Picture this. A university lecturer in an Australian university is walking up to a hot water dispenser to get hot water and is interrupted by another lecturer who suddenly asks, “Excuse me, are you a staff member here?”
Can’t think of anything wrong with the picture? Read on. This time, focus on the underlined words.
The lecturer who gets the water is Malaysian and the one who asks the question is white Australian. There is a sign on the microwave, next to the dispenser that says that the facilities are only meant for staff members. Taken aback, the Malaysian expresses shock at being asked the question and the white Australian replies that the Malaysian looked too young to be a staff member and the comment was actually meant to be a compliment.
I shared this story with a few close colleagues. An Aussie professor friend who is white said that the Aussie in the story was racist. Most of my other Aussie white friends did not use the word racist but were just appalled that an educationist could do this at this time of age when people usually try to be politically correct. As one bloke puts it, ‘it’s just bloody hot water, for crying out loud!”
But that’s not the point, is it? It’s not about the bloody hot water. Would the Aussie in question have said that if I was white?
Well, ok, yes…it was me. What was I supposed to look like? In my 18 years of teaching in various institutions of higher learning, I was not aware of the need to possess a certain ‘look’ to pass off as staff at a university. Even if I were a student, would it have been terribly wrong for me to get some hot water? I have seen at least two white students using the facilities before in front of other white staff members and they were not asked any disturbing questions.
The Oxford Dictionary defines racism as ‘prejudice, discrimination or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s race is superior ‘. There are of course many forms of racism, with overt and subtle undertones. It certainly is not new and happens in many countries.
I remember an incident when I was in a high school in Malaysia in the late 1980’s, during a history lesson where Islamic history was a compulsory component for all who took history for their Form Six university entrance exams. A Muslim Malaysian teacher called all the non-Muslims (Chinese and Indian students) in that class ‘infidels’, not once but several times. It was the most uncomfortable 30 minute lesson in my entire life.
Some of my Muslim friends were equally disturbed because they were afraid to speak up in case they offended the teacher but at the same time felt bad for all the non-Muslim students who were their close friends. One Muslim boy actually apologised to me for the way the teacher spoke which I thought was commendable. However, not a single non-Muslim student spoke up at that time. One Chinese student did but she later felt ostracised from the school and eventually dropped out. The rest of us chose to keep quiet so that our preparation for the exam would not be ruined.
It is 2013 now. Have things improved in Malaysia? You tell me.
In Australia, Cronin (2013, Brisbane Times) reports that ‘Racism is Rife’, emphasising insightful comments made by the Australian Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane about racism in his lecture on ‘Peace and Understanding’ at the University of Queensland. The commissioner says that ‘casual racism’ is at the ‘level of everyday life, in our families, our schools, our universities, our neighbourhoods, our clubs and our workplaces’. Another news report indicates that 1 in ten Aussies is racist (SBS News, August, 2013).
So what do we do about it? How can we make it stop?
A close friend working in a Melbourne telco company shared with me that an Aussie co-worker complained that the food that the Asians brought into the office was ‘smelly’ and loudly exclaimed that they should sit somewhere else. Shocked but determined to make a point, the Asians got together quietly and decided to continue bringing in more ‘smelly’ food hoping that the Aussie bloke would eat somewhere else!
Recently, Adam Goode, the aboriginal footy player was hailed a hero when he made media headlines for singling out a young female football spectator for racist taunts hurled at him in a footy match. Following that incident, Goode’s bold action inspired a wave of support from mass media to stamp out racism in Australian football.
In retrospect, I should have said something to the Malaysian Muslim teacher. I should have reacted more strongly to the university teacher at the water dispenser. I need to get over the fear of not being able to confront such issues. I have now decided to speak out loudly and clearly to anybody who racially offends me. With this article for instance, it is a definite first step for me to try and make a difference. What good am I as an educationist if I don’t stand up for values that make us whole as peaceful human beings? What kind of legacy will I leave my children if I don’t teach them to fight for their fundamental rights in Australia?
Malaysia, Australia, school, footy stadium, or workplace, we need to educate everyone to stop this ugly behaviour. We need to make racists stop and think about their actions. We need to make them realise that their racist actions can cause serious damage to people’s overall sense of wellbeing.
So readers, what say you? Have you ever been subjected to racism? Any thoughts on how you might want to do something about it?
Alison Abraham has been teaching English in higher education settings for the past 18 years. Currently, she is pursuing her PhD with Victoria University in the School of Education.