It Ain’t Easy Being Brown
One morning, I was riding the rails in Sydney town. As we approached Central Station, my fellow social-misers in the quiet carriage began milling towards the sliders to more efficiently make it to their cubicles. I remained seated, facing forward next to the steps, when an elderly man inquired, “So, do you like Australia?”
I spun to face him, a little stunned that I was being questioned. “Yeah, sure I do. I like Australia. Why do you ask?” I said, to which he responded, “Well because you’re not from here, are you?”
Now I was hardly sporting a corked cocky’s hat, nor was I draped in Driza, but I was covered in the cultural accruements of my 35 years spent girt by red dust. I’m an Australian, have only ever been an Australian, was born in Australia. I’m an Australian, however – and for whatever reason of genetics that is my business and also largely my mystery – who happens to be brown.
I wasn’t indignant as much as I was embarrassed to be interrogated in public by a complete stranger in the Hornsby-Central quiet carriage. The man, in his defense, was more confused than malicious, ignorant rather than racist. I informed him that I was Australian. He asked about my parents; I said Australian too. This would have been a lie in his eyes, as my mother, a mixed-race South African, fled apartheid with her family as a child and hasn’t since been back. It wasn’t a lie for me, because she’s Australian by every measure that a reasonable person would apply.
He said, “Oh. Well isn’t it terrible that these trains no longer run all the way to Newcastle.”
This line of questioning for me isn’t new. I am often asked upon meeting people where I’m from, my honest antipodean reply eliciting from them the follow up, “Nah, but where are you really from?”
It’s not nice to have one’s nationality questioned based on nothing more than something as nondescript and irrelevant as skin tone. I’ve complained to friends who have suggested I pander to my inquisitors’ unwarranted interests – letting them in on the wonderful genetic journey I’ve taken from South Africa, via Europe, Southeast Asia, and the Indian Subcontinent with a dash of Khoisan and Australian Aboriginal for good measure.
They say, “Nah, you don’t look African. I would have said Maori/Fijian/South American/Pakistani/(insert any brown person they’d recently seen in the media or maybe workplace).”
That these individuals feel empowered enough to enquire of me, a complete stranger (and a 200cms x 110kgs complete stranger of potentially radical violence), where I’m from without even considering that I may be offended and upset to the point of weeping and/or table flipping speaks volumes of how entrenched ideas of appearance are in Australia’s definitions of what does and does not constitute nationality. What’s more, it shows just how far white Australia’s acceptance of migrants – particularly those who don’t appear to be Anglo Australians – hasn’t come.
White Australia, for how long does one have to live here before the “go back to where you’re from” slur is no longer applicable? I have recent personal experience of this, being told by an ex-acquaintance new-racist via social media to return from whence I’d sprung.
“To Gosford?” I offered, “No thanks.”
One shouldn’t be threatened with removal from here if one has leapt through the requisite migration hoops. Okay, passed a citizenship test. Or lived here for a while. Or speaks English. Or has an Australian accent, kids who play footy and tells dirty jokes at the pub. Or is born here. Or, what? It seems now that nothing is enough bar appearing Anglo and having a reasonably consonant-light last name. It’s not fair that Australians of differing appearance are comfortably threatened with deportation when we don’t stay on the Vegemite side of the inferred line of un-unAustralian behavior – and then there’s a debate as to whether it’s racist or not.
But of course it’s the fault of the Libs. Old mate on the train, anybody who measures Australian identity as being best defined by whiteness, are empowered by the Liberal government and its hand-wiping rhetoric of Team Australia turning back boats and deporting dual-national dissenters. This is drastically creating an easily identified “other”, one who we’re happy to send packing if they don’t play by the assumed Anglicised rules of Aussie behaviour.
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Ex-editor of Australia’s Surfing Life, current producer and host of 50 Fiestas, Barcelona resident and drinker of all the wine, every last drop of it.