15 October 2020

It's 2020, and some people still think all people of colour look the same

| Zoya Patel
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Zoya and her father

Zoya and her father gardening. Photos: Supplied.

When I was at university, I worked casually at a pharmacy in an outer suburb of Canberra.

The owner and pharmacist was a pleasant gentleman who went by the name of ‘Bob’, even though his real name was Sanjay. Bob was Indian (Punjabi, born and raised in Kenya), and I, too, am Indian (Gujarati, born in Fiji, raised in Australia).

Barely a week went by without someone mistaking me for Bob’s daughter.

“How’s your dad going?” customers would ask with a smile, and I would shrug and say, “Well, he’s at home and doesn’t know you, but I can let him know you asked?”

If I was in a less sarcastic mood, I would simply say “Bob isn’t my father. We’re just both Indian”. Once a customer replied with: “Well, he’s a very nice man”, as if by denouncing our possible family ties I was implying he wasn’t. I responded, “So is my real dad”.

Interestingly, at the time I also worked with a close friend at our local cinema. My friend was tall, lean and blonde, and our boss was an older woman, also tall, lean and blonde. No one ever suggested that they were related.

Before the pandemic, I was at Canberra Airport waiting to get through security.

A man about three people ahead of me in the queue was approaching the belt. He had brown skin too, though from my estimation was more likely to be Pakistani than Indian. The security officer leaned around the bench to look at me and said, “Are you two together?” I looked, bewildered, at the multiple people between me and the man in question, and answered, “No – he is a complete stranger”.

I can only assume their assumption was that because we were both brown we must be related.

These small moments of casual racial assumptions are part of a broader pattern in my life of regularly being lumped in with every non-white person around, repeatedly being expected to justify where I’m ‘from’ (if you must know, I’m originally from Queanbeyan), and generally having to counteract and dodge people’s stereotypical attitudes to people of colour day in, day out.

Zoya and her sisters

Zoya (right) with her two sisters, a family friend and her father building their house. Photo: Supplied.

I know that people in the scenarios I’ve described are rarely being racist. I can tell the difference because I’ve also been subjected to enough aggressive racism to know. I’ve watched my mum being screamed at by strangers in Garema Place because she wore a hijab, and once had someone approach us at Woden Shopping Centre to tell her that she “wasn’t welcome here”, as if our citizenship certificates were null in the face of their prejudice. I myself have been called more derogatory names than I can bother to count, beginning at the age of 5 when I was pushed off the swings at preschool because I was “brown like poo”.

Compared to these experiences, being mistaken for my boss’s daughter or some stranger’s wife might seem trivial, and I know that the people in question are well-meaning and simply haven’t paused to consider why their assumptions are steeped in a history of racial stereotyping. But they point to a bigger picture of frustrating preconceptions that many people of colour have to deal with daily.

I shouldn’t have to apologise for not being related to Bob, just because it makes a customer feel awkward to realise that they’ve literally assumed that two brown people must be related because they’re in the same vicinity.

Similarly, should I be expected to explain where I’m from any more than a white Australian should, given this is a land largely made up of migrants, with the exception of First Nations Australians?

Interestingly, the reaction I get from most people when I write about these experiences or discuss them with friends is surprise that they could happen in Canberra. We pride ourselves on being an inclusive and welcoming community, and for the most part we are that, so it is shocking to learn that pockets of racism or prejudice still exist in 2020.

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Often my white friends will say things like, “I’ve never seen anyone be racist in Canberra!”, to which I have to reply, “That might be because you’re white, so it’s unlikely to happen to you”.

I love living in Canberra, and on balance I do think we have a warm, inviting and genuinely inclusive community here. Moving here after growing up in a smaller town in regional NSW was incredible. I went from being one of three non-white kids at my school (the other two being my sisters), to being one of many in a truly multicultural community.

