Saturday, November 12, 2016
Yesterday morning, on the way to work, I walked past Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane, as I so often do.
I didn’t try to bother him by saying hello. He looked deflated, awkwardly balancing his briefcase in one hand and his jacket in the other. He looked as though he was steeling himself for the next round in a very long fight that he alone had to carry. He looked soft. His body has given up. I could’ve pushed him over with my pinkie. He didn’t want to be there. And yeah, it looked kind of unusual to me because it was so early in the day.
I made all of these observations before finding out about the split between himself and Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs (whom I assume is his boss) over proposed changes to Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.
I figured it’s probably related.
And, without wanting to go too deeply into the arguments supporting or opposing change, I felt a very deep sense of empathy for him in a way that goes to the heart of everything that’s happened recently – the QUT racial discrimination case being thrown out, the fear and dread being felt with the election of Donald Trump… all of it.
You see, when you’re a Minority mixing it up in white society, there is a certain expectation that you are a representative for your culture; an advocate, an example for others to follow. In my case, being Chinese, it has always fallen upon me to explain all the dishes at yum cha, how chopsticks are used, why Asians don’t like all the hugging and kissing that Westerners do, the significance of the numbers 4 and 8, the animals of the lunar calendar, the Opium War, the differences between Cantonese and Mandarin, whereabouts the Red Cliff movie falls in the grand history of China, Nanking, why the legend of Monkey is not Japanese, why we take off our shoes when we’re at home…
…And it never stops. Never. And it’s always the same mundane questions, over and over and over again. And it is exhausting.
Sometimes you just want these people to shut the fuck up and give you a little peace and quiet, but you can’t because that’d be rude considering these people just want to embrace multiculturalism. Not all of us are born to be diplomats, but no one wants to be the one to screw up multiculturalism for everyone else.
That’s why, for some people, there are these things called “safe spaces”. Places where ethnic minorities can go and relax, to be themselves, where they can go about their business without being on-call or on-duty to represent the culture. These places are exclusively for them, where they all understand each other because they have the same shared cultural experiences, and they don’t have to explain themselves or anything they do to other people. It’s a place where they can all just take a break from the diplomacy, the political correctness, and all the things that (let’s face it) people who are against multiculturalism find annoying (the difference being that by default, the dominant white majority don’t need places to escape to).
That’s what was at the centre of the case of the Queensland University of Technology students who were accused of racial discrimination. You see, three white male students inadvertently wandered into one of these safe spaces for Indigenous Australians and took exception to being asked to leave. The comments they made on social media in response to being asked to leave were the subject of the racial discrimination claim that was eventually thrown out of court.
It strikes me that Tim Soutphommasane needs one of these safe spaces now. He needs a break. Over the past few years I’ve been inconsistently going on and off with my commentary about race issues in Australia because I recognised it was slowly driving me crazy. I can afford to switch off because I’m not a professional advocate and this blog is, ultimately, a personal indulgence.
But he can’t. At some level, he must’ve known when taking on the job that he’s not allowed to switch off. He is meant to be there for people like me.
And there are more reasons than ever today that he can’t give up. As a result of the QUT case, there is renewed pressure to water down Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which he is on record as opposing, which his boss (again, I presume) seems a little more amenable towards.
Also, with Donald Trump’s disaffected white majority reasserting its majority status and putting minorities back in their place, it’s more important than ever that such sentiments don’t gain a stronger foothold in Australia, whether through direct political influence or indirectly through Australia’s obsession with American media.
I hope Tim Soutphommasane does not lose heart, and does not give up. He can’t give up. I don’t want to go back to the 70’s and 80’s, where people felt free to tell me to go back to my own country right to my face.
Those of us with a voice need to speak up. Those of us with a platform need to use it. And if there’s anything to learn from the recent US elections, we need to talk to each other, actively listen to each other, empathise with each other, and find common ground. Hearts and minds are never won with abuse and ridicule.