Changing a nappy on a plane isn’t easy, and it didn’t help to know we were being watched. The eyes of our fellow passengers bored into the backs of our heads - the novice moves of new parents, alternative entertainment to the in-flight film. Our newly adopted son looked over my shoulder, and, through eyes that might have been painted on with two strokes of black ink and a calligraphy brush, he watched them back. I like to imagine he was thinking, “Who are you to make judgements about me?” Strapped into seats in a mass of genetic sameness, the cargo of people remained anonymous. But we had committed a public act. No longer protected by our middle Anglo ordinariness, we had adopted a baby from another country and joined a minority group.
At new mothers’ group, Cherie liked to talk about the size of her baby’s penis and her sister’s plastic leg. She was good for me. She gave me insight into how some people think and I learned to refine my answers to the questions we would be asked for years to come about our children; to find a balance between lightness and brevity. I tried not to take myself too seriously. When she asked “how do you know he doesn’t have AIDS?” or “was his mother a prostitute?” I answered patiently and refrained from snarling in return, “How could you call your child Talon?” When I saw her husband’s death notice in the paper a few years ago, I remembered Cherie and the early lessons she’d taught me.
But the lessons weren’t all about me. Racism emerged early when my son was called 'Ching Chong boy' in the toilet block during his first week of primary school. He sensed that this was unchartered territory and was reluctant to tell me what had happened. The grade six perpetrator's path would intersect with ours again years later, in the inevitable way of country towns - I was a teacher of students who had dropped out of school, and my husband was his defence lawyer in court. The primordial urge to tear the boy apart with my bare hands, as I might have done had I got to him at the time of the verbal attack on my child, had subsided by then.
Racist comments have peppered the children’s school years, ranging from old favourites (I learnt as a child that ‘Chinamen’ kept coins in their ears), to the more creative (‘Koreans f*ck dogs to make bread’). My son has been called an 'Asian faggot' on Facebook, and told to go back to where he came from by strangers in the street. I've witnessed people talking to our children in the loud slow voice some people use when talking to people who don’t speak English, sometimes despite having just heard them speak. I've seen drastic improvements in helpfulness when someone on the other side of a counter realises we are together. My son doesn’t leave the house on Australia Day; the Cronulla riots of 2005 struck a particular chord with him.
People who live within the confines of an Anglo-Celtic world (many politicians, for example) don’t believe Australia is a racist country because they don’t see it up close. But we see it; sometimes blatant, often subtle. Ethnicity is worn like a national costume, with judgments and assumptions attached. Negative stereotypes are slapped on the wearer like an armband. We squirm when we see North Koreans goose-stepping in a military parade or people destroying chickens during an outbreak of bird flu in China. We cringe when we hear politicians banging the populist drum about asylum seekers or 457 visas. Our hearts sink when we see footage of a woman on a train screaming at two young men that her grandfather had fought in the war to “keep black c---ts like you out of the country”.
In 1886 the anti Chinese cartoon named ‘The Mongolian Octopus’ reached across the pages of The Bulletin, his tentacles poised to squeeze the life out of ‘white’ Australian men, women and children.
The body depicts a menacing Chinese character with shaved head and bad teeth; the tentacles labelled with names of diseases, debauched pastimes and drugs. One of them is wrapped around a piece of furniture and labelled ‘Cheap Labour’.
Racist policies in Australia are no longer enshrined in laws such as the White Australia Policy, but scratch the surface of commonly held views and this octopus still lurks. So spare a thought for the non-Anglo-Celtic Australians who live here too, particularly children, and and remember: dog whistlers don’t bother whistling if there is no-one to whistle.