I sat in a supervision session the other day with one of my favourite people: one of my supervisees. K is a woman of 44 years of age, a passionate, dedicated medical doctor with so much integrity. She seeks supervision outside of her profession to try to make sure that the one tool she uses above anything else outside her vast knowledge and distilled experience, her Self, is in the best shape possible to assist her patients.
K is smart — her intellectual capacity far exceeds mine. She’s tireless in her search for knowledge that will advance her efforts to assist her patients and relieve their suffering. She spends hours outside of her face-to-face sessions reviewing her patient notes, pathology results and scan reports, pouring through books and research articles, consulting senior colleagues, all in the quest to put together and adjust the best treatment plan she can for each and every one of her patients. K is humble and quick to admit when she’s not sure or doesn’t know, and she’s uncannily adept at finding out who might know.
K is a little reserved. When she engages, she is very warm, loving, quirky, personable, passionate, curious and funny. She genuinely loves and is interested in people, and she’s deeply compassionate. K has a rich family life and has a thoughtful, nuanced perspective on the world. She’s very accepting and holds herself to a very high set of values. K strives to be as conscious as she can of how she impacts on others, and she feels it deeply when she thinks or realises she has inadvertently hurt someone.
K embodies my idea of what makes a superb clinician: she’s willing to make herself the first object of study. If she gets stuck with a patient, her starting position is to scrutinise how she might be getting in the way of movement towards health for her patient. In fact, if anything, K is too self-critical at times — perhaps that goes with the territory. I often challenge her for not extending the same faith, compassion and generosity of spirit she routinely extends to all of her patients to herself.
K happens to be Korean by birth and lineage. She now lives in Australia, where Aboriginal peoples and their land were colonised in 1789 by white Anglo-Celt Caucasians whose racist violence-entitled colonialism dispossessed them of their land, and persists to the present day.
The other day, K brought a different kind of issue to our session. K spoke of her pain at experiencing a sense of being invisible in this white-dominant Anglo-Caucasian culture everywhere she goes, including among her peers.
K described her experience of being barely acknowledged by other parents at the school her child goes to, by people in the street, by colleagues at the clinic where she works, and at conferences she attends.
In every setting she walks into, K is either the only Asian woman present, or a very small minority in a Caucasian dominated crowd. If there are one or two other Asian people around, she tells me they studiously avoid speaking to her, and side-step her efforts to start a conversation, actively avoiding eye contact, and walking away from her and, instead, seeking out contact from white Caucasians present. K thinks this is particularly the case with Eurasian women, who, she speculates, have internalised so much racism against their Asianness, that they desperately seek to avoid that aspect of their lineage being highlighted by association by K’s very obvious Asian heritage.
This is the reality of her everyday life, she told me. In the current political climate in Australia, K tells me it’s getting worse.
K described the wearing, hurtful everyday pain of white Caucasians avoiding eye contact with her — she knows, because she seeks their gaze when she tries to connect, as she does with everyone. They actively avert their eyes or glance briefly before turning their gaze away. When Caucasian people come towards her, K repeatedly experiences them looking through her as they seek out other (white) people to connect with, chat to, share ideas with. She described feeling like a piece of furniture that white people walk around, and sometimes push past or even, walk into. She feels invisible to them, she’s an object, a no-thing. Not a person.
When she tries to connect with white people by initiating a conversation, K feels the humiliating pain of repeatedly being met with silence or monosyllabic responses until the conversation dies a pitiful end, starved of input. K tells me she then observes those same people often initiate a lively new conversation with another (white) person if there is one nearby, or turn on their heel to go and seek out another (white) person to talk to. She notices that, once white people find each other, they appear to have no issue holding eye contact. K is seldom invited to join a group conversation, she’s not sought out at the workroom lunch table. This is her daily experience of living in Australia.
It’s impossible for K not to read these responses as clear snubs — bids to end and discourage conversation. She reads them as clear indicators of racism. It’s impossible for me to read these examples differently too.
Listening to K brought back a flood of my own memories as a migrant to Australia in the 1970s. Ironically, I too have lived my own version of K’s story of everyday racism here, and yet most people would see me as white.
I was born in France. My lineage is French through and through, with Arabic ancestry around 700AD, when the Moors came up into France through Spain. Technically, I’m a white Caucasian woman. But, if degrees of whiteness matter when you look at me, I know I’m more off-white than white.
When my family emigrated to Australia in late 1971, bought a farm and settled in a rural community in NSW, we encountered a level of hatred, violence, calculated malice, bigotry and racism we had never encountered prior. No doubt, the privilege due to the material and educational privilege we possessed before we immigrated in 1971 had shielded us from what we might have otherwise experienced, had we been less fortunate.
