Deny, Deny, Deny
Why do we keep dismissing and diverting conversations about race? Santilla Chingaipe reflects on prejudice, progress and squeamish silence. (Contains slurs.)
It was the eve of my 29th birthday. I was in New Zealand, getting ready to celebrate my turn around the sun, when I got the call that would change my life. My brother, on the other side of the world in Vienna, was calling to tell me he was in hospital.
My heart started racing. Panic set in as I mentally prepared for the worst news. But I was not prepared for what he told me next. He’d been racially attacked by a gang of white men and was lying in hospital with the injuries. I could not believe what I was hearing. My baby brother, an aerospace engineer, a victim of racial violence? Hearing his frightened and helpless voice sent waves of anger through every part of my being. How could someone do this? Could they not see that he’s another human being, minding his own business, living his life with a family who loves him?
A few days earlier, he told me, he’d left work and picked up a bottle of wine to celebrate the end of a busy work week. As he was making his way home, four white men approached him. Not being a fluent German speaker, he’d assumed they were authorities checking for IDs. This was during the height of the migrant crisis in Europe and he’d already learned that normal rules did not apply for black and brown people in public spaces. Regardless, he thought the confusion could be sorted out with a quick visit to the police station, where they could verify his ID and so he agreed to head there with them. What he didn’t know was that these men weren’t officials, but white nationalists.
They ended up driving him to the outskirts of the city. There, they beat him and shouted racial slurs at him. Four men. He eventually managed to escape, running to safety and waking up the next day in hospital. Every day I am grateful he had the strength to run. I don’t let myself think about the alternative.
My brother’s face was badly disfigured as a result and he lost both his front teeth. He now speaks with a faint lisp.
'Up until that point, I thought I could outrun racism – if I was an excellent student, if I was articulate, if I read more, if I wore my hair straight … '
That incident changed my views on race and racism. Up until that point, I thought I could outrun racism – if I was an excellent student, if I was articulate, if I read more, if I wore my hair straight, if I listened to pop music (and hid the hip hop I listened to at home from my friends), or if I avoided hanging out with black friends at school. Basically, I thought I could avoid racism if I rejected stereotypes around blackness.
I was raised on respectability politics. Maybe it was a defence mechanism on my parents’ part, but how do you tell your children that you can’t shield them from racism? Respectability politics kept me sane and helped my young mind make sense of something that is hard to understand – discrimination based on ideas about what skin tone represents. It makes no rational or logical sense.
Truth is, I’ve experienced racism since I can remember. At the fancy private school in Zambia that had kids of all races and ethnicities, I was bullied by non-black kids for being ‘too African’ and would constantly find myself face-down in the sandpit. When my family migrated to Perth, our white neighbour would terrorise my brother and me, chase us down the street, calling us ‘kaffirs’ (which is the Afrikaans version of ‘nigger’). Once, on a hot, sunny day, we left the windows open while away at my brother’s soccer match, only to return to find our house flooded. That same neighbour had seen the open windows and taken the opportunity to turn on his garden hose and flood our home. We entered the house, saw what had happened, and the quiet process of salvaging began. There was no conversation or explanation. It was our constant reality.
We never left our windows open after that, making summers particularly unbearable. And we worried about what our racist neighbour would do to our laundry if we left it outside for too long. Countless incidents of racist behaviour that had no justification. My parents would call the police every time our racist neighbour caused trouble and a divvy van would pick him up. Hours later he’d be back and the terror cycle would continue. We learned to live with it.
'Racism is not simply about people being bad or mean or ill-intentioned. To understand racism is to understand power.'
At school, I had friends who would make racist jokes: ‘If the lights go off, you’d just have to show your teeth and we could see you, Santi!’ It was humiliating to be a punchline, but I kept quiet and laughed along because, like any teenager, I just wanted to fit in.
