Racism Down Under

“Go home you bloody wogs!” “Go back to your country!” “We don’t want you here!” “Go home!” a group of kids yelled one after the other at some other children which included me. I was five-years old and did not understand what they were saying. Go back to your country? I was born here. I had not lived anywhere but here.

This is one of my earliest memories of school in an inner city suburb of Melbourne during the mid-1970s. Unfortunately, it was also my first experience of racism which was very common and far more overt back then. Even though I did not understand what ‘wog’ meant, the vitriolic way in which it was expressed made it very clear that we were not welcome here – we did not belong. Many years later, I discovered that the word literally means a bug or virus; in Australian slang it reflects a deep-seated contempt of foreigners, especially those of Southern European and Middle Eastern heritage.

As a law student at University, I discovered some of the roots of this racism. It began with the very first White ‘settlers’ (English convicts and military personnel) brought here by Captain James Cook in 1788. He justified the taking of the land when he first landed here in 1770 by declaring it ‘Terra Nullius’ – a Latin (legal) term meaning “empty or vacant land; land belonging to no-one.” This falsehood rendered the Native FIRST Australians non-existent. (Ignoring an entire race of people is the pinnacle of racism.) (1)

The discrimination aimed at Southern European migrants, has its beginnings in immigration restrictions designed to keep non-English/Anglo individuals out of the country. People like my parents (Greeks and Italians who arrived here by the thousands after World War II) were permitted entry only after discriminatory laws in ‘The White Australia Policy’ were gradually overturned (2). These changes were implemented because Australia needed a large labor force after the war to help the economy thrive.

Even though these historical facts explain some of the political and economic reasons for racist attitudes they do not demonstrate the fact that racism is still a social problem (albeit more covert). The focus of this piece is to describe true accounts of Anglo-Australian racism – like the scenario in the opening paragraph. The following experiences are the tiniest tip of the largest iceberg you could possibly imagine, however, they paint a vivid picture of the mistreatment dished out by (many) Anglos in this country.

1- The fiction of Terra Nullius also meant that the land was occupied illegally by the English.

2- One of these laws ‘The Immigration Restriction Act’ consisted of language tests designed to keep non-English speakers (i.e. non-Anglo people) out of the country. Such laws also excluded people with dark physical characteristics (hence the word ‘White’ in the policy title) because unless they were very well-educated (most were not due to poverty), they did not speak English. (Go to www.racismnoway.com.au for more information on Terra Nullius and The White Australia Policy.)

Too Smart For You

In my biology class at University, an Anglo student openly criticized a Fillipino classmate for getting an ‘A’ on a recent exam because according to her this woman could “barely speak English.” I also had many Anglo ‘friends’ and acquaintances who could not deal with my receiving a higher grade than them. (The real issue here is that they consider us to be inferior and so find it impossible to believe that we are smarter or that we can work harder, than them.)

Speak ‘Australian’!

The Italian father of one of my high school friends was told to speak “Australian” by an Anglo woman at a shopping center. The fact that he was speaking with a group of other Italians and she was just a passer-by demonstrates her audacity. This man replied to her ignorant remark by informing her that she should speak “Australian” by learning one of the Aboriginal languages. He added that her native tongue is, in fact, English, and that her ancestors were convicts from the country in which this language originated. She did not respond to this information.

In a similar vein to this story, my mother and I were once speaking Greek on a bus, when an Anglo woman stated loudly that anyone who decides to live in this country needs to learn to speak “Australian.” We continued speaking Greek while she sat there fuming.

McDonald’s Boycott

A few years ago I took my niece (who is half Maori) to a local McDonald’s for lunch. Whilst sitting outside in the play area, an Anglo woman looked straight at me and said (making sure everyone could hear her) that she would not be returning to this store as there are “too many ‘wogs’ here.”

Employment Blues

I happened to be home one day when I overheard my brother searching for work over the phone (he had just become a qualified electrician). At the start of each call he introduced himself using his Greek last name, until about twenty minutes in when I heard him use the name ‘Smith.’ A few seconds later his response was the following, “You fucking bastards. I called you a few minutes ago and you told me there was no work available.” He told them his real name before slamming down the phone receiver. Due to this experience, he decided to start his own business.

