Ever since the video of George Floyd’s death and the rapid amplification of the #BlackLivesMatter movement the world over, I have pondered the privileged whiteys who don’t believe in white privilege.
NEWS FLASH! Everyone is racist. Everyone is judgemental. I don’t care who you are.
I am often asked about whether Australia is a racist country when I have travelled in India, the Middle East, and Asia, and my answer is always the same.
“Compared to WHO??”
India is a melting pot of races, casts, religions, and languages, and there is a LOT of racism based on all of these things before you leave their borders. At its most basic level, there is north vrs south, lighter vrs darker skinned, but there is so much complexity of discrimination amongst all of that. I have never seen the level of venom and hatred as in the Middle East in the Arab, Israeli conflicts. It still completely blows my mind how deep that runs there. You can feel it in the land. And in Asia? Everyone seems to hate each other quite nicely, but most have a special spot of hatred for the Japanese.
And we JUDGE! Boy do we judge. Everyone. It is how we are wired. It saves the time and the effort of getting to know someone.
The following stories are some of my experiences of being treated differently, discovering racism, looking different, and identifying with your tribe. I realise leading with a story about being young, white, and blond with large breasts pales in comparison to what many experience, but work with me here. My point is, if we whities are judging each other like this, imagine how it feels to be on the end of some racial stereotyping and judgement from our entitled selves?
The ‘little girl with the big boobies’
In my last year of Primary School, one of my best friends was Alex. Although both whities, we could not have looked any different. I was tall with blonde hair and boobs; Alex, a gymnast, came up to about my shoulder, had raven red hair, and a flat chest. We didn’t care, but other people seemed to.
Towards the end of the year, we started hanging out with two boys from our class. Nice kids. One was the class clown and the other was quite quiet. Alex had a bit of a crush on the quiet one, but we were just 12-year-old kids hanging out. We used to laugh a lot and had fun.
On our last day of school when our teachers handed our report cards to us, and gave us our final individual pep talks, 6’4” Mr Hilton called me up.
“You know Claire, I think you will do well in life,” he paused for dramatic effect. “As long as you don’t pay as much attention to the opposite sex as you have been in the past few weeks.”
My mouth dropped to the floor and my right hand balled into an involuntary fist, itching to connect with this man’s face. WHAT!? Me? ME?? Where the hell did that come from? I was so angry.
I went to each of my three apparent partners in crime and asked if they had ANY similar comments. They had not. Why the hell was he singling me out? Heck, I didn’t even fancy either of the two guys even a little! Other girls in my grade had innocent little hold-hands boyfriends. No comments to them either.
Because I looked like a teenager and the other kids in my class looked like kids, he projected his own weird judgement of what he thought someone who looked like me would act like, onto me. With boobs like mine, surely I was gagging for it? Only I wasn’t. I was a 12-year-old kid, doing 12-year-old things, getting judged by some asshole because of how he thought I should behave given the way I looked.
That might have been the first time I was accused of things like this, but it wouldn’t be the last. Not because of the way I behaved, but because of the way I looked.
The boobs are always… greener?
A couple of years ago I sat in a bar with another, gorgeous, skinny, red-headed friend and we discussed the childhood boob or no boob situation. She said she was teased relentlessly because she had no boobs and always felt she was not womanly enough. She always wished she had had some. The teasing and judgement she described was awful.
I told her what it was like on the other side of the boob world as a kid. The girls patting me on the back and shoulders when I first got a bra then running off giggling. My older brother’s friends calling me ‘the little girl with the big boobies.’ Regularly being accused of doing or thinking things I was not by adults including my friend’s parents. This was all before I left Primary School. I wasn’t behaving in a sexualised way, but was being treated like it because of how I looked.
“Wow. I never thought about it like that,” she pondered. “I always thought it must be so great to have boobs, but I guess we were all judged no matter what we looked like.”
Japan crash course on racism
It wasn’t until I was 19 and went to Japan the pennies started to drop on racism. I was privileged to not have to think about it much until then. The places we lived and went to school in Brisbane were extremely multicultural and I hung out with kids from most parts of the world. That was my normal. Kids were all colours, shapes, and sizes, and I didn’t think about it.
Just because I didn’t think about it, doesn’t mean racism didn’t impact those kids. As a ‘normal’ looking white girl, and not thinking any differently about people from other cultures myself, it didn’t come to my attention. (Spoiler alert: that is the white privilege everyone is talking about).
