Having arrived in this country 40 years ago as a child, my family settled in a highly diversified neighbourhood in Western Sydney, surrounded by people of many nationalities. My school friends were Australian-born Italians, Lebanese, Maltese, Chinese and Catholic-Irish kids. I was the overseas-born oddball. No one could work out where from. I didn’t look Italian or Lebanese or Maltese, and whilst I was Catholic I was definitely not Irish. Couldn’t anyone tell I was Latin American?
As a young child, I had never realized that my mother – who was of European descent – was indeed, white, whilst my father with dark skin, was described as a Black man. I was a strange mix between the two. As my mother struggled with English, I often became her translator and people would ask me to “translate this for the lady.” Couldn’t people tell this “lady” was my mother?
Unknown to me, I had a slightly unusual and indistinguishable accent so I was often asked if I was from South Africa, or lived in the UK. I was often assumed to have been educated in another country though I had done a majority of my schooling here in Australia. By the time I started working, proof-reading documents in my job, my managers were always surprised I could correct their poor grammar. Couldn’t they expect from my good grades at school and uni that I would have a good command of the language?
At social events people were often reluctant to engage in conversation, until they heard me speak “Aussie” English. On one occasion I was even described as ‘exotic.’ People couldn’t tell that I was a well-educated, socially capable person just like them and I didn’t understand why.
It was many years later that I realized that while I was fortunate not to have experienced open racism unlike most migrants to this country, the answer to all those questions resided in a more sophisticated and sinister form of discrimination that was silent and invisible.
I was pigeon-holed into one of the migrant stereotypes, but because the Latin American community in Australia was so small in the late 70’s, people often relied on the American manufactured stereotypes of uneducated drug-dealers and domestic workers to form preconceived notions of my identity.
Learning English from scratch as a child, I have a better grasp of the language than most – yet I am made to prove this continually in an offensive and humiliating rituals on the grounds that my ability to write and speak ‘correctly’ are contingent on my skin colour.
I am fortunate and tremendously proud to defy my racial stereotype and exceed the offensive and ultimately oppressive expectations of Australia. However, the struggle is for those who look and sound just like me, but have been robbed of an opportunity to succeed by silent and invisible discrimination that manifests in stereotypes and casual racism.
I stand with these fellow People of Colour, who are judged by our skin, nationality and names, and not by our abilities. We are not uneducated or unintelligent and we do not have to prove ourselves to Australia again and again.