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Am I ‘too sensitive’ or are you ‘too racist’?

racism

When you write about controversial topics, you soon become used to being vilified for your opinions. As a feminist writer and editor, I have become used to being labeled a ‘man-hater’ or a harpie, being accused of low intelligence or of blatant lies, and generally being maligned and ridiculed by anti-feminists across the internet (and sometimes in person).

I can usually wear this by using a combination of patience, resolution in my views, and a firm belief that everyone is entitled to their opinions.

However, there are some comments that leave a more bitter aftertaste than others. Lately I’ve found that when I write about issues of racism or the subtle difficulties I face as a migrant in Australia, a new kind of commenting has started to occur and it makes me quite uncomfortable.

I migrated to Australia from Fiji in 1992, when I was three years old. I have grappled with my cultural identity for all of my life, as far as I can remember. Am I Indian, Fijian or Australian? Do others see me as a ‘migrant’ or as a citizen like everyone else? Am I really Indian if I don’t engage with the culture, barely speak the language and live my life without any commitment to my family’s traditions? Is my ethnic identity based on the biological facts of my genetics, or is it culturally produced based on my lived experiences?

In order to work through some of these ideas, I started blogging about my experiences regularly. I covered topics as far ranging as my inadequate performance at yoga to incidents of racism in my various workplaces.  I tend to write in a fairly balanced way in general, but as these were personal posts referencing my subjective experiences, of course my personal views were apparent in the writing.

Having accumulated a fairly large audience for my posts, I started getting comments on my articles. As well as supportive comments, or comments that made genuine points about the ideas I was dissecting, I started regularly receiving comments along the lines of ‘stop whining, you’re too sensitive, that wasn’t racism it was a completely normal assumption, JEEZ!’.

The comments were primarily aimed at my articles on casual racism, and were defensive and often quite patronizing. The implication of the comments were that my discomfort around strangers making assumptions based on my ethnicity (for example, that I must be related to any other Indian present) were just me ‘crying racism’ and that these sorts of assumptions are common for all people regardless of their appearance. One went so far as to say that my skin colour was just being used like any other physical descriptor (blue eyes, hair colour whatever), and that I was being immature in taking any comments personally.

I can’t speak for the experiences of millions of other Australians, and I never claimed to be. But in the context of a multicultural country, and the race relations that have pervaded our society since it was formed, skin colour is not just a physical descriptor.

My skin colour has been used as a way to point out my differences since I was a child. Between being called ‘brown like poo’ for most of primary school, to being interrogated on my background by strangers in supermarkets, to having people regularly ask me where ‘home’ is, because they just assume it can’t be Australia, my skin has never been used in the way that someone’s hair colour might be commented on as unusual or interesting.

My skin has always, always been used to point out the fact that I am a minority. This is not to say that comments on my colour or ethnicity have always been negative, and it’s certainly not to say that there is anything wrong with engaging with someone about their ethnic background.

But it is a very small step between innocuously asking someone where they’re from originally, and making a range of offensive assumptions about someone based on their race – whether or not you mean it in a ‘bad way’.

For example, my mother regularly has people speak to her very slowly and deliberately in shops, clearly because they think she might not understand English. This could be seen as people being considerate, but when it means that sometimes cashiers roll their eyes when she approaches, or that airlines occasionally make her wait until last to be served because they assume she’ll take longer than other customers, it’s no longer so nice.

Or how about the number of times strangers make jokes about how I must wish I could be eating curry all the time, or how I must be an awesome Bollywood dancer, or speak to me in a faux Indian accent? These things are all harmless as individual instances, but in the broader tapestry of my life, it means I spend more time laughing off assumptions about what I ‘must be like’ based on nothing more than my appearance, than I do actually getting to discuss things that do interest me or that are reflective of my actual interests and personality.

Maybe to someone who doesn’t regularly deal with racism or racially based assumptions, this seems like ‘whining’, or a waste of time. But when you think about the spate of racial attacks on public transport, or the truly vicious attitudes some Australians have about asylum seekers, small incidents like this start forming part of the broader narrative of racism in Australia, and they say a lot about the subtle racism that exists in our society.

Ultimately, my experiences are my experiences. Whether or not someone means a comment to be racist or offensive, sometimes comments can hurt or be upsetting because they don’t exist in a vacuum, and they can pile on top of dozens of other similar remarks to eventually wear away at my patience.

Telling me that a situation that upset me because it felt racist is not ‘really racism’ or that I’m being too ‘sensitive’ does nothing other than to tell me to ‘shut up’. And silencing me or any other migrant is not going to solve racism – it just ignores the real issue and adds to the shame and discomfort we are already feeling.

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4 thoughts on “Am I ‘too sensitive’ or are you ‘too racist’?

  1. I’m so sick and tired of being derided for making people uncomfortable about their bigotry, for being too sensitive, for having a stick up my ass, for having an obsession with political correctness.

    Your article serves to demonstrate why it’s important to keep making people uncomfortable about their prejudices. People who are racist are not the victims, and they don’t have the right to judge whether or not their actions or words are hurtful to the people they’re offending. The impact of racist conduct can only be assessed by its effect on the subject, not the perpetrator’s intent.

    Thanks for writing this article. I’m from all over and my racial/ ethnic identity is nobody’s business but my own. I just say I’m from Richmond.

  2. Great article, Zoya. I heard someone (i think Dan Sultan) on the radio the other day say that if you don’t find something offensive, then you don’t get to say if it’s offensive or not. So the haters on your articles can sod off! If you think something is racist, if it hurts you, then it’s a negative thing, plain and simple. X o

  3. I see the ‘you’re too sensitive’ type reaction as another form of victim blaming. I identify myself as having 2 nationalities, and I think it is a wonderful thing. Great article – “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing” Keep sharing!

  4. This article neatly sums up my life experience. Tired of creeping, subtle racism in Australia. Cashiers serving the white person first, even though I arrived before them. Cliques of chit-chat at various events (former strangers who appear to make the assumption that a white skin is sufficient to form a close bond – “one of our kind”) that make no attempt to include other cultures, apparently based on preconceptions. A hospital maternity nurse telling me how grateful I should be that my child is born in Australia – I wonder if she tells all her other white clients that?

    Being South African-born, with Indian heritage (now over 100 years ago – longer than many “white” Australians have lived here!) and an Australian migrant, there are some patterns of discrimination that keep recurring.

    I don’t approach a person of lighter skin tone & ask them if they’re of Irish descent (or Slovak, or Swedish…) i.e. a random label based on prejudice. But for some reason, people seem comfortable doing the reverse to me.

    The scary thing is that my grandchildren may still be treated with the same “fresh off the boat” prejudice by locals, while those with paler skins who have just arrived will be spared this injustice.

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