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