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


Blog at