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?