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

Zoya Patel 15 October 2020 84
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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84 Responses to It’s 2020, and some people still think all people of colour look the same
Daniel Mackay Daniel Mackay 4:51 am 16 Oct 20

Yatindra Tripathi come on razi get with it

Elroy Jones Elroy Jones 2:52 am 16 Oct 20

Great article!! Z this is your jam, not planning

Denise Bourke Denise Bourke 1:07 am 16 Oct 20

Sorry dear but your studies haven't served u well enough ... it's called interpersonal skills! At worst they were having chit-chat ... chances are that Bob had great interpersonal skills and it was actually a compliment they were offering. Maybe open your mind , as you expect of others.

russianafroman russianafroman 12:14 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.

Gail D Gillin Gail D Gillin 10:06 pm 15 Oct 20

I find this 'casual' racism fascinating. My father was born in Oz but his siblings in UK. I notice friends of Asian decent get asked regularly how long they have lived here. Many are 4th or 5th generation Oz. Me 2nd gen but l am Anglo Saxon so l never get asked. Bizzare.... Good on you for raising this... I am sorry though that you have been accosted at such a young age and with such rude and vile comments. Arrogance and ignorance comes at all levels.

    Julie Macklin Julie Macklin 10:48 am 17 Oct 20

    For me it's the accent. I would be likely to ask someone how long they have lived here if they have a foreign accent, and that has nothing to do with skin shade. Accent is a far better indicator of born overseas. Doesn't always work though. I thought someone was American, but turns out he was Australian and had never been to America. He had picked up the accent while working for an American company. One of my grandmothers was born in England and retained her accent. I always thought of her as English, not Australian, although she lived here most of her life. I never thought to ask her what she thought she was. Her children though were Australian.

Souhair Naoum Souhair Naoum 10:03 pm 15 Oct 20

People of every colour need to understand that every nations every nationality in every country people can be racist to each other .Not saying its ok but the truth its not just White with black or any other skin color.

I have been in Australia for 37 years people still ask me where do i come from.

And my reply is you mean what's my background?

Human are internally dont get differences . And its ok

    Max Chesterfield Max Chesterfield 10:45 pm 15 Oct 20

    Souhair Naoum alot of the time "where do you come from" is just curiosity. If i lived in another country, and someone asked me that, the most it'd do is start a conversation. It isnt racist at all.

    Mike Bolton Mike Bolton 11:42 pm 15 Oct 20

    A 2nd generation South-Asian friend of mine was often asked at work by migrant customers "where are you from?" to which he replied Gungahlin with a sense of humour, which confused and sometimes offended the people asking him.

    Souhair Naoum Souhair Naoum 10:43 pm 16 Oct 20

    Mike Bolton zzz and that's my point it's ok

    Souhair Naoum Souhair Naoum 10:54 pm 16 Oct 20

    Max Chesterfield I am never been offended by it ironically it's my white friends get more offended. I am more offended by people always think that all white people are racist.

Paul Mathews Paul Mathews 10:03 pm 15 Oct 20

Its true ! They have diff coloured T shirts !!!!

Monica Singh Monica Singh 8:59 pm 15 Oct 20

I must say I find people’s reactions to the “where are you from” question fascinating. I was born in the USA, grew up mostly in NZ, live in Australia and am of Indian heritage. Although I probably look slightly bemused when someone asks me where I’m from I very rarely get offended by it. I find the question usually genuinely comes from a place of curiosity rather than racism. To be honest Indians can be brutally racist towards other Indians...mostly revolving around the caste system. I’ve also been told I don’t look very Indian (often by other Indians). My heritage is usually questioned...both my parents are in fact Indian. I’ve been told I look more Italian, South American, Persian the list goes on. I know what malicious racism feels like and have been on the end of it more times than I can count so I’m fairly good at telling the difference between racism and curiosity. To be honest I’m more concerned about my kids. They are mixed race so they can’t be pigeonholed into any boxes. So if I don’t look Indian enough to be Indian then what about my kids???? Why can’t we just be proud of where we come from, wherever that may be? Why can’t people be accepting of other cultures? Why do we assume every interaction carries undertones of racism?

Daniel Duncan Daniel Duncan 8:06 pm 15 Oct 20

I don't like been called Caucasian. I don't have any links to the Caucasus.

