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  • Writer's pictureAmr Abbas

Yes, Australia Is Racist—But Not to You or Me

The Australia Chronicles 2

A reflection on the experience of an exchange student from Sweden

I could not have written this piece without Chris, Andrew, and Laurel’s help in understanding the complexity of the Australian community. For this, I thank you all.

Gleeful smiles, a few jokes here and there, and a warmest welcome, that is what I received upon arriving in the city of Melbourne, Australia.

I would lie if I said that I was not surprised. But my surprise was only because of the rumors that I heard before going to Australia. “Australians are racist,” a dear friend informed me the week before I left, “you might struggle a little.” He had experiences and knowledge, but he’d never been to Australia. He was, however, very well informed. “I am going back to Egypt,” said another friend, “It’s a good country, but it’s not my country.” He’s recently become an Australian citizen after spending a little over six years there. Neither of those warnings shook me. One acquaintance who did the same exchange told me something that was more terrifying than both of the previous comments.

She said, “Australians are nice, they are friendly, and they are welcoming. But because I’m only there for a short amount of time, they didn’t want a close connection.”

Before I get into my experience, let me tell you about my background: I was born in Egypt where I lived most of my life, moved to the United States for a year, then back to Egypt, and finally to Sweden where I have been living for the past five years. In the States, I met a lot of love from the most unlikely people, then I met racism from the people you’d expect to be racist – you know, the white, blue-collar folk that are often portrayed on screen in such images. It was there where I came across the term “sand-nigger” which is usually used to refer to non-black Africans, African Arabs and whatnot. In Sweden, I have met racism, but mostly on official papers. With the hints that I am not Swedish enoughlooking at you, Social DemocratsI found racism over there to be mild, and frankly polite, which isn’t normally a term that you hear when discussing racism.

In Melbourne, Australia, I’ve experienced nothing of the sort. I am of color and my accent is definitely different from the strong Australian accents that I have heard, but during the few months of my stay, the only hint of racism that I encountered was not in Melbourne, and it was merely an explanation of what the term “wog” meant. For those who do not know, “wog” is often used for Mediterranean immigrants in Australia. In the city, I’ve seen people of all ethnicities, with the overwhelming majority coming from East Asia, plenty of Italians, Lebanese, Swedes, and Irish. What surprised me the most was the number of Egyptians I met during my short stayit is more than all the Egyptians I met in Sweden in over five years!

Of course, when it comes down to it, Arabs prefer Arabs, Italians prefer Italians and Asians prefer Asians. I don’t take it personally when I feel left out, it’s bound to happen. While I’ve heard stories of how online dating seems to struggle with the same problem in Australia, my experience is confined to the university where the Chinese and Indian communities seem far too tightly knit to break through.

The Voice Amendment and the Yes Campaign

While cycling through the city I came across the most peculiar sign. Several, in fact, just a few blocks from my temporary residence, displayed across several houses. The posters read, “Yes” without any context.

So, I did a little digging, and more digging, and found out that the “yes” is in reference to the Voice Referendum. Yet, that wasn’t what shocked me to hear. It was the opposing campaign and one of their slogans that shocked me the most, “If you don’t know, vote no”.

To take a step back into my first week in Melbourne, I was almost impressed with the Acknowledgement of Traditional Owners. I say almost because every time I heard it, it was a white person saying it. It was almost shocking to see so few of the Aboriginal people in the city and the university. It felt like it was just a façade. And while I’ve heard the Country acknowledgment come out genuinely from some of my tutors at the university, it still felt like it was almost a step in the right direction. But almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.

My suspicions were confirmed when I encountered a strange piece of news on Dr. Eddie Cubillo resigning from one of his posts at Melbourne University. Cubillo’s resignation came in the wake of delivering a lecture at Sydney University where he discussed racism at Melbourne University. The recorded lecture? Nowhere to be foundbut that’s a topic for another day.

It was also during that time that I took a trip to Newcastle (the most populated district in New South Wales outside Sydney) where I met a few friends for a drink. We went to a pub, and there came the moment that truly confirmed every suspicion that I held about Australia’s racism. An Aboriginal woman walked into the pub and looked for a place to sit, noticing the pub was busy. When we offered her a seat with us, she was very grateful, too grateful. She explained briefly between drinks that she is rarely offered a seat. That was unlike any experience that I had. Most people would walk in and if there was room on the table, they would ask – or sometimes wouldn’tand they would sit down. Yet, the Aboriginals feel inclined to ask.

In their own country.

On their own land.

A Deeper Insight on Racism from the Aboriginal

My Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu coach, Chris Arnott, is the first Aboriginal black belt. He is half Aboriginal and told me the horror stories of having to hide his identity as a child to not be taken away from his parents. Yet another Aboriginal who encountered racism in one form or another.

I took to the book by John Law titled After Method, where he talks about the Uluru Guidebook and how different people and cultures can hold different truths. I remember finding the concept quite odd, especially in removing the science and acknowledging the mythology because it is true to its people. But when it comes down to it, the sudden acceptance of things from the past all of a sudden is just to forget the sins, not to instill any hope into the future.

And then, shortly after I drafted my personal reflection, I was hit with the news that Australia said “No” to the Voice. I am not surprised, but I am shocked.

Yet, there is hope.

Yes, Australia is welcoming. Yes, it is developed. Yes, it wants to atone and move on. But at the same time, it is a country of immigrants who drove away the original owners of the land. I have not encountered any visible racism, because I am a traveler. Perhaps if I had the strong features of the Aboriginal people, I would have been treated differentlylike the lady at the bar.

But hope, as the poet Alexander Pope wrote, “hope springs eternal.”

Read The Australia Chronicles 1 here.

Written by Amr Abbas.

Cover photo by Kgbo.


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