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Me and my salwar kameez

My daughter, Ksenya, has given up on midday sleeps, forcing myself and my partner, Liza, to relinquish any activity after 5 pm. The other day she had a rare late afternoon sleep. With the bedtime curfew extended, we decided to go the Deckchair Cinema to catch the latest Coen Brothers’ film, gaze into the clear Darwin sky and bathe in the golden glow of the almost full moon’s rays.

We’d never taken Ksenya to see a film and were unsure how’d she go sitting still for two or more hours. The Deckchair Cinema is a good place to trial taking a child to the cinema. It has a large grass area in front of the screen, ripe for some running and rolling around, possums sometimes lope across the grass, bats glide shadow like through the trees and the lights of boats can be seen bobbing on the water behind the screen. Plenty to amuse a two-and-a-half-year-old who’s likely to find the Coen Brothers a bit slow.

Ksenya has almost mastered the toilet (or potty). No more nappies to wash, no more shitting smells permeating the washing, although she has the occasional accident. And so it was on this night. Her usual bedtime poo manifested as I was getting her some water. I quickly rushed to the toilet, took her undies off and wiped her bum a few times. She looked clean, so I folded the undies into some toilet paper and took her to the sink to wash her hands, which I always do, modelling good hygiene practices.

With my hands full it was difficult to hold her and wash her hands so I stood her in the sink and turned the tap on. Suddenly, from behind me someone yelled, ‘what the fuck are you doing!’ I turned around and a young man let loose a stream of vitriol along the lines of people wash in there, what the hell are you doing. I explained I was washing her hands. Another stream of abuse flew from his lips, ending in the line ‘What’s wrong with you people’, before he marched off.

Suffice to say, with a soiled pair of undies and pants and the abuse still ringing in my ears, Liza and I decided to call it a night and go home even though the film was nowhere near finished.

I puzzled over the angry man’s words for some time. The you people line confused me, as if I was another species. I’d heard that line, or similar, back in the day when I hung with a large group of punks. I had long colourful dreadlocks or a Mohawk, a colourful plaited beard and a pet rat crawling over me. We lived in squats – rows of terrace houses, large mansions or, once, an abandoned orphanage. Such lines of abuse, and worse, were normal back then. Now, my hair has fallen out so I have a shaved head, my piercings are concealed and I’m a teacher.

I figured I was pretty conventional looking so really didn’t know where the you people line had come from. It was only when I got home and took my shirt off that I realised what he was on about. I was wearing a Salwar Kameez: the long smock like shirt favoured by Muslim men. I’d picked it up when I was living in Malaysia and wore it often, the light billowing cotton with long sleeves being ideal for a night out in Darwin when the bugs are biting.

The angry young man thought I was a refugee. That I came from one of those countries and was one of those people demonised by our political leaders and the media; I threw children into the sea, lived in a land without sewage, ate dog or cat or monkey, slept on a dirt floor, wiped my arse with my hand and took a shit in the street. I was every myth, stereotype and racist typecast rolled into one, standing my daughter in the sink so she could take a shit because I had no idea what a toilet was.

Scratch an Anglo Australian and the chances are you’ll find a racist. All those myths and racist stereotypes we’ve been bought up with. The Vietnamese boat people eating the neighbours dogs, the Muslims in Lakemba performing cliterectomies on their daughters, the Chinese shitting in their backyard for fertiliser, the Greeks and Italians raiding pigeon coops for a free feed, the drunken wife bashing lazy Indigenous men, these all simmer just below the surface. A subconscious soup of hatred waiting to boil over at the sight of unusual clothing, muttering in a strange tongue, a bowl of strange smelling food; it doesn’t take much for that hatred to boil over.

We can wax lyrical about our great multicultural society, attend all the harmony day events we want; it’s just window dressing on a festering wound. A wound that started when Whiteman first got here, continued through the gold rush and the anti-Chinese sentiment, and became the legislation of the White Australia policy. It was seen with the rise of Hanson, the Cronulla Riots, the repealing to the anti-discrimination legislation to allow the NT Intervention to occur and the hysteria surrounding Asylum Seekers.

