“I want white skin,” I told my mum. “I want to bleach it so I can be Australian.”
It was difficult growing up looking different from everyone else. During my junior years at school, I was the only person in my age group with dark skin. I didn’t feel Australian, because I didn’t look Australian. No one ever believed me when I said I’m Australian, either. “No, you’re not! You don’t look Australian. Where are you really from?” they would ask.
As I came home from another day, I saw my family sitting in front of the news, listening intently. The faces of white, middle-aged journalists and politicians glared back at me from the TV screen as they discussed my ethnicity and religion on my behalf.
“Islam is a disease. We need to vaccinate ourselves against that,” Queensland senator Pauline Hanson said in an interview with the Nine Network. Media personality Sonia Kruger said on Today that she would like to see Muslim immigration stop because she doesn’t “feel safe”. Immigration minister Peter Dutton said that a former Liberal prime minister should not have let people of “Lebanese-Muslim” background into Australia. I have been singled out, hijacked and demonised by ill-informed people in the media.
My jaws clench as my eyes sting with tears and a heavy pit swells at the bottom of my stomach. Hearing such things cause a wave of emotions to engulf me – anger, sadness, confusion. It’s not only about how I look, I am just not wanted in this country. Because of this, I always felt the need to do something – initiate some sort of change that will make people more accepting of me. So I decided to become a journalist.
Seeing white, middle-aged journalists on TV was one thing, but being immersed in their environment was another. During my last year at university, I spent a week interning at a big Australian media company. I was almost surprised to see that every single person on every floor of the building was middle-aged and white. "C’mon, not to that extent," I thought. I couldn’t help but feel out of place, almost silenced – like I didn’t have the freedom to speak my opinion. Those journalists were doing it for me instead.
Being a Muslim who’s Arab and of colour is not a voice often heard or seen in the media, so my hopes of ever getting a job in the industry plummeted, especially when a 2015 study by the UCLA Centre for Behaviour, Evolution, and Culture found that job applicants with ethnic-sounding names are less likely to get called in for interviews than their white-sounding counterparts. That big Australian media company proved the results of this study to be true.
Luckily, I did manage to land a job as an associate producer and researcher for an SBS documentary after graduating from university. It was a dream come true to say the least, however I couldn’t help but feel nervous coming in to the job. "What if they don’t represent the Muslim community fairly?" I thought. I didn’t want to fall into the trap of mainstream Australian media. My parents even warned me to keep an eye on how Muslims are portrayed in the film. “If they don’t give Muslims an honest voice, leave the job,” they said. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case. In fact, I was given a voice and encouraged to express my opinions more than I expected.
I may have just been lucky to have worked with a team who were kind and understanding, but my goal of becoming a voice in the media faded again when Muslim author and journalist Yassmin Abdel-Magied decided to leave Australia because of the constant hate she received from the press and the public. Abdel-Magied had been a loud and open voice in Australian media, but after a fiery debate with Senator Jacqui Lambie on a popular current affairs program earlier in the year, she became a media dartboard.
“My frustration is that people talk about Islam without knowing anything about it and they’re willing to completely negate any of my rights as a human being,” Abdel-Magied said on the night. She challenged her place in the world by challenging people’s ideas. Whether she did it in an effective manner or not, she stood against those who have white superiority and privilege, like Pauline Hanson and Jacqui Lambie. She remains an inspiration and role model for me – but also a warning.
In the end, the person who spoke my truth felt forced to leave our country as those who spread misinformation remain standing. For me, that simply confirms that my ethnicity and religion do not have a place in this society. Seeing what Yassmin Abdel-Magied endured just for expressing an opinion is scary to say the least. I didn’t become a journalist to simply read out the news of the day. I became a journalist to give a voice to those who don’t have one and be an activist for those who are discriminated against. But it’s difficult when you see the worst of what could happen actually happen.
The Mosque Next Door begins Wednesday 8 November, 8.30pm on SBS, and continues on Wednesdays. Episodes will be available after broadcast anytime, anywhere, for free via SBS On Demand.