So Your Grandparents Are Racist?

So Your Grandparents Are Racist?

We might blame it on brainwashing from years of threats of the wooden spoon or slipper, but first and second generation Australians really need to stop listening to their racist families.

My name is Jelena Zaric and if you ask me if I’m Croatian, I won’t be offended. I’m actually Serbian-Australian, but it’s an easy mistake to make considering the name is wildly popular in both countries, which have an almost identical culture, language and history.

But there are some people who see this question as some kind of venomous insult. Take my grandparents, for example. The long list of people they actively dislike and try to avoid include Croats, Bosnians, Albanians and Turks, along with any other Muslims. Also, “the gays”. Which is why I can’t subscribe to the same sentiment; in the multi-cultural Australia that we live in, I would be friendless on the basis that my grandparents would really prefer that I don’t associate with those  people.

My grandfather sat me down one day and asked very seriously, “Do you have Muslim friends?” I wasn’t ashamed of the fact that many of my friends are Muslim, nor should I be, so I told him I did. The next 15 minutes was spent listening to Islamophobic rhetoric: “They’re different to us”, “They don’t respect women the way we do”, “They want you to think the same way they do”, and so on.

After defending myself, my choices and my friends, he conceded with, “Fine, do what you want, but if you marry a Muslim, I’m not coming to your wedding.”

I decided not to share when I started dating my Lebanese Muslim boyfriend.

You see, despite the fact that we will never see eye-to-eye, I can understand his perspective. He comes from a different time, a different place, informed by his own lived experience.

Less than 25 years ago, Serbia and Croatia were locked in a bloody and savage war of Croatian independence. Less than 20 years ago, Serbian and Albanian-Kosovar forces engaged in an ethnically and religiously charged dispute over the liberation of Kosovo. 23 years ago, ethnic Serbs committed one of the most gruesome genocides in history against Bosnian Muslims. I think many in the Western world – especially those as far isolated as the Australian public – fail to realise that only in 2001 did the Yugoslav wars end.

No doubt, the wounds and memories of these conflicts are still fresh in the minds of those who lived through them or fled from them, but these memories are not and never will be something fresh in the mind of the child of immigrants. It cannot be a justification for racial vilification by someone who was born in this country, with the opportunities, safety and isolation from racial tension that a new homeland has offered.

For so much of my life, I was sheltered from not only the effects of these conflicts, but the actual existence of them. My sisters and I were all born in the duration of these wars, in the decade which they spanned. We were raised with Australian values, with an appreciation for the multicultural nature of the country we were born in, with tolerance. Being more than 15,000km away from and 20 years past the conflict, I know I could never find it within myself to hold on to the mentality that my grandparents have. One that is founded on lived experience and a personal relationships with these historical contexts.

Which is why when I was on a bus to a school camp and surrounded by kids from a city just south of Sydney in  2014, I was disturbed and dumbfounded as to why I heard this thundering chant from behind me:


A group of boys – all from former Yugoslav backgrounds, none of them Croatian, all of them born in this country — yelling a Serbian war cry. Ustaša was an ultra-nationalistic, fascist radical group that believed in the ethnic ‘purification’ and expansion of Croatia. Although the group was responsible for the death of thousands of Serbs, Romani and Jews, the term is commonly used as a slur against Croatians by Serbians. Ubi means kill.

Kill, kill, kill Croatians.

Why the hell was a group of first and second generation Australians singing this on a school trip?

I have never been able to answer this question. I’ve never been able to understand how, when being so far removed from, not only the conflict, but, the land, the culture, the language and the history, this blatant hatred and prejudice can come out of the mouths of those who call Australia their home and birthplace.

Speaking to my cousin in Serbia who was born into the Yugoslav wars, she couldn’t make sense of the second hand racism and ethnic elitism that pervades some circles. She couldn’t understand why, in Australia, this was an issue, when in Serbia the prejudice is nearly forgotten with the younger generations.

The reason we see these attitudes in modern Australian society is because of the isolation from culture and land. We see refugees from times of war and migrants stuck in their views that are based on what they have seen and felt in the countries they’ve fled from or left behind. Absolutely, the mentality of these new Australians can be seen as founded and justified. However, when these views are passed on to the next generation, they manifest into mindsets that don’t have the opportunity to breathe because they don’t see the changes. They don’t see the altering perceptions of the younger generations, or prejudices fading into nothing in the face of rebuilding and reestablishing diplomatic and cultural relations in the countries they once called home. Intolerance is not a family heirloom, not a legacy to be passed down.

And I don’t want to be misconstrued in the thought that these instances of casual racism exist only on the part of Serbian-Australians. It works both ways with Croats and Albanians, with Greeks and Macedonians, Lebanese and Israelis. It is an issue of residual racism that permeates so many cultural groups in Australia.

I love my ethnicity. I love my background, my language, my history. I love my people, the food and the music. I resent the actions and agendas of the past in some instances and I will be the first to admit that there are some things that cannot be forgiven or forgotten. But there is a difference between remembering and perpetuating. I will not forget the stories my grandmother told me of Bosnian Muslims gruesomely murdering members of her family, just as I’m sure Bosnian Muslims will never forget the Srebrenica massacre.

But, I will not perpetuate the prejudice, animosity and nationalism of the mindset of the time, because in this place and time, there is no need. This mentality is not and should never be a characteristic of a culture. Instead of indulging in hatred, I’ll continue to indulge in my grandmother’s cooking and throw down shots of rakija, whilst listening to Serbian folk music, because I know this is the purest form of ethnic pride there is.

Cover by Thomas Summer 

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