The Firsthand Racism I Experienced In Australia

The Firsthand Racism I Experienced In Australia
Australia is a country that was built on genocide

AFRICANGLOBE – Adam Goodes, an indigenous Australian football player, doing an indigenous dance and throwing an imaginary spear (it was actually choreographed as a boomerang) towards the crowd to celebrate a goal during Indigenous Week has opened a can of worms in Australia.

Some people suggest Adam Goodes is provocative and divisive. While others suggest Australia is a racist country.

When my father immigrated to Australia in the 1980s, he used to send me postcards of the iconic Opera House and Bondi beach with happy people sun bathing and kangaroos running around in a beautiful and wild country. I was enchanted.

Growing up in troubled Bolivia, I used to romanticize those idyllic postcards, believing Australia was the perfect place, with no racial, class or poverty issues like the ones happening in my country. Australia was the country where my father could achieve his dreams and voice his political views without getting locked up or even killed, a country where his dark skin and features didn’t matter.

Years later, I joined my father and moved to Australia. I was shocked when I saw how my dad was living in the perfect country. He was living the life of a struggling immigrant, working on jobs that white Australians refused to do, living in the margins; he drank too much, ate too little and gambled to excess. Instinctively, I blamed him — how on earth can he live like this in a country where your dreams come true? The country where “everyone gets a fair go” is preached like the national anthem?

During one of my first days in Sydney, riding my bicycle, I came across a wall with a big indigenous flag painted on it in a neighborhood that wasn’t consistent with the Australia of my dreams. I’d landed on The Block in Redfern. There were people in the streets, children running around with no shoes; there was clearly a sense of poverty and devastation, right there in the middle of Sydney.

Rita, a beautiful girl approached me and asked, “What’s up, sister? Are you all right?” I replied, “I’m alright, I don’t live too far from here. Where are you from?” I asked Rita. “From here. And you?” She asked back. “What do you mean? You’re from here? I mean which country do you guys come from?” I insisted. Rita responded, “This is my country, it always has been.

Rita was 23, just like me. We had a smoke and laughed together talking about boys and silly things. Rita and I were two indigenous girls but from different lands; I was full of dreams while Rita seemed full of nightmares. Our friendship continued through the years until one day, just after I graduated from university, I went to the block and couldn’t find Rita. I asked around and her auntie told me Rita was arrested for pick pocketing. I thought she would be back soon — pick pocketing certainly can’t land you in jail for a long time, especially not in this fair country. A year later, I went back to look for Rita. I was already making my first film; things were looking up for me. I found Rita with no teeth; she’d aged fast. She told me she was just released; she was held in a prison far away, and her family didn’t have money to visit her. By now, Rita didn’t have much spark in her eyes. I said, “Rita. Why don’t you study so you can get out of this?” She looked at me and laughed. “You’ve been spending lots of time with the white folk and now you’re talking like them too.” I was so embarrassed. We had a smoke together again and I left.

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Australia is still carrying out a slow genocide against the native people whose land they stole

That was the last time I saw Rita. She was incarcerated again, and when I went to visit her, they told me she was moved to another prison that morning; from then, I lost track of her. Our lives had grown worlds apart. Rita and I were both kids that struggled, daughters of minorities, of people who were discriminated against; yet her skin color was darker than mine, and somehow as an immigrant, I had a better chance to make it than she did. In her own land, Rita had the odds stacked against her. Her story isn’t an isolated one; in a country where only three percent of the population are indigenous, the same indigenous minority make up 28 percent of the prison population. The life expectancy of indigenous people is 10 years lower than that of the non-Indigenous population and indigenous youth commit suicide at a rate 10 times greater than non-Indigenous youth.

I studied media and journalism, and I remember in my second year of university, we had an assignment to film a short story. A classmate recorded the story of two indigenous girls who won a scholarship to boarding school. To attend the new school, the two girls had to leave their families behind and travel 1000s of kilometers. On their first day, the girls looked so sad; they were the only indigenous kids in the all-white boarding school. Not surprisingly, to me anyway, the girls escaped and went back home, but the message of the film was how ungrateful these little girls were. I remember asking the class, why doesn’t this rich country have good schools in isolated places and indigenous communities? I would have escaped too. I wanted to escape this university as well.