Once my parents bought land and animals, and threw themselves into their project of becoming farmers in this backwater, we were stuck. The locals, all descended from white Caucasian Anglo/Celt stock, hated us with a vengeance. They wanted us gone, and they did everything in their power to run us out of the district.
For six years, I got attacked for being “black” (I have somewhat olive skin), being “dirty”, for being a wog (a slang Australian term for people from the Mediterranean that also means a virus or disease), and for being a slut (an Australian expression reserved for women seen to be sexually promiscuous). For six years, I weathered daily verbal slurs and attacks, constant racist remarks, racist slurs about my assumed promiscuity as a French girl and related sexual harassment; public bullying and humiliation; gang violence; stoning; being repeatedly violently ambushed in the women’s toilets, and being beaten and kicked.
When I thought I had made friends, I watched in horror how they would quickly align with my tormentors when any difference arose between us. After a few experiences of this kind, I learned I couldn’t trust anyone. Outside of whatever peer group I might have at any one moment, like K, I noticed no-one else looked me in the eye when I sought to connect.
I learned that eye contact was reserved for attacks and public humiliation episodes. Then, I would feel the hot tide of shame flare in my cheeks for all to see as I felt the burn of the blazing, unmistakable mocking contempt, disgust and hatred in my tormentors’ eyes, amplifying their hate-fuelled taunting words.
I learned to think of myself as an Outsider, an Other. When I was granted what I initially mistook as acceptance, I eventually learned to think of it as conditional membership — only ever temporarily conferred, like a visitor’s pass in an apartment building; heavily dependent on the caprice and mood of the high-status teens in the class, and on my preparedness to demonstrate my adherence to a long list of expectations about what acceptable submissive behaviour was expected from a non-white person. I learned that conditional membership did not entitle me to the same privileges and protections as those born into membership. I also learned the hard way that the list of KPIs I needed to demonstrate and adhere to was subject to change without reason or notice, with heavy penalties exacted for perceived infringements, and lost membership.
In my anxiety, to preserve my conditional membership (whenever I’d have it), I worked hard — very hard— to fit in. I tried to emulate my peers’ looks, verbal expressions, attitudes. I desperately tried to be as Aussie as I could make myself into. Despite openly racist teachers (such as Mr Z, our Science master: “Who are you going to report me to? You’d have to prove I said it. No one here will back you”), and outright sabotage from another (Mr W, who didn’t turn up for any of my advanced Maths classes for the HSC), I thought proving I was smart might earn me respect.
When I did name what was happening to me at school as racism, I was mocked, taunted, and made out to be making things out to be something they weren’t. No-one was prepared to consider my protests, examine how they might be true, or consider how such experiences might be impacting me. No-one took me seriously. No-one was ever questioned or made accountable. I was warned against lying. There was an outright denial that anything like systemic racism might be operating. I was told I was just “too sensitive”, I “couldn’t take a joke”, and I was a hysterical drama queen.
It was only thanks to education and the opportunities it opened up for me that I was able to have the chance to leave the backwater and live the kind of life I yearned for. It meant I could leave, get a tertiary education, start a career, and eventually, find more accepting broad-minded people. In time, in cosmopolitan Sydney, I found a place I could finally call home where I felt I could be myself.
In the village I lived my teenage years in, I learned to think of myself as Other— as different. Attacks about my skin colour, my face, my body shape, my ways of speaking English, my French heritage, and my “character” convinced me my difference was and would always be obvious and visible to others. I thought my otherness was primarily to do with my being visibly NOT Anglo-Celt or white, no matter how hard I tried to fit in.
It took moving to Sydney to attend university at age 18, and a further 18 months after that, before I realised that what I had thought was my glaringly, inescapably obvious sign of Otherness to others, my non-Anglo ethnicity, was not in fact so.
Thanks to my years of being harassed for not being white, to this day, I think of myself as “off-white”. I still feel not-quite-white (enough). In adulthood, a few encounters in public over the years here in Sydney, all with older, drunk racist white Anglo males who have sensed my Otherness have made it clear: I cannot ever assume I am safely invisible to white racists. I’ve been told openly— “Fuck off, you fucking wog. Go back where you came from.” The last time was on social media when I commented on racism in Australia in the lead up to our Federal elections. One man on SM told me he would be happy to drive me to the airport — “if you don’t like it, leave”, he told me. He proudly and smugly asserted his assumed pre-existing claim on being the one with the right to stay. He certainly did not consider I might have an equal claim to staying, in true coloniser mindset style. I guess when you’re white and male in this country, there’s a lot of privilege and power to back you up, to enforce and perpetuate that sort of destructive entitlement.
So, after K’s session finishes, I’m left with lots of mixed emotions as my past comes rushing back. I remember the years torn between defiantly wanting to stand up for my right to be here, and my desire to be invisible so as not to attract unwanted attention. Wave upon wave of images remind me of times when, either despite my invisibility, or because I had dared to have a voice and stand up, I was targeted mercilessly by my peers and people in power — mentally, emotionally, socially, and physically. I was treated as subhuman — not worthy of dignity or respect.
