Accidental Racism: The Elephant in the Room
No matter how honestly you can proclaim that you are an open-minded being who sees the world’s citizens as equal, chances are you sometimes can’t help but experience a mild twang of hesitation or apprehension when you encounter someone from a background wildly different to yours. Maybe you are unsure of what is and isn’t culturally sensitive conversation material; maybe you can’t help but feel sorry for them; maybe you feel intimated. You know these feelings are irrational, and you would probably never dare admit to such – dare I say it – racism (unless of course you’re a parochial xenophobe who thinks Pauline Hanson has some good ideas), but they exist nonetheless.
When you travel, you will often find you lapse into a friendship group comprised of people you meet from your own country. You can try to avoid it, but it tends to be inevitable. I guess you could call it national magnetism: Norwegians travel with Norwegians, Brazilians travel with Brazilians and Kiwis travel with Kiwis. You can relate to them comfortably, knowing you have a shared sense of humour, a shared history and shared points of cultural reference. Being Australian myself, I can definitely appreciate the simple comforts that come with being amongst my own kind – for instance, being able to say “cunt” out loud without anyone flinching.
But it wasn’t until recently that I began to pinpoint the reasons behind this phenomenon.
Whilst in Cambodia, I couldn’t help but feel like complete fuckwit whenever I was being touted around in a tuktuk. I was unable to bring myself to get a massage, a manicure or a happy ending, despite the fact that I’d have to no problem paying for such services back home. I felt condescending when I tipped anyone, and like an arsehole when I didn’t.
But one day, when the Phnom Penh heat proved too fiery for my vampiric skin, I flagged a tuktuk and directed it home. My driver was evidently more baked than Betty Crocker, and swerved through the traffic at a snail’s pace whistling Kid Cudi’s Pursuit of Happiness. By the time he dropped me off, we were both in hysterics and he offered me a joint to share with him despite neither of us speaking a word of the same language. Just like that, my inhibitions dissolved and I realised that he was just a regular stoner kid just like most boys I know whom I didn’t need to worry about exploiting or offending or feeling sorry for.
I’ve come to realisations like this twice before experience – the realisation of a common normality. The first time, I was in the Peruvian Amazon when a woman from a jungle-dwelling tribe who lived off the land (no seriously – her kid had typhoid or something similarly hectic and she just fed it some tree sap) invited me to a party where they blasted Pitbull all night. I fucking love Pitbull. The second time, I was in Ha’long Bay and a woman who resided in a floating village hundreds of kilometres from the mainland told me how good she was at Singstar, and that the reason she had so many children was because her and her husband get so bored bobbing around 24/7 that they just fuck all the time. Definitely relatable.
It all comes down to the bonding that accompanies a shared experience. It’s the same reason all those stupid Facebook pages used to get so many likes: Sleeping with a pillow between your legs, Getting so Drunk you have to close one eye and I secretly like the smell of cow pats (okay, maybe that’s just me). There is so much joy when you realise that you are not the only one that does something, and with that realisation comes the ability to relate. And it is the inability to relate that is the root of all racism.
A Melbourne man – Christos Tsiolkas – recently wrote an essay cementing the truth of this theory in my mind. He was exploring the prejudices that exist in Australia towards refugees, and was searching for a means of breaking down barriers in the fringe suburbs (which he admittedly kind of wrote off as philistine wastelands – a massive generalisation). He spoke of his first visit to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, where he noticed a group of five young Middle Eastern men squatting and having a conversation outside. Without being able to stop himself, and full of shame for doing so, he tensed up and tried to not look them in the eye, despite the fact that they were doing nothing menacing. Later, he sat in a café and watched a young Afghan man on the table across from him flicking through a magazine. On occasion, the man would look up from what he was reading to check out the attractive woman Tsiolkas was dining with.
“That small human moment – the universality and ubiquity of human desire – [flustered] me,” he said, as all of a sudden any trepidation he felt towards the man dissolved. “All it [took] was one glimpse of an innocent expression of human desire to make the scaffolding fall away.” He wanted to laugh at the ridiculousness of his previous reservations. Despite their different backgrounds, there was no actual difference between the pair. They were both just men – men who enjoy a cheeky perve whenever the opportunity arises.
And that, dear hobos, is all it takes. So next time you inadvertently catch yourself avoiding eye contact, conversation or contact with someone foreign, don’t feel ashamed and suppress the feeling: address it. Look for that sliver of sameness, some hint of universal normality, and acknowledge it. That is how we will end racism – accidental and otherwise.