I’ve consciously, until today, avoided posting about the deeply and specifically personal. Because I’m not given to ranting and raging about stuff, or whining or weeping, online. So forgive me for this, you can click elsewhere if you don’t want to read what follows…
Because it did not escape my notice this week that the government is seeking to make changes to the Racial Discrimination Act. Specifically, Australia’s prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, announced on Tuesday changes being proposed to amend the wording to Section 18C of the Act, whereby the the word “harass” will replace “offend, insult, humiliate”.
The wording of the Racial Discrimination Act of 1975, Section 18C, in question is:
Offensive behaviour because of race, colour or national or ethnic origin
(1) It is unlawful for a person to do an act, otherwise than in private, if:
(a) the act is reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people; and
(b) the act is done because of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin of the other person or of some or all of the people in the group.
To read the Act in full, (points (2) and (3)), click here.
I think it would be a mistake to remove those words, a mistake to rely on the word ‘harass’, which most of us would equate with annoying, pestering, badgering or bothering. To my mind, ‘harass’ does not fully convey the severity of being maliciously singled out by a third party who wishes to cause distress or shame, to denigrate or abuse another person simply because of the colour of his/her skin or background or because they’re heard in public speaking another language… I could go on but I shan’t.
Reading this week’s news reminded me of all the times I was the unwilling recipient of racial abuse and insults at school in Perth, mostly verbal, sometimes physical… and the feeling of being completely powerless in the face of it all. In those days, Perth – and much of Australia – used to be far less evolved than it is now, still very much in denial about its geographical location, i.e. closer to Asia than to England or ‘The West’, and migrants from Asian countries were almost universally guaranteed to be targeted simply for being here.
Gook, Chink, Jap, Nip, slant/slanteye, slope/slopehead, yellow, I can’t remember them all any more. I used to make a point of correcting the slur, whenever appropriate, saying “If you’re going to insult me, at least get it right – I’m not a Gook/Jap/Nip, I’m a Chink OK?” Much to the confusion of the idiot standing before me. (Post-script: belatedly, I’ve remembered episodes wherein the word ‘slanteye’ was used. Response: “Yes, yes, although I think you should know it’s an epicanthic eyefold.” That usually did the trick of shutting down the offender.)
The only time I was unable to react was when I was standing at a bus-stop, and a blond teenaged boy came toward me on his bicycle, slowing down as he passed to aim a generous glob of spit right in my face. I felt sorry for him, truth be told. I felt sorry for his parents, his family. How sad to live in a world where you get off on humiliating and upsetting strangers.
Speaking of strangers, how ridiculous the way they used to shriek “Nee-how-maaa!” or “Konichiwa!” as they drove past in their Holdens. It didn’t make them appear cultured, but rather feral, crazy or both. I mean, wouldn’t you think the same if you were just standing at the lights waiting to cross the road?
The colleague who told me she hated Chinks, but that I was an exception. (Thanks, I’ve never forgotten you, Donna. I wonder what you’re doing now and whether you’ve made any other exceptional Chink friends.)
Even when a person does not openly or pointedly ‘harass’ you, they can still demean and devalue you as a person by what they say or what they do; and occasionally, by what they don’t say, don’t do. Whatever, the effect is still offensive, insulting, and humiliating.
As recently as today, as I was disembarking a full train at Central, a man pushed in, ignoring the common sense rule, to say nothing of being polite, to first let others out before stepping (barging) into the carriage.
“Wait,” I said, instinctively, “Wait.” His shoulder had already made contact with me, and he yelled out, “YOU FUCKIN’ WAIT, YOU SHOULD FEEL LUCKY YOU’RE EVEN IN THIS COUNTRY, FUCKIN’…!!!” (I had headphones on so I didn’t catch the full flow of his tirade.)
This is what it’s come to now. I think we’ve come full circle. (And it’s as much the world as it is Australia.)
‘Harass’ seems too broad a word to express the full meaning of being the target of a racist’s hatred and ignorance.
Don’t dilute the language, Mr Turnbull. Please.