It had been a beautiful Melbourne day. I had taken my then three-year-old son to the city on a train - a lifelong obsession of his - and it was now time to wind down what had been an awesome summer's day outing. We had spent the whole day riding different trams around the city and that had earned me the title of ‘best mum ever’.
Settling down near the window the excitement of riding yet another train was palpable as the train pulled off from Flinders Street and our journey home started. After a few stations, he wanted to watch some cartoons on the iPad, and with his headphones organised, I was ready to relax on our way home.
A middle-aged man entered our train coach. He started yelling, to no one in particular, about how there weren’t enough seats on the train for people like him. As everyone shifted uncomfortably on their seats, the bile he was spewing continued. He was yelling that “people who are the same colour as s**t shouldn’t be welcome in Australia, let alone be entitled to having seats on the train as they are only meant to be slaves”, all while looking our direction.
Other people on the train soon scurried off and I noticed it was just my son and I left on this man’s half of the train. I decided it wasn’t safe to remain where we had been sitting so we moved down the carriage.
It wasn’t long before this man followed us down the train, bellowing his ongoing vitriol about people of colour and how “we are raising gangsters and shouldn’t be allowed in the country.” I was stuck. Do I get out of the train and wait for another one and risk him getting off too? Do I sit there and hope someone will speak out for us? Do I pretend that what he was saying didn’t hurt or that I didn’t understand English? What was I to do? I chose to cross my fingers that this wouldn’t escalate as our destination was approaching.
This is one of many racially-motivated experiences I have lived through in Australia.
Getting off the train and falling into the arms of my husband, who had been eagerly waiting for the train-hopping stories, it was sad to recount what we had just been subjected to. I had just been racially vilified on my way home with my son in multicultural Australia.
It‘s sad to acknowledge that this is one of many racially-motivated experiences I have lived through in Australia. In this instance, I was with my three-year-old who thankfully missed the whole episode as he was busy on his iPad. But as he grows into a young man who will also probably endure this again, I am cognisant of making him proud of his heritage, the colour of his skin and not have ignorant people influence his path in life.
I will also teach him that although racism has no excuse, he can’t educate people about his culture by reciprocating their outbursts or with violence, because doing so is likely to play into the negative narrative that already exists.
Raising an African-Australian son brings its own sets of challenges. The lack of role models of colour in the media landscape means it seems like the only time they see people of colour is when they are subjects of stories that are negative in nature.
Living in the African diaspora also means being away from family, and relationships with cousins, aunties and grandparents, etc, invariably suffer the strain of different time-zones. With that isolation, transfer of culture or language is even more challenging and when you go for a long awaited visit back to Africa, it can be disheartening having your child unable to communicate with the great grandparents because the grandparents may only fluent in vernacular languages.
We are also teaching him how to speak Setswana, our native tongue, as when armed with language he can traverse the cultural divide hopefully without too much stress. Maintaining a connection to his culture is why Losika Writes, our bilingual childrens’ books, was borne to help teach our young man the language of his people.
As my son straddles the two cultures of being an African- Australian, he is already learning a lot about his Australian culture. It's up to me to teach him what it means to be African, and have a connection to his culture that exists beyond racial stereotypes.
Teah Mogae is the founder of African bilingual children's book company Losika Writes.
Our African Roots premieres at 8:30pm Sunday 17 October on SBS and SBS On Demand, as part of the Australia Uncovered strand of documentaries. All documentaries will be repeated at 10pm Wednesdays on SBS VICELAND from 15 September.