Dealing with White Australia’s racism

A few months ago, I had an experience which reminded me of the Australia of yesteryear. A mature-age tradesman spoke to me in a gruff voice, displaying a clearly rude demeanour. This took me back more than half a century. As before, I ignored such offensive behaviour. Other young Asian students who, like me, had arrived in Australia in the late 1940s and 1950s, ignored white supremacists in the same way. That was because we were most comfortable with our cultural heritage which, being durable, went back thousands of years.

But the poor Australian indigenes are not so protected. For a century and a half, they had been treated as fauna (so said some writers), their cultures and self-regard destroyed. Where we Asians could ignore, with some disdain, such questions such as ‘Do you sit on chairs?’ or ‘Why do you pray to rocks and trees?, what could a destroyed people do or say to put the yobbo in his place? Whereas, in one instance, I did ask (from a safe distance) ‘Haven’t you got a mother, either?’ It might have taken the yobbo a minute or so to understand the insult.

A Chinese-Malayan student friend of mine did once express what we had all been taught. He said (in part) that his ancestors had been civilised for more than 5,000 years, ‘long before the white man came down from the trees.’ Such a statement clearly reflected our anti-colonial feelings. Apart from one Thai, at my university, we fee-paying Asians had all come from British colonial territories. That did not mean that we were (or are) anti-British.

How could we, in the light of the sound education we had been offered? As well, I polished up my knowledge of the English language, in all its expressive subtlety, by reading some of the English classics during the Japanese military occupation of Malaya, when I was 15 and 16. This enabled me to counter veiled racist comments from the middle class. These included: ‘Indians live on the smell of an oily rag,’ ‘Indians fear the sea,’ ‘Alexander conquered India,’ and references to the ‘Black Hole of Calcutta.’ My responses did draw upon Nehru’s ‘Glimpses of World History,’ which I had begun to read at age 13.

Fellow Asians who had not read as widely relied simply on the achievements of China and India, long before Western Europe became militarily powerful and subsequently benefited from what appears to have been the Scottish Enlightenment of the 18th Century.

However, beneath skin colour and beyond religio-cultural differences, all of us behave in much the same way. Arrogant stupidity is also not exclusively a white-man characteristic.