6 March 2024

Even if unintentional, casual racism needs to be talked about

| Zoya Patel
Join the conversation
Guess who game

Sorry, lady, that’s not me. Guess again. Photo: Kogan.

It wasn’t the first time it’s happened to me – being mistaken for another brown person. This time, though, the interaction happened in front of my three young nieces and it was excruciating.

I was meeting my mother and nieces for coffee in the suburbs. The girls had finished school, and it was a lovely afternoon to catch up with them all, with my newborn son in tow. We sat down to our coffees, and were deep in conversation when someone interrupted us.

“Hello again!” a woman said brightly.

I looked at her with a polite smile.


I assumed she was going to ask a question or something, because I had never seen her before in my life. She was a friendly-looking older woman, dressed in neat casual clothes with tidy blonde hair and a bright smile.

“I saw you this morning,” she said, “In Gungahlin – remember?” She was looking between me and my mother, and both of us gave her blank smiles.

“No, I wasn’t in Gungahlin,” I said slowly. “Sorry, you must be mistaken.”

“No, it was definitely you,” she insisted. “Both of you! I saw you.”

READ ALSO Give where you live to the Canberra Day Appeal and build a stronger, better community for us all

The women went on to insist that she had seen my mother and I. “You,” she said, pointing at Mum, “Were pushing a trolley, and you went past her, and she had cuts all up and down her legs. I swear it was you!”

This went one for at least five minutes – her insisting it was us and telling us what ‘we’ had been doing, while I politely continued to deny that we had been there. As she finally began to accept she was mistaken, things went downhill.

“Well, you look exactly the same as those ladies. One of them was wearing the headgear, like you are,” she said, pointing at Mum’s hijab. “And I don’t think she spoke any English, she just didn’t look like she did. And the girl who looked like you … well, actually, she didn’t have glasses. And you have a baby. But she looked just like you!”

This went on for another few minutes, the woman alternating between covering her mistake and insisting that we were there and had somehow forgotten it. Then eventually she left, and our table sat in silence for a moment.

“Girls,” I said, turning to my nieces, “That’s what we call ‘casual racism’.”

Here’s the thing – everyone makes mistakes, and it’s perfectly normal to confuse someone for someone else. Probably a bit less common to go up to complete strangers, confusing them for other strangers (this woman didn’t know the people she thought we were, anymore than she knew us), but she seemed like a friendly person, so I’m going to assume she was just a gregarious type and enjoys chatting to people.

But after we had already told her that it wasn’t us, to continue to insist it was and then follow up by justifying why she thought it was us (apparently on the basis that both Mum and the other woman wore ‘headgear’, which linked to her assumption neither spoke English, and the fact that all of us are brown), is where the casual racism creeps in.

READ ALSO Business outlook ‘isn’t fantastic’ with the ACT standing alone in reporting a fall in investment

As I explained to my nieces, the assumption underlying the woman’s behaviour was that our primary identifying feature is the colour of our skin – so to see two brown women, at separate times and in separate contexts, is enough for her to think we’re the same despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

For example, the two women she saw in Gungahlin weren’t together, didn’t appear to know each other (one was pushing a trolley past the other, according to the lady), were dressed differently, and lacked identifying features (like my glasses). In contrast, Mum and I were sitting together, drinking coffee, clearly connected to each other. Most importantly, we said we weren’t the same people – but that didn’t deter the woman from insisting we were somehow wrong about our own identities.

Did this woman intend to be racist? No, of course not. Was she causing any harm by making those assumptions? Not directly, and only insofar as it disrupted our coffee to have to repeatedly assure her she was wrong.

But I wanted to be clear with my nieces that the uncomfortable feeling they were experiencing was valid. All three of them looked and felt embarrassed and awkward after the interaction. The feeling, which I am very familiar with, is a creeping sense of shame that has built up over time due to direct racism and which rears its head any time our race becomes the focus in public.

When you have enough random strangers say actually racist things to you (from children saying your lunch smells at school, to strangers yelling insults on the street), even benign interactions like this one chafe. I wanted my nieces to know that they were right in feeling that the woman, regardless of her intentions, was stereotyping based on our race, and that they don’t have to humour anyone when that occurs.

When we’re made to feel like our skin colour is the most memorable or important thing about us, it can feel incredibly demoralising. Undoubtedly, people will rush to tell them that their experiences of racist stereotyping or racism are not that, are benign and that they’re overreacting, for the rest of their lives. I wanted to confirm for them that sometimes, the gut feeling they have is there for a reason. That doesn’t mean we have to react, and it doesn’t mean that the woman was doing anything ‘wrong’ by starting a conversation – but acknowledging casual racism like this is important, and it’s unlikely to be the last time they witness or have to deal with similar conversations.

