There’s nothing casual about racism

We should really stop joshing about racism, writes Ezreena Yahya

Two months ago, when a regular and his family came into the pastry shop where I work, I asked if they lived in the area. “No, we live near the airport. We just think this place is the best in the city, that’s why we’re here every week,” he said.

Touched by his kind words and temperate manner, I ran to the back to share the lovely moment with my manager. Yet, all she could bring herself to say was, “Yeah, I guess they’re pretty nice – for Muslims.”

Gobsmacked by the tactlessness of the ‘joke’, I started tearing up. Furious, every part of me wanted to step up and say something but in the end, in fear of losing my job, I did nothing and resumed cleaning the cake fridge. This is the ugly face of casual racism.

Casual racism has been allowed to breed uncontrollably in Australian society due to a lack of consequences. We’ve seen this at work, on public transport, and in sports.

In AFL, even after Collingwood chief, Eddie Mcguire made a shocking ‘King Kong’ comment about Adam Goodes, supposedly in jest, business went back to usual. It’s larrikinism, they say. It’s not serious, we’re just meant to laugh along.

Meanwhile, the language employed in current public policies such as the PNG ‘solution’ and the tightening of the 457 visa scheme to “stop the boats” and ‘’stop foreign workers being put at the front of the queue with Australian workers at the back” has done little to ameliorate the distrust and prejudice towards refugees and foreign workers.

Politicians use labels such as ‘economic migrants’ and ‘queue-jumpers’ instead of referring to asylum seekers as what they actually are – human beings fleeing persecution and death. These labels reinforce this myth that they are out to steal jobs and threaten Australia’s national security.

Both Labor and the Coalition have been unsympathetic in scrutinising the impact of these euphemisms on the hardening attitudes towards asylum seekers and immigrants.

Even though being a Malaysian of Malay-Chinese heritage, with an Arabic name exposes you to the occasional, more condescending than curious, “Why do you speak such good English?” and the classic, “But why don’t you have an Asian accent?”, I’ve been fortunate that I have never been violently assaulted or verbally abused (severely, at least) because of my ethnicity.

Having witnessed more than several confronting incidents at my workplace, on the bus and the Cityrail however, has not left me unscathed – it still cuts just as bad every time.

What is needed to pose a meaningful challenge to racism is a rigorous overhaul of civic education, in schools and in the home.

There needs to be more political and historical awareness and a conscious effort to combat racism, more repercussions designed not to punish, but to send out a powerful message that racism in all of its forms is unacceptable.

We have come a long way since the days of the White Australia policy, but once we acknowledge that racism, even in its most light-hearted form, robs the dignities and self-respect of those on the receiving end, then can we be optimistic about true racial reconciliation in Australia.

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