At a Greek-Australian women’s conference on racism, I heard the story of a woman’s numerous attempts to gain work as a pilot after she graduated. She could not even get an interview until she resubmitted her applications using the last name ‘Smith.’ (As I have only ever submitted job applications with my real name, I can only surmise how many employment opportunities have been kept from me.)

Two Anglo women applied for work using their married, Greek surnames and could not even get one interview. When reapplying for the same positions using their Anglo maiden names, they instantly received job offers.

One of my cousins worked at a bank for more than a decade. He often lost promotional opportunities to Anglos who, compared to him, lacked experience and were less productive.

Can’t Get Away From Them

While holidaying in Queensland, my Greek-Macedonian friend and I went to a theme park. The young Anglo woman who served us at the counter asked if we were from Melbourne – we both replied in the affirmative. With a look and tone of disgust, she went on to tell us that she left that city in order to “get away from people like you.”

If Looks Could Kill

One sunny Sunday, two friends (one Greek, one Italian, both brown-skinned) and I went on a trip to a seaside, country town (these towns are predominantly populated by Anglos). At lunchtime, the only eatery open was a fish and chips shop. Such a store is usually run by non-Anglos but this one, being in a country town, was staffed by Anglos. Their hatred of us was apparent by their death looks and initial reluctance to speak to us. Eventually they overcame their racist tendencies to serve us as there were no other customers the entire time we were there.

One Of Them

On an outing to a pub one night in inner city Melbourne, one of our blonde friends of German and Austrian extraction accompanied us (the two friends described above and myself). She was approached by an Anglo man whom we assumed was trying to ‘pick her up.’ However, we discovered when she returned that he wanted to know why she was hanging around with ‘wogs.’ Did she not have any other friends? He suggested she remain with his crowd. She refused.

The same blonde friend had also informed us of having heard several derogatory things about non-Anglos whilst in the company of racist Anglos who assumed she was one of them. She would never tell us what was said, only that she felt “sorry” for us.

Grievous Bodily Harm

A young Greek-Australian girl was physically and verbally harassed at the (country town) high school she attended. She was the only ‘wog’ there and these Anglo girls wanted her gone. When it escalated to the point where these bullies cut short her very long hair her family decided to move back to Melbourne. (There are too many horrific stories like this – most of them involve Anglo men and boys beating up on their non-Anglo peers.)

Even though in some of these scenarios we give as good as we get (or even better), in others it is difficult to do so, such as the covert passing over of non-Anglo job applicants and the possibility of being physically assaulted. The effects of this kind of maltreatment are twofold: firstly, they are painful as are all forms of abuse and secondly, they mess with our sense of national identity. To illustrate the latter point…I am familiar with many Australian-born non-Anglos who prefer to identify with the birthplace of their parents after having it drummed into them that they do not belong here. Personally, my feeling like a ‘foreigner’ in my homeland was demonstrated by my gagging on the word ‘Australian’ when asked to state my nationality whilst traveling abroad.

This sense of alienation ended for me on the 13th of February 2008 when our then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, apologized to the Native Australians for the Stolen Generations (3). Even though this political expression of remorse was not for those descendent from immigrants (like me), it was significant because it acknowledged Anglo-Australian racism. As a result of this, I felt vindicated. When watching the television broadcast of the apology I sobbed uncontrollably for a few reasons: my empathy for Native Australians, for my five-year-old self at having been symbolically displaced and the humiliation of every other racist encounter I had endured. (Of course, I still come across racist Anglos but their attitudes and behavior no longer have the same detrimental effect. I understand that they are the ones with the problem.)

Racial discrimination will take several generations to eradicate and it will take more than an apology to do it. However, Prime Minister Rudd’s attempt at reconciliation was a huge step in the right direction as it allowed the healing to commence. This gesture heralded the end of Anglo-Australian racism, the very beginning of its downfall. It will eventually be buried under ground where it belongs.

3- This involved the taking of Aboriginal children from their families so that they could be raised as ‘Whites’ in missions. These children were often physically and sexually abused. In essence this was a form of genocide. A more substantial apology would have included the illegal occupation/invasion of this country but that would have opened up a legal hornet’s nest that Australia is not ready for.

© New Age Power (Helen Papadopoulos) 

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