For a few centuries, many of the nations of Europe had enjoyed controlling vast areas of the globe occupied by coloured peoples. Their newly-acquired superiority in armaments had enabled this result. A sad consequence was that there evolved a view, supported allegedly by certain academics in the eighteenth century, that white people are genetically superior to all others. The lessons of history were thus ignored.
In Australia, an admirable ambition was to create a nation of white people where no man would deny any kind of work – such was the egalitarian principle which underlay this hope (the indigene excepted, as elsewhere). At the beginning of the twentieth century, the White Australia policy was legislated. Although Australia had little to do with colonialism (except briefly in New Guinea), the people had come to hold views which were patently racist.
However, by mid-century, the independence of adjacent nations had led to a gradual lessening of the colour bar, initially by permitting the arrival of (mainly) British-educated Asian students. Although we spoke good English (my matriculation was from London University) and behaved properly, our very presence and our comportment discomfited many of the locals.
The explanation was quite simple. We were intruding into ‘white space’ (as enunciated by academics). We were also violating the prevailing ethos of the superior white man, through our clothing, assumed wealth, educated speech, visible indifference to public rudeness, and our non-combative response to discrimination. For instance, my father had taught me thus: If someone spits at you, do not retaliate. Move on, but do not turn the other cheek.
We were also of foreign faiths; the effort by so many to convert us to Christianity was testament. Our foods were frequently described as ‘foreign muck,’ with some querying our preference for spices. We used to add chili sauce to guest-house food and to take-away fish and chips, and pies.
My university’s student council even conducted a survey asking how the respondent would react were his sister to marry an Asian (or words to that effect). Even some of our Australian friends might say something like ‘I don’t want many more like you in my country, although you are OK.’ They had clearly forgotten how Australia had been acquired.
The underlying ‘them’ vs. ‘us’ viewpoint was also manifest against the sudden arrival of large numbers of war-displaced refugees and immigrant Europeans. Yet, the main differences brought into the country by the Europeans were their accents and their preference for more tasty foods, with better bread. Australian cuisine then was very British (thereby dreadful from an Asian perspective.)
It was obviously difficult for so many of the locals to have their life changed so much, so abruptly. Yet, their governments had to go down that path. Initially, it was to obtain able-bodied workers to develop the necessary infrastructure. Later it was to avoid unwanted tensions with the emerging nations of Asia.
The reverse culture shock to the young Asians was confusion and a lack of understanding of the antagonistic attitudes and behaviour directed at them. ‘What’s it all about?’ was my thought when I was targeted in a fashionable public arcade on a Saturday morning. It took us a while to understand the reasons for this unacceptable behaviour.
Strangely, few Malayans studying in Britain experienced comparable behaviour. (Snooty chaps are, however, unavoidable everywhere.) The British people are far more tolerant of coloured people and the cultures they represented.
The isolation of Australia was clearly a cause. The principal cause was undoubtedly the enduring relationship between white invader and indigene. Curiously, governments will promise, from to time, to ‘bridge the gap’ between their indigenes and the mainstream. But the them/us divide seems to have a certain durability.