I had to cope with hostility from many of my classmates and even teachers. A girl whose father was the head of SBS TV (the immigrant radio and TV station) provokingly asked me why I bothered studying? Since, according to her, no one would ever give me a chance. Her father told her that someone with an accent and dark skin had no chance of getting a job on TV in Australia.

I didn’t escape, and I finished my degree at Charles Sturt University in Bathurst, one of several regional universities created to cater for and be accessible to aboriginal students. The only thing was, there weren’t any aboriginal students to be seen.

After I finished university, I got an internship at SBS and made friends with an indigenous news reporter at the end of the year Christmas party. A few weeks later that summer, I was invited to the beach by some SBS colleagues. When my new friend and I arrived my open-minded, educated, journalist colleagues expressed their opinion about indigenous people by telling us, “It’s so good to have someone like you join us, who’s educated and not alcoholic like the others.” My indigenous friend and I looked at each other and walked away.

Another day, while walking through Central station in Sydney, I saw a couple of police officers hassling two old indigenous men sitting on a bench drinking beer. It seemed they were about to be taken away, so I asked what was happening and I was told sternly by the police that no one’s allowed to drink alcohol on a public street. I asked if the rule was only for people of color and pointed out to the police officers that I’d seen them pass by a group of white guys minutes before drinking on the street making more of a nuisance than this two indigenous men. I showed them my journalist card and told them I’d write about this, fortunately for the two indigenous guys, the police went back to talk to the other group of white guys. Just in June 2015, two indigenous men died in custody, one of them was arrested for drinking in public.

Australia, the perfect country, was showing me its true colors.

While working at SBS, two colleagues one an eighth generation Australian of Indian decent, were violently attacked by a group of white men when returning home from a concert. They both ended up in the hospital. Why? Because of the color of their skin.

Years later, I married my filmmaking partner, a white Australian who ironically grew up thinking he couldn’t marry someone who didn’t speak English as a first language. He now speaks Spanish and we have a little daughter. I witnessed his transformation from a point of white privilege to someone who’s grown empathy and understanding of the crimes his ancestors committed against Australia’s indigenous people. This change isn’t easy for him; it is isolating, as the majority of his friends and family remain the same. It isn’t easy for me either; I feel frustrated and offended at family occasions with so-called “open-minded” white Australians who can’t go more than 10 minutes without a racial comment or insult.

This is the real Australia, a country that is tolerant so long as we the minorities stay in our place, so long as we, the minorities, don’t challenge the status quo. A country where we, the minorities, are expected to smile at the racism thrown at us in the media, on the bus, or at family dinners by well-meaning white people. It seems we’re expected to be thankful because we’re lucky to be in their great country. Oh, how often I’ve heard people say, “If you don’t like it here, you can go back to where you came from!”

It seems, they’ve forgotten the simple fact that a third of Australia’s population was born in another country. Ironically, the most disadvantaged Australians aren’t from somewhere else at all. We talk proudly about the fact that Australia is a multicultural country, as long as the multi-cultural society remains subordinate to the dominating white culture.

I remember seeing Cathy Freeman winning the gold medal at the Olympics, running with her aboriginal flag, I felt insanely proud. I believed it was possible for a woman like me to achieve my dreams, that my future didn’t have to be determined by my skin color. However, I was very offended when she was chastised by the Australian Olympic committee, among others, for displaying the flag and celebrating her indigenous identity.

When Adam Goodes called out the 13-year-old for calling him an ape, I felt something was about to change in the white Australian tradition of sweeping anything slightly uncomfortable or challenging to white privilege under the carpet; this happened almost two years ago. With the recent booing of Adam the controversy just continues to grow, finally this time sparking real, meaningful conversations about racism in Australia.

We the minorities need to unite and demand change, challenging the dominant group who have shaped how we view others and ourselves in order to maintain power. We all need to stand up to racism just like Adam Goodes did and fight for our right to live in a fair society, to begin with demanding that Indigenous Australians be recognized in the country’s constitution.

I feel it is very mean for the mainstream media to try to destroy all the heroes who don’t look and behave like the dominant white Australian.

Adam Goodes has proven to be a real hero inside and outside the footy field.


By: Violeta Ayala


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