“If You’re Australian, Why Aren’t You White?”: Some Thoughts on Ethnic Diversity

Illustration by Keely Simpson-Bull

It’s a question – or words to that effect – any Australian with a skin tone that glistens rather than burns in the sweltering Aussie heat is bound to get thrown in their direction. Just like Cady in Mean Girls, some will go mute not knowing how to respond. But this is not a rerun of Mean Girls – it’s real life. Comments that are ridiculously hilarious when directed at a white person may be an everyday reality for non-white Australians.

In this sunny place, a dark and disturbing attitude haunts non-white Australians. Because of the colour of their skin, they’re deprived of the thing that white Australians have taken for granted for centuries – the privilege of being Australian.

I’m an Australian citizen born to parents who arrived in Australia long before I was born. My father is a white Australian immigrant from England and my mother is Malaysian Indian. I often find myself defending my Australian identity by entertaining Mean Girls-esque questions because I have a skin pigment that does not fit the mould.  My father doesn’t get called an immigrant. However, we both find it interesting how I’m often mistaken for being an immigrant, an illegal worker or a tourist.

‘Australia’s Got Talent’ contestant, Sukhjit Kaur, laments in her powerful poetry slam performance, “rocking up for my first job at Coles was like a scene at Border Patrol. ‘We don’t want no illegal workers here in Australia.’” Her similar experience demonstrates that I am not alone. These ordeals appear to reinforce the message that people like me have not met the criteria required to be an Australian. We are not white.

The first Australians were not white. They survived oppression, invasion and attempted genocide at the hands of white settlers. For many, Australia Day is a day off from work to enjoy lamb chops. For many indigenous Australians, it’s a reminder of the injustices they have and continue to suffer.

Then there are the newer non-white Australians who pave the way for a more diverse and progressive image of Australia. They are the ones often left feeling strange in a familiar land.  

My classmate was born in Australia to parents who emigrated from Italy. One night he got told to ‘Go back to where he came from.’ Sadly, that statement is unsurprising. We’ve heard it before in the media, from our politicians and on the streets. The surprising part was that the people telling this Italian-Australian to “Go Home,” had thick British accents!

It doesn’t matter how many decades you or your parents have lived in Australia. If you’re Asian, expect to be mistaken for being Chinese even though your grandparents came from Korea. If you’re brown, expect to be randomly selected for a search at the airport. If you’re black, expect people to clutch their purses close as you step onto the bus. Prejudice forces non-white Australians to live in between the lines in this place their parents told them to call home.

We don’t need to look beyond our waters to Brexit and Trump for examples of xenophobia. As renowned political commentator John Oliver puts it, ‘Australia is the most comfortably racist country in the world.’ There is a culture of hatred in this country that pushes non-white Australians out onto the fringes of social acceptance.  

The consequences of intolerance affect all Australians. Dr Anne Aly is an Australian professor and advisor to the White House. Her research demonstrate how discrimination against non-white Australians makes them significantly more susceptible to being radicalised. Racism breeds violence and hatred – a problem for a country that many have come to love for its safety and fairness.  

Racism flies in the face of our Australian belief in a fair go. A woman came into my work asking about vacancies. I told her I would pass her CV onto my manager and nosily skimmed it myself. It contained her photograph and details of her past. I noticed that she was born in Western Australia. My manager noticed the picture. ‘We don’t hire black people,’ she mumbled under her breath as she crumpled up the CV and chucked it in the bin. As the dust of my shock settled, I wondered about all of the economic opportunities that go unattained in this country because of racism.

Australians who hail from ethnically diverse backgrounds are vitally important to Australian culture too. There’s Thon Maker, Shaun Tan, Waleed Aly, Jessica Mauboy, Cathy Freeman and Penny Wong to name a few. Thon Maker is a professional basketball player who, despite being drafted by the NBA and offered a lucrative opportunity to play for Canada, still considers scoring asylum in Australia his greatest accomplishment. “As of right now, I am doing everything I can to play for Australia,” Thon reports. The accomplishments of non-white Australians should make people proud of this country.

Australia boasts a national identity that evolves past and challenges neat categories. This Australia Day, gulping down tandoori chicken, chow mein, tacos, falafel or tortellini with family and friends is just as Australian as cooking up a sausage sizzle on the barbie whilst cracking open a cold beer. The culinary benefits of this diversity are obvious but deeper still lies the hard truth. An incorrect and racist understanding of identity is toxic in a country that prides itself for rejecting entrenched class structures and giving everyone a fair go.

Australians don’t all look the same. We’re ethnically diverse, complicated, progressive, free spirited, and we’re better for it.

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