All of a sudden, I was very firmly the minority in a country where I stuck out like dog’s balls. I even had to carry an Alien Registration Card. I didn’t speak the language very well then, which my revolting Japanese redneck equivalent homestay family liked to tease me about, which also reminded me of my ‘place.’
People abused me when I walked down the street. Freaks came up and made nuisances out of themselves on the train. Everywhere I went, people were either blatantly staring at me, or actively looking away. I was always on everyone in the vicinity’s radar because I looked so different, and no one knew what this circus side show would do next.
But somehow I excused it more there. In the late 1990s we were told 99% of the some 120 million population of Japan were Japanese. Of the one percent who were not, most were Koreans. Koreans were also heavily discriminated against, but people that didn’t look like Japanese or Koreans (the rest of us Aliens), really were freaks.
Most people were curious and very lovely. Random people wanted their pictures taken with me, and some accosted me as I powered through the subway to catch my train to University, wanting to buy me coffee and get a free English lesson. One friend took six of us Aliens to her home town one holiday. Seeing one of us on the street would have been something, but six!? From memory I think there was at least one car crash caused by drivers shocked at our presence, and a few near misses too.
My Dad had some racist friends when I was growing up, who I mostly just ignored, but their words came flooding back to me.
“They shouldn’t come here if they can’t speak English.”
“If they come here, they should assimilate and not just hang out with their own people.”
There I was living in a country where I couldn’t speak the language very well, and was very much hanging out with other Aliens at my university. The food, the way they thought, the way they acted… everything was different and it was overwhelming. The culture shock was MASSIVE. Spending time with people from similar cultures made us feel sane for a while.
This was what it was like for the migrants coming to Australia. Except in Japan, there was an element of wonder and curiosity about us layered on the fear and prejudice. I was pretty sure for those racist friends of my Dad, and many others they would encounter in Australia, curiosity and wonder were not a part of their sentiments.
I remember writing a post card to one friend of my Dad’s after I had my epiphany, and explained how if I was in New Zealand, I would be in his sights in this bizzaro world I chose to stay in. I hoped it would help flip his brain around.
Who says colour doesn’t matter?
About a year later, now a 20-year-old university student, I was so incensed after an argument with my parents, I went to stay with my friend Ben for a few days.
Ben was dating a hairdresser at the time, who thought I could use a change of look to make me feel better. I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean to do what he did for my hair. I’m sure he was going for something a little more… subtle. But I ended up transitioning from a blond to having jet black hair with bright red and white streaks through the top. THAT was different!
The next day I went to my part-time job where I sold electrical appliances to the people of suburban Brisbane. It felt weird. Something wasn’t right, but I just couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
As I explained the differences between two expensive stereo systems to a couple of young guys, it hit me. They were listening to me more intently. They were putting more stock into what I was saying. And it wasn’t just them. It was everyone I had spoken to that day.
Apparently a pasty-faced goth-looking girl with black, red, and white hair is more likely to know about electronics than a blondy. I had just had my hair done the day before, and there were no mirrors around at work, so I was going about life as though I was the same blond I was the day before. The electronics buying public saw a goth-y looking chick who must have known her stuff in order to get hired there…
When I finally went home, I walked in the front door just as my mother was nearing the top of the stairs at the entrance.
“Claire!!” she exclaimed in horror. “What have you done to yourself? You are in the prime of your life? How could you do this?”
It was only hair! But hair that was going to get me more sales commission that Summer, and also apparently mean I would never get married. Wait…
Coolio hair carnage
One night not long after, my friend Jess braided my hair in tiny little plats, then turned them into little nodes on my head, like the famous 90s singer, Coolio. I looked ridiculous. But so much effort went into it, when I work called me to a store I hadn’t worked in before, I went with my Coolio hair.
That day, I was the doyen of all things electronics. Everyone came to me for advice, more so than the local, normal looking salespeople. It was so weird. I was used to being dismissed as a dumb blond who couldn’t possibly know more about TVs and stereos than my male customers, to now being this freak who was obviously the fountain of knowledge, just because of some hair.
Walk like an Egyptian
When I lived in Egypt, I walked about a kilometre each day from my bus stop to my office. On that one-kilometre walk, a minimum of five cars would stop and some man would proposition me. If it was only five, I wondered if I wasn’t showing enough ankle that day, or if my hair was off a little…
No, I was not that special. If an Egyptian woman walked the same stretch, she would have gotten the same thing, but possibly a little more abuse for walking on her own thrown in. Sexual harassment of strangers was horrendous over there. Even then, some of my Egyptian friends felt that although I dressed respectfully, I got disproportionate attention.
