The white man’s burden

In some places, such as pubs, we learnt to be careful. We kept an eye on the exits in order to beat a hasty but dignified retreat when other patrons voiced disapproval at our presence. This disapproval reflected, I believe, the practice of not serving Aborigines in bars.

Retreat was obviously the wisest thing to do. It was equally wise not to give any indication that one had experienced a slight or, for that matter, any discrimination. Anyway, we thought – why also not spoil their fun by pretending that nothing untoward had happened.

… … On a one-to-one basis, occasionally, we could get away with a question like, “Haven’t you got a mother either?” While the other party was trying to work out what the question was, we would smile and move away gracefully (we hoped).

But it is not an easy matter to keep away from an inebriated person who pesters you because you are coloured. When walking with a group, a brown Asian would be the one targeted, either for abuse or for a touch (for money). Reject the touch, and you will be abused. Whites in the group are ignored. In these situations, an intoxicated person can be persistent. In those early years, we were targeted in this fashion so often that we used to cross the street when walking past a pub.

In the mid-Nineties, I was targeted in Melbourne’s Chinatown – again. I was in the middle of a group of five, including three women, when it happened. I was the only non-white. My friends looked in disbelief when the drunk followed us, abusing me. He desisted only when my friend threatened to hit him.

… … To place our situation in proper context, we need to accept that Australians were unprepared for the influx of Asian students. Their previous contacts were with lascars (Indian sailors), Chinese shopkeepers, and some Afghan traders. They had developed a strong antipathy towards Aborigines. No matter how light-skinned some of the indigenes were, most Australians – including the working class – seemed to have adopted colonial attitudes; viz. the white man’s burden, and saving the heathen. Many were plain ignorant, and thereby prejudiced; and some were simply fearful of change. Yet these were the descendants of intrepid migrants of not that many generations before!

It was also very interesting to listen to old Aussies talk about those Aborigines with mixed blood, i.e. most (if not all) of the urbanised ones. They were referred to as half-caste, quarter-caste, 1/64-caste, and so on, disparagingly. A fellow worker referred to Anglo-Indians and others of mixed Asian and European backgrounds in a similarly insulting manner. Yet he and so many other old Aussies will tell you, often with great pride, how they have French or Scandinavian or German ancestors (the preferred ones), or English, Welsh, Irish or Scottish ancestors (the acceptable ones causing no fuss). But they were not half- or quarter-castes. No, no, on the contrary, they were pure.

To this, I used to take delight in referring to a UNESCO study of population movements across Europe since the eleventh century. This shows how mixed is the population of so much of Europe. As well, since Britain had been the refuge of Jewish and other persecuted peoples, I suggested that those of British origin (i.e. most Australians) might want to be more careful about any comments of a negative nature in relation to the admixture of blood, or even of skin colour. One cannot be too sure of what one might find in some long-forgotten woodpiles. It was all good fun, to my mind.

(These extracts from ‘Destiny Will Out’ do represent an out-dated Anglo-Australia. Yet, there is an antipathy in many, many white Australians – one has to mix with them freely to detect this feeling – towards Asians, especially Muslims. They will not accept that Australia was ‘white space’ for less than 2 centuries. Incidentally, I have edited the sixth paragraph above for clarity.)