Since arriving in Australia almost fifteen years ago, my father has written numerous cover letters every year.
I’m very proud of my father. He is a Captain in the merchant navy, having travelled to more countries in the last few decades than I can imagine travelling to in my whole life. When we moved to Australia, he decided to stay and work onshore after his separation had taken a toll on our family over the past years.
Every now and then, I see him filling out job applications, perched at his desk or on the side of his bed. His reading glasses dangle at the tip of his nose, he types furiously on his laptop – an outdated, chunky clamshell, with keys spread too far apart, as he slowly drags the mouse across the screen. Every now and then, he will excitedly announce he’s been selected for a job interview, to which the whole family will rejoice and ask a series of polite, now standard, questions: “What’s the job? When is the interview? What will you wear to interview?” He prepares for every interview extensively, leaving no stone unturned. Each time we’re hopeful things will work out. Most of the time, however, they don’t, and so the cycle repeats itself.
But his story is not unusual. For many immigrants who move to Australia to provide greater opportunities, a better lifestyle, and better upbringing for their children – as was the intention of my parents – their integration to a White, Australian society comes at the cost of being subservient to a system that will, in no way, actively benefit their personal or professional development.
Today, close to 10 per cent of Australia’s population have Asian ancestry. China and India represent the two largest source countries for immigrants. 4 million people speak a language other than English at home, including 1.3 million who speak an Asian language, with 650,000 speaking Chinese. Indeed, Asian migrants have also excelled in educational attainment and economic participation. These numbers state loudly and clearly: in Australia, multiculturalism has endured, and multiculturalism has prevailed.
And yet, those who arrive as immigrants also obediently adjust to values and institutions which do not repudiate the inequalities prevalent in any political, economic or societal power structures. In parliament, there are only four members who have Asian cultural origin. In tertiary education leadership, only two out of the 49 senior executives were from an Asian background. In the private sector, 1.9 per cent out of 9.5 per cent executive managers have Asian cultural origins.
And thus, Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane asks, “Is there a bamboo ceiling that exists in the same way that a glass ceiling exists for women?” He refers to the public image of Australian society with the example of the media, where Asians still assume exotic characteristics. And if their token cultural value isn’t needed in, they are invisible.
One afternoon, my father was casually telling me about his current shipping job, which often requires him to travel down to Port Kembla in Illawara. “The accounts manager is pretty unhappy because they think we spend too much on food on our trips,” he said. “So they’re putting a limit of $15 a day”. He used to eat at the only Indian restaurant in the area, in a small suburb called Corrimal, but he would soon stop.
I lost my mind at this. I told him that this was blatant discrimination. That the only reason his manager felt entitled to enforce such ridiculous rules – under the guise of ‘cutting costs’ – was because my father, and the only other colleague working his job, was not white. Because when this manager looks at my father, he feels a sense of entitlement that is propped up by his whiteness – the same dominant white power structures that will always prioritise the rights and feelings of those who will happily eat a bland potato salad, those that can speak in an Australian accent to, those whose skin colour they can see in their own reflections, those who are not different in any way or form.
But my father told me not to worry. His resignation comes from a deep-seated understanding that he is now but a cog in the wheel of Australia’s multicultural masquerade: the ‘fair go’. In the bigger scheme of things – to provide for his family, to pay the bills and mortgage – this is not worth a fight.
When I look at the uncomfortable statistics that reflect an underrepresentation of a sizeable proportion of Australian society’s labour force, I can’t help but wonder what will happen when I go into the workplace in the coming years. Dr Soutphommasane accurately points out the risk of “a class of professional Asian-Australian coolies in the 21st century … of well-educated, ostensibly over-achieving Asian-Australians, who may nonetheless be permanently locked out from the ranks of their society’s leadership.” These are the people with whom I attended school, many who have gone on to do some amazing things at university. Will they suddenly become invisible when they attend job interviews as one person of colour to every five white candidates? Or when, years from now, they begin to look for promotions? Will all they be suitable for is filling “the token ethnic” quotas?
Unfortunately, I do not have the answers. This pattern of invisibility will only change when we speak up against the unconscious bias we are thrust into, and point out the passivity we are expected to maintain. I do not know if this will help us get to those positions of leadership, but it will certainly make those who currently occupy them, squirm in their seats. It will make them question if things do, indeed, need to change.
It is only in obvious sentiments of exclusion and of bigotry – when a White woman verbally assaults a Chinese woman on a public train: “Why did you come to this country? This is our country”; or when a White shock-jock radio host profits at the expense of people of colour by humiliating them: “They have no connection to us: they simply rape, pillage and plunder a nation that’s taken them in” – that the fears and anxieties of many Australians come to the fore.
We are split: the sensible, educated class of Australians sees skilled migrants as prosperous and a boost to the Australian economy, but at the same time, the risk of our society becoming ‘Asianised’, or of ‘Brown people taking over’ lingers in the back of our minds, serving as a continuous reminder to people like my father that they should not expect to benefit from the way things are: not now, not ever.