Why We Need to Fight Casual Racism Too

“Jokes” and offhand remarks are deep-seated and can have long-term effects

Melissa-Jane Nguyen
Jun 4, 2020 · 8 min read
Photo by Johan Mouchet on Unsplash

We were learning about Aboriginal Australia when I was in year 5. I proudly told the boy next to me that my dad’s side of the family are Indigenous.

“So you’re a petrol sniffer,” was his response.

I felt like that moment would’ve been a good time to be able to shrink down in size like in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. I could’ve run out of that room and away from the smirk on that boy’s face without drawing attention.

Instead, I sat there, quietly, trying not to cry.

It’s been over a week since the murder of George Floyd at the hands of (now former) police officer Derek Chauvin.

Protests rage on around the world alongside the ongoing rage of the people.

And so they should.

With over 400 Indigenous deaths in custody since 1991 and not even one murder charge, we feel that rage here in Australia too.

One case, in particular, is very similar to George Floyd’s —in 2015, David Dungay was held facedown by police officers and repeated “I can’t breathe” 12 times before he died. Police officers involved have not been charged.

These cases are horrifying. Every single one of the victims deserves justice. It doesn’t matter whether their arrest or jail time was warranted. They are human and deserve to be treated so.

And yet, justice is not enough. Change is needed so that these cases don’t occur anymore.

To combat the overt forms of racism that result in obvious physical and mental harm, we need to fight casual racism too.

What is casual racism?

Casual racism may not necessarily be intentional.

It may take the form of a joke.

But part of the problem is that the offender can easily state that they were “just joking” and deny any accusations of racism at work.

Yet, those at the receiving end of the joke aren’t laughing. It may sometimes appear so, but the truth is that every joke and offhand comment tells the receiver where their place is in the world and that they need to stay in it.

This can often lead (or add) to mental health issues and low self-esteem, and it creates an “us” and “them” mentality.

Of course the deaths and obvious harm caused are a big deal and we need to be outraged and fight for justice in those cases.

But we also need to fight against those dodged bullets and those words that hit their targets but don’t leave a physical mark. These are the smaller issues that lead to bigger ones.

A dodged bullet

After my dad died last year, Dad’s best friend shared some stories with us. He told us about a party he attended with my dad and my dad’s four brothers.

They were in their late teens/early 20s when they rocked up to a party at the house of a friend of a friend.

Things seemed fine in the beginning as they all mingled. Until something changed. Perhaps the consumption of alcohol reached a point where certain individuals thought it a good idea to share their racist views.

I don’t know what caused the change and neither does my dad’s friend. But, the result was a line drawn in the grass with my dad and his brothers on one side and a group of guys on the other who were trying to convince my dad’s friends to come over to their side while they hurled racist slurs.

These guys wanted to fight my dad and his brothers.

Instead of fighting, my dad, his brothers, and their friends walked out and away from the party.

Just joking, yeah? Nah

I was in my 20s when a work colleague made a comment about an Indigenous boy stealing something from a shop. “Typical,” he said.

I spent the rest of my shift seething and shaking with anger plus fear that someone would notice my red face and the tears that were threatening. I did not want the kind of confrontation where I ended up crying in front of everyone.

But I felt disgusted in myself for not speaking up.

My dad’s friend told us of another party he attended with my dad.

A bunch of partygoers sat around a bonfire and one of them told an Aboriginal “joke”. Dad was upset by it and got up and walked away.

Only one friend went after him to check that he was okay. But the friend who relayed the story to us said that it was then that he started to grasp exactly what our father went through every single day as an Indigenous Australian.

I was 15 when during class one day my teacher decided to join in with some silly behaviour between me and two of my closest friends. We were joking around because I sat at a seat a little ways away from them, but I couldn’t be bothered moving closer.

“We don’t want you to sit near us anyway,” one friend said.

“Stay over there with all your friends,” said my other friend.

It was all in jest and I was playing along.

Until our teacher decided to join in.

“Yeah, we don’t want her sitting with us. She’s Aboriginal. She smells.”

I didn’t think I’d heard right. After all, he was sitting furthest away from me so I was convinced he’d said something else. My friends looked at our teacher, looked at me and one another with furrowed brows before changing the subject.

After class, my friends immediately asked me if I was okay. They were shocked that he’d said that. I was too, but I didn’t really believe it. Surely my teacher didn’t really say that I smelt because I was Aboriginal (whether in jest or not).

We were discussing whether I should make a complaint when a fellow student entered the conversation.

“Why would you make a complaint? He was obviously just joking.”