Of course I did. But let’s do the math. As a whitey, I am far more likely to have sex without having to get married first. We do that. Don’t get me wrong, so do Egyptians. I learned about labiaplasty there for those wanting to replace their hymen so they bleed on their wedding night and can pretend they are virgins again… That is a thing… That is also how taboo it is that people go to that level…
It is also likely that if you have access to pornography, an awful LOT of it is blond white women who love nothing more than to get jism all over their faces at the end of a rigorous session in the sack. In fact, your first thought of pornography is probably the same blond white woman with gigantic boobs as everyone else, because they all seem to have the same plastic surgeon and hair dressers.
So if I am walking down the street, even if I am not flashing ankle that day, and an Egyptian woman, with or without a headscarf is on the same street, it is statistically more likely that I will sleep with you if you approach me. And for these guys stopping on the street and harassing young women, it is all a numbers game. They are looking for the statistical outlier to rock their world, and someone who looked like me is more ‘likely’ to do it like a porn star in their world.
Freedom of movement privilege
It was also in Egypt I discovered my extreme privilege to travel freely, and learned it is not available to everyone. I was able to turn up in Egypt, and look for a job and a place to live, without too many hassles (actually there were plenty, but that is a blog post for another time…).
If my boss asked me to go to Hamburg on business, I picked up my passport, and off I went. I didn’t have to get permission from my husband or father, on the off chance I could get a visa anyway. The reality was, even if it wasn’t for the passport and visa situation, most would not have been able to afford to travel.
An Australian passport is very different to an Egyptian passport. You get very different receptions at the airport. Especially just post September 11, 2001 which is when I had the pleasure of being there.
Of all of the privileges afforded to me, freedom of travel is the one I appreciate the most, and try to be the most respectful of. I feel incredibly lucky most countries let me in to have a look around and maybe stay a while, when I know mine does not afford that same courtesy back. That is privilege.
A couple of weeks ago, after the pubs and restaurants in Australia opened up again, but with social distancing, one of my friends decided he wanted to dress in drag and go for a drink. And if she was going to look all fabulous, I sure as hell wasn’t going in as Plain Jane, so I donned a pink wig from her collection and off we went.
It was a Tuesday and none of the gay bars were open. We stood at the bottom of the strip wondering what we would do. The walking light buzzed, and an older tranny approached us. She lovingly chatted away as if we were old friends. We chatted to her for a while, she was already quite happy with whatever the evening’s substances were, but was super warm and eventually toddled off for a bite to eat.
My friend went to the bathroom, and I waited around in my pink hair checking out how much the area had changed when I heard these excited camp voices behind me.
“Oh! I love the hair! Is it real do you think?”
“She has got such great energy. Let’s go talk to her.”
“Oh! It’s a wig. Yes, lets.”
I turned and there were two young boys who couldn’t have been much more than 16 years old. They seemed to already be veterans of the gay scene and when my friend joined us, offered advice as to where we might find some ‘action’. My friend was not wearing the shoes for that kind of a walk, so we popped into a couple of the straightey 180 bars, and enjoyed a bit of socially distant attention.
If we were standing around in our ‘normal’ clothes looking like ‘normal’ people (as we often do), would those people have just come up to have a chat?
It occurred to me afterwards that to them, we looked safe. We were their people. We were not normies who judge them, or potentially are even a danger to them. We don’t always look like that, but when we did, that was a signpost we were okay in that community.
It is not IF you judge, it’s HOW you judge
It is absolutely human nature when meeting someone from a different cultural background for the first time, to have all of your past experiences with and knowledge about that culture descend into your brain to form a judgement. You can’t and shouldn’t stop that from happening.
Just because something or someone is different, doesn’t mean they are bad or scary. If you are feeling that way, it likely means your knowledge and experience needs updating. There are so many different ways to think, feel, and act in this world, assuming yours is the only, the best, and/or the right way is ridiculous.
Judging people also means we know how to treat them, which can also be very useful. You don’t treat a child the same way you treat an elderly person. And apparently in the United States and many other Western nations, the police don’t treat black and white people the same way. If you think this is not true in the United Kingdom, read this spectacular article about some white privileged little shits.
I was judged favourably by some in the community for being out with pink hair. I’m sure many more gave me a wide berth for the same reason.
Are you racist and judgemental? Of course you are. But it is whether you look on people who are different to you with wonder and curiosity, or disdain and fear which determins whether or not you are an asshole.
Until next time!