My mother and I were driving through Redfern, a historically black neighbourhood in Sydney with Aboriginal flags visible in the windows of nearby flats and Indigenous children playing in the parks. As we passed the local grocery store, my mother commented, “I wouldn’t want to shop there. Too many Aboriginal people, I would be afraid.”
I had just started my first year of university and was in the process of politicising myself. I’d joined the strike for the staff enterprise bargaining agreement, I was running in student union elections and — perhaps most significantly — for the first time I was experiencing racial consciousness. Every few weeks I would think of another experience: a comment here, a memory there, that reminded me of the fears I had lived with because of my race, my Asianness, for years.
I couldn’t let my mother’s comment go.
“You can’t say that, I would go shopping there,” I said.
She became angry. And couldn’t understand why her fear wasn’t justifiable. We got into a big fight but eventually resolved that as long as she didn’t say those things around me, we wouldn’t fight about it again. A gingerly-reached compromise.
It resonated with me emotionally that white supremacy in Australia had a starting point: the oppression, dispossession and genocide of Indigenous people
That was the first time I connected the dots and realised that my experience of racism was part of something much bigger than myself. It resonated with me emotionally that white supremacy in Australia had a starting point: the oppression, dispossession and genocide of Indigenous people, and that if I was against racism and how it had affected me, then I was against what my mother had said.
As my consciousness continued to grow, I learnt that racism isn’t just about individual people, it is a system. A system so much larger than my experience that it touched thousands of different people — refugees and asylum seekers, Muslims, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. The more educated I became on its violent manifestations, from Aboriginal deaths in custody to Islamophobic hate-crimes, the more spurred to action I was.
During my time at university, the Black Lives Matter movement was uncovering a new death by police brutality every other month, and class inequality and racialised poverty became the topics of many of my university assignments.
When an open letter to Asian parents on the topic of Black Lives Matter went viral on Twitter in 2016, the memory of my fight with my mother rose to the surface. The letter articulated so well, the intergenerational longing for understanding I had craved in that moment, so clouded by ignorance and anger.
In Asian communities across the world, there exists a fundamental lack of understanding and empathy towards black people, born of our own histories of colourism and fuelled by our hearty embrace of ‘meritocracy’
“When someone is walking home and gets racially targeted by a police officer, that is an assault on all of us, and on all of our hopes for equality and fairness under the law,” the letter read, “Our struggles, while not all the same, are interconnected.”
In Asian communities across the world, there exists a fundamental lack of understanding and empathy towards black people, born of our own histories of colourism and fuelled by our hearty embrace of ‘meritocracy’ — if we can, why can’t they? We are either apathetic, or worse, active participants in the racist discourse that blames Black people for their experiences of prejudice and poverty.
I jumped at the chance to organise an Australian version of the letter, published a month after the US version, to explain the specific context of anti-Indigenous racism to Asian-Australians. Asian communities have often been used as a ‘model minority’, to juxtapose Indigenous struggles against their ability to climb the socio-economic ladder and aspire to ‘white acceptance’. With this letter, I wanted to highlight the differences between our histories — not to divide us, but to bring us together in the fight for justice and equality.
Asian communities are in a unique position to both understand racial discrimination and have access to certain social privileges, yet too often we neglect to use our empathy and resources to support our Indigenous brothers and sisters. Instead, we are encouraged to keep our heads down, become doctors, lawyers and engineers, and settle into apathy and complacency, all the while remaining vulnerable to racial abuse and discrimination.
Through becoming aware of the role Asians play as part of the settler-colony in Australia, over time, my mother has come to understand these concepts, too
I first joined the Anticolonial Asian Alliance (AAA) as an online space to discuss anti-racism. But I quickly realised that the pan-Asian solidarity group was rallying offline too. We painted banners, attended the 2018 Invasion Day Rally, and continue to contribute to social justice campaigns for Indigenous rights.
The Australian Black Lives Matter movement is still fighting against Aboriginal deaths in custody, anti-black racial profiling and hate crimes and police brutality. By supporting black struggles, we hope to build meaningful relationships between immigrant communities and Aboriginal communities — a spirit of solidarity nurtured through educating ourselves, our families and communities, both in simple conversation and political activism.
Through becoming aware of the role Asians play as part of the settler-colony in Australia, over time, my mother has come to understand these concepts, too. From sending me Robert Mugabe speeches on WhatsApp to discussing Muhammad Ali interviews about media representation, my mother has embraced who I am as an anti-racist person.
These days, we no longer let these issues come between us. And through some tough conversations, we figured out a way to grow together. This is the work of community building, this is how we show up for each other and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander folks. This is how we pave the way for a brighter and more empathetic future.
Bridget Harilaou is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who writes extensively about politics and race, she tweets at @fightloudly.
This article was edited by Candice Chung, and is part of a series by SBS Life supporting the work of emerging young Asian-Australian writers. Want to be involved? Get in touch with Candice on Twitter @candicechung_