Australia, I’m Tired of Your Casual Racism

Features. Posted 6 months ago

Yen-Rong Wong

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Image: by artist Kate Shaw. Image Source.

I talk and write about my name a lot. Sometimes I think I go a little overboard, but then someone makes a joke about my name, or an assumption based on the “foreignness” of my name, and I am reminded that my battle is not yet over. At work, I have had people tell me, “welcome to our country”, and others have asked to “speak to someone who can speak English”. I have dealt with people making jokes about my name since I started school, and honestly, I don’t see it stopping any time soon. I have honed my responses to such affronts, usually resorting to my good friends, snark and sarcasm. But even though I have never yelled or sworn in these responses, I am often accused of overreacting, of ‘not being able to take a joke.’

And herein lies one of the major issues with casual racism. It doesn’t feel like racism to those who have never experienced it. To them, it is just a joke. To them, it is not a reinforcement of years of blatant and internalised racism. That feeling is hard to explain, especially to those who have (luckily) never had to experience such a phenomenon, and even harder to those who believe in the outrageous concept of reverse racism. At times, I have gotten to the point where I have had to tell myself to step back from an argument, that it wouldn’t be worth the effort because I’d just end up tiring myself out.

Casual racism is so-called for a reason, but at times, it can be something of a misnomer. It is easy to dismiss something that has been labelled “casual” – casual clothes are shorts, a t-shirt, and some thongs. Casual implies minimal effort, and the ease with which casually racist remarks seem to slip out of people’s mouths never ceases to surprise me. Unfortunately, it is not so easy to brush off. Guess what – I usually understand why the joke was made, and how it was meant to be funny, or clever, or perhaps both. I understand why you think it would be a good idea to win me over by making a pun or a joke out of my name. But it is never just a joke for us, and declaring it so demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the impacts of racism, both blatant and casual.

I can, of course, only speak to and of my own experiences, and I’m sure there are many, many others out there who have stories of their own. Being a woman – let alone an Asian woman – presents its own unique challenges. The stereotype of the ‘Oriental woman’ still exists, a piece of colonialism that endures to this day. We are supposed to be meek, airheaded, deferential to patriarchal power. We are supposed to speak broken English, to pine for rich white men. At the same time, we are devilish, foreign, waiting to entrap men with our feminine wiles. What a paradox.

I hope none of these thoughts are at the forefront of anyone’s mind, but I know there are people out there who think this way, and there are even more who have internalised at least some of these ideals. Most of my interactions with such beliefs have manifest in seemingly innocuous jokes – that is, until the conversation turns sour at my use of the word ‘racist’.

None of us like to be called racist. I get it. To you, it conjures up images of ‘obvious’ hatred where malicious intent is clear. It makes us uncomfortable – and so it should. That discomfort should push you to learn, to try to understand, and to not make that same mistake again. Instead of an interjection of “I’m not racist, but…”, or “I have Asian friends and they make jokes like this all the time”, perhaps the next phrase to come out of your mouth should be, “tell me more about this, I’m listening”. We all have much to learn from one another, and it can be difficult to make progress when all you can hear is a cacophony of voices, shouting over each other, and unwilling to make compromises.

Some people say that we should go back to being able to say whatever we want to whomever we want, because we’ve become too politically correct. I disagree. The fact of the matter is that people in marginalised groups have simply become less afraid of speaking up, and are now demanding to be heard. We owe them the time to speak, and a space in which they can feel comfortable speaking about their experiences. Though we have come a long way, there is an even longer road ahead. If the advent of Brexit, Donald Trump’s election to the American presidency, and the resurgence of One Nation here in Australia is anything to go by, we must not become complacent.

So next time someone tells you that you’ve said something racist, resist the urge to get your hackles up. Don’t get defensive. Instead, listen. Aspire to be better – not just for yourself, but also for the people around you. For the people you know now, and the people you will meet along the course of your life. Ask questions, but be respectful. Inclusivity is not just a word you can toss around at will. It is something that needs to be continually worked at, and worked on.

So listen. Learn. And maybe then I will be finally able to stop yapping on about my name.

Read more by Yen-Rong Wong:

No, Cultural Appropriation is Not a ‘Passing Fad’