A minor storm erupted this week over a Sydney radio segment in which an order was placed at two separate Chinese takeaway restaurants. Unbeknownst to the restaurants, their calls were connected to each other as they unwittingly attempted to confirm their respective orders with each other. Hilarity ensued. The name of this segment? “The Wong Number”.
It’s obviously intended to be a harmless joke. I’m pretty sure I saw a similar skit on an American sitcom or movie like Seinfeld, Dude Where’s My Car or Wayne’s World. I honestly don’t remember.
But the absence of malice doesn’t mean it’s harmless. It ultimately plays on negative stereotypes. Turning it into a radio segment legitimises and reinforces those stereotypes as part of public discourse. It also doesn’t speak well for the radio station if it has to rely on a 20-year-old joke to get a laugh, but I digress.
It should also not go unsaid that the title of the segment, “The Wong Number”, can be traced back to a remark from former Australian Labor Party leader, Arthur Calwell: “Two Wongs don’t make a White”. That remark was made in 1947, during the White Australia Policy years, where such puns were presumably commonplace.
Up to this point, with the exception of the title, I have not yet invoked the “r” word – racism. Depending on who you talk to, it either is or it isn’t. I’m not really interested in passing moral judgement on either side, but I found myself diving down the proverbial rabbit hole when I asked myself why opinion is often so divided. And I think I’ve got it figured it out: it’s easier to be racist in Australia.
Every person who went through the Australian primary school system knows that children learn to be offensive to absolutely everyone in primary school. Anything that distinguished you was open to ridicule – rich, poor, tall, short, fat, thin, Greek, Lebanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, male, female, red hair, short hair, bad hair, bucked teeth, freckles, glasses, smart, dumb… maybe you were the teacher’s pet, or you were ‘that’ kid who just smelled…
People would literally call out the first thing they saw. I remember on my first day in high school, someone called out “Hey that guy’s head looks like an egg,” and that became the source of countless jokes for years to come at the expense of someone I’ve come to think of as one of my oldest and dearest friends.
It’s a rite of passage. A sport, even. It thickens your skin. Insults were bested with bigger insults. The biggest insults were celebrated. It taught you that nobody is above being pulled down a peg, that nobody is above anyone else. It’s an equaliser of sorts. And in time, the trading of insults becomes more of a time-honoured tradition; an acknowledgement of our shared upbringing.
Since this behaviour is so deeply rooted into our upbringing, many Australians have no comprehension of just how offensive we appear to people from other cultures, or who otherwise didn’t grow up in Australia. I mean, we use pejoratives as terms of endearment and terms of endearment as pejoratives (for instance, “Mate” can mean “good friend” or “dickhead” depending on the context).
I’m sure that’s partly the reason Australia introduced the notion of “celebrating diversity” into the education system and at workplaces. Rather than picking out a distinguishing feature and screaming out the first insult we can think of as a reflex action, we should just accept it for what it is, embrace it and make them feel welcome.
So, between playfully insulting people and acknowledging that many people just don’t get it, I’d suggest most Australians sit somewhere in the middle.
Outwardly, I would argue “The Wong Number” is in poor taste and encourages racist stereotypes. Years ago, if I was with a friend who went through the same system, who knows it’s all a bit shit and who knows better, I might’ve let slip “That’s lacist” because it would be a nod to the old schoolyard game.
I don’t know that I would today.
It’s not easy, letting go of those old reflexes.
About today’s photo: It’s a reflection and it has nothing to do with what I’ve written; just as some people will have you believe the right to be offensive has nothing to do with racism. Sue me.