Mike Bolton Mike Bolton 7:06 pm 15 Oct 20

Migration or displacement can influence identity, though the identity political agendas of the left, particularly far-left that are being heavily pursued in recent times by leftist parties to desperately create self-serving divisions for political gains in which race is relegated to black and white skin, fails to acknowledge diversity and heterogeneity.

Seeing people in black and white is quite an obsolete and outdated concept now that there is genealogy testing to determine haplogroup or ancestry.

    Beck Bianco Beck Bianco 12:03 am 16 Oct 20

    Mike Bolton because racism is experienced often based on appearance of skin colour and that’s not a leftist push that’s reality. It’s funny how white people view racism which they have never experienced. It’s also interesting that people are weirdly making up a reality where there is a leftist agenda to classify people only by skin colour and then call racism when it’s the opposite of the left agenda.

    Left-wing politics support social equality and egalitarianism, often in opposition to social hierarchy. They believe all people have the right to be treated equally and not be set apart because of skin colour.

George Quarmby George Quarmby 6:18 pm 15 Oct 20

Interesting comments to this article. I think we need to understand that different folks have a contrasting view of what racism is. I for one will do some reading, perhaps from a non-white point of view.

steve2020 steve2020 5:21 pm 15 Oct 20

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.

Anna Mocnik Anna Mocnik 4:55 pm 15 Oct 20

I can’t tell the difference if the person is from Vietnam, Pakistan, Filipino, Austria, Germany, Hungary or many other places, so does that make me a racist?

I am also often asked if I am German, Dutch, Austrian or Polish, but non of those places I can call my birth place, so does that make the person inquiring, raciest?

We all come from somewhere, why can’t we be tolerant and embrace diversity, because in many cases it could be just curiosity?

Shan Badowski Shan Badowski 3:58 pm 15 Oct 20

I once asked a cab driver where he was originally from simply because he seemed to have the same accent as my husbands Maltese grandfather. The gentleman replied New Zealand. Naively I said “you don’t sound Kiwi”. Queue silence. The intent was innocent the execution was awkward ...possibly based on his own experiences and assumptions.

Suzanne Garnett Suzanne Garnett 2:12 pm 15 Oct 20

I have experienced the same problem here in Zimbabwe where Europeans are in the minority and I have been on the receiving end of the same behavior.

Andrew Byrne Andrew Byrne 12:45 pm 15 Oct 20

People will often say something not to be offensive or racist but in order to try to start a conversation and you can normally tell from their voice or body language how friendly they are. Rather than take offence at the person swing your viewpoint around and maybe inform the other person. Tell the person you are not Bob’s daughter introduce yourself and be positive. Tell them your from Queanbeyan they ask country of origin tell them then ask them the same questions. It seems that our first response is to be offended when sometimes it is just as easy to be positive polite and educate people. Maybe I am an offensive dinosaur but normally when meeting people you get asked or you ask where are you from or what sort of work do you do. Friendships often start from asking these basic questions and not being offended.

    Denise Dixon Denise Dixon 12:48 pm 15 Oct 20

    Andrew Byrne we used to look at it as starting a friendly conversation.. now I don't say anything, because I dont know what to say😔🤷‍♀️

    Judith White Judith White 4:50 pm 15 Oct 20

    Denise Dixon Keep chatting.... it's the Australian way. Once political correctness stops communication between people, we will be put into tribes and people will stop caring about each other - except for their tribes. Please try not to be discouraged by all of these snowflakes..... they are part of the problem in Oz...

Maya123 Maya123 12:01 pm 15 Oct 20

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.

Hannah Brugman Hannah Brugman 11:52 am 15 Oct 20

Great article Zoya ! Totally agree with challenging the assumptions 👍🏼 good on you 😁

Rachael Lizars Rachael Lizars 11:28 am 15 Oct 20

I just came to the comments to roll my eyes at the lack of critical thought.

rbodz rbodz 10:18 am 15 Oct 20

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.

    chewy14 chewy14 10:57 am 15 Oct 20

    “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.”

    Paul Murray Paul Murray 12:01 pm 15 Oct 20

    Damn Phonecians.

    Paul Murray Paul Murray 12:14 pm 15 Oct 20

    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.

    Spiral Spiral 9:28 pm 15 Oct 20

    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.

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