Australian. What does that word really mean? I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of being an ‘Aussie’ ever since I realised I was the only kid on the playground with brown skin. I’ve always identified with being Australian; I was born here, I have the same ridiculous accent and prefer wearing thongs over shoes. But ever since I was young I’ve been made to feel like I was different for how I looked. Sure, I’ve had my share of overt racism thrown my way, but what disturbs me more is the more common form of subtle racism. What I’m referring to is the term “They were ‘Aussie’ looking”.
Let’s all just cut the shit; that phrase or any variation of is strictly implying that a WHITE skinned person is technically more Australian than others. Be honest, you’ve used this line before. You’re trying to describe someone with fair skin and for the sake of clarity choose to describe them as ‘Aussie’. Since I have brown skin does that make me less ‘Aussie’? Or should we just refer to myself and my family as ‘Curry’s’ instead?
When I was about 10 my dad took the family to watch Sri Lanka play cricket against Australia at the SCG, and my brother Sanjay and I supported Australia since we were born here. At the end of the day Australia was victorious and I had a good chance to tease my dad. As we left the stadium, a white-skinned boy about my age stood in front of me, and pointing at my face, said “Take that! WE beat YOU!”.
I was in shock. I was there supporting Australia, my country. And yet this kid proudly assumed that since I didn’t look ‘Aussie’ there was no way I was on his team. Which is simply ridiculous. This is my home, and it is the only home I’ve ever known. I know every word of the national anthem, excluding the second verse like every other Australian. When I was in school we were taught that Australia was a multi-cultural country that was made up of people from all around the world. I felt dehumanised in a way, like I wasn’t really an Australian, that I should just go live in Sri Lanka instead.
What does it really mean to be a true Australian? I feel as a country we have such a fractured identity, and at the worst of times a misplaced sense of nationalism. Sometimes I think our national identity struggles to evolve beyond beer, the beach and sport.I like two of those three things, and I have a Vegemite poster on my wall, yet for how I look people would assume I could have come here on a boat. A woman I work with once said that if you spoke to me on the phone you’d think I was ‘Aussie’ for how I spoke. I know she meant it as a compliment, but that hurts a little to assume I’m not Australian based on how I look.
Let me tell you about the two truest Australians I’ve ever met. And no, they’re not Karl Stefanovic and Skippy the kangaroo.
My parents immigrated here from Sri Lanka on September 8, 1990, a couple of months before I was born. They had a fairly comfortable life back home. Dad worked on a tea plantation, so they lived in a nice bungalow in the pristine mountains of the island nation, with servants at hand and lots of family and friends. Sri Lanka was also embroiled in a bloody civil war, so it was not the safest place to raise a family.
When they immigrated to Australia (on a plane), they had to start from scratch. My dad brought all the money he had with him, and once that was converted to Australian dollars he was shocked to see what he was left with. At the age of 26 all my dad had to his name was $300, and he had a baby on the way. He got a job working in a warehouse, and sought to better himself by going to TAFE, waking up before the sun and travelling three hours via buses and trains to get there. 24 years later he now runs that warehouse, and is a leading figure in warehousing, supply-chain management and logistics, and he has the accolades to prove it.
To this day he keeps the currency conversion receipt from the bank in his wallet to serve as a constant reminder of who is and where he came from.
My mum worked a lot of different jobs before starting working nights at Woolworths, a job I understand all too well. It’s a physically demanding job, plus it’s boring, and on top of that she had to spend her days looking after three kids. She rose through the ranks to become a department manager, but it was incredibly stress inducing and made her unhappy. Instead, she went into business for herself and opened a childcare service. She has been successfully running that business for ten years now and has been highly accredited for her work.
To me my parents are the definition of what it truly means to be Australian. They came here with no money and worked hard for a better life. They were able to give their children a good education and it’s thanks to them I can chase this pipe dream of being a writer. Dad’s now looking to buy some property. I asked him if it was because it is a good way to make revenue. He said it partially was, but according to the old man what’s really important is to “Secure Australia’s future and contribute to that future”.
That to me is what it takes to be a real Australian. Whether you were born here or born somewhere else, if you want to help continue to building this sunburnt country then you will actively contribute to it.
Do think subtle racism exists in Australia? Have any stories of your own? Let me know in the comments below!