• "Empathy is one of those words that gets chucked around a lot these days, as though it’s easy to come by. It’s not. We need to work at it." (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
It’s not often a white Anglo gets to feel the sting of prejudice. Ian Rose reflects on the handful of occasions he's experienced it, and wonders if they didn’t do him some good, empathy-wise.
Ian Rose

15 Feb 2017 - 2:19 PM  UPDATED 15 Feb 2017 - 3:14 PM

“Don’t take it personally, mate, it’s just he’s got this thing about the British.”

I’d recently moved house and was introducing myself to the Friday evening drinkers at my new local. One of whom had skulled his beer and ducked out, looking like he had a bad smell under his nose, as soon as I’d shown up.

The bar’s proprietor (who was to become a key figure in my life) was letting me know I shouldn’t worry about it.

“That’s right,” concurred one of my soon-to-be fellow regulars, “he just can’t stand the Poms.”

So this was what it felt like when another human-being damns you on account of where you’re from. This was what racial discrimination, albeit of an insipid strain (it wasn’t as if he’d bellowed at me to go back to where I came from, or yanked the flat cap from my head as an affront to “Australian values”), felt like.

Empathy is one of those words that gets chucked around a lot these days, as though it’s easy to come by. It’s not. We need to work at it.

Not something I run into that often.

Most of my life I’ve lived in places where white people are in the majority. From the age of seven or eight, I realised that some of my friends, who were a different colour to me, whose family kitchens smelled enticingly of alien spices, were sometimes treated meanly by people who didn’t know them, for reasons that seemed related to these differences.

And from around that age, I understood that those people were idiots.

As I grew into my teens, and learned that over in South Africa there was an entire government that epitomised this idiocy, pulling some kind of heinous apartheid strokes, I found I had something to march against, a cause to claim for my own. Racism was something I was against.

I made a point of never indulging any racist remark, calling out bigotry wherever I perceived it, storming out of social gatherings and breaking off friendships at the drop of a dodgy “joke”. Yes, I abhorred racism, and felt good about myself in abhorring it.

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But I never knew what it felt to be on the receiving end of it.

Then, in my early 30s, on the back of a failed love affair and a general lack of direction, I spent a couple of years living in Japan. The first of these I spent working as an English assistant in a sleepy Saitama town called Kazo, an hour by train from Tokyo.

There were not too many non-Japanese people living out in Kazo back then. For the first time in my life I was an ethnic minority. And, while this gained me the kind of privileges unjustifiably afforded to white Anglos the world over, and a level of local celebrity to stoke my already burgeoning ego, it also sparked some negative reactions in my neighbours.

A small sector of the elderly population, in particular, would balk at the sight of me, staring at me on public transport and across supermarket queues with hornet-chewing expressions of rancour and dread. If I attempted a smile or “konichiwa” it only made things worse.

They diminished me. They reduced me. Even though I knew the attitudes behind them were idiotic, they made me doubt for a moment, infinitesimally, my right to be.

And I never really got used to being called a “gaijin” - an outsider - everywhere I went, at work, on the street, in bars, restaurants, laundromats, police stations. Whether muttered, hissed or accompanied by a peal of giggles, it always sounded insulting.

It’s not much of a claim to victimhood, I suppose. Bad vibes in Japan and one grumpy bloke in a bar.

But here’s the thing - whenever I’ve seen or heard others being racially abused, or witnessed racist attitudes in others (rarely these days, though not rarely enough) I’ve felt anger, and I’ve felt enthralled by the righteousness of that anger, even empowered.

Though my own experiences of being slighted or rejected on the grounds of my race have been fleeting and cursory, laughably benign in comparison with those endured daily by racial minorities everywhere, I remember just how they made me feel. And it was far from enthralled or empowered.

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They diminished me. They reduced me. Even though I knew the attitudes behind them were idiotic, they made me doubt for a moment, infinitesimally, my right to be. If getting snubbed in a bar or stared at on a Japanese train has increased by the tiniest degree the empathy I can feel for those excluded, vilified or who just suffer the daily grind of being treated differently, as less than, because of their race or nationality, I’m glad that stuff happened.

Empathy is one of those words that gets chucked around a lot these days, as though it’s easy to come by. It’s not. We need to work at it.

As for that emotion that drives this sinister push towards nationalist populism, that sees white men seek to regain the right to use racist language in the name of “free speech”, what can we call it? Disempathy? Unempathy? Anti-empathy?

Whatever it is, it’s beneath us. And really should be put behind us. For good.

Face Up To Racism #FU2Racism with a season of stories and programs challenging preconceptions around race and prejudice.

Tune in to watch Is Australia Racist? (airs on Sunday 26 February at 8.30pm), Date My Race (airs Monday 27 February at 8.30pm) and The Truth About Racism (airs Wednesday 1 March at 8.30pm).

Watch all the documentaries online after they air on SBS On Demand.  

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