Join the conversation

All Comments
  • All Comments
  • Website Comments
devils_advocate11:54 am 08 Mar 24

Of all the things that actually happened, this is definitely one of them.

swaggieswaggie9:08 pm 07 Mar 24

Its the 4 kids I feels sorry being brought up hearing this nonsense every day. Canberra has more than its fair share of nutters and you just happened across one. Its not casual racism in any way shape or form but sure….don’t waste the opportunity to indoctrinate the kids with your victim mentality.

GrumpyGrandpa5:43 pm 07 Mar 24

So, when the police ask you to describe the person who assaulted you, the non- casual-racist response would be:

Alleged Victim
“Officer, the alleged offender appeared to a homosapien of undefined gender, wearing items of clothing. They were taller than some, but shorter than others and weighed more than some, but less than others”.

Police Officer
“Did they have any distinguishing features”?

Alleged Victim
“To me, they just looked like any other homosapien”.

Police Officer
“Thankyou. You’ve been very helpful”.

“She was a friendly-looking older woman”

Is that casual ageism?

Stephen Manns3:52 pm 07 Mar 24

So, a friendly elderly woman mistook you and your mum for someone else? Righto. But did she really? Did she really spend nearly 10 minutes being racist to your face? It’s a cool story bro, but the whole point of your article gets lost in the fanciful story line. And even if it is true, so!

Balance needed5:12 pm 07 Mar 24

Does anyone remember the Sesame-Street-for-Adults musical Avenue Q? It debuted in 2004.

It included the following song:

“Everyone’s a little bit racist
Doesn’t mean we go
Around committing hate crimes.
Look around and you will find
No one’s really color blind.
Maybe it’s a fact
We all should face
Everyone makes judgments
Based on race.”

Everyone Zoya. Neither me nor you are excluded.

Capital Retro2:32 pm 07 Mar 24

“She was a friendly-looking older woman, dressed in neat casual clothes with tidy blonde hair and a bright smile.”

What colour skin did she have, Zoya?

When I saw the headline I thought this was going to be about a certain female soccer player but no – it was predictable as usual.

Stephen Ellis1:47 pm 07 Mar 24

You’ve got to be kidding!! Casual racism resulting from someone having poor facial recognition skills and trying to be friendly. Someone who the writer admits wasn’t intending to be racist and caused no direct harm. It seems the “indirect” harm inflicted is more about the writer’s attitudes to colour than the “casual racist’s”. What a world we live in now.

No, the author of this article made it quite clear that it wasn’t that the woman had mistakenly thought they were someone else. It was that, when her error was pointed out, she kept saying that they were someone else that she thought they were. Why didn’t she just say “Whoops, sorry, my bad, thought you were someone else.”

“When we’re made to feel like our skin colour is the most memorable or important thing about us, it can feel incredibly demoralising.”

Hahahahahahahahahahahaha………………..In our day of the equality quota workplace hire, we have to endure reading things like this, written by the only people currently on planet earth who are absolutely obsessed with the colour of people’s skin.

What’s more, what could a person do if certain people actually did all look the same to them? What fault would that be of theirs, and why on earth would it have to be racism? Never forget people: true racism – and not this revisionist mumbo jumbo they’re teaching now, for the benefit of the monopoly capitalist’s revolution – is where a person of a certain race thinks that race makes them superior to others of a different race. How that definition squares with the ‘casual racism’ discussed here is something only a wild imagination mixed with whatever else could answer.

Oh please, some people just have bad facial recognition, but in this case from your comments (‘headgear’) it might have been the clothing that was causing the confusion. Clothing that is too concealing can do this, or clothing that makes people concentrate on it rather than the person (it can be both of these) can cause confusion.
I have mixed up people, and it’s nothing to do with being racist; just bad facial recognition. Where I used to work there were two pairs of people I had difficulty telling apart for instance. When they were together I could see they were different, but see them separately I was unsure which one they were. One pair were female of Asian descent (Chinese decent), and the other pair male of European descent (from the surnames, of British descent). I tried so hard to be able to know who was who, but never managed it. Both had the same shaped faces, etc.
The woman sounded friendly, not a racist. However, it was strange she kept insisting it was you who she had seen earlier. Most would have said, ‘Oh, my mistake, sorry’, and been embarrassed.

Being bad at recognising faces does not make you racist, and shouldn’t be treated as such. Following up with comment such as “you x look all the same” is however.

You know what I read in this, you have your feelings; this lady mistook me for someone else, and thought I didn’t speak English because of how I look, that’s racist.
What I see, this lady thought you were someone else and was keen to open up to a stranger about something in common, even as inane as being at the same place at the same time.
She was then horrendously embarrassed and ashamed that you weren’t the same people, and that cause her a stress response resulting in her not being able to clear the chain of thought from her head.
BUT… Just as long as you can call it casual racism for your little story.

Daily Digest

Want the best Canberra news delivered daily? Every day we package the most popular Riotact stories and send them straight to your inbox. Sign-up now for trusted local news that will never be behind a paywall.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.