Photo by Tseen Khoo

I was at an event at the Immigration Museum recently.

There was a savvy panel of Asian Australian intellectuals and creatives from Peril magazine and Asian Australian Democracy Caucus.

They generated a fantastic critical race conversation and covered big, exciting territory about nation-state identities, exclusionary processes, dispossession, and everyday racisms and their consequences for senses of community.

Most of the people in the room were activist inclined and on board with the debates – not always in agreement, but willing to take on the issues and talk about them.

There were several white audience members – mostly older and male – who were deeply uncomfortable, if not openly hostile, to the presentations taking place in front of them. 

At least three of them made slightly different versions of the reductionist argument that ‘everyone is racist’. The implication appeared to be that, if new communities to Australia found it difficult or they felt discriminated against, the racist treatment was all part of ‘human nature’ and a symptom of communities’ aversion to change.

There was no engagement or compassion on display from these defensively postured speakers at all. In fact, one of the men stood up at the end of the session and proudly declared he was a racist.

If that wasn’t offensive and stupid enough, he went on to query whether he could really be a racist if he married a Filipino woman. No, seriously, he said this. In a public forum. The facepalming that took place immediately after his comments was epic and resounding.

After the session, queueing up for lunch, I was mulling over the tensions and resistances there were on show. There was such reluctance to even enter into dialogue about racism, let alone acknowledge that damage is done and change can be made. I was frustrated that an excellent conversation around issues very important to me was derailed by bigotry, race privilege and apathy.

While in this lunch queue, I realised I was directly behind an older white woman who’d been in there, too.

She looked at me a long while and said, “You were in that last session, weren’t you?”

I said yes, and asked what she thought (knowing full well that she was hunched over for the entire session, shaking her head in disapproval at intervals, and displaying all signs of hating on it all).

She took a deep breath and said, “I found it REALLY ANNOYING.”

She then went on to whitesplain to me in great detail about how Australia is not really like that at all. That the panel members were wrong. She said that where she grew up, it was a very diverse community and everyone was treated with respect.

I said that while that may have been her experience and perspective, that’s not always the way and acts of racism are very real as is the hurt and fear they cause. She (mostly) agreed that racism wasn’t good, then went on to blame migrants for not assimilating and becoming Australian.

“What does that mean these days? What does being Australian actually mean?” I asked, gritting my teeth after being talked over and interrupted at least five times so far (this was a long lunch queue…).

After a few more increasingly tense exchanges like this where she was making it very clear in her language and assertions that she thought everyone must fit into White Australia, I asked (rather exasperatedly, I must admit), “But yet you come to the Immigration Museum where you can get to know Australia’s different communities and cultures…?”

She smiled. “We come for the food. We love the food.”