I felt and was so, so alone. I despaired of ever finding my people. Of ever making friends with like-minded folk who also valued respect, honesty, integrity, diversity, inclusiveness, sensitivity, fairness and equality. Whose acceptance of me and loyalty would not be subject to change and withdrawn at a moment’s notice. For a long time, I doubted such people existed, or that I would find them.
I reflect on K’s situation and I’m very sad and angry that, forty years after my arrival in Sydney, K faces her version of what I found when I immigrated to rural Australia.
K’s version is happening among supposedly educated people. Her version of Sydney/Australian racism is more covert, more indirect, and harder to pinpoint openly. But those micro-aggressions are unmistakeable on the receiving end of them. If you’ve ever been an Outsider who’s not part of the in-group.
I know that it’s going to be hard for K to find people who are willing to stop and reflect on how hurtful, excluding, racist and alienating their actions are towards K.
As Australians, we are very invested in thinking of ourselves as inclusive, easy-going, accepting, anti-authoritarian and egalitarian. Us Australians do not consider ourselves as people who practice racial hatred or as a society with race discrimination concerns. We cling fiercely to this good bloke narrative about ourselves. And it makes us very, very blind to how and when we’re not like that.
As an off-white woman who is taken for white most of the time (until I’m not), I intend to continue to use my white privilege to call out racism and internalised racism when I see it/hear it. I intend to continue to use my whiteness as a platform I can then use to call out and challenge, protest racism and racial inequality.
I want to live in a world where we all feel confident to walk calmly forward, un-encumbered by old beliefs, old fears, old hatreds. I want to help create a world where we can all be free to be ourselves. Where we all feel welcome, feel we belong, and in turn, where we welcome others just as they are. I want to help to create a world where no one needs to fear the consequences of ever being found out for who they are. A world where we all belong.
So, I walk down the street, around my local supermarket aisles, in buildings and shopping malls, I look around at other drivers on the road, searching. I search other peoples’ faces, and I try to make eye contact. I smile. I nod in greeting. Once in earshot, I say hello. Or good morning. Or good evening. I smile first. And I keep on walking towards them— armed only with my smile. I look for a point of contact — a warm acknowledgement of their creativity or style reflected in their clothes, a hair style, or makeup. I look for something I can openly appreciate about them based on what I see or their actions in the moment — their kindness, steadfastness, sweetness, generosity of spirit, gutsiness, or thoughtfulness. Sometimes, I invite others to join me in openly appreciating others’ loveliness, quirkiness, courage, kindness and beauty.
I intend to continue to be a one-woman campaign to include everyone. I belong. K belongs. We all belong.
It’s time we all realised we’re all members of the one planet regardless of race, ability, class, religion, gender, sexuality. We exist on this planet. Therefore, we belong.
So, you might want to think about your own sense of “belonging”, whatever that means for you. And ask yourself:
- If you feel you’re part of the in-group, what gives you that status? Your race? Education? Money? Privilege? Gender? What advantages do these things give you just because you have them?
- When you consider who to you is “people like us”, and who is “others”, what distinguishes the two in your mind? How do you work out who’s not “one of us” and who is?
- When you think of “others”, what scares you about them? What sorts of things do you tell yourself about “them” that make them seem so very different to you?
- When you have a chance to meet someone you usually consider “other”, what do you do? Do you take that chance? Do you take the time to connect, to be curious, to find out more about who they are? Or do you find yourself side-stepping the moment and sticking to “people like us”?
- When you see someone you usually consider “other” having access to privileges you usually think of as your preserve, what’s your reaction inside? Joy? Relief? Resentment? Equanimity?
- And if you usually identify with being “other” and not being part of the in-group, what are some of the ways you try to adapt around a world that constantly lets you know it’s not for you?
- What’s an ally? Whether you’re on the “inside” or you know you’re an “outsider”, what can you think of as actions real allies can take to work towards us all creating a more inclusive world?
And if you’ve decided it’s time to work on this inside/outside issue in your life, regardless of where you think you’re placed, and you think you’d like some help with that, call me.
Oh, this makes me sad and angry! I’m so sorry those years in rural NSW were so awful and the people so vile. That ‘otherness’ began with colonial dispossession and continues in so many ways. Thank you for the reminder that we can all do things that include people every day.
I had to laugh the other day at a tweet about JKRowling’s transphobia: ‘maybe jk rowling would have more empathy if she read a book about an unhappy boy who discovered who he really was and began to thrive once he entered a world where he could be himself’
You’re absolutely right, Jessica. I love your comment about JK Rowling – how ironic! Thanks for your comment. Marie-Pierre