But there is always room for us to do better, and to keep challenging the prejudices that lurk in all of us – myself and other people of colour included. Next time I get mistaken for being related to a stranger just because we’re both brown, I’m going to take the time to interrogate it more.

“No, we’re not related,” I’ll say, “But it’s so interesting that you assumed that. Why do you think that is?”

Maybe by challenging the pattern, we can break it.

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russianafroman12:14 am 16 Oct 20

Why does “insert current year” constitute an argument? If anything, the world is becoming more racist as the races are beginning to mix together.

India is very diverse and has several cultures, such as Punjabi, Malayalam, Kannada, Dravidian, Assamese etc. with their own languages, traditions, foods, fashions etc. Some people say white Australian, but in reality, within Anglo-Australia, there are several cultural heritages, such as English, Scottish, Welsh, Cornish, Irish and even further classifications within the cultures. Then there are all the other cultural heritages from mainland and non-mainland islands of Europe. There is more to the words typically used to describe ethnicities and countries of origin.

Where I used to work there were two sets of people who I had difficulty telling apart. The first pair were a couple of Chinese women. I sat with their photographs staring at them for ages trying to find a mole or something, so I could remember who was who.
The second set were two Australian born Caucasian men. Same with them. I sat for ages looking for a distinguishing feature I could remember to know who was who.
If I saw them together I could see they were different, but apart, on their own it was confusing.
Nothing to do with race; some people just look similar with facial features, hair style and colour, mannerisms, dress , etc, and unless you know them very well, they can be confusing.

Dear everyone commenting on this post:

Until such time as a group of people of non European decent decide to spend hundreds of years travelling the world, planting their flag, deeming the current occupants to be ‘savages’ and then enforcing their set of ideals without any regard for the current culture, and creating a power structure that only values traits they deem acceptable – there will not be “racism” towards white people.

“I dont like what the word racism actually means so I’m going to change the definition to suit my narrative.

Oh, but I still want to use the more negative connotations of the previous definition to use as a weapon against people who disagree with me.”

Damn Phonecians.

Racial war is a constant in human history. Every prson alive today and every culture is a product of exactly this sort of activity, because every race and culture that didn’t do this has long since been wiped out. Kinda like how every major religious sect has a history of killing heretics.

When I was a kid I lived in Bangladesh for a year.

Quite frequently if my best friend (who was also white and from Australia) and I went for a walk without an adult we would get insults shouted at us by the local kids.

“Red Monkey” seemed to be a very popular choice of insult.

Anyone who believes that white people cannot be the victims of racism is themselves racist.

Pretty racist of you to assume white people aren’t the target of racism. Maybe try a bit of self awareness before whining about other peoples lack of forethought.

Indeed. And of the examples given I as a white Australian have experienced similar.

Capital Retro8:37 am 15 Oct 20

Please explain why there are now two distinct groups being “white” and “people of colour”. Isn’t it more relevant to say “African American”, “Asian Australian” or even better still, nothing at all? I note you refer to yourself as “brown” and you were teased about it when young. I know a couple of “white” people who have freckles and red hair and I know how they suffered in their younger days. In some African countries, any children that are born as albinos are culturally condemned to death.

It always baffled me why Barak Obama was referred to as black when his mother was Caucasian American and his father African (Kenyan). In fact, I read somewhere that in Kenya Obama was referred to as a “white”.

By the way, is it proper for you to refer to some people as your “white” friends?

“Maybe by challenging the pattern, we can break it.”

Yes, stereotyping is a form of pattern recognition and you’re never going to “break” it, because it’s a useful cognitive tool, that allows people to make numerous helpful decisions every day based on limited or incomplete information.

The majority of the article, what you’re actually wanting is for people to use more of their brain to think of the potential social implications of off the cuff comments or attempted pleasantries.

But a large proportion of people are lazy and not too bright, so I doubt this type of behaviour will ever really change, no matter how much you dislike it.

So you have a choice, recognise it for what it is and accept it, or be perpetually offended that other people don’t think the same way you do.

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