Day 317: Back on my soap box

Day 317: Back on my soap box

Day 317: Back on my soap box

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.

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2 thoughts on “Day 317: Back on my soap box

  1. Maybe Tim Soutphommasane really was worried about all things going on within his role and the broader things going on around today. Or maybe he just had a late night. Not sure if he usually looks more chipper on other days you pass by him. Maybe, maybe not.

    Once I saw him in Melbourne. It was around 8am in the morning about a year and half ago, and I was heading down the escalators to the Melbourne Central train station. He was going up the escalator dressed in a suit and tie, probably just got off a packed train. He looked like what you described – quite deflated, and sort of in a daze. It didn’t look like he was in a hurry. In fact, I got the feeling that he was plodding along with what he is expected to do.

    I enjoy your blog for what it is – your photography (your self portraits have inspired me to do my own self portraits with the camera timer, believe it or not) and thoughts on life in general. But when you do posts on identity, race and what you just wrote here, I read from start to finish. They are very honest thoughts that you voice in such posts, all very true and it is this kind of honesty that everyone regardless of race should know – or at the very least strive to talk about diversity as openly as you do.

    On my blog I do write about such issues, but over the years I’ve spread out the topics sporadically – there is only so much one can say about a particular topic without sounding like a broken record and having then turn away.

    As a Chinese Australian who apparently speaks with an accent (depending on who I talk to), explaining all those Chinese nuances to Westerners and non-Chinese friends/acquaintances is something I’m all too familiar with. But a lot of the time, I don’t feel the need to explain myself until the other person “gets it”. Sometimes you really just can’t change another’s opinion or they simply can’t connect with a different logic, and I have come to accept that. There is only so much we can do in one moment in time. Sometimes people simply want to hear what they want to hear, as in the case with Trump having and eating his own cake at the recent election. On the subject of safety spaces, we all need those for us to simply be ourselves. But then there will be some among us who will argue that these spaces are more exclusive then inclusive.

    And that all really is worrying in the face of multiculturalism an equality for all. I don’t believe we can change someone’s opinion or advance multiculturalism with one conversation. It takes time. It is an ongoing process that needs to be done across various platforms and most importantly face-to-face to instate the fact that all of us are people who do want the same things, and props to Tim Soutphommasane for standing in his role over these past years. In the future, though, it would be good to see more faces like him on that scale standing up for everyone, each other, in the community.

    • Thanks Mabel. I often wonder if the observations in missives such as this represent an opportunity for people like you and I. I am always on the search for a community of rational thinkers who are interested in advancing constructive discussion around race and culture within Australia, who would be taken seriously. But they are either non-existent or leaning too extremely in political advocacy to be taken seriously.

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