by Kim Kelly



As a white middling-in-the-middle-of-the-middle-class Australian woman of average size and height, I’ve never experienced prejudice based on my appearance. I’ve been called a Skip and a Gub for the colour of my skin. I’ve been called Four Eyes for my thick specs. I was once called a ‘white bitch’ by an angry drunk in a park who threw her empty beer bottle at me. But I know nothing of racism – that kind of bigotry that saps the souls of its victims and becomes a quiet and creeping violence in itself.

Racism puts a knot in my stomach, the same way any kind of mindless cruelty does. But how much harder must it be to deal with it head on, to face racism every day? How frustrating and heartbreaking must it be to miss out on that job, to be ignored by your children’s school principal, to be spoken to rudely at the supermarket, to hear your children being teased, to have your opinion disregarded, because of the way you look, the colour of your skin, the shapes that make up your face, the sound of your accent?

These questions seem obvious to me, points of empathy and compassion that are logical and commonsensical – and necessary to achieving a reasonably fair and well-functioning society. To me, Australia has always looked like the photograph above, of my Year 6 primary school class: colourful. I don’t know any different. And I don’t need to have experienced racism myself in order to feel its wrongness.

Somewhere deep in my bones is the key. My Irish and my European Jewish forebears knew prejudice, in some form or other. It was too long ago for me to know the details of their stories, but they knew what it was like to be pushed from their homelands in search of a place where they could live free of bigotry. Free to make their way in the world, raise their family, earn a living, unmolested by those who believed they were lesser beings.

I’m proud of my Irish and Jewish heritage, but not very long ago, even in multicultural Australia, this is a statement one would not have made in mixed company. Being white and middling, being as whitebread British as possible, was essential to getting anywhere in life.

This demand for sameness is still with us, from our criticisms of some Islamic women’s fashion sense, to our seemingly ingrained belief that all our lives would be made so much easier if First Nations Australians were moved off their traditional lands and sent to live in towns like ‘normal’ people.

‘Why should they get special treatment?’ I hear some people say, both about Australians who have called this place home for tens of thousands of years and the latest newcomers who seek asylum here. ‘I’ve had a hard life, too,’ some say. And I could say that myself. I’ve struggled at times; I’ve had to face and climb some serious mountains to escape the deathly pit of untold crap. Life itself can be pretty fricken cruel all on its own. But the thing is, if you’re a member of the dominant culture – and in Australia, that remains appearing as whitebread as possible – you find footholds and ropes out much more easily. It’s more likely, if you’re white, well-educated and already well-fed, that someone will actually reach out a hand and help to haul you up.

Let’s not make too fine a point here. Racism is more than a bit of a disadvantage. It causes trauma. And it compounds trauma. It’s handed on from parent to child, through customs, mannerisms – through impossible-to-erase genes. It can make big burly football players like Adam Goodes suddenly feel small, unworthy and tortured. Lost.

Recognising someone else’s trauma, regardless of whether that trauma occurred through the Stolen Generations, or the Holocaust, or any other kind of institutional abuse, doesn’t ever diminish our own personal experiences of sadness and anger. Caring only ever goes in one direction: towards deeper understanding, not just of another’s pain, but of our own as well. Tearing down the phantom, bogus, bullshit walls of racism sets us all free.

And it’s why I’ll always shine my little light as bright as I can on any kind of bigotry.