This was quite truly a different era and I’ve never understood why people wrap their stories in context until I thought about what transpired that day. I was twenty. The gulf war was looming. Fear mongering was rife about a people and a culture significantly foreign to most of us. The word “islamophobia” was added to the dictionary.
Now I’m not a tolerant person, quite intolerant in fact and I admit it proudly. And this is what learning tolerance has taught me, that I have to be fiercely intolerant. We think we have to be tolerant in order to accept people who are different. But being tolerant also gives license to those who are intolerant in the vilest sense of the word. I will kick and scream if I think that someone is being targeted because of their race, colour, sexual identity or religion. I abhor discrimination, detest it all the way through to my bones.
This does not mean we are all equal or that we can strive to be equal, because we are not. I cannot dig trenches all day but that does not mean that I should be prevented from digging them if that is my wont. I have breasts, ovaries and a vagina, that is what I am discriminated for. I am treated differently because of my reproductive organs. I earn half of what my son does for saving people’s lives on a daily basis and he installs windows. Discrimination not only sucks but it genuinely stops people from thriving.
At least back then, the really hard work had been done by fierce and tireless warriors before me. The hard work was done…. right?
As a mainly white Anglo Saxon society, feminism was about the only “ism” people were aware of. And love it or hate it, it was here to stay. It’s the other ism’s that were about to smack people in the face. We somehow were able to pride ourselves on being multicultural but at the same time legislate whiteness into our immigration. Then white passing, so we welcomed Italians and Greeks. But they were met with racism. Another ism. And this is nothing compared to the racism afforded to our Indigenous Australians who I had just learned of the atrocities against them. Imagine living nearly twenty years in a country and being completely unaware of the genocide (that again was legislated) against the original inhabitants of the country you called home? Teaching the full history of Australia, must and I say must in a very loud voice, become mandatory.
But I digress, as trying to show context has in fact launched me off on an interstellar tangent. So I’ll go back to the story, context not yet finished. We’re in the early nineties. Most of us remembered Vietnam. The barrel lottery that flashed up the lucky birthdays of those who had to go overseas and kill people. The shells of people who returned home to booing and jeering.
Iraq was yet another conflict we were heading into. One not of our making but sidled up to a country hell bent on protecting oil supplies. In fairness, Kuwait did ask for help. But this idea that we were heading into a war did strange things to people. People normally rational and sane became warriors for whiteness and anyone that was darker than beige became their personal enemy.
We had horror stories of children bullied off the tram because they were wearing a hijab. (A scarf worn around the head). Bullied not because of the scarf but because of what it represented. But these were children. Year seven children on their way to school. Bullied off the tram….. And get this…. By the bloody tram driver. I was all sorts of livid. Furious even but also broken hearted and wanting to wrap my arms about them. I didn’t know them. They lived miles away and I could do nothing. (FYI: trams were miles away so I figured they were too).
And this was not an isolated story, in fact it was one of a daily string of stories to hit the news. These were some vilest, cruelest events that laid me helpless.
But in safe, mostly white Australia, my whiteness was my haven. In todays terms it would be referred to as my white privilege. I could chose to do nothing and be untouched by it all and maintain my hollow rage…. I didn’t plan on it, I didn’t seek it out, I didn’t manufacture it. It was there, in all it’s glory.
So I was heading to where the trams were and stopped at 7-11 for fuel. I was standing in the queue waiting to pay when a rather drunk man came into the shop yelling. Egged on by his friends outside, he was calling the fellow behind the counter all manner of vile things. Did I say I abhorred discrimination? My blood boiled. I walked over to the drunk man and all but shirt fronted him. He was twice my size but my fury was greater. I don’t remember the precise words but “don’t be an arsehole” and “he’s got nothing to do with this war, he’s just trying to do his job and probably support a family” and “get the hell out of this shop” were among some of the things I do remember yelling at him at the top of my lungs while several others watched on.
Only in reflection did I consider my safety. He was twice my size. He had multiple people outside that were as racist or as islamaphobic as him. And I didn’t even consider if he had a weapon. But like all bullies, he was a coward. Picking on someone he considered lesser. And maybe I was just the bigger bully. But he left and my adrenalin kept me upright for the next ten minutes and that’s a good thing because I’d yet to pay for my fuel. A simple transaction now that EFT had come in and an even simpler “thank you” from the fellow on the other side of the counter.
I’d yet to learn of the bystander effect. People do not rush in to help. Someone can scream and no one will come. A house can be on fire and people will watch without calling the fire brigade. Even when someone’s life depends on it, people still do nothing. For some reason we think that someone else will do it, that someone else will help. But we can be that someone else and to coin John Robert Lewis from 1940’s segregated America…. If not us, who? And if not now, when?
I learned in that very moment that I was enough to be that someone else.