In all this, our political leaders and mainstream have been silent, save for the odd token comment. Nowhere has there been a sustained campaign to disabuse us of our racist notions, the stereotypes we hold as a model of reality in our heads and hearts. There’ve been plenty of campaigns to stop drink driving, stop smoking, stop taking drugs. How about a campaign to stop racism funded by the government (rather than by the usual NGOs and activists, who give an underfunded and under-resourced shit about this unstated scourge in our society)?

Racism kills and maims, destroys people as surely as a lifetime of smoking, drinking and driving. Isn’t it about time it was taken as seriously?

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Rohan Wightman is a Darwin-based writer & teacher. He’s been shortlisted for the NT literary awards four times, including this year. He has been published in Going Down Swinging and has been shortlisted in a few other writing comps and won a few less well-known comps. He started writing when he was young but really hit his stride when writing for Squat It, the magazine of the Squatters Union of Victoria, in the late 80s. He has piles of manuscripts but no publisher. His under construction website is www.rohanwightman.com

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  1. interesting article rohan. there’s a meeting happening here in Mpartntwe/Alice in a couple of weeks trying to get a community response to the racism that permeates through the town. It’ll be interesting to see who and what comes out of it.

    Last year when a guy was selling t-shirts with the swatstika and the words white power alice springs on it, it took the Mayor a whole week to say that that kinda of thing shouldn’t happen. Four days and this was only after hassling. The thing is the t-shirts were being sold twice from a car parked across the road from the town council building.

    To this day the Mayor still refuses to public acknowledge that there is a racism problem in this town.

    On some level to, to overcome the entrenched racism in this country you have to go back through over 200 years of history. The whole notion of terra nullius and the colonisation of this continent stems from racist thinking.

  2. Great post.

    Sadly, this doesn’t surprise me at all. People (racists) seem to get extra pissed off when they think you are involving an innocent child in your filthy ethnic habits.

    Often when I was breastfeeding my son I was told by random strangers ‘We don’t do that in public here in Australia’.

  3. “you people” probably meant “you bloody hippies”. and quite right too – you bloody hippies are disgusting!

    and, it’s just a technicality, but they didn’t repeal the racial discrimination act, they just overrode it for the so-called “intervention” land grab.

  4. Rohan, it is distressing to hear of such racism and anger spouted at a little girl and her father.

    “Scratch an Anglo Australian and the chances are you’ll find a racist.”

    Surely who ever one scratches has all the possibilities for good and evil, wisdom and ignorance, like every other person?

    How can we heal?

    • not that I expect any definitive answers in this arena – these are just the questions your post raised in me

      • I went to bed pondering my response and had to get up to say: A non-racist, anti-racist, humanist, balanced, loving approach to peaceful cohabitation and the redress of injustice in our economic life, social life, media, education and responsible, enlightened political leadership would be a good place to start the healing process … and perhaps the dear old planet might get a look-in, too.

  5. In my eight years here I have been frequently shocked at how otherwise perfectly friendly people would suddenly come out with ugly, vicious prejudice, especially against the indigenous people of this country. There is also a widespread xenophobia in Australian society and discourse.

    However, this statement:

    “Scratch an Anglo Australian and the chances are you’ll find a racist.”

    … is really quite offensive. Even if it’s true at a level of probability, to say “the chances are” is precisely the kind of generalisation that acts as a vehicle to prejudice. I don’t know the author, so all I have to go on is the photo of the charming blue-eyed infant on his website, but I’m presuming he himself is an Anglo-Australian, and believes that this entitles him to generalise in this manner. Not so. I think of my own white Australian mother when I read this, and I take umbrage on her account.

    It’s really not helpful to use stereotypes in the service of an argument. It’s not only morally indefensible, but it’s counter-productive, as it feeds into the bogus right-wing narrative of elite leftist contempt for the people. There is something rotten in the state of Australia, but that does make it either decorous or wise to ascribe racism to Australians en masse.

  6. Thanks for the considered responses everyone, I appreciate the thought people have put into their comments.

    I remember that case Scott, it made the NT news and I couldn’t believe it was going on and did so for long without much response and the mayor’s stance is criminal really. We had a similar situation in Darwin where a shop was selling t-shirts that said, ‘If you don’t love it fuck off,’ and something else along the lines of ‘we grew here, they flew here,’ as an Aust Day special. All justified because it was a ‘joke.’ Most people are so convinced Australia is an egalitarian, harmoniously mult-cultural place they don’t want to ackowledge any evidence to the contrary no matter how obvious (The Ryder case for example). And you’re right the racism in Aust extends back to the days when occupation began, and was part of the racism that underpinned the whole colonial expansionism ‘adventure.’ Terra Nullias was a racist concept from the very beginning.