I remember getting ready for my school formal. I’d forced my mum to help me pick out a Dawson’s Creek-inspired outfit from Target and spent weeks perfecting the hairstyle I planned to rock. The part I was most excited about, though, was having my first date with a boy I fancied and who fancied me back. I was basically living out my wildest teenage dreams. But just a few days before the formal, I overheard the boy in conversation with one of the popular girls during Social Studies, discussing who he was going to take to the formal. The boy mentioned my name and the girl responded, ‘Why would you take her? She’s black!’ At the end of the class, I received a note informing me that the boy was no longer taking me to the formal; he decided to take someone else. He was white. It never mattered to me, obviously. But somehow, in our teenage world, the fact that I was black did matter to him.
I could list countless more stories about living in this world in my black body. My experiences with racism span cosmopolitan cities like London and New York, the country of my birth, Zambia, and my home, Melbourne. From the overt to the subtle and everything in between. From having people follow me around shops, thinking I might steal items, to people raising their voices and speaking slowly to me, assuming I don’t speak English. This happened quite a bit when I worked at a restaurant. When people would hear my Aussie accent – shocked and embarrassed – they’d respond with ‘but your English is so good!’, as though someone who looks like me is incapable of having a good command of the English language. I’ve experienced racism in workplaces and at airports and at supermarkets. Well-meaning friends have sometimes referred to the racist experiences I’d describe to them as ‘isolated incidents’, telling me ‘it’s just a few bad eggs’. For a while, I allowed myself to believe that.
But after what happened to my brother, I realised I couldn’t outsmart or outrun racism. For the first time in my life, I realised that regardless of what I did (or didn’t do), I could not prevent myself from experiencing racism. People would project whatever they thought my blackness represented on to me and, no matter how hard I tried, or how good my English was, I could not control that.
'I’m no longer interested in conversations about whether something is racist or not.'
Many people are surprised when I share how regularly I experience racism. Interestingly, no matter how many times people share their stories of racist abuse, nothing seems to change. Or worse, we dissect stories of prejudice or discrimination, seeking to explain racist behaviour away as something other than racism, discrediting and undermining the person who has complained about racism in the process. For years I avoided talking about my own experiences for fear of being vilified for speaking out.
Racism is complicated and complex. It manifests in various ways – from the overt (like the examples I’ve shared) to implicit bias to institutional racism. I’m no longer interested in conversations about whether something is racist or not. Here’s the thing: as long as Australia is multicultural and multiracial, racism will exist. Racism in Australia has its own unique and specific context, and much of our understanding must begin with acknowledging the injustices against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples since European settlement. These injustices continue to impact Indigenous people today. The treatment of Australia’s Indigenous people has in many ways, laid the foundation for the treatment of other non-white groups.
Because of this, conversations about race and racism are usually met with defensiveness, denial or dismissal. But nobody can deny that Indigenous Australians are incarcerated at rates higher than any group in this country. Defensiveness doesn’t change the fact that racism is harming the health of Indigenous Australians. Dismissal doesn’t change the fact that racial profiling of black Africans in Victoria still exists. We can’t afford to keep diverting these conversations because racism affects people every day. Non-white people still anglicise their names on resumes. They worry about hanging out in groups in case they’re mistaken for a ‘gang’. They face discrimination in the rental market.
I understand the reluctance to talk about racism. These are uncomfortable conversations, regardless of which side of the fence you’re on. But it’s time we started talking about this more openly. As uncomfortable as it may be, we can’t address the problem if we’re not willing to acknowledge its existence. Racism is not simply about people being bad or mean or ill-intentioned. To understand racism is to understand power. It is the power that determines how resources and opportunities are distributed across racial and ethnic groups; the power that excludes people from accessing services, gaining employment or taking part in education, sport and social activities.
And it is the same power that shapes narratives about certain groups of people.
How many more blackface incidents, or racist tirades, or ‘slips of the tongue’ must we encounter before we can look in the mirror and acknowledge that these ‘isolated incidents’ are pointing to much larger structural problems.
I’m no longer interested in debating those in denial about the existence of racism. I’m interested in conversations that seek to dismantle it.
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