A publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

Society

Personal stories: the sting of racism

Subtle racism is at play every day in Australia — in the workplace and the classroom, on sporting fields and in everyday interactions. Krati Garg and Megan Toomey invited people to tell their stories. 

Interviews by Krati Garg Megan Toomey
 
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Carmel

Carmel was excited to try out a highly recommended restaurant in Melbourne. She asked for a reservation but was told she should be able to get a table easily at the time she had requested. But when Carmel arrived with her family, she was asked whether she had made a reservation. She was then asked to wait, despite seeing that most of the tables were vacant. So, she waited.

Eventually, after 40 minutes, a waiter directed Carmel and her family to a table. There, they waited a further 20 minutes before someone finally came to take their order. This was despite later arrivals being seated and served ahead of them.

Carmel felt certain she was being overlooked because of her race. She is a black South African.

It was difficult explaining such a snub to her children, explained Carmel, who was anxious not to transfer her resentment to them. But they wanted to know why they were ignored in shops and cafes.“Having suffered so much of it in my own country, I know that racism is taught and propagated,” Carmel said. “I have to put a stop to it before my kids develop racist attitudes for others.”

Alexie

Alexie worked in a retail outlet of an up-market clothing brand. She was born and raised in Australia by an Aussie dad and a European mother. Asked whether, as a white woman, she was more comfortable serving caucasian customers, she replied: “Of course, because that is my comfort zone. I am not aware of cultural boundaries. [But] I do not know, for example, how a Sri Lankan woman would react if I casually went up to her and said ‘How’s it going? Whereas, I know that a Caucasian girl in thongs and singlet will definitely reciprocate.”

There were several incidents of shoplifting where Alexie worked. Security cameras had caught someone wearing a burka taking items and hiding them beneath the garment. As a result, the management of the shopping centre had asked all salespeople to be cautious of women wearing burkas.Alexie noted that all women in such dress who entered the store would be looked at with suspicion as a result of management’s dictum. But could thieves use a burka as a veil to commit crime, she wondered. And what impact would such a policy have on the Muslim women themelves who came to shop?

Chanting

Another French fry soared past Chanting’s head and landed on the floor next to where she and her group were seated. “We should hurry up and leave,” one of her friends urged. They had heard a lot about incidents like this. The staff and college heads of their campus residences had warned them before, and encouraged them to report such events.

Chanting and her friends ignored the local kids, and concentrated on finishing their meals. Soon, their taunters got bored and left, as Chanting had hoped. She and her friends hadn’t reacted, and they were alright. And, she felt fortunate: the kids had not hurled rocks, as had been the case in other reported incidents.

But she couldn’t help but feel the disappointment settle uneasily in her stomach.

Sandeep

‘ I’m telling you,” Daniel said. “This is just what people think. They naturally knock you down as second preference, based on your name and the fact that your country is listed on the CV. They assume you don’t speak good English, so you’ll have to prove that you can.”

Apparently, Daniel continued, Indians were not considered capable enough to hold high position jobs. Sandeep would have to model his CV around the fact that he was “not just like any other Indian” — that is, not in the stereotypical mould of taxi driver, McDonalds worker or countless others forced to take menial jobs.

Sandeep regarded his fellow student as a mentor and guide. They had developed a strong friendship and Sandeep knew that Daniel was simply trying to help.

Sandeep had never composed a CV before — at least, not for a student job. It was for a communication position within the university and would require a lot of interacting with students and parents. He had belonged to the corporate world back in India, where he had worked as an accountant for Ernst & Young. This fact ought to have been a great asset to him, one that warranted highlighting, not because it suggested a solid work history but because it would strike prospective employers as an “English-speaking thing”, according to Daniel.

Sandeep recalled another occasion. It was his second week of uni, and he had struck up a conversation with a local student. “You speak such good English, but you’re from India,” he had been told.

He had felt unsure about whether to feel good or bad about that. The student had passed judgment across an entire nation. But, then, Sandeep had stood out to him.

When things made him uncomfortable, Sandeep rarely over-reacted. He would absorb such comments, and simply smile.

Sam

Sam stood by as a fist cracked his teammate’s face. It was karma, he thought. It always was.

Not all of the boys on the rugby team were that bad. But most of them were. They were a posse, and they had numbers behind them. So about a month or two into training, when they started getting comfortable around Sam, he would remind himself to keep a cool head.

“Hey, Coconut! Pass the ball!”

His teammates thought it was funny. These were the same young men who openly called darker girls “behemoths” when the team hung around bars after games.

Sam was never angered or disgusted by the name-calling. But he was constantly disappointed. And while he played side-by-side with his team, they never won his respect.

Sure, “Coconut” was a softer nickname than “Chocolate Grub”, as his older brother had been called. Such nicknames might have been uttered in seemingly friendly tones, enough to let pass. But Sam’s teammates could still manage to stick the blade in without having to twist it.

* Full names have been withheld.

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THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

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