KHIN MYINT, a Hilton local and Burmese-Australian writes about his thoughts on race. He currently works as an academic at Curtin University in the humanities department.
THERE is talk about racism in the news and it makes me feel like an Australian.
A few months ago a friend asked what I wanted when I talked about race, and it was this: people talking about it more.
Growing up in the early 90s, my sister and I looked Asian,
were Australian and sounded slightly British. As the only mixed race teenagers at a high school experiencing its first influx of Asian immigrants, we struggled to fit in. White kids coughed the word ‘nip’ into their hands when the Asians passed in the halls.
I remember Jack van Tongeren in the news back then. He’d burned down Chinese restaurants and lots of the white boys talked about him as a hero.
“He’s saying what people really think,” they said.
I discovered later that his group, the Australian Nationalist Movement, had plastered 400,000 posters around Perth that year with slogans like Asians Out or Racial War.
My sister and I didn’t feel very Australian after high school. A few years later Pauline Hanson said our “kind” would swamp this country. I didn’t know how to understand it. All I knew was that I didn’t feel Australian.
Experiences of racism are varied, and it’s scary to discuss. Good people fear saying the wrong thing and often feel guilty for events they weren’t responsible for. But when society talks about race the right way, it is healing for people like me.
A few months back, I was at the Federal Hotel in Fremantle with a copy of Ruby Hamad’s White Tears Brown Scars on me. It ended up on the table and a curious friend picked it up. He read its blurb before announcing it racist against white people. He said talk of white privilege was divisive. I didn’t see it as my job to debate him, but I listened as a young woman with us argued against him.
For the record, white privilege isn’t saying that white people haven’t had hard lives. It’s simply saying that skin colour isn’t one of the reasons.
When a racial group has experienced state-sanctioned exclusion or oppression in the past, it echoes through families into the present. An inferiority complex gets passed down.
Stereotypes don’t help. Neither does shutting down the conversation. Until I felt comfortable to speak about race I struggled to understand my family.
At the pub that night, I eventually chimed in and said to the man who thought my book was racist that perhaps he was experiencing what Robin DiAngelo calls white fragility.
DiAngelo argues that the sometimes explosive anger white people experience when their race is brought to light comes from racial stress. They aren’t used to it so have a low tolerance for it, she says. I didn’t mean to offend that man, but as soon as I chimed in, he began swearing at me and demanding that I apologise.
After that night, I reflected upon how racial stress could make an otherwise reasonable and well-educated man so angry that he became aggressive. If it was such powerful stress, then how did families of colour, who’d experienced institutionally sanctioned racism over generations, deal with it?
We need to recognise racial difference. Acknowledging that difference doesn’t reduce individuals to their racial group; it acknowledges the context in which individuals and their families have occurred. It recognises how racism of the past and present makes up that context.
I sometimes visit my refugee cousin in Mirrabooka. The world around me gets browner and poorer then. When I return to my progressive part of town it gets whiter. I wonder about the meaning of that.
I brought this up with a friend recently and she responded that people liked being around their communities. I suppose that’s true, but why is poverty colour coded? Are we ignoring the fact that brown people were banned from migrating to Australia until the 70s?
To fight racism we need to consider differences for a while longer. Being colourblind is ignorant.
I always felt my sister’s struggles were related to our family’s experiences of race. Mine certainly were. She took her life seven years ago next month.
A new friend recently told me how she perceived the Australian government’s apology for the Stolen Generation. She was working with Indigenous women in Fitzroy Crossing and wondered if they would see it as an empty gesture.
Her opinion changed when she was at work and the apology aired on TV. All around her tears were streaming down the brown faces.
I feel some of that when I see our country talking about race. It includes different perspectives, and it makes me feel more Australian.