I debated over it for a while but I could hardly believe it myself. Did a teacher really say that? It was so absurd. I convinced myself that he mustn’t have really said it. We’d all misheard. I’d only make myself look stupid by reporting the incident.

My voice, along with my belief that all the people I surrounded myself with would stand with me and stand up for Indigenous Australians was diminished.

Instead of wanting to shrink down like I did when I was in primary school, something inside me really did shrink as I realised this was a battle I could not win.

We all need to be better

The whiteness of my skin has allowed me a certain amount of privilege. People who don’t know of my Indigenous heritage don’t think twice before making hurtful remarks about Aboriginal Australians.

Every single time, I think about how my father or grandfather would feel if they had heard the exact same conversation. I imagine the fall of their faces and the quiet hurt that would pile on along with all the others they’ve experienced.

There have been many more instances than those mentioned above. Many times I have called the person out for their racist attitude (and not just when it’s directed at Indigenous Australians). But the instances that remain vivid in my mind are the ones when I’ve been too afraid to speak up.

Those times I have remained frozen in place, afraid of my shaky voice and my watery eyes, are the times I regret.

It’s not just the people who spew disgusting racist remarks and who obviously hurt people both physically and mentally.

It’s also those who make jokes and who make offhand comments with no thought for those they’re offending who’ve had a lifetime of being downtrodden.

The fact that racial judgment is ingrained in 10-year-old kids shows the depth of this issue.

It’s a problem that’s been shared from one generation to the next — from those passing judgment as well as those receiving it.

I can’t share the long-term effects on my father’s side of the family because much of it is not my story to tell. But what I can tell you is that my father died at the age of 58 after a lifetime of struggle.

He didn’t win in the battle against his demons. Those demons existed thanks to a vicious cycle of systemic racism that has continued from generation to generation since Australia was invaded.

Non-Indigenous Australians today aren’t the ones who invaded Australia. However, there are many who don’t support Indigenous Australians, and many who condemn them and judge them, and even more who simply laugh and make “jokes”.

They are all adding to the massive mountain of sorrow that Indigenous Australians carry on their shoulders.

Instead of adding to it, educate yourself and help carry some of it until that mountain is nothing more than a crumble of dust that’s only used to remind future generations of a long period of time we don’t want to repeat.

Show your support

A campaign called Racism, It Stops with Me has been in operation since 2012 and aims to educate and take a stand against racism.

Sometimes it’s hard to know how to show your support or stand up to racist bullies. There are some practical tips for bystanders on how to respond to racism and you can read about those here.

There are also many other ways in which non-Indigenous Australians can support Indigenous Australians. You can find some ideas here in addition to those that follow.

Call out racist bullies

Show your support by calling out those who partake in any form of racism against Indigenous Australians or any person of colour (POC).

Let Indigenous Australians speak for themselves for the most part but offer your support and do speak up when necessary (e.g. when comments are being made without the presence of a POC or when your assistance is welcome).

Donate

There are many organisations that support Indigenous Australians all across Australia and in many different sectors.

Find one that speaks to you and is a specific cause you want to throw your support behind then throw some money their way or volunteer your services.

Attend events

Although many events have been cancelled or postponed for 2020, they are a great way to get involved in future. Plus, I’m hoping that some events will still be able to take place online.

Indigenous events happen all year round and in different locations within Australia. They often showcase Indigenous businesses, artists and performers.

Yabun is a big one in Sydney that takes place on Australia Day every year. And there are always plenty of events taking place during NAIDOC week.

Support Indigenous businesses

It’s pretty easy to find Indigenous-run businesses with a quick Google search or by searching hashtags like #SupportIndigenousBusiness on Instagram.

You’ll find artists, creatives, artisans, and more. Not only will you be showing support with your purchases, but you might learn something too.

If any money is made from this article it will be donated to the Aboriginal Legal Service, which is the same organisation my sisters and I raised money for following my dad’s death in 2019.

“Our policy and law reform work is central to our fight for justice. It is critical that Aboriginal voices are heard and respected when it comes to laws and government policies that impact upon our communities.”

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Melissa-Jane Nguyen

Written by

Writer and editor. Writing about parenting, writing and life. Working on YA novel. Tea drinker. Book lover. Wife. Mother. https://melissajane.substack.com/

ILLUMINATION-Curated

Outstanding stories objectively and diligently selected by 40+ senior editors on ILLUMINATION

Melissa-Jane Nguyen

Written by

Writer and editor. Writing about parenting, writing and life. Working on YA novel. Tea drinker. Book lover. Wife. Mother. https://melissajane.substack.com/

ILLUMINATION-Curated

Outstanding stories objectively and diligently selected by 40+ senior editors on ILLUMINATION

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