“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”
“.’Black Lives Matter’ simply refers to the notion that there’s a specific vulnerability for African Americans that needs to be addressed. It’s not meant to suggest that other lives don’t matter. It’s to suggest that other folks aren’t experiencing this particular vulnerability.”
– Barack Obama
I’ve only experienced racism a couple of times in my life. I’ve probably experienced it more times but usually when you do it’s the sort of largely benign subtle under the surface social racism that you don’t really pick up on. Whereas you know you’ve experienced racism when it’s big overt acts of hostility. Subtle racism is like when people ask me where I’m from in Australia when I was born here. But the more overt racism is having a bottle thrown at you for your skin colour.
That last thing is something that actually happened to me and is the first time I’ve experienced racism. I was waiting for a tram in Melbourne outside my college at around midnight when a car drove by. The car had 4 young white guys probably in their mid 20s, it slowed as it got to me and the guy sitting in the back threw a glass bottle which smashed right next to me, yelling for me to go back to my own country. Then they drove off. I didn’t even get the chance to take a photo of the car.
What really bothered me about the experience is that it’s just factually wrong, I’m 3rd generation Australian. My grandparents emigrated to Australia back in the 70s and became citizens. Australia actually is my country. That’s the idiocy behind it, it was racism motivated by an incorrect assumption – that an Australian looks a certain way and the logical inconsistency of it really pissed me off. Australia is a multicultural society, a small Indian woman is just as much an Australian as an older white man.
The second time I really experienced racism I was in Berlin travelling with a few close friends, 2 Australian white guys, Tom and Alex; and a Malaysian girl, Maxine. We had split up the previous day and Tom and Alex went to a really old restaurant in East Berlin run by an older German gentleman that had been operating it forever. They came to us and explained we needed to go there because the food was delicious. So the next day they went back there, but this time bringing Maxine and I. That’s when things get weird.
When we get there the restaurant is very clearly empty. But the older German proprieter is telling us that we can’t get a table because it’s too busy. We honestly can’t understand what’s happening, I think there must be a mistake so I just pull up a seat at the nearest table and my friends all do the same. We wait there for 30 minutes and realise that the waiters are ignoring us. That’s when Alex gets up to go talk privately to the owner and he comes back looking disgusted.
That’s when the penny drops. We’re experiencing racism right now. The previous day Tom and Alex were served there because they are both white. The second day, we won’t get served because Maxine has asian features and I have brown skin. The staff and owner are intentionally not serving us. This is a moment of realisation for Tom and Alex because they were literally here the day before and the food was so good, they wanted to show it to us. But the rules weren’t the same for their non white looking friends.
The look of shock and disgust on their face is something I distinctly remember because I think it pierced the veil on something they otherwise couldn’t see or experience. The same thing happens sometimes when I talk to people who have never personally experienced racism, generally white people. They are a bit in disbelief that it even exists and need convincing. The reason is because they can’t see it because it doesn’t happen to them. But this was them watching it happen in front of their eyes.
A similar thing would happen as we travelled through Europe, particularly in the East. Especially in markets and shops. Nobody would even blink when Alex would go to a shop, but when I would enter a store the owners would always be watching and on occasion questioning me. As if they were expecting me to steal from them. It was incredibly eye opening to be travelling Europe together, to see the contrast first hand of the way people treated us differently. The sets of rules that were different for two white guys than it was for 2 people that looked Asian.
There was even quite an ominous experience on this trip. I was in a kebab shop in Slovakia and I’d grown out a few weeks of a beard by this point. The kebab shop owner was Arab looking and asked me whether I was Muslim, I replied that actually I was Australian. He laughed and then became very serious. He looks at me straight in the eye and tells me that I should shave the beard and wear my beanie, that it would be dangerous for me to look the way I looked around the area. I have no idea why but this has stuck with me. That a random kebab vendor is telling me that just existing the way I look in this area is unsafe for me.
The third time I really experienced racism I was in Budapest on a student exchange. I was with some friends when one of them tells me that I should always catch an Uber (or equivalent) to get back home, never to walk. That in Budapest there was a resurgence of right wing racism and that I might get mugged. I laughed and said, that’s ok, if I ever get mugged I’d just open my wallet and pay the muggers to leave me alone. I’d even spend a thousand dollars to get the muggers to leave me alone.
My friend then smiles and says that money won’t make any difference in that moment. That the reason I’d be mugged wasn’t about the money, it would be because I have brown skin and am not white. That the mugging would be indifferent to the amount of money I had. This is a line that has stuck with me. I’ve always believed in being clever and that if you throw enough money at a problem it usually goes away.
That a lot of moments where I might experience violence I could instead solve by buying my way out of it. But that isn’t the case in a moment like this. The reason is because it’s not about the money. The motivation of the attacker is agnostic to capital. They don’t actually want anything except to cause harm to me because of the way I look.
I remember having a huge realisation in that moment. That that’s what it was like for women when they get attacked. They’re usually not getting mugged for money, they’re getting mugged because they are women. That the attacker is specifically targeting them because of their gender. Because of who they are, not because of anything that they have or the attacker wants. There isn’t any way to provide the attacker with money or something to leave you alone because they don’t want anything except to harm you.
Thankfully nothing violent happened to me in the few months I lived in Budapest. I was careful to only catch Ubers everywhere. The closest thing that did happen is I tried to get a haircut. I went to a small hair dressing salon that I had walked past a number of times. I don’t speak Hungarian and the women who is the hairdresser doesn’t speak much English. I walk in and ask to get a haircut.
She smiles at me and speaking Hungarian, she points at me and keeps repeating, “you …. no.” I think she’s trying to say that I need an appointment. Or that my hair is maybe too short. Or to clarify that I definitely do want a haircut. So I repeat, I do want a haircut and I point at my hair and point at the chair. She then repeats her line, points at me and says “you …. no.” Then a young Hungarian white man about the same age as me walks in and she immediately escorts him to a chair and starts cutting his hair, looking smugly at me.
That’s when I realise and it takes me a little while to process it. I’m experiencing racism right now. A really overt, smiling, pleasant form of it. It’s not a miscommunication about what I’m looking for, she is refusing to cut my hair. She literally means, for me, there is no service. But she doesn’t know how to say that in English.
So I leave and eventually I find a salon that will take me and speaks English. At the new salon, I ask the hairdresser whether what I experienced was common. She said that sadly it is and that it’s best to avoid some of the older residents. She jokes that the racism in Hungary will likely go away when that generation passes away. That sounded sad but true.
Probably one of the major ways that social views of the world do actually change is that the older prejudiced people die out and are replaced by younger more open minded people who grew up with different experiences. Then they in turn grow old and die and are replaced by young people. That the march towards progress is the natural turnover of people that occurs with generations that die out and the new generations that replace them.
I remember when leaving Budapest being relieved that this is the worst thing I experienced there. Then thinking it weird that I felt relief. There is something weird about being relieved that the only racism I experienced was the non-violent form. As if somehow experiencing racism in itself was somehow normal and expected and I was justifying to myself that I was lucky by only experiencing the non-violent form of it. When I unpacked the thought, implicit in it was that I was feeling lucky to experience racism, but only the kind that wouldn’t physically hurt me. That things would only be bad if I experienced the violent version of racism, not necessarily if I would experience racism at all.
And that made me feel sick.