In Sunday Life this week I confront my racism

If you’re not born of a racial minority, are comfortably middle-class and you catch taxis then you might identify with this scenario. On Monday I climbed into a Melbourne taxi. “Airport please.” The Sudanese driver was playing Middle Eastern music and spoke basic English. He grunted in reply.

Now, you might class me a small-L liberal (latte-sipping, bike-lane hogging, broadsheet-toting) multiculturalist. Which means I probably wouldn’t admit to having a particular “take” on this gentleman. Or his culture. Of course not.

Which is why at the lights when he unwinds his window and yells excitedly in Arabic with his African mate in the next taxi I’m only mildly put out. I ask him what they were discussing. “Football!” he says with a massive grin. “I’m Western Bulldogs, my little sons Western Bulldogs fans. He’s Hawthorn.” He punches the air and cackles happily.

Immediately my heart swelled. And I was flooded with all kinds of sappy jingoism – isn’t Australia incredible! He can barely speak English, but he’s adopted one of our passions. How wonderful! A reaction that served to blatantly expose the – ughhh! – prejudiced, threatened “take” I’d had when I first jumped in his taxi.

Now, the interesting thing is only 45 minutes earlier I’d been speaking to Raye an Adelaide woman who lives opposite Inverbrackie detention centre. She’s just taken part in SBS’s timely documentary Go Back To Where You Came From (which screens THIS Tuesday – Thursday) that follows six Australians who challenge their particular “takes” on asylum seekers by personally tracing refugees’ journeys. Before setting out, Raye said the boatpeople who crashed at Christmas Island in December deserved their fate and that Middle Eastern people don’t deserve our help. “They’re ungrateful. And arrogant.”

But then she set off to East Timor in a dodgy boat (that started to sink; they had to be rescued), spent time in a Malaysian refugee camp (where she witnessed Burmese asylum seekers being beaten with baseball bats) and lived in Kakuma camp in Kenya as a refugee with only refugee papers, a bowl and a mosquito net to her name. Raye says she could never imagine feeling such fear and hopelessness. Turns out it was the same camp where my taxi driver had spent seven years awaiting his freedom. I cried when he tells me this.

Raye says she’d always had a “thing” against the Sudanese. “I thought they were violent and shouldn’t come here. But I saw fighting is part of their culture, it’s all they know…to stay alive.” Having spent time “in their shoes” she says she felt what it was like to have no rights, no voice. “There was nothing I could do, every bit of our lives was at the mercy of authorities.” So she “got” their anger. Their shame. Their fear.

I spent the rest of the week considering the awkward shifts Raye and I had experienced. Studies say we’re all born racist. We’re programmed to fear “the other”. Which is ugly. But the good news is that neuroscience shows our brains fight this inherent prejudice when it arises (the amygdala, responsible for self-control, fires up following a prejudiced thought) and that we can actually rewire our brains to be inclusive and compassionate in the face of “the other”. Indeed it’s what our brains desire! The “intergroup-contact hypotheses”, a theory guiding much racism research, says contact with the other and a shared goal can rewire things. This happened with Raye. She lived with Sudanese families, uniting with them to stay alive. Ergo, a shift.

Which is interesting right? On the one hand we default to separatism and fear. On the other we crave opportunities to be inclusive, to reframe. Which could be why my brain melted in gratitude when I had an opportunity to reframe the Sudanese footy fan as one of “us”. Thank goodness, my brain was saying, we can be freed of such smallness and ughness.

And which, to my mind, is why

it’s imperative Governments work to provide such opportunities for our collective brains to rise above our ugly default position.

To reframe refugees as “us”.

I called Raye back to ask her about the Middle Eastern people. “Is it possible the arrogance you don’t like is also cultural?” I asked if it might be possible to reframe her feelings as she did with the Sudanese. “I hope so,” she said. “I want to.”



Have your say, leave a comment.

  • Arletta Sloan


    Though, I have never heard of these studies and wouldn’t believe them for a second. Why?

    Because, I have heard hundreds of tales of people raised in cultures dedicated to extreme prejudice, such as South Africa , the deep south in America, South Korea … hm … beware the south, aye? Anyway, hundreds of people who were raised in cultures of that nature, who remember the point in their childhood where they were forced to start developing prejudice against a racial group, or perhaps all racial groups, in order to protect their family from the bigots that be, be allowed to be a member of the society that ran things, be able to hold a job working for the people who ran things, etc.

