Casual Racism

by Zoya Patel on Mar 13, 2012 • 12:30 PM

Zoya Patel

In my last column, I mentioned how I often forget that I’m Indian. I’ve always identified more strongly with Australian culture than my Indian heritage – I love pop culture, English literature, really bad American TV shows (let’s face it, Australian culture is actually just a mash-up of other Western cultures with a smattering of our very own quirks and customs). Bollywood is good for a laugh, but I never really engaged with Indian culture the way that I have with Western culture, and I doubt I ever will.

When you speak in an Australian accent, rarely spend time with Indians other than your family, and even think in English, it can be hard to remember that to other people, you may not look like you belong.

Luckily for me, there’s always a spot of casual racism to remind me what’s what.

I’ve written about casual racism a fair bit, and I think it’s important to distinguish between casual racism and racism proper. To me, casual racism is what happens when people base their actions and attitudes on assumptions about race that they may not be conscious of, or are not intended to be discriminatory, but that serve to propagate the same myths about other cultures that have caused levels of subjugation and oppression for centuries.

Racism proper is just prejudice in its most open and revolting form.

One thing that really gets me in general about racism is how little people are aware of it – and when I say ‘people’ I primarily mean white Australians. Like my many non-ethnic friends who often proclaim that ‘racism isn’t an issue’, based entirely on their own experiences.

I am in no way claiming that Caucasians can’t and don’t experience racism, but I do think that (particularly in Canberra, where I’m from), a sort of bubble exists that means that most Caucasians are unlikely to experience racism, or be present when someone else is.

It does exist though, and I’ve had plenty of firsthand experience with it.

One situation I often point to when it comes to casual racism is the conversation I regularly got stuck in when I used to work part-time at a pharmacy, run by a lovely Indian man who went by the Anglo-Saxon name of Bob.

The conversation went something like this:

Customer: “You’re Bob’s daughter, aren’t you?”
Me: “No, no I’m not.”
C: *look of deep surprise* “Really?!? I really thought he was your dad.”
M: “Nope, we’re both just Indian.”
C: *awkward silence*
M: “… Would you like a bag for that…?”

Now, you probably don’t think this is a big deal, and at first it didn’t bother me. Until the following started happening:

C: “You’re Bob’s daughter, aren’t you?”
M: “No.”
C: “Well, you can see why we would think that.”

Um, actually, no I can’t see why you would think that. Maybe because I’m being deliberately obtuse, or maybe because assuming that I am related to whatever Indian is in the closest vicinity makes the assumption that all Indians look the same, or that all Indians must be related.

This is factually incorrect, and culturally ignorant. Or, as I like to put it, casually racist.

I can safely say that at each of my various other jobs, none of the Caucasian employees have been asked if they were related to the multiple Caucasian bosses that we worked for. And before you protest that it’s ‘different’, or that it’s easier to tell the difference between two white people, let me point out a few reasons why I think this is an issue:

1. The assumption that I was related to my boss, simply because we’re both Indian is based on the idea that all Indians, and indeed all migrant groups, are homogenous entities with no individual traits to help discern them from each other.

2. It suggests that all Indians really do look the same. What, our skin colour makes us melt into a brown blob, identical to all the other blobs around us? Despite the fact that we have brown skin, we do still have completely different skin tones, features and individual looks. We are still human.

3. It ignores the fact that, much like Caucasians, south-east Asians can have similar physical features (i.e. skin colour), and still be from entirely different countries. I am from Fiji. Bob is from South Africa. We don’t even speak the same language.

4. Worst of all, the way in which people asked me suggests that they thought it was such an obvious assumption, that I was being deliberately difficult by getting offended.

I can pretty safely say that not all of the 1.21 billion people who are currently living in India are related to each other. Prreeetty sure about that.

This kind of casual racism is the worst kind, because it’s considered to be entirely reasonable, and it tends to slip under the radar. Yet, it is just as damaging and insidious as any other form of racism.

Viewing racial groups as homogenous entities is what leads to racial discrimination in the first place – and even though no one means anything nasty by asking if I’m related to Bob, the fact remains that people implicitly assume that all Indians, or Asians or Arabs in a two-block radius of each other are related – because we’re obviously the Other, and hence are more likely to be connected to each other than any of the Anglo-Saxons around us.

Maybe I’m blowing this out of proportion, or maybe people honestly aren’t aware of how offensive it is. But even if it is just a case of a storm in a chai cup, it still says a lot about our attitudes towards different races.

Casual racism will always fascinate me, because it’s so much more integrated into our psyches than overt displays of racism. When someone is actually just being openly racist, I assume that they’re quintessentially a dickhead and move on with my life.

But when someone makes an innocuous assumption, or asks a seemingly casual question, it raises a lot of questions about societal views of race and multiculturalism.

Because, although there certainly are more Caucasians than Indians in Australia, that’s just not a good enough reason to discriminate between us in what is a globalised world.

But I guess that’s just one ‘curry-munchers’ opinion.

The Coconut Chronicles

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11 thoughts on “Casual Racism

  1. A great read! Love it. I think most of us can relate to this. It’s like the time (a few years back in Sydney) one of work colleagues with a puzzled look on his face said to me “I swear I saw you down the road earlier this morning but you were wearing a different coloured suit??!” He later (much later) explained (albeit a little embarrassed) that he saw another woman with a “scarf” on so he assumed it must have been me because “you don’t see many in the city”. Lol I thought it was hilarious!
    P.s. I live in Canberra too now 🙂

  2. Excellent article. I do think that casual racism could be the easiest to address simply by more exposure to other cultures and people.

  3. I don’t know that casual racism is as bad as blatant racism…but then, I haven’t had the same experience as you so I can’t claim expertise. Loved the article BTW

  4. Great article Zoya, I worked in sport for some years. Often when being introduced to new colleagues in sport, one of the questions that pops up: “Do you actually play sport yourself??” now what makes someone ask this question? is that casual racism or a polite way of saying “I can’t imagine a muslim woman wearing a hijab would have a capacity to play sport??” or perhaps it is assumed that the Hijab presents some kind of physical impairment?

  5. Good post – your idea of casual racism has actually been defined as racial microaggressions. Google it – plus Dr. Derald Wing Sue.

    Also check out White Privilege, Peggy McIntosh and Tim Wise (this would explain the bubble you mentioned about…)

    Keep on blogging!

  6. Any time I had a Persian (or even Arab or Indian) classmate in school people would ask if we’re sisters, first cousins etc. I actually had a girl who didn’t believe me when I said I wasn’t the sister of another Persian girl in the grade and another girls who said that we “MUST be at least cousins”.

  7. If you go to one of the few McDonald’s restaurants in Sydney CBD you will notice that EVERY single employee is of Indian background.What do you think are the chances of someone with a different background getting a job at one of these establishments?Just an example of how racism can work both ways.

    • 1. Many Maccas franchises are groups of three or four restaurants owned by a company.

      2. Maccas is not meant to be a lifetime career. They employ mainly students looking for pocket money. They usually boot people once they are old enough for adult wages. If your only career ambition Fakie is to work at Maccas then we feel sorry for you.

      3. It stands to reason that these kids are probably students. They may be international students doing the only sort of work available to them while they are studying here.

      4. Don’t like it, don’t eat American fast food. It’s not as if you don’t have ample choices in Sydney. Or make your own lunch (white bread of course)

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