“I’ve mentioned to my friends that I always count. If I walk into a pub or a restaurant, I’ll be able to tell you straight away how many brown people there are. “I’ll know if it’s two or three, and I’ll know if it’s four. I’ll also know roughly the percentage.”
He remains anonymous for privacy.
There’s always a count on, and for a long time I thought it was something everybody did.
On some level, the count is about safety. If I’m the only brown person around and someone says something racist, it plays into how I’ll react.
There’s a calculation I make in my head about whether it’s worthwhile to challenge someone or whether I should let it run.
It’s an extra challenge that’s not very understood.
There’s a good ad with an Indigenous fellow on a bus. There’s an extra burden on that man, and how he behaves and how he walks, simply because he’s Indigenous.
As an Indian-Australian with brown skin, it’s something I relate to.
Youtube The Invisible Discriminator (Beyond Blue)
Growing up brown in Australia
I was born in Sydney in the 1980s to an Indian-South African father and an Indian-Kiwi mother.
Growing up in Engadine, a suburb south of Sydney, I was one of a handful of brown kids in school.
I remember being in a high school class of about 20 one day, all male, and someone started cracking racist jokes about Indigenous people and Asians.
It was real juvenile stuff: implying that their skin is dirty. All kinds of stupid stuff like that.
You know, people I consider friends were laughing at this. They were making these jokes about brown skin while I was sitting there.
It made me realise that in any situation I needed to be prepared to hear things that were going to upset me, and that I needed to be in control of my reactions.
There were a few houses in Engadine with Australian flags in the front yard as I was growing up.
When I was 14 or so, as I was walking one day, a young kid on a trampoline in the backyard of one of these houses started hurling racial abuse at me.
What stuck in my mind, besides the flag, was that his parents and their friends didn’t react as I would have expected.
They didn’t pull him up, or tell him to stop, so I just stood there looking at them, in a kind of challenge to see if they’d do something.
After a while, one of them turned to the kid and half-heartedly said, “Don’t say stuff like that”.
One day in Cronulla
Another experience that stuck with me was a trip to Cronulla beach during the riots in 2005.
It was a really nice day, so my brothers and I — we are about 20 at the time — decided to go to the beach.
I had heard there were text messages being circulated calling on locals to rally after a confrontation between lifesavers and Lebanese-Australians on the beach, but I thought there’d be a handful of people there at most.
As we got off the train at Cronulla in our beach gear, we turned the corner and saw a huge group of people assembled outside a pub.
We certainly weren’t expecting that many people, and as we kept walking down to the beach, a throng of men starting galloping towards us.
We obviously hadn’t come to fight — we were wearing thongs, one of the worst footwear choices for brawling or running away from one — so as they came closer, speaking with my strongest Cronulla accent, I told my brothers to enter a nearby shop.
I thought it might defuse the situation; if not, it was a better place for my brothers and I to stand and fight if we needed to. When I was doing the counting and calculations in my head, I was thinking how they wouldn’t all be able to come through the door at once.
These dudes stood outside, looking in the window, and strutted around a bit. After a while they gave up. I think they felt we weren’t going to give them the fight they were looking for.
My brothers and I thought the whole thing was pretty dumb, and we decided to go to the beach anyway. We walked along the backstreets, and a reporter with a camera told us that he didn’t think we should be there.
We ignored the warning, not wanting to be restricted in where we could and could not go in our country of citizenship, like our parents had been before they immigrated to Australia. Cronulla was our place too, and it felt strange to be advised to leave.
We had a nice day, walked the back way to the train station and pissed off.
We only realised later how much we misjudged the situation.
There should be no count
A while ago, I met up with some friends for a mid-week dinner at the pub.
There were three white guys, a Japanese-Australian, a Filipino-Australian and myself.
As we sat in a booth, I mentioned to my white friend that it was the first time I recalled being in a “50-50” — a dinner where there was an equal amount of white and non-white people.
What was interesting to me was that he hadn’t noticed. I said to him, “You don’t see colour, do you?”
I asked him, “Don’t you count?” When he said no, I was shocked. It was mind-blowing to me.
The thing is, there should be no count.
Appearance shouldn’t be a factor in people’s judgement about where others should be, what they are capable of or what they should be doing.
It makes me a bit sad that a lot of Australians haven’t realised that.
The lost opportunities of ‘us and them’
I don’t think that modern Australia is systematically racist. I think a lot of opportunities have been missed to connect with each other, make our interactions productive and our society stronger.
We’re missing out on interesting ideas, vivid culture and a chance at solving some of the tremendous social and economic problems we face.
“Us and them” divides between colonial, First Nation and migrant Australia will mean ideas that are only possible through combination of cultures — rather than exclusion, assimilation or erasure — may be missed.
That’s probably the sad thing: you see it a lot in politics and in business and other places, where people have blinkered thinking, and everyone is missing out because of it.
There are a lot of people who work hard to change that, but it’s a bit sad that the time slips away while people are still working or thinking this way.