But, being labelled 'alarmist' or 'politically correct' or 'thin-skinned' is solely a tactic to delegitimise the voices of people of colour and their lived experience, in an effort to discredit any disruption to the narrative that Australia is not racist.
And so, it's far easier to collectively admonish a racist incident on public transport than it is to agree the chicken shop lady blinked twice because white supremacy.
I get it. I can appreciate that it's pretty hard for white people to resolve how white supremacy might meaningfully relate to the way I didn't get a rental application approved, or didn't get served in line at the bakery, or get told I'm quiet when I'm actually not, or was spoken over the top of in a meeting, or made the foil for 'jokes' about curry or taxi drivers or call centres, and so on and so on.
But, as a person of colour I can readily resolve that dissonance. I experience it every day, in everyday situations. I am alert to every cultural assumption that could be made about me, and the biases -- unconscious or otherwise -- that could at any time impact upon even the simplest social transaction.
The amount of emotional labour that goes into something as simple as ordering chicken fillets is unnerving.
And, it's exhausting. EXHAUSTING. In the face of racism, the burden of responsibility inevitably falls on me to maintain the racial equilibrium -- that is -- do not challenge the structural positioning of whiteness. I am obliged to answer politely, ignore prejudices, comply, laugh it off and generally make sure all the white people are made to feel comfortable. Because no one likes an angry brown person. Just ask Yassmin Abdel-Magied.
People of colour are not afforded the moral authority to express resentment at injustices whether they manifest in micro-aggressions or systemic structural barriers. We are instead implored to engage in constructive 'debate' in a manner more broadly palatable to white people, from which to express 'opinion' about our own lived experience.
Tone policing is employed as a tactic to moderate any challenge to the prevailing discourse that centres whiteness. Not only is our lived experience of racism gas lighted to the point of being debateable, so too is the manner in which it is debated. That's outrageous! Some people want to carry on being acceptably racist under the guise of values and actions they believe are defensible and reasonable.
They don't want any challenge to their core beliefs and the privilege they enjoy. They most certainly don't want a brown person telling them their core beliefs are an historical institutionalised legacy predicated on colonialist white supremacist ideology because 'reverse racism' or something -- vehemently refusing to humble themselves and learn from people of colour.
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So, while there may very well be more important things in the world to worry about than chicken fillets, the point I'm trying to make is that racism doesn't begin and end with aggressive racist rants to 'Go back to where you came from!' (Which would be Melbourne, #justsaying). Racism in Australia is far deeper and far more pervasive than that.
If we, as a nation, continue to ask the question, 'Is Australia racist?' we must then be prepared to listen to the answer with some humility.
And, while my story here is told as a second-generation Australian, the lived experience of Aboriginal Australians and my location in relation to privilege must first be acknowledged.
As a person of colour, I am not immune from internalising and benefiting from colonisation -- so how can white Australians?