    Many Klansmen grew up as children playing with other children, until some of those children turned out to be people labeled with that dreaded n word and had to be excluded from further play, less they think that, as adults, they were still allowed to come over and visit.

    The Dutch settlers in South Africa, most of them, were forced to be prejudiced against the blacks by their government. Even when they listened and enslaved the blacks, many of them had a very lax attitude toward slavery and tended to treat the blacks as helpful friends, then as helpful friends who had to use the back door (as policies got stricter), and, eventually, to save their own lives and the lives of their families and the lives of their friends who were the wrong shade for the government to deal with, they had to cut off all ties except where work was involved and treat them as workers, if not worse.

    Most cultures have tales of greeting visitors with happiness, and, for a time, sharing their land and food with them, maybe intermarrying. Until, eventually, one group went crazy and wanted more and that’s when those other people were hated for being what they were.

    Prejudiced is a by-product of selfishness and greed. Children have an inherent selfishness and greed which extends to everyone who has anything that they want or might take what they have, at some ages; but, they also have the desire to share, to care for the other people, to embrace and love anyone who is kind, funny, or smiling. Which is why it’s so important to watch your children, because, really, they will mostly trust and go off with anyone, regardless of what they look or smell like.

    So, no, I don’t believe we are born with a fear of “others”. I believe we, if never having seen “others” until we are older children, have a curiosity of and fascination for others. And, that the rules of prejudice are all about keeping our own culture intact while seeking advantage for our own people. The fact that the Klu Klux Klan exists argues my point, as does the rise of the Nazis.

    Both disgusting cases of virulent, dogmatic racism. Both inspired by fear of not being able to take care of their children and of starving to death. Both, to some extent, a bid at bolstering the shattered egos of a failed and rejected people who lived in poverty.

    “They have our jobs, so, they have our food and shelter.” or “We need more land, to grow crops and build houses, without them taking our vegetables and cattle.”

    That’s the prejudice and that ain’t nothing that has to do with the thinking of children. Which is why Jesus told his disciples to be like children. He wouldn’t have said it, if children are hate-monging little racists. Jesus wasn’t a racist.

    He was so far from a racist that he allowed himself to be born into a multi-racial blood line. Yeah – Rahab, the Caananite whore and Ruth the Moabite woman were both of his blood line, Then, he kept helping foreigners. And, he told the Jews that the reason why the prophets kept helping foreigners is that they kept finding foreigners to be the righteous ones. And, that is the man who said to be like children.

    I know I had no prejudice against any group of people, as a child. I learned to have some against every group I have ever encountered (by sex, sexual orientation, culture, dressing style, actions) to the extent that if I see a Samoan I watch for potential violence. Samoans taught me that. However, I don’t think “all Samoans are violent, let’s round them up and kick them out of the country” because I have also met Samoans who are not violent. They tend to hate other Samoans and view them with prejudice, too.

    A little situational, learned prejudice is probably, in this world, inevitable. Sometimes it is necessary. Sometimes, when it can be overlooked, one has wonderful new experiences and sometimes one has horrible experiences that make it clear that they should not have been overlooked. Like when the Vietnamese teenagers parked behind our apartment building threatened my mother with physical violence when she asked them to leave, and, they would have hurt her if we hadn’t been there to make them a little worried. Now, I wouldn’t have gone to talk to them and asked them to move, as I would have assumed that they were just like every other Vietnamese teenager that had recently moved into the neighborhood and dressed like that and had that haircut. Which they were, so, my prejudice against the way they looked was not wrong – nor was it all racial or cultural.

    I’m glad you and this other person have found a way to look past what sound like irrational prejudices. At least, if they are not irrational, then, you haven’t stated a good case for why they were ever warranted. I like the “walk a mile in their shoes” approach, though it turned out to be a lot more than a mile.

    I hope that the lesson can be learned and applied across the board, without having to go through the experience with every person that shows up and looks or sounds a little different. And, can stay learned when, inevitably, you two do run into someone from the culture you used to be prejudiced against whom displays the bad qualities you once thought they all had.

    Another Christian principle that applies here is to be peaceable as doves, but, cautious as serpents.

  • Amer1can

    I agree. Just because most strippers are white, doesn’t mean all white babies will grow up to be strippers.