    Maxine, such a sad reaction to breastfeeding in public and so tragic that people think it’s not something done in Aust, well in public anyway. There is so much fear about that issue and really it’s the most natural thing, it’s only our prudity (which is selective anyway-it’s fine to dress up 12 year olds like they’re going to a raunchy sex party or even to photograph them that way to sell some product, but not okay to breastfeed in public-something’s fucked up about that). It reminds me of the time, myself and some friends were up on a number of serious charges on account of our sqautting activites. As the court case proceeed, one of my friends, who was in the witness box with her daughter, who was a few months old, started to breastfeed her daughter. Well the judge’s face went red with apoplexy at the sight of my friend’s breast in her daughter’s mouth. He screamed and yelled, closed the court down despite my friend saying she was happy to keep giving evidence. It was unbelievable.

    Joshua, I’m sorry you found the comment, ‘scrath an Anglo-Australian and chances are you’ll find a racist,’ offensive. And yes you’re right, I am an anglo-aust, and I don’t think I myself have been, or am immune to racist thoughts. That’s my point really. I grew up in a very white suburb in a hard left household but. As Scott pointed out, racism began in this country the day whiteman got here and it’s percolated through the cultural ever since, subtly weaving it’s way into our subconscious. Living in a predominatly white suburb, as a young boy, I heard the racist discourse around me,’the wog shop’ was the local milkbar, the only indig boy in my school was called ‘boong’ to his face, and he was cool with that, my mother said she hoped I never married an Asian Woman as they were to cultually different-and my mum is staunch ALP socialist left and hates the way Rudd and Howard treat asylum seekers. All that, and more seeped into me. 200 years of racist discourse has embedded itself into our institutions, our discources, the very fabric of our life. Look at our TV shows and movies, how many of them reflect the racial/culutural truth of Aust?

    So no, I’m not letting loose a vitriolic attack on Anglo-Australins as if I’m above and beyond racism. I drove cabs in Melb for years, sometimes, when i saw a group of large drunk Maori, or Islander men I’d hesitate before i stopped to pick them up-wondering if they were going to bash me. I stopped because I thought I was being unreasonable and possibly racaist in my thinking-it always worked out but the thought was there. And i don’t really know if my fear was because they were Maori’s or Islanders or because it was a large group of physically big drunk men. I’ll never really know the answer to that but the question is always there, a question borne of racism.

    When my partner was rushed to hospital due to a serious complication in her pregnancy, the African Dr talked to me and asked my permission for my partner to have a caseraean (even though she’s far more medically knowlegable than I am-she’s a health professional with extensive medical training). Both our thoughts were his attitude came from his culture (we immediatly checked out against his advice) and we were far from impressed. How would we react if an African Dr was about it make a serious diagnosis on my partner-I don’t know. Would our reaction be racist and was it racist, possibly. What can i do about that-I don’t know. Banish the thought and hope all goes well, examine the thought process and see where it comes from, split hairs over racism Vs Culturalism?

    To me Joshua it’s an onging battle of reflection and action, of examination and testing, of praxis. I am not a shining light, a beacon of non racist, idealogically pure thought. I am a human being stuggling to find my way through the web of racist, sexist, homophobic,classist, elitist etc idealogies and discourses that have infected my soul from the day i was born. Knowing that each time I remove a layer of poison thought another one may cloak me without me even knowing. All i know is, often we don’t know what we really think until we’re put to the test and sometimes it’s good to seek out the hardest test to see what happens.

    And so Clare, you’re right-I have no answer, aside from self-examination and action defined by that self-examination. And yes, a strong stand by our pollies and media would help but I’m not holding my breath on that. I do see hope in the school i teach at. A school of mixed races and cultures, a school where the students mix freely, where there’s no pronounced racial grouping or gangs. Sometimes I see hope there, in the mixing of peoples and cultures over time, that may water down the racism that simmers under the surface.

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