My skin is white. Actually, I am surprisingly pale despite Mediterranean genetics. I assume for a stranger to look at me, they’d just think, “Oh yeah. White girl.” Because, objectively, I am both white skinned and a girl.
I am the first person in my immediate family to be born in Australia. I come from a Greek immigrant family that experienced both social and institutional racism. I’ve also had first hand experiences of the hatefulness of racism growing up in Australia
And yet (especially in online discourse), I am completely disenfranchised from being able to claim racism as something that has happened to me, or even something that I understand. Because my skin color is white. But I’m calling bullshit.
When my grandparents, with their very young children (two families, my mother’s and my father’s, both families with two children under the age of 10), migrated to Australia in the 60s, despite the open door government policy on immigration at the time, were subjected to an almost universal racism. I do understand that historically, racism against immigrants in Australia is a relatively contemporary problem compared with the hundreds of years of oppression racism has and continues to cause in the USA. I get that–but having racist ideology aimed at you isn’t any more tolerable because it’s only been happening on a short term scale. And besides, I’m not trying to compare one history of racism to another–I am just pointing out that my whiteness has often precluded me from the joining the conversation.
As new immigrants, neither my grandparents or their children spoke a word of English. My mother tells stories of being enrolled in English speaking school (with there being no alternative) and there being no extra help available to her or my aunt, or any other non-English speaking students–not only were they, as small children, expected to learn an alien language on their own, they were treated with contempt by teachers and classmates because of it. They were chased home with rocks hurled at them.
For my grandparents they were forced to take jobs as factory outworkers–gruelling, demeaning work that’s a blight on Australia’s short history. As well as working unspeakably long hours doing physical labor for crumbs, I imagine for my intelligent, educated grandfather it was a shock to find that he would not be considered for professional work because of his Greekness (I suppose the modern equivalent is your Pakistani taxi driver with a medical degree. I think this is definitely still a hot button topic when we’re talking about immigrants in any country and racism).
Moreover, the language barrier prevented them from seeking welfare, medical aid and other help–and there was nothing done by government authorities to ease the transition. My mother and her sister, as small children, would have to fend for themselves outside school hours, as not only the language barrier, but financial difficulties, meant that the girls were on their own a lot while their parents worked. My family was allowed into the country, and then were kicked for being there, a story that I’m sure resonates with immigrants from all countries.
The worst stories I’ve heard from my parents and grandparents involved being laughed away by police officers for reporting (sometimes violent) crimes against them. They were, quite frankly, often treated as subhuman. It was similar for most poor Greek immigrants, and in the geography of Melbourne you can still see the legacy of suburbs in which they huddled together and formed pockets of community to steel themselves against the hostile new world where they’d gone to seek a better life.
The Greek community has pushed through, and we even have movies like The Wog Boy (“Wog” means “Western Oriental Gentleman” but was used as an incredibly racist, aggressive slur against Mediterraneans. It has since been reclaimed, much like the n-word, but it’s still offensive when used by a non-wog), that address the otherness of being Greek, and therefore inherently an underdog in Australia, even still. From initial poverty, the Greek community has also worked hard (Greeks working hard, what!? Crazy, I know) to embed itself in society, and in the neighborhoods where they first settled you’ll find many Greek run businesses. Greek culture is even been anglicised and “trendy” now, with the popularity of high-end Greek restaurants and figures in popular culture who embrace signifiers that make them inherently Greek, while curating these Greeknesses to make them digestible by non-Greeks.
I never experienced the level of racism my family experienced when they were struggling to establish themselves in Australia, but I did have my Greekness used against me quite frequently when I was growing up. I was bullied through school for being Greek, which seems atrocious given that Melbourne, as a city, has the third largest population of Greeks in the world (outside Athens and Thessaloniki, both cities in Greece). The kids would call me “werewolf” because of my hairy arms and lower back when I was in primary school, and the running joke through high school was that I was secretly a man. They called me “DJ Gorrilla” or “Katherine Alphabet” on account of my 14-letter last name, which I eventually changed out of a desire to divorce myself from the negative treatment being Greek had served me while I was growing up.
When I was 13, at a friend’s birthday party, her older brother and his friend (Italian boys, which makes the whole thing even weirder because the Italian experience in Australia is quite similar to the Greek one, I think) cornered me as I was coming out of an upstairs bathroom. There was no one else around; the rest of the party was happening downstairs, and I could hear the sounds of Spice Girls on the CD player and my friends laughing as the two boys pushed me against the wall.
One of them pressed a knife to my throat and growled into my ear, “If you ever come into my house again, you stupid Greek slut, I will kill you.” They left me shaken, and when I returned to the party crying, the mother of the party girl and her racist brother told me I was lying and completely dismissed the incident as a fabrication.
Tina Fey wrote in Bossypants that being Greek is a weird sort of cultural purgatory, because you’re not really white, but you’re not really not white. Growing up in Australia, and knowing intimately the struggles of my parents and grandparents, I experienced otherness. The grey area we inhabited–still inhabit–is frustrating. With our pale skin, we are locked out of ethnicity, and with our ethnicity, we are beaten by the pale skinned. But I know exactly what it is like to grow up with people treating you as though your blood is unclean. I have experienced, and I have inherited experiences, of what it is like to be hated because of your race.
I’m not interested into entering a racism pissing contest–I experienced racism more than you; the racism I experienced was worse than what you experienced etc.–all I want is to be allowed into the conversation, and for what my family and I have experienced not to be ignored simply because our skin color is white. Culture is not reliant on a skin tone; nor is hatred of it. For once I would like to be able to say “I understand,” and not be scoffed at; that’s all.