This happened at an Australian university in a city that prides itself on being cultured and cosmopolitan: I greeted an administrator “G’day” before going on to discuss a work-related matter. The administrator peered at me through her glasses and asked, “Is your background Australian?” (That might have been the first time anyone who has seen my face asked me that). I said, “No…” (How long do you have to live here before you get to say ‘Yes?’)
She looked suspicious, like she thought I was lying, like I was ashamed of some secret Australianness layered deep beneath my brown skin. She said, “It’s just that you sounded very Australian when you said that.” Which was all right, I suppose there are advantages to “passing” for “Australian”, in manner if not in looks. Then, a white male postgraduate came close. He had overheard the conversation, and then he gave me a condescending look from bald heights as he chastised me, “You’ve assimilated!” Now a good way to deal with patronising older white men is to turn the situation into a joke that puts them in a position they can’t defend, so I said, “Are you kidding me? I never want to become Australian” in my best Ocker accent. My joke landed on a cushion of confused, tentative laughter.
Another experience at this university: I bumped into a white male anthropologist in the corridor. We had a chat, during which he kept shaking his head and finally he said, “I just don’t know why Filipinos speak such good English.” I couldn’t remember what I said or if I’d said anything, but I now would have retorted, “I could say the same for Australia, what with the distance from England and America.”
These encounters of a casually racist kind, amongst highly educated, middle-class, well-read, and presumably better-travelled people, are indicators of broader trends. Whilst the Holden-driving, unwashed bogans are scapegoated for a majority of the blame for stereotypically crass street-side racism, the middle-class are let off the hook, because we’ve all somehow come to the consensus that glares, words, laws, TV and discriminatory labour practices cause less short-term and long-term damage than drive-by snarls from people who don’t wear deodorant, (however jarring this might be).
This is evident in the experiences of many skilled migrants today. Skilled migrants are temporary and permanent migrants who have qualifications, language ability, and employment experience that satisfy standards set by the Department of Immigration . Skilled migrants are transnationals; they grew up in one or several other countries, study, work, and plant roots in countries outside their birthplace, and live their lives across borders. According to the Department of Immigration website, 68% of migrants to Australia are classified as skilled migrants, whilst 32% have come through family connections.
Yet in the mainstream media, and in everyday encounters with many white Australians, the image of the non-English-speaking, unskilled new immigrant still prevails). It affects Australian-born people of colour, who are condemned to an eternity of relentless fussing over their origins despite their Australian accents and appetite for vegemite. It also affects new long-term residents and naturalised citizens, who are expected to perform their otherness in ways that don’t threaten white Australians’ sense of themselves as cultured and educated, and therefore meritoriously entitled to higher pay, their pick of sexual prospects, more interesting jobs, political power, and greater global mobility.
As Ghassan Hage writes, this outsider becomes an insider to an extent that they have something to contribute. Skilled migrants are allowed to become insiders, as long-term residents with working rights and some social benefits, when they demonstrate the capability to contribute affordable labour that can be difficult to source locally. Business migrants bring in capital that stimulates the economy and generates onshore jobs. In this equation, migrants perceived to have nothing to contribute are the perpetual outsiders. They are seen as nothing but a drain on resources, leaning and never lifting. In Australia, these perpetual outsiders are the asylum seekers and refugees who arrive by boat, even if some might actually have financial resources, professional qualifications, and entrepreneurial drive that could benefit the host nation. They are perpetually stuck on the outside looking in. Even within the pro-refugee rights community, their voices are cast aside in favour of the benevolent white Australian humanitarian who then becomes the face of welcome.
Hage also writes that in order to feel like an outsider, one must actually be a kind of insider. This resonates within the immigrant experience, too. Immigrants who remain exclusively in the company of fellow immigrants are unlikely to be exposed to constant racism from non-immigrants; they are protected, to an extent, by a bubble of shared “outsidership”. It is only when one has become a local that one realises the depth of anti-immigrant sentiment within institutions, workplaces, and intimate spaces, and the fragile conditionality of the welcome that has been extended during one’s arrival. I didn’t think Australia had a problem with racism during the months I lived amongst international students; racism only became real for me when I moved out of student housing into the inner-city suburbs, when I started spending more time amongst locals.
It is when the new immigrant comes with qualifications, skills, opinions, and unpredictably socially liberal views, that the comfortably, casually racist views of many white Australians become jarringly exposed. This is not an immigrant you can put in a box as a servile, low-wage worker, the sweet Asian girlfriend or sidekick, or the traditionally submissive veiled woman who needs white salvation and an education in Western liberal feminism. This is not an immigrant who makes white people feel good by being dependent on them for English classes. In cases where these immigrants have grown up experiencing varieties of race-based, gender-based, and class-based discrimination in their home countries, they might come bringing a more practical education in working towards social justice than many white-saviour humanitarians. For examples of these, see Blattman 2008; Cole 2012; and Robertson 2015.
While skilled, well-travelled transnationals might enjoy the privileges of being educated, and of having financial resources, they have to constantly negotiate their professional and personal identities around their ethnicity, nationality, and the conditions of their arrival in Australia. How can there be proper conversations about leadership, about forward movement, about smashing the bamboo ceiling, when the limited time that there is will always be consumed by discussions about “where you’re from”, when people in the position to fund, hire or promote you, will be more obsessed with “your culture” rather than your ambition?