Wednesday, December 7, 2016
A couple of days ago, a major survey of 22,000 young people revealed that 90 per cent of Mandarin speakers and 80 per cent of Cantonese speakers have experienced racism in Australia. On its face, it’s a pretty damning figure.
But last night, I experienced something with a new acquaintance that compelled me to question my position on the excuse people often make for racist behaviour, which is “I didn’t mean for it to be racist”. Here’s what happened.
I was sitting at the dinner table waiting for everyone to arrive when I hear a voice from over my shoulder, “Oh, it’s that shit photographer.”
Based on the tone and delivery, I felt my mind shift gears as I comprehended this to be a form of British-Australian sarcasm intended to be a friendly greeting. He later revealed that his greeting was informed by a book he read before moving to Australia from the UK; a book called The Xenophobe’s Guide to Aussies, first published in 1993. In it, the book explains that when an Australian insults you, it actually means he or she likes you. This little nugget of information worked for him as a British expat, so he embraced it as part of his integration into Australian culture.
It’s a cultural behaviour that took me many years to understand. It is layered and complex. Many immigrants flat-out don’t understand it. On its face, it doesn’t correspond with political correctness. But it’s a thing. It’s real.
I found myself wondering how different my life might’ve been in the 1980s if I’d read this book. Were any of the racist incidents that I felt scarred by actually just people trying to be friendly?
I’ll never know.
But these kids claiming that they’ve experienced racism; I have no doubt they believe that’s what happened. But I also question whether they understand the whole “we’re insulting you because we like you” thing. And if they don’t, would their opinion change once explained?
For me, it comes down to sentiment. The context. The delivery. That’s how Australians know whether “mate” is meant as a pejorative or a term of endearment. These are the lessons that are missed when we start assuming the worst in each other, and then rely on trigger words and binary logic to demonise certain behaviour.
If we are to thrive as a multicultural society, we cannot continue to allow ourselves to be ruled by edicts on what words can and cannot be said. We need to be better than that.
About today’s photo: A photography session was turned into a chapter of ‘The Da Vinci Code’ as I was led on a wild goose chase for my quarry. I thought the talent was nuts… until I met him. Turns out he’s just so deeply invested in his work that he